After first stumbling across porn at age 11 (the average age for initial exposure), Elizabeth found over time that she had no control over her actions, could not stop looking at pornography, and was choosing porn over spending time with the people who loved her.
Church was not a place where she felt she could share what was going on. She hid the truth because she was terrified of what people would think about her if they knew. In one Young Women lesson, the teacher began by saying the topic was wholly unnecessary: “Now I know none of you look at pornography. I know you’re all good girls. But I have to give this lesson about pornography.”
“I felt another level of shame,” Elizabeth recalls. “You just told every girl there they’re not good if they’ve done that.”
That YW teacher was merely parroting a stance on gender and porn that the Church as a whole has adopted, which is why this little video is a bit of a breakthrough in acknowledging reality.
In the LDS Church, counsel against porn has almost always been directed at men and boys. At the Overcoming Pornography website created by the Church, most of the personal examples of individuals abusing porn are male; all of the examples of the long-suffering spouses injured by it are female.
Some General Conference talks about pornography have at least mentioned the possibility that women can also use or abuse porn (see here), but most church leaders take the default assumption that they are speaking to men about a male problem. “My fellow holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and also our young men, I wish to speak to you today about pornography,” Dallin Oaks declared in 2005.
Elder Oaks proceeded to cast women as victims of male pornography abuse, never mentioning they might be consumers themselves. “In concentrating my talk on this subject I feel like the prophet Jacob, who told the men of his day that it grieved him to speak so boldly in front of their sensitive wives and children,” he said. Just as Jacob once had to convict men of sins that hurt their “tender wives,” so too did he feel obligated to call attention to Mormon men’s growing abuse of pornography.
Although his concern that men’s use of porn harms women is pastoral (not to mention correct; see research here on its negative psychological impact on women), the overall default position that pornography is a “men’s problem” is naïve. At the very least, it is out of date. In 2003, not long before Elder Oaks gave his talk in a priesthood session, 14% of all consumers of Internet porn were thought to be women. A decade later, it had risen to one-third.
Female interest in porn and erotica is certainly in the news right now, when the film Fifty Shades of Gray has earned nearly half a billion dollars in just over three weeks at the box office. It’s difficult to say how many Mormon women have gone to see this film; LDS disapproval of R-rated movies would suggest it is not many, but who knows? Many people were surprised to learn that ticket sales before opening day were strongest in “red states” with a conservative Christian bent, the top five being Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama.
The story may be appealing to viewers in conservative areas because it introduces graphic sex while reinforcing conservative stereotypes about gender roles. The male protagonist is an über-successful billionaire with all the power and status that accompany great wealth; the female lead is a student, for heaven’s sake. The plot sounds like a two-hour enactment of a “Hoes and CEOs” frat party costume fantasy.
What’s clear is that with the rise of availability in stories like Fifty Shades (and a whole new female-targeted entertainment genre being labeled “Mommy Porn”) more women are gravitating toward erotica.
It’s high time the LDS Church brings more visibility to the female side of what it views as a serious problem.*
* On a personal note, I am as concerned as my church is about pornography addiction. However, LDS culture employs confusing terminology that is not shared by medical and psychological professionals – particularly the prevalent use of the word “addiction” to refer to a whole spectrum of behaviors ranging from casual exposure to occasional use to regular abuse. For that matter, LDS use of the term “pornography” to refer to any erotic material is also problematic, as Mormon therapist Natasha Helfer Parker observes in this helpful article from last year. So when I say that it’s time the Church draw attention to “what it views as a serious problem,” that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with the Church that genuine pornography addiction is a serious problem. It does mean that I think we need more nuanced conversations about what actual addiction looks like in comparison to exposure or more casual use.