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Pornography Use and the Response of the Church

By Fred Volk, Carolyn E. Moen, John C. Thomas, Lucy C. Phillips, Brittany Lashua - June 6th, 2017

How can and should the church respond RESPONSIBLY?


It is safe to say that, broadly speaking, pornography use is common, (Brown, Durtschi, Carroll, & Willoughby, 2017; Nelson, Padilla-Walker, & Carroll, 2010; Wright, 2013) and that pornography use among religious individuals is not particularly rare, albeit still less frequent than non-religious users (Grubbs, Sessoms, Wheeler, & Volk, 2010; Laaser & Adams, 1997). Individuals who indicate that religiosity is central to their day-to-day lives are more likely to abstain from pornography use (Brown et al., 2017; Hardy, Steelman, Coyne, & Ridge, 2013; Short, Kasper, & Wetterneck, 2014), and religious pornography users have less frequent use than nonreligious users (Short et al., 2014). Yet, religious users are more likely to indicate that they are addicted to pornography than non-religious users (Abell, Steenbergh, & Boivin, 2006; Grubbs et al., 2010; Grubbs, Volk, Exline, & Pargament, 2015). Pornography “addiction” nomenclature has gained traction in religious communities, so much so that religious individuals are more likely to report that pornography addiction is a more pressing societal issue than other issues (e.g., racism) when compared to non-religious samples (Macinnis & Hodson, 2016).

Christians who choose to use pornography, even though sexual behavior outside of the marriage relationship is inconsistent with their values (Griffin et al., 2016), may be overwhelmed by associated negative outcomes including shame (Volk, Thomas, Sosin, Jacob, & Moen, 2016), guilt, relationship dysfunction, decreases in marital satisfaction (Muusses, Kerkhof, & Finkenauer, 2015; Perry, 2016), and spiritual struggles over time (Grubbs, Exline, Pargament, Hook, & Carlisle, 2014). Incongruence between beliefs and pornography use may cause Christians to exaggerate the severity and meaningfulness of their use. As a result, they misinterpret their unwanted behavior as pathological, and this interpretation further amplifies the distress related to use. Some well-meaning churches and individuals have developed treatment programs to help alleviate the compulsiveness of behavior, but their efforts may be misguided. With a quick Internet search, one can find numerous programs and groups that are offered by local churches to support people struggling with sexual sin and pornography use. Unfortunately, these well-intended efforts are likely misaligned with many of the needs of those who are seeking help from the church. These interventions may address only the spiritual aspect of the use, while ignoring the biological, psychological, and social aspects of the problematic behavior.

Common Conceptions of Pornography Use (in the Church)

There are three types of people who present in churches with problems related to pornography use, yet all of these people are conceptualized as having “an addiction” to pornography. The first group of individuals makes up the smallest percentage and includes people who view pornography at rates that could be classified as truly addictive although pornography use as the primary addictive component in a clinical diagnosis is still controversial (Cooper, Delmonico, & Burg, 2000; Cooper, Putnam, Planchon, & Boies, 1999; Hilton, 2013; Ley, Prause, & Finn, 2014; Schneider, 2003; Wetterneck, Burgess, Short, Smith, & Cervantes, 2012). While users who experience true addictions are infrequent, religious pornography users experience greater inner conflict associated with use; therefore, it is reasonable to expect a higher percentage of these cases to occur in a religious population. Individuals who use pornography at extreme rates are clearly in need of professional counseling that incorporates evidence based-treatments. Any purity group participation should be in concert with individualized therapeutic intervention. Best clinical practice supports use of individualized evidence-based approaches in order to address an individual’s symptoms that are associated with distress and impairment. Church-based interventions are likely insufficient because they lack empirical support, an individualized approach, and a holistic perspective. Like others (e.g., Chisholm & Gall, 2015), we advocate the application of evidence-based treatments for believers who seek help for problematic pornography use.

The second type of pornography user that comes to the church with issues of addiction to pornography is likely the most common. These users are not using pornography at rates that could be truly described as addictive and they experience distress because their personal values conflict with their use. For example, users who morally object to their own pornography use are much more likely to view their use as addictive and have negative feelings about their own use (Grubbs et al., 2014; Volk et al., 2016). It appears that for the vast majority of pornography users (i.e., non-compulsive users), their own perceptions about their use are the source of negative consequences (e.g., psychological distress) instead of the use itself. It is this group of users that the church is most equipped to help, but unfortunately there may be unintended consequences of applying current addiction models to what could be described as only a sin problem. That is, by taking on the “addiction” label, pornography users may become identified by and begin to view their interaction with God and others through lens of their experiences with pornography. This can result in increased and ongoing spiritual struggles. Any treatment that encourages or suggests addiction without the coordination of a licensed treatment professional with sexual addiction training and experience is ill-advised. If it is singularly a sin issue, the path to reconciliation (i.e., repentance, forgiveness, and restoration) is well defined for believers.

The third type of problematic pornography users who seek help from a church cannot be assessed solely on the basis of their pornography use. In fact, they may report that they are using pornography infrequently. They are seeking guidance or joining sexual purity groups due to much more serious underlying sexual (e.g., hypersexuality) or mental health (e.g., obsessive compulsive disorder) (Laaser & Adams, 1997) issues, which require assistance from a licensed professional. Often there are other addictions, paraphilias, and other psychopathological problems that interact with the pornography use. Professionals are in the best position to assess and treat these issues.

Christian Responses

As Christians who are called by God to care for each other, we should make every effort to effectively care for every person who seeks help from the church. Part of caring for others responsibly is recognizing when we encounter a problem that is outside the scope of our abilities to treat. Traditionally, many churches stifle dialogue about healthy sexuality and sexual problems, but the public denial of problems may only add to the secret struggles of pornography users. Instead, churches should encourage open dialogue.

When people present with a pornography problem, the first duty of a caring church leader, faculty member, or mentor is to assess the depth of the problem. If people show signs of addiction or a mental health condition or if the church leader is uncertain about these, the user should be referred to a licensed and trained professional for assessment and possible treatment. It would be beneficial for those who find themselves in a position where others come to them with confessions such as this to become aware of professionals in their area so that they can refer those who need treatment. The church can play a key role in making sure that those with potentially serious mental health issues get the help they need while providing those same people with spiritual and financial support.  If it is clear that they are dealing with a non-pathological sin problem, then spiritual methods should be used. In these cases, the church should continue offering spiritual direction and providing a network of accountability and support groups. Church leaders should actively seek information and research about identifying pathologies and effective programs for helping believers, without pathological use, to overcome this stronghold in their lives.


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