Dear 100 Hour Board,
My 21 year old son is struggling with pornography addiction and has been very open about it with us. We have been supportive from the beginning and have taken necessary steps to help when he was living at home. He has received excellent care from his former home bishop and his former (non-Utah) student ward bishop. He has been a BYU student for almost a year now and is having a dreadful time getting help he needs from his current student ward bishop, who he has met with several times. According to my son, his bishop has basically told him that he is destroying his salvation and offers little help. He has determined that he no longer wants to meet with this bishop and is feeling hopeless. He strongly desires the necessary spiritual guidance and continued help with his repentance process, like that he's received in the past. What can he do now?
First off, thank you for caring so much about your son and trying to help him.
Now there's a number of misconceptions around pornography. Most members aren't aware of them (including myself just last year) but they cause a lot of harm. Here's a quick rundown of some of the facts, and I highly suggest you research into them yourself more and share them with your son:
- Pornography is very rarely addictive. Now this can be a definitions debate: pornography can certainly be habit-forming and, like many habits, can be difficult to stop. Part of that is because porn can be used a stress reliever, and just like stress eaters have a hard time letting go of that chocolate, people who watch porn can have a hard time letting porn go. But if we're going off of the medical definition for addiction, which is a very high threshold to meet, very few people are actually addicted to pornography. One study found that, while 60% of Christian males reported a pornography addiction, only 5% of them met the criteria for addictive disorder. A BYU study found similar results.
- The reason a large percentage of Christian males (falsely) said they were addicted to pornography is due to a circular shame cycle. Watching porn makes people think they're immoral or damaged, which causes them to isolate themselves from friends and family, which can cause anxiety and stress, which can cause more porn usage, which makes them feel even more damaged, and the cycle continues.
- Perceptions of being a pornography addict (which studies have shown is predicted by religious values) can be more harmful than porn use. In other words, our views of pornography cause people to think they're addicted and can cause more emotional pain than the pornography itself.
I think it's absolutely fantastic your son has been open with you about his pornography usage and that you have been supportive. Perhaps, though, you might want to reconsider how you view him. Labels have meanings and influence the ways we treat others, and if you're thinking your son is a pornography addict it will probably influence how you interact with him. There is a less than 10% chance that he is addicted, and I think he will feel so much better and more hopeful if you can explain to him that many LDS men look at pornography and call themselves addicts when they really aren't, and he's likely in that group. Help him understand that just because he has a compulsion to watch pornography does not mean he's addicted, just as I have a strong compulsion to eat chocolate at night and have to ask minnow to hide all the candy in the apartment. Helping him view his pornography usage as a bad habit he needs to stop instead of an addiction can not only help him feel more hopeful but can help him come up with positive solutions, such as replacing this habit with another habit.
As to your son's new bishop - he is just making the shame cycle worse. Telling someone their pornography usage is destroying their salvation is just going to make them more ashamed, afraid, and turn to porn more. In my opinion, your son will be far better off not meeting with his bishop than continuing to meet with him. It may be best to find some way for him to communicate with his old bishop or try to move wards. I would also suggest that he meets with a counselor, because I'm sure his self perception has been taking a beating and he probably feels terrible about himself, which a counselor can help with. A counselor can help him work to overcome his shame and perceptions of being damaged, which can be crucial in ending the shame cycle.
-guppy of doom
Sorry for holding your question over for so long. guppy of doom said it better than I could, but, having been in a situation somewhat similar to that of your son, I want to offer my two cents. I have some very strong personal feelings about this and didn't want to let it pass by.
In the Church we speak very absolutely about porn use. We go to great lengths to unequivocally condemn porn usage of any kind as a dangerous seed of addictive behavior. Unfortunately, years of teaching to this effect have led us to label almost any level of porn use as an addiction. We rarely (if ever!) talk about porn as just another bad habit, like swearing in traffic. Clinically speaking, the definition of addiction is much more stringent than we think of it colloquially. A bad habit is not an addiction. Even a strongly formed habit is not an addiction. Unless your son is actively disrupting major areas of his life (school, work, etc) compulsively and regularly for the sake of acting out on a porn habit, chances are he's not actually addicted. It would be healthier and more accurate to frame this as dealing with a bad habit, the same way you would anything else. Now, you both know his circumstances better than I, so I don't mean to be presumptive. But it is important to recognize that self-identifying as an addict can be self-defeating and intensify feelings of shame and despair, and that for the vast majority of religious (especially LDS) porn users, "addiction" is a far higher threshold than they think.
Just so I'm clear: Porn use is a sin. It is a violation of the law of chastity and it most certainly ought to be overcome and repented of. It is habit-forming and potentially addictive. But the tone of Latter-day Saint dialogue about porn has historically been rigid, harsh, and inflexible in ways that intensify shame without realistically addressing how the nature of the sin has changed. Even a generation ago, the sexual landscape was completely different than it is today. Our dialogue has not yet caught up to a world in which all manner of pornographic media is quite literally seconds away from your fingertips at every hour of every day (despite the fact that we acknowledge the level of accessibility all the time). The youth of today need to be taught that porn is a sin, and a potentially dangerous one--but it is not comparable to murder; I don't think that's an appropriate contextual reading of Alma 39. Those who act out on porn--and this isn't just a male issue--have a bad habit that needs to overcome, the same way they would work to improve any other bad habit or pet sin. What they don't need to be told is that they're teetering on the edge of a lifelong entanglement with a serious sin nearly as serious as murder.
As to your son's bishop: I regret that I don't have great solutions for you. I hesitate to make any definitive statements since my only sense of what the bishop has said is filtered through your son to you and then to me. But I will second guppy in recommending that you should absolutely consider counseling for your son. A counselor shouldn't replace a bishop, but seeing one can be enormously helpful in providing moral support as well as helping your son develop tools on his own to deal with the shame, hopelessness, and despair he feels.
If his bishop is the type to be amenable to discussion, it may be worthwhile for your son to try and discuss some of these things with him directly, particularly how hopeless he feels as a result of this rhetoric. I feel, quite emphatically, that the notion that pornography threatens to "destroy salvation" is an unhelpful, antiquated, painful one. It sounds to me that your son's bishop is failing to see the forest for the trees: it may well be true that unrepentant, hedonistic, and lifelong indulgence in sexual sin destroys one's salvation, but that's the last thing your son needs to know or to hear right now, because his indulgence isn't unrepentant, it isn't hedonistic, and it's probably not compulsive. He needs help and support, not an uncompromising fire-and-brimstone reminder of where the lines are drawn. If either of you feel his bishop would be at all receptive to such a dialogue, I strongly urge you to voice your concerns. The bishop's priority should be the emotional and spiritual needs of your son, and right now it sounds like he's missing the mark.
If that isn't an option, I would suggest attempting to arrange something with your son's previous bishops. In any case, something about the situation needs to change, whether he continues to meet with his current bishop or not. In my own situation, I was able to move from meeting with the bishop of my home ward to the student ward I attended at the time, and while I respect and greatly admire both of the men I worked with, my student bishop better connected with me and provided the kind of support I needed. I hope something similar will resolve itself for your son. If not, the best you can do is to continue providing love and support for him at home--and personally speaking, I think that's the probably the more important part.
Thank you for being there for your son as he strives to throw off this yoke. If you (or your son!) would like to reach out, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd be happy to talk more.