The Difference between Pornography and Pornography Addicts
Elder Ballard was recently asked this question at a YSA Q and A event: “What do you do if someone you are dating is struggling with pornography?” His remarks were very insightful, but one thing he said stuck with me. He said, “too many men and women suffer in silence because we have unintentionally demonized those who are addicted to pornography.”
Pornography addiction has done no small amount of harm to relationships and families in our generation both inside and outside the Church. I personally know too many people my age whose parents are separated or divorced because of pornography addiction, or who themselves have been trying to free themselves from underneath the crushing weight of addiction. Pornography is immoral no matter what moral lens one uses to evaluate it, and we do a pretty good job in the Church at condemning pornography as immoral. We’re not always so good, however, at differentiating between the condemnable nature of pornography and pornography addicts. Coupled with the stigmatization of sex in Mormon culture, those who suffer from addiction to pornography are often demonized. It’s as though we sometimes take the truth that pornography is evil and must be condemned to mean that pornography addicts are evil and must also be condemned.
But this is not true. While they may have made some bad choices, it is too much of a generalization to say that pornography addicts are bad people. Most of the time, they are normal people who have made the mistake of trying to cope with some kind of pain in their lives, and instead of facing their pain in a healthy way they have tried to cope by using something artificial and addictive. Addicts should, in fact, be much more familiar to the rest of us than we might think. How many of us, when we’re depressed, turn to overeating or junk food that we know is unhealthy? How many of us, when we’re frustrated, angry, or cynical, start binge watching television shows even though we know it’s a poor use of our time? How many of us, when we’re lonely, pursue bad company or try to get in touch with our exes? Pornography addicts are much more like the rest of us than we might want to admit.
In a TED talk by Johann Hari about the nature of addiction, Hari explained how many of our assumptions about addiction are wrong: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” If he’s right about this, and I think he is, then the practice of punishing addicts by severing their connections to people will only make their addiction more difficult to overcome. If we adopt the mindset within the Church that pornography addicts are evil or unwanted, we are ostracizing people who need more love and connection, not less of it, and we are aggravating the problem, not fixing it.
What if the Addict is Someone I Love?
What does this look like in a real-life situation? I know friends who have faced the dilemma of what to do when they find out someone they are dating has struggled with pornography addiction. The impulse to turn and run from them is understandable given the destruction pornography has wrought on families and relationships, but we don’t always have to write off addicts as unsuitable relationship material. Elder Ballard said about dating recovering pornography addicts, “find out where a person’s heart is, and what he or she is doing to become a saint through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” This is good advice for evaluating anyone as a potential life partner. What’s more is the fact that even if someone has not struggled with pornography addiction in the past, it does not mean they never will. Many marriages confront pornography addiction years into a marriage when the couple has already established a life together. Choosing someone based on whether they have ever dealt with pornography addiction is not a guarantee of a problem-free relationship. Generally, every human being deals with personal weaknesses and vices of some kind, and the choice of what to do with them comes back to this same principle of finding out where their heart is, and remembering that we are also flawed and in need of grace and acceptance.
“If I ever caught my spouse using pornography, I’d divorce him on the spot.” This mindset, or others like it, are pretty common. And I totally get it. It would feel like a complete betrayal. But who are we if we shun the sinner and exile them from our lives? Don’t we expect to be treated with kindness and acceptance when we are vulnerable about our faults and weaknesses? Why are we exempt from embodying Christlike behavior when it comes to pornography addicts?
One of the greatest casualties of addiction is hope. Because of the repetitive and cyclical nature of addiction, it is very common for addicts to feel there is no hope for them. A dreadful resignation always threatens to bring the addict down into the darkest and most hopeless of places from whence there seems to be no escape or rescue. For addicts who “suffer in silence” out of the crippling shame associated with this addiction, this feeling of hopelessness only gets worse. This cycle of shame, silence, and relapse is familiar to addicts, many of whom feel they must suffer alone, which only aggravates their condition.
For this reason, I believe this message from Elder Ballard is crucial for everyone to hear: “If you’re in a relationship where your date is sincerely trying to find freedom from habitual use of addiction to this new drug, you may be able to help him or her. Too many men and women suffer in silence because we have unintentionally demonized those who are addicted to pornography…The main thing for all of us to know about this new drug is there is hope.”
This statement is revolutionary. Without sufficient categorization of sin and sinner, the Church unintentionally demonizes and socially exiles pornography addicts. Elder Ballard’s words remind us of the important moral behind the Saviors words to the woman caught in adultery: “And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).
While it is not our responsibility to “fix” someone, our intentions, like the Savior’s, should never be to condemn the sinner along with the sin, but to invite the sinner back into the fold and help them. Pornography addicts are not monsters. Most of the time they are our friends, family members, spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends who are in desperate need of help. It’s not easy, but how we choose to treat them is a pretty good indication of how Christlike we have become.
The quotes from Elder Ballard used in this article come from the following sources:
I highly recommend watching the TED talk on addiction I referred to. It can be found here: