Women Who Stray

Notes on the history and current practice of female infidelity

A Reaction Formation Against Porn

Those who advocate against the dangers of sexual arousal fear their own desires

Earlier today, a Chicago-area Catholic priest was arrested, allegedly for exposing himself to other adults at a gas station. He turned himself in after he was identified by the license plate on his car. Even now, I imagine the man is sitting in a police station, tormented by his actions, in agony for his mistakes. I sympathize with the pain he must feel, and his fear of the rejection, judgment and scorn he will surely experience from his Church and congregation.

The irony of his hypocrisy is made worse by the monsignor’s recent campaign against the seductive, insidious and “addictive” dangers of Internet porn. The clergyman has written and spoken publicly about how Internet pornography, so readily accessible to teens on their phones and computers, causes neurochemicals changes in their brains, and warps the young people’s ideas of sex, love and intimacy:

“One huge concern is the personal isolation that porn creates. It is such a fake form of intimacy and love, it does the absolute opposite of fulfilling each person’s need for intimacy and love. ... There are great negative effects on people on a social, personal, family and relational level.

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“It is just a lie, a false presentation (of love and intimacy) … Many, if not most, kids are starting to get addicted.”

He went on to suggest that the crisis of Internet pornography was something that parents, congregations and communities needed to act on, because “Kids ages 11 to 17 are the highest consumers of pornography, according to recent statistics.”

This man’s well-meaning but destructive campaign was based on misconceptions, driven by fear, probably his own fears, of the power that sexual arousal has in his life and that of others. Porn isn’t addictive, it doesn’t change one’s brain, and children under 17 are definitely not the highest consumers of pornography. Porn isn’t addictive, but perhaps fear is.

As an advocate against the sex/porn addiction industry, I am regularly challenged with fear-based rhetoric, that porn and sex can lead people to dangerous, destructive, frightening sexual acts. In fact, when I first read the story of this sad scandal of sexual hypocrisy, my first thought was to cry “Aha! You see what hypocrites these porn addiction advocates are?!”

But, as I thought more, I began to see that the reaction to fear shouldn’t be anger, that it only inflames and makes fear-based beliefs more rigid. People who espouse the ideas that sex and porn are addictive are afraid of sexual arousal, and afraid that they themselves are unable to control their sexual desires and behaviors.

A reaction formation is a psychological concept, whereby a person with a strong, uncomfortable desire, develops an even stronger, exaggerated, public stance against that secret, shameful desire. Shakespeare knew this human dynamic, when he wrote in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Mark Foley is a former US House Representative, who was a political leader against child pornography, homosexuality and sex offenses against children. He resigned from the House after revelations of a scandal involving a young male page and Foley’s inappropriate communications with the young man. Ted Haggard is an American minister, who preached against homosexuality and exhorted his congregations to support anti-gay legislations. Haggard was later exposed as engaging in homosexual relationships, and even later identified himself as bisexual. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich castigated President Bill Clinton’s infidelity during impeachment proceedings, while Gingrich himself was having an affair.

These actions are more than simple hypocrisy, they are the actions of people who deeply fear their own desires, and believe that to control their own sexual arousal, they must work to ensure that the world become a place where their sexual desires cannot be acted upon. When people externalize their own sexual fears, when they present sexual desire as an uncontrollable force, from which we must all be protected, they are telling us what they themselves fear. That they cannot control their sexual desires, and as a result, they believe that no one can.

But, sexuality is a force like many other human emotions, a powerful one, which can bring both joy and heartache. It is no more to be feared than happiness or sadness. When drunk on lust, people make foolish decisions, from not using condoms to having sex with someone they wish they hadn’t. But, all emotions affect our judgment. Sadness and joy also shape our decisions and thought processes with equal effect. Sexual arousal is no better, nor worse.

Fear suppresses our judgment as much as sex
Sadly, the fear of sexual arousal comes from a lack of understanding, and an inability to discuss it. Our sexual education system continues to suppress open conversations about sexual desire through the prevalence of abstinence-only curricula. A recent study suggests that self-identification as a porn addict is driven by internal conflicts over moral and religious beliefs about sexuality.   And scandals such as the one today, with this sad, tortured priest, lead to even more tortured, painful silences. These silences are often broken only by vocal cries of fear and opposition, driven by reaction formation.

Had this priest used the avenues of sexual arousal on the Internet, perhaps he would have committed no crime. Sex crimes across the country have diminished, as Internet pornography is more widely available. The use of webcams has led to far fewer exhibitionists on the streets and in gas stations, when they can use the Internet to expose themselves safely and privately.

Those who rail against sex on the Internet, and the dangers of pornography and sexual desires are shouting for our help, our sympathy and our support. Those who advocate against various forms of sex and porn addiction are in fact asking us to understand that they are afraid they cannot control their sexual desires. Perhaps they can hear us say that we too sometimes struggle with our sexual desires, but that this is human and understandable. It is clearly something where their fear is far, far worse than the thing they fear, and the energy they give to their fear only heightens their panic.

 

David J. Ley, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Insatiable Wives, Women Who Stray and The Men Who Love Them, available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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