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New research from Brigham Young University (I know right?) examines the role of pornography use, self-perceived “addiction” to pornography, and religion on relationship anxiety. Results were surprising, and confirmed a building school of research which indicates that the effects of pornography vary based on moral and religious beliefs, and that seeing oneself as addicted to porn is actually 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 an existing theory that some people come to view themselves as deficient, immoral and tainted, often as a result of sexual behaviors, or being victims of rape or sexual abuse. As a result of viewing themselves that way, the “damaged” person isolates themselves from the social supports and personal engagement, which would actually counteract these negative self-perceptions. So, it becomes a scary, sad circular self-fulfilling prophecy.

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

That religious, conservative background leads to people overestimating the harm and shame attached to pornography use, and experiencing greater distress related to porn use, which they label as “addiction.” One study at a Christian college found that 60% of Christian males seeking help for porn-related problems viewed themselves as addicted to pornography, though only 5% 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, not by porn use, and that this perception of oneself as addicted predicts negative emotional outcomes, where actual porn use does not.

The BYU study now found further results which support the idea that it’s not porn use, but 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 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.

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People who use pornography are unlikely to experience relationship anxiety about their porn use (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, be afraid of rejection and judgment, and thus 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 fear of it, and 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 sees 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 experienced any negative outcomes from their porn use.

So – take home message? If you are religious, you probably shouldn’t watch porn. Watching any is likely to lead to you feeling that you’re addicted, any 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 of pornography 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 at 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

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