Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

New research from Brigham Young University examines the role of pornography use, self-perceived “addiction” to pornography, and religion on relationship anxiety. The results were surprising, and confirmed a building school of research which indicates that the effects of pornography on individuals vary based on moral and religious beliefs, and that seeing oneself as addicted to porn is far more damaging than actually using pornography.

Leonhardt, Willoughby, and Young-Petersen did a large, cross-sectional survey of 686 single adults, using the MTurk system. They were investigating what effects pornography use — and the belief that one was addicted to pornography — had on an individual’s relationship anxiety. A major component of the research was exploring the “Damaged Goods Hypothesis," as it relates to porn use. The Damaged Goods Hypothesis is the theory that some people come to view themselves as deficient, immoral, or tainted, often as a result of sexual behaviors, or after being victims of rape or sexual abuse. As a result of viewing themselves that way, a “damaged” person isolates themselves from the social supports and personal engagement which would actually counteract these negative self-perceptions. It becomes a scary, sad, and circular self-fulfilling prophecy.

Relationship anxiety predicts less satisfactory relationships, as a person essentially makes relationships fail by believing they are doomed, and that the other person will always eventually reject them once they learn about the deep, dark secret that turned them into “damaged goods.” Out of fear of rejection, many people keep their pornography use secret, particularly when they are from religious, and especially Christian, communities or backgrounds.

That religious, conservative background leads people to overestimate the harm and shame attached to pornography use, and to experience greater distress related to porn use, which they label as an “addiction.” One study at a Christian college found that 60 percent of Christian males seeking help for porn-related problems viewed themselves as addicted to pornography, although only 5 percent of those men met any of the criteria related to addictive disorders. Recent research has found that belief in oneself as a pornography addict is predicted by religious values, and not by porn use, and that this perception of oneself as addicted predicts negative emotional outcomes, while actual porn use does not.

The BYU study found further results which support the idea that it’s not porn use, but rather the belief in porn addiction and the conflict with religion, which predict porn-related problems. In this study, they found that:

* Perception of pornography addiction is more important than actual pornography use in predicting many outcomes, and that the level of religious belief was especially important in predicting negative outcomes from porn use. What's fascinating is that already several critiques of this study's findings have been published online, coming from people who promote the porn addiction concept. Unfortunately, these people appear unwilling or unable to confront their part in spreading a damaging, harmful belief.

* People who use pornography are unlikely to experience relationship anxiety about their porn use — that is, to view themselves as damaged goods that others would reject for their porn use — unless the individual views themselves as a porn addict. So viewing yourself as a porn addict causes harm, by leading you to feel ashamed of yourself and your sexual behaviors, to be afraid of rejection and judgment, and thus to isolate yourself or end up having unsuccessful relationships, caused not by your porn use, but by your fear that you are broken and powerless over porn, and that others will and should reject you for it.  

In one analysis, the researchers controlled for the effects of both religion and self-perceived porn addiction and found that, for such people, increased porn use actually decreased relationship anxiety about porn. Why? We can only speculate, and these results might be spurious, as the authors caution against over-interpreting this finding. But it might be that exposure to porn decreases the fear of it and the belief that porn is inherently bad. It also teaches one that they can self-manage their sexual feelings.

Belief in oneself being a pornography addict was a large part of the relationship between religiousness and relationship anxiety about porn. Level of religiousness predicted the likelihood that a person would see themselves as a porn addict, regardless of the amount of porn used, supporting the building argument that the concept of porn addiction is largely tied to moral and religious feelings about porn, and not to actual porn use. But in this study, even religious persons who did not view themselves as porn addicts had higher relationship anxiety about porn, while people who were not religious and didn’t feel addicted to porn didn't experience any negative outcomes from their porn use.

Take home message: If you are religious, you probably shouldn’t watch porn. It is likely to lead to you feeling that you’re addicted, and then developing shame around your identity and your porn use. That shame and anxiety is going to cause you problems in your life and in your relationships. But pornography is not a "superstimulus" that has an effect on everybody and anybody. The effects vary, by person, based on things such as their religiousness, history of porn use, history of sexuality, and relationship experience.

If you are a religious person and have already watched porn, already feel that you’re an addict, and are worried about the impact of porn on your relationship, then the way to deal with these problems has nothing to do with porn, or stopping your use. Religion is very helpful in many people's lives, bringing peace, a sense of meaning and community. Unfortunately, most religions aren't very good about sex, especially in the modern world, where porn is just a click away. Instead, the best therapeutic strategies involve reducing your shame and self-doubt, helping you to change behaviors as opposed to your identity, increasing your sense of personal self-control, examining your beliefs about sexuality and pornography, and learning how to negotiate sexual acceptance within yourself and your relationships. Treat the shame, not the porn.

*Addendum. In interest of transparency and recognition that the researchers always best know their own research, I am adding the below text of an email from Dr. Brian Willoughby, one of this study's authors. I reached out to him for review of this piece. I think it's important to always listen to the researchers, rather than develop and feed our own opinions...Dr. Willoughby suggests some refined interpretation of the results, and I humbly defer to his wisdom:

"Happy to give you some thoughts/feedback.  First, yes I do think that there is enough evidence to suggest baseline, weak negative effects [of pornography use]for the average user.  Every meta-analysis to my knowledge has shown negative effects and those effects (including several longitudinal studies recently) seem pretty consistent to me. Of course, with population-based statistics, that doesn't mean every person or couple will experience negative effects (and I do think 90% of the people commenting on this topic miss the mark on what those effects are).  As I've mentioned to you, I also think there are important moderators at work (gender, religiosity, etc.) that change (lessen or exaggerate) those effects.
>
> In terms of your write-up, while I think you generally did a good job of reporting the findings of the study, I do think your conclusions were a bit off base.  I'll suggest two points where I think this happened.  First, I think there was an over-reaching on your part regarding the religiosity finding.  Rather than note that being religious is one possible factor that might contribute to increased perception of addiction, your article suggests it's the only factor (and this has been the main take-away I've seen people have in the media).  Second, I think you lost sight that our outcome variable was simply anxiety about discussing or disclosing porn use to others (hardly a strong indicator of overall well-being or functioning).  I noticed that you started to generalize about halfway through the piece, giving the reader the impression that we studied well-being indicators when it comes to porn use.  Whether I have anxiety talking to people about pornography doesn't speak in my mind to if pornography is having an effect on depression, couple satisfaction, or any meaningful indicator of well-being.
>
> For example, you stated, "The BYU study found further results which support the idea that it's not porn use, but rather the belief in porn addiction and the conflict with religion, which predict porn-related problems."  This sentence illustrates both of my above points.  First, you noted that it's not porn use but religion and perception of addiction causing "problems".  However, the study actually found that porn use itself was also a significant predictor of perception of addiction along with religiosity.  So if religiosity is causing anxiety and negative perceptions (what you call "problems"), porn use is as well (independent of religiosity).  Secondly, the use of the term "porn-related problems" is going to mislead (even unintentionally) most readers into thinking we assessed well-being in regards to porn use.  Sadly, very few people are going to read the actual study and use of terms like "negative outcomes" or "problems" I think gave people the wrong impression.
>
> Later on, you noted that: "In one analysis, the researchers controlled for the effects of both religion and self-perceived porn addiction and found that, for such people, increased porn use actually decreased relationship anxiety about porn."  Again, this is accurate but you failed to note that this finding was only true in the full model where pornography use did predict perception of addiction and increased anxiety.  Your suggested reason for this finding I think can be true for some people, but there is clearly something else going on as well (in my opinion, I think our analysis was likely doing a bit of separation between those who are compulsively using and those who are not).  Bottom-line, there's a lot more complexity here and I think most people's take away from your write-up is that this is simply about religious people making their own problem, which I don't think the paper suggests."

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