“My brain had been wired to use pornography,” explains Christopher, a 28-year-old man who self-identifies as a pornography addict.
A conservative evangelical Protestant, Christopher struggles with how his porn use fits into his religious beliefs. Though he describes porn use as natural for men, his faith insists that he shouldn’t be looking at it.
And so, Christopher joins a program we call True Intimacy (a pseudonym), a weekly support group for Christian men like himself who want to quit porn. In new research to be published in Gender & Society, we examine the stories of 35 religious men and women who attend pornography addiction support groups to better understand how they reconcile pornography addiction with their conservative religious beliefs.
According to many religious organizations and leaders, activists and advocacy groups, politicians, counseling and recovery programs, and mainstream media, pornography addiction has become a widespread social problem in the 21st century.
Indeed, there is no disputing that access to online porn is unprecedented. In 2018, there were nearly 100 million visitors each day who performed almost 1,000 searches per second on Pornhub.com, the world’s largest online porn site.
Statistics like these have led 15 states to pass resolutions that declare pornography to be a “public health crisis.” Each resolution claims that pornography is biologically addictive and therefore is harming the l millions of people who watch it.
As qualitative sociologists, we don’t take a stand about whether pornography is a public health crisis or biologically addictive. Instead, we investigate the stories people tell about their experience of pornography as addiction.
Our interview participants came from different religious traditions: most were conservative Protestant evangelicals, but some were Catholic, Latter-day Saint, and Jewish. All agreed that pornography is morally wrong, that’s why they are members of the support groups we studied. Conservative Protestants in particular see pornography use as a sin that is similar to extramarital sex or adultery. But, it was not only through religious language that our participants talked about pornography addiction—it was through science.
In describing their pornography use, most respondents referred to the brain, neurological, or physiological processes. By placing science at the forefront, participants avoided pathologizing men’s pornography use. As Elliott, a 24-year-old Protestant group leader at True Intimacy explains:
“I’m a believer and I’m stuck in this sin…and yeah, I feel like there is a physical component [to pornography addiction]. Your mind is, like, rewired. You have pathways in your mind that are deeply entrenched and even if you are a believer in Christ, it is just hard to get out of that.”
Elliot’s emphasis on scientific claims helps alleviate potential feelings of shame or guilt. Others likened pornography addiction to alcohol or nicotine addiction to further entrench the idea that pornography is biologically addictive.
But according to our participants, this physical addiction affects only men’s bodies, not women’s. According to their religious beliefs, God designed men and women’s bodies differently. They believed women desired emotional connection and support and men physical intimacy and visual stimulation. Participants’ beliefs about gender naturalized men’s pornography use, but stigmatized women who used pornography. Female users were typically described as using porn to deal with an emotional trauma.
The logic that it is natural and normal for men to want to look at porn does more than alleviate religious men’s guilt, it also frames the avoidance of pornography as a masculine feat possible only through faith in God. Men talk about avoiding porn as a “fight” or a “battle,” like Jonathan who describes how he was “tired of being held down by the chains of pornography. I was tired of not being the person that God made me to be.”
For our interview participants, overcoming pornography addiction is both a masculine and religious accomplishment. As our respondents were all cisgender, heterosexual and white, it seems that the redemptive process of recovery from pornography addiction is available only to men who already occupy multiple positions of privilege.
Religious participants in pornography addiction support groups make both religious and scientific claims about the nature of porn addiction and how to overcome it. They believe pornography addiction is natural for men but not women. These beliefs reinforce existing gender stereotypes that limit women’s sexual expression within conservative religions and broader culture.
Kelsy Burke is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.
Trenton Haltom is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.