Online Pornography: A Religious Man’s Cross to Bear

“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.

The Takeaways

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. 

Constructing Spiritual Motherhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Sister Amélie grew up in the small village of Ngeba in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As a child, Sr. Amélie remembers seeing Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur ministering in her village, but she did not know what community the women belonged to until she began to study at their local primary school.

Although she was introduced to other Roman Catholic religious orders in the region, the Sisters of Notre Dame remained her favorite. Observing the kindness they showed to others, she decided she wanted to be like the women she had admired from a young age.

“What impressed me the most was their humanitarian work,” explained Sr. Amélie, “When they arrived in the village, they would go from house to house every morning to greet people. The sisters fetched water and gathered firewood for the sick. I told myself I just need to go to the Sisters of Notre Dame and become like them.”

When Amélie shared the desire to become a religious sister with her parents, her mother initially resisted, and she worried that her brother would also oppose the decision. Amélie’s classmates taunted her: “Why become a sister? It’s useless!”

Undeterred, Amélie entered the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1984 at age 22, professing the three religious vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience for the first time in 1988. Dressed in a brightly patterned African wrapper, pagne, and matching blouse according to the style of local sisters, Sr. Amélie smiled a little as she shared the memory with me.

When she meets the same friends today, they react differently. Some are happy to see how well she is doing while others are envious. Most of the young women Amélie grew up with did not finish their studies. Sr. Amélie believes they are leading more difficult lives than she, farming, caring for children, and quickly aging while she “stays young.”

Sr. Amélie is one of the 71,567 Roman Catholic sisters in Africa today. She belongs to the transnational Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Belgian religious order that first sent missionary sisters to the newly colonized État Indépendant du Congo in 1894, and now has approximately 1,400 members living in sixteen countries across five continents.

When European sisters began evangelizing Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, they initially had no intention of welcoming local women into their communities. The first African sisters were segregated into diocesan orders founded specifically for black women during the 1920s and 1930s.

Even after African women were formally welcomed into international religious orders following the rise of African independence movements and the Second Vatican Council (1963–65), they faced immense obstacles. Not only did the first local sisters endure the ethnocentrism of the missionaries who formed them, but they also faced resistance from their families for giving up the valued roles of mother and wife.

According to the traditional culture of the Kongo people — a Bantu ethnic group that predates the colony and national state established under Belgian rule — women’s primary obligation is to bear children, produce “riches in human beings” (mbongo bantu), and repair the clan (londa kanda) by giving life to future generations. For women like Amélie, the conflict between fulfilling Western ideals of celibate religious sisterhood and responding to local gendered expectations regarding childbearing and kinship obligations remains a persistent source of tension.

The Research

While doing research for my book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, I interviewed 80 Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in the Democratic Republic of Congo, United States, and Belgium.

In my Gender & Society article, I highlight the distinct experiences of Catholic sisters in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Taking lifelong vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the 30 Congolese sisters I interviewed chose not to fulfill these local cultural expectations to become wives and mothers.

As we talked in community rooms and outdoor pavilions on the grounds of convent compounds across the cities of Kimwenza, Kisantu, and Lemfu, these women described the resistance they encountered to their religious vocations among family members, extended kin, and peers who could not comprehend their choice.

“For us, procreation is a very, very important value,” Sr. Élodie explained to me,” I received life and I am obliged to give life. It is through marriage and children that I must continue life. But now, I have a block. It is as if I cut off that life, those umbilical cords…to transmit life to others.”

In response to widespread disapproval among their family, friends, and community members, I found that sisters affirmed their communal, moral, and spiritual ties to others through their social ministries. Referring to themselves as “mothers of all,” many sisters explicitly rejected the notion that they could not mother within the convent, focusing on the education and moral formation they provide to youth throughout the region in schools, health centers, and women’s development programs.

In addition to helping sisters expand biological notions of motherhood and redefine the spaces where mothering work is performed, these social ministries provided institutional resources through which sisters could resist regional gender regimes that restrict girls’ education, women’s professional trajectories, and female landownership.

Whereas it is rare to find women in formal leadership positions in many of the villages where they work, sisters administer their own institutions, including schools, dispensaries, and women’s development centers. Sisters also own and manage the land surrounding their convents, including 60 hectares of farmland, which is unusual since traditional practices do not allow women direct access to land rights outside of marriage.

Although most sisters remain in gender-traditional fields of education and health care, they are beginning to enter male-dominated occupations and professions. There are Congolese Sisters of Notre Dame who are working as theologians, linguists, veterinarians, and agricultural engineers, as well as an electrician, lawyer, information technologist, psychologist, anthropologist, medical doctor, laboratory technician, and an auto mechanic.

This is significant in a country where women remain underrepresented in most sectors of the formal economy, and are much less likely than male workers to be engaged in wage employment. In the words of Sr. Simone, who manages the Province’s farmland, “Women are capable of doing any work, no exceptions.”

The Takeaway

The religious women I studied could not completely undo local gender expectations through their religious practices. The ways Congolese Catholic sisters interpret their religious vows and subsequently do religion is clearly shaped by cultural expectations and gender ideals.

Although Congolese sisters make an exceptional commitment to their faith by professing religious vows that seem to conflict with cultural expectations to become wives and mothers, they continue to be influenced by local gender ideals.

Making the radical choice to live outside the institutions of marriage and biological family, sisters do not ignore the pressure to revere motherhood. Instead, sisters draw on Catholic notions of spiritual motherhood to avoid the stigma of childlessness and to redefine the space where feminine care giving is performed.

They do their mothering work in schools, health centers, and other social ministries. Doing religion is inseparable from doing gender as sisters embody alternative ways of being a woman in post-colonial Congolese society through their religious practices.

Casey Clevenger is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology at Brandeis University. Her forthcoming book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, is an ethnographic study of Catholic sisters in the United States, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Belgium. In addition to her research on gender and religion, Casey studies immigration and healthcare chaplaincy. 

Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion

By: Helana Darwin

One night while I was watching Transparent, a particular scene caught my attention. The young female rabbi is explaining how difficult it is to be in a masculinized profession without losing her sense of femininity and sexiness. To demonstrate her point, she takes off her kippah (a small skullcap that is traditionally worn by Jewish men, otherwise known as a yarmulke) and proclaims “Sexy!” Then she places the garment back on her head and makes a face, announcing “Not sexy.” The other character smilingly assents to her point.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this scene. My thoughts drifted to all of the women pursuing rabbinic ordination at the seminary where I had just earned my Master’s degree in Jewish Studies. Most of them wore kippot (plural of kippah), like the rabbi in Transparent. Did they similarly struggle with feeling like their kippah cancelled out their femininity or sexiness? Could this possibly explain why more women do not wear kippot , despite the transnational Jewish feminist push to embrace masculinized Jewish practices? Since the 1970s, Jewish women have boldly fought for their right to full inclusion within Judaism, and yet the sight of a woman in a kippah remains rare. Why?

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I couldn’t find an answer within academic databases. The vast majority of feminist head-covering research focuses on whether or not the hijab is oppressive or empowering to Muslim women who wear it. The general consensus among feminist scholars today seems to be that this is a false dichotomy; in reality, the hijab has different meanings to different women, depending on a number of factors including their nationality, parentage, local culture, and age. While this academic debate has been fruitful, it has rarely extended beyond the gender-normative case study of the hijab. This trend within the literature struck me as regrettably limited.

How, I wondered, do women who wear kippot reconcile their seemingly contradictory religious and gender scripts? Given my connections within the Jewish community, I realized that I was well-positioned to conduct this research. Indeed, within 24 hours of sending out my survey link, I had already received more than 400 responses. Additionally, I was also flooded by effusive emails, from respondents who wished to thank me for giving them a chance to clarify the meanings of their practice. In total, I collected responses from 576 Jewish women across the globe who wear kippot. I have derived two articles from this data so far. The first article focuses on the religious meanings of women’s kippah practice. It is called “Jewish Women’s Kippot: Meanings and Motives” and it is published in the journal Contemporary Jewry. The second article is significantly more theoretical and focuses on the extra-religious meanings associated with the practice. It is called “Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion,” and is in the current issue of Gender & Society.

“Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion” illuminates a new angle of the gender/religion nexus through this open-ended survey data, demonstrating how these two axes of accountability are intertwined. Jewish women have historically been exempt from the majority of Jewish ritual practices due to an anachronistic assumption that they are too busy with child-rearing and other domestic tasks. As a result, practices and customs such as wearing the kippah have become masculinized. When women assume such a historically masculinized practice, they render themselves vulnerable to gender-policing and a parallel process that I call “Jewish-policing.” According to those who hold themselves (and others) accountable to the patriarchal tradition, these women are neither “doing femininity” properly, “doing Jewish properly,” nor “doing Jewish womanhood” properly. Although some Jewish cultural fields embrace a shift towards egalitarianism, the women remain accountable to their more traditional coreligionists beyond the confines of these progressive spaces.

            The women in this study utilize a range of strategies to internally reconcile the tensions between the traditional script of gendered Judaism and their egalitarian values: some feminize the kippah so as to affirm their gender-normativity while doing Judaism differently; others utilize the kippah’s masculine-encoding to do Jewish womanhood differently. However, regardless of the women’s efforts to internally legitimize their practice, they remain externally accountable to their traditional coreligionists, who perceive their practice as a politically motivated statement. In response, some women go to great lengths to discursively distance themselves from feminism, insisting that they desire inclusion within tradition rather than an end to Jewish tradition itself. Others embrace their association with feminism, using their hypervisibility to begin conversations with coreligionists about gender equality within Judaism.

            These results lend new insight into how gender and religion function as mutually constitutive categories: while men can simply “do Jewish” by wearing the kippah, women are not afforded such a gender-blind privilege. Rather, coreligionists perceive women who wear kippot as automatically doing something other than Judaism, something that is inherently gendered and political—such as “doing religious feminism.” It appears that these two systems of accountability (gender ideology and religious ideology) remain inextricably linked to one another, despite evidence of an egalitarian shift within certain Jewish fields. Future research about gender norms/ideologies should consider religious background along with the more commonly included variables, given this evidence.

Helana Darwin Sociology doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University who is on the market. Her research highlights the regulatory impact of the gender binary system through a wide range of case studies. Recent publications include “Doing Gender Beyond the Binary: a virtual ethnography,” published by Symbolic Interaction and “Omnivorous Masculinity: gender capital and cultural legitimacy in craft beer culture,” published by Social Currents. Learn more about Helana’s research at helanadarwin.com.

 

Religious Women in the Transnational Era

By Gowoon Jung

How do individuals adapt to a changing multicultural society and negotiate the tensions and contradictions of macro-social transition? I pose this question within the context of South Korea (hereafter Korea) and focus attention on emerging, transnationally mobile and religiously conservative young women. The two religious organizations that have allowed me to have an insight into the way women adapt are the World Vision Church (an evangelical Protestant Church) and the Unification Church. Being in the field and talking to people in these churches for seven months meant I could experience how Asian societies are becoming ethnically and culturally more plural.GNS_GowoonJung

After an official preaching at 12:30 pm at World Vision Church in Seoul, ten new visitors gathered to introduce themselves in a large hall. One Korean woman, Sunhee Yang, had lived in New Jersey for five years and came to the church upon her arrival in Seoul. She had heard about the Vision vice-pastor Kim’s leadership from her church friends in New Jersey. Another woman, Nari, who had worked on Wall Street for more than six years, also visited the church. The stories of Sunhee and Nari exemplify those of many Korean Evangelical Protestant women who have travelled overseas for advanced education or careers. Continue reading “Religious Women in the Transnational Era”