The Plague of Pornography
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Utah Coalition Against Pornography Keynote Address
March 12, 2016
My dear friends and colleagues of the Utah Coalition, thank you for this invitation today and for your service in this important cause. I am personally indebted to all who serve in the coalition, especially to Pamela Atkinson in particular, who accepted my plea almost a decade ago now to accept this assignment, taking yet one more heroic civic task on to her already burdened shoulders. Thank you, Pamela, for this and all else you do in this community and thank you for what you mean to me personally. In the language of a favorite Latter-day Saint scriptural phrase from the prophet Isaiah, you are “a marvelous work and a wonder.” And you probably wonder why more of us don’t do a little more of the work!
I can’t really tell you much you don’t already know about the evils of pornography—so I will tell you some things you do know: That there is steadily, inexorably, unendingly more of it, that it is easier than ever for everyone, including children, to access, and that it continues to rend the very moral fabric of our society whether that be the family, the community, the state or the nation. That is because in every case, it rends the moral fabric of each individual who views it or otherwise participates in its production or distribution.
Research on Pornography Use
I am encouraged that significant studies continue to come in and various collective efforts continue to be made which help us in this war we have declared. I note that a major study is coming next month from the Barna Group entitled “The Porn Phenomenon.” It is a study sponsored by the Josh McDowell Ministries and has an admittedly Christian orientation. However, the advantage of this study for everyone, Christian or otherwise, will be that it is a very large study with more than 3,000 interviews across a very wide range of questions. Some of the early findings in that project tell us, among other things, that pornography is a much-more readily researchable topic than it was two decades ago. Unfortunately that is because the subject does not have the same social taboo that it once did. When respondents were allowed to opt out of questions that were very personal in nature, more than 90% continued through the survey questions. That does give data reliability to the study, but it is also a commentary on people’s willingness to talk comfortably about their own use of pornography in a way that they might not have done in an earlier time.
The study finds that most Americans still believe that pornography is bad for society, but that those attitudes among younger generations are shifting toward neutrality or even that pornography is “good for society.” It is reported that 89% of teens and 95% of young adults regularly have “encouraging” or “accepting” conversations with their peers about pornography use. That means that of those interviewed only 1 in 20 young adults and 1 in 10 teens say they and their friends think viewing pornography is a bad thing. By comparison you might be interested to know that those same teens and young adults view “not recycling” household plastic and paper as a more immoral sin than viewing pornography.
While pornography has typically been a man’s domain issue, it is to me a very sad fact that its usage among young women is becoming more common, perhaps due to digital access. In the Barna study more than half of the women 25 and under who were interviewed seek out pornography “occasionally” and one-third seek it out at least monthly.
The Barna people note, not surprisingly, that pornography has gone almost completely digital. Magazines, videos, novels, and cable TV are now a very small part of the pornography market with 71% of adults and 85% of teens and young adults viewing their pornography online. In this digital age, unsolicited pornography has increased substantially as well. Nearly half of young adults interviewed said they come across pornography at least once a week even when they are not seeking it out. Well, so much for the disheartening data that continue to roll in.
Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography
Because of my ecclesiastical office in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints much of my concern about the evils of pornography are framed in religious terms, the language of commandments, of personal purity, of worthiness, and spirituality, knowing as we do that the damage pornography does through a diseased physical appetite is even more destructive to the spirit than it is to the body. For that reason I was very interested, as I know you were, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued last year their definitive and highly instructive position paper, “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography.” There is much in that document that will be of value not only for the Catholic priesthood and their parishioners but also for all the rest of us who fight this problem and see its evils in the context of our own religious faiths, or simply our personal moral positions.
Of so much that is useful and instructive in their declaration, I think I resonated most to something in their introductory statement. Addressing their concerns for “children whose innocence is stolen; men and women who feel great guilt and shame for viewing pornography occasionally or habitually; spouses who feel betrayed and traumatized; and men, women and children exploited by the pornography industry,” these good bishops declared the exponential growth of the pornography industry to something bordering on a “public health crisis.”
That analogy struck home with me because it parallels my own view of this issue—namely, that no real headway can or will be made in this battle until there is a much deeper, much broader, and frankly much more fearful concern about the actual threat of pornography than we presently see in society in general. Thus our Catholic friends serve the cause well to ring the “public health” alarm as they do. Society must see this evil like the epidemic it is and with those good bishops’ indulgence I can use that word “plague” with literal rather than metaphorical intent. We do need to see this like avian flu, cholera, diphtheria or polio.
The Public Health Crisis of Pornography
If this moral plague could catch our imagination the way a medical epidemic does, we would be calling out every available member of the health care industry, every doctor and nurse and technician and orderly; we would have the attention of every father and mother, every grandparent and aunt and uncle asking what they could do; we would see educators and businessmen, lawyers and scientists, PTA organizations and welfare agencies lining up to send out flyers, to flood the airwaves, to give immunization shots at the local grocery store, to put up “Uncle Sam Wants You” posters in the post office, and to have night wardens with little tin helmets watching for danger the way Winston Churchill’s Londoners did during the Blitz of World War II. Yes, this ought to be seen like a public health crisis; like an infectious, fatal epidemic; like a moral plague on the body politic that is maiming the lives of our citizens. Frankly, until the sirens of a public-health war sound, I fear we will be wholly unsuccessful in this fight against the germ-invasion sweeping across our homeland.
With the paper issued by the Catholic bishops as backdrop, let me reflect briefly on some of my views and concerns as an officer in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I do not intend this to be denominational, but I am unable to speak out of any context but my own. With that caveat I ask you to consider for example Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount when He declared, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman [or I might readily add, a man] to lust after her [or him] hath committed adultery . . . in his heart.” In LDS scripture is this reinforcing declaration: “And he that looketh upon a woman to lust after her shall deny the faith, and shall not have the Spirit; and if he repents not he shall be cast out.”
Surely no “commandment,” if we may use that language, could more directly address and condemn the sin of pornography than that passage! We can’t help but wonder if Christ in the meridian of time might have seen such a latter-day threat, not unlike but well beyond whatever salacious or unseemly looks a man or woman might have given one another in the centuries before photos and films, before the Internet and Snapchat. Note also how pornography defiles both the letter and the spirit of that entire legendary Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said as a foundational charge to His disciples there: “Ye are the light of the world . . . Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” “Light of the world” ? The trash that goes on in both the production and the viewing of pornography is almost always in the darkest of hovels, the dingiest of settings, the dirtiest of environments. “Let your light so shine before men” ? The one great rule of pornography is that no light is to shine on it; it is secretive, hidden, after hours, unsuspecting, unrecognized, as unknown as possible. “Good works” ? These are the most destructive and evil works of modern times. “Glorify your Father which is in heaven” ? It is the most inglorious, deceitful and destructive work known on such a wide basis in the society of our day, affecting young and old by the millions on a wholesale basis. There is no glory in this business, no glory of God or of the man, woman or child who produces, performs, purchases, views or perpetuates it. Catholic bishops, Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis and Muslim mullahs have spoken out on this sin because God Himself has spoken out on it. Yes, heaven itself abhors this practice.
Whatever it is that allows one to be involved in the production and performance of these materials—greed, anger, lack of self-worth, abuse in their formative years, emotional or social imbalance of some kind—whatever the reasons, they are all antithetical to the human soul, to a healthy psyche and to a rewarding intimate relationship with someone that person does actually come to love. One wonders whether those who produce pornography, perform it, or view it will over time retain any capacity for healthy human intimacy, for a truly loving sexual experience, or for true dignity in any human relationship, sexual or otherwise. Add to that the even more repulsive trafficking that forces younger, pre-marital innocent children into that world of decadence and violence, and we see the enormity of this violence against the human soul and the family of mankind.
Damage to the Soul
I inevitably keep referring to damage done to the soul, as any minister of religion might well do, but perhaps a brief reference to Latter-day Saint doctrine can underscore that concept even more. Mormons define the soul in a somewhat unique way. For us “soul” is not just a synonym for “spirit.” It is more than that. In canonized LDS revelation is this simple declaration about the Atonement of Christ:
“Now, verily I say unto you, that through the redemption which is made for you is brought to pass the resurrection from the dead.
“And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul.”
Therefore, for us—for me—anyone who trivializes or demeans or violates the body trivializes and demeans and violates the soul. One cannot exploit the body without also damaging the spirit because these two are inseparably connected in every man, woman or child.
Furthermore I have often had the feeling that a great preventive for this evil would be the realization-if such could ever effectively be communicated to the producer, or distributor, or viewer-that the person on that screen or in that magazine or on that internet site is someone’s son or daughter, to say nothing of the fact that they are God’s son or daughter. And what if it were your son or daughter? To what end would we not go to storm the barricades, to damn the torpedoes, to run into a burning building to rescue a son or daughter from danger, from disease, from destruction, from death? I can’t imagine a solitary man or woman who could proceed with a pornographic experience if he or she remembered that the actor on the screen, the object of their perversion, was their son or daughter, their sister or brother. And the sad fact of the matter is every one of those performers is someone’s child, is someone’s flesh and bone, is someone’s family treasure gone awry.
An Addiction of the Highest Order
Of all that we wish to say about this epidemic, it behooves us to say again, even against outrageous claims to the contrary, that pornography can be an addiction of the highest order. I realize that not every user is technically “addicted” and I don’t want the use of that term to suggest getting out from under its influence is a hopeless dream. But continuing scientific research—including the work of my friend Dr. Don Hilton and many others—along with the personal testimony of victims, confirms that even casual pornography viewing can lead to compulsive viewing and entrapment in what one psychologist labeled “a cycle of fantasy.” What Dr. Hilton and other physicians are documenting is that pornography, which electronically can offer sound and motion as well as visual images, can rewire the neural circuits of the brain in a way that the tendency toward impulsiveness becomes supercharged and the center for willpower shrinks. All of this directly affects what are called the brain’s “reward pathways” and as such can have an impact on the brain similar to what cocaine does for a person with a drug addiction or alcohol does for an alcoholic. This person simply craves more and more, regularly seeking a higher number of or more extreme examples of visual images in order to get what was an earlier, easier “high.”
Even though pornography increasingly comes with the generosity of the three “A”s—accessibility, affordability and anonymity—nevertheless, as addiction grows (or insatiable habit if you prefer that language) a person frequently takes increased risks to view it, such as accessing it at work or at home with family members nearby. This, of course, can lead to embarrassment, guilt, marital destruction, social ostracism, termination of employment and so forth but the viewer often feels out of control and unable to stop. Thank heaven there are an increasing number of clinics, support groups and recovery programs for both the viewer and their innocent family members. Nevertheless, near the top of any list of “unfinished business” is our recognizing of and remedying the damage done to spouses, children, and other innocent victims who are often nearly—or literally—destroyed by a loved one who is caught in the pornography habit. Churches, schools, public service agencies and others are trying to do more in this regard which gives us all hope, but, as I said, this collateral damage to family is serious “unfinished business” we must address.
Well, we all need to help. We all need to teach. We all need to warn. We cannot simply wring our hands about this. Let me offer a modest little formula that I have used in counseling over the years. It isn’t very clever and not at all sophisticated, but I add it as something easy to remember and, if you feel to do so, easy to dismiss.
Over the years I have usually concluded a session with my “counselees” by asking them to hold FAST—“fast” being a double entendré for firmness or stability, but also for a religious practice which can bring spiritual strength to all in times of need.
F – is for “flee.” My first admonition to anyone struggling with pornography is to leave the scene of the crime, to get away from the temptation, to put distance between the person and the problem in any way possible. The pull of proximity can be fatal. Like Joseph in the presence of Potiphar’s wife, I say just run! That Old Testament scripture says “he . . . fled, and got him[self] out.” So “F” is for “flee.” That is not easy when the problem is so omnipresent and readily accessible, but we must try to get out of harm’s way. And please, do not leave a forwarding address!
A – is for “ask.” Whether it be pride or embarrassment or fear of punishment, too many who struggle with this problem do not ask for help. My theory is that initially anyone who is trustworthy can be asked to help—a parent, spouse, friend, Church leader, counselor, physician, and so on. If such people are not themselves trained to help, surely they will know others who are. Above all I would have a person struggling with pornography ask God for help, pleading for the mercy and grace of the Almighty to aid him or her in this difficult task. I would ask and ask until my throat was hoarse. I would knock and knock until my knuckles were bloody. On this serious matter I would be as the importuning widow, trusting that the Judge will hear my cry and open the door to protection.
S – is for “strive.” Related to the tenacity of asking for help is striving constantly to win this battle once the help comes. Everyone in this room knows pornography is not a simple problem and it will not be overcome easily. It will take work—in Churchill’s famous words: “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” But I believe virtually every problem in life will ultimately yield to persistent effort aided by divine assistance. It may take days, it may take years, it may take a lifetime but I believe in the reward of persistent effort, so “S” is for “strive”—with all one’s heart.
T – is for “triumph.” I know people can win this war. I have seen them do it and so have you. I could name names and so could you. We have to believe. Surely there has never been any battle won in life in which the victor did not believe that victory was possible. Victims of one crisis or another can live without a lot of things—I have known people who have lived without love, lived without comfort, lived without money, even lived for a time without food. But no one can live very long without hope. They need to have and keep that hope always—to believe they can be victorious in this battle, that they can conquer this implacable foe. We are the ones to give these people that confidence. So “T” is for “triumph” in my plea to hold FAST. And triumph we must, for both heaven’s and earth’s sake.
When these temptations and tribulations come to any of the victims of whom we have spoken—after coalitions like ours have done everything they know how to do socially, politically, economically and every other way—after all that can be done has been done to break the bondage of this plague and the industry that drives it, I pray that the individual will assume personal responsibility and “hold fast” saying as one young prophet once said, “[I will] give place no more for the enemy of my soul.”