Guilt, shame high among church members who view pornography

Tuesday , May 24, 2016 - 6:00 AM9 comments

JANAE FRANCIS, Standard-Examiner Staff

Sean Musil, 23, says he’s not ashamed to admit he lived a double life while growing up and becoming a role model in his congregation.

The former member of the Canyon Road Assembly of God  said he conducted Bible studies and performed in the church’s music ministry. For seven years, the Farmington resident said he could not pull himself away from viewing pornography when he wasn’t at church.

The practice made him feel an extreme amount of guilt and shame, and he said he didn’t know how to stop. He didn’t believe he could get help from his church or elsewhere.


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Utah recently passed Resolution 9, which declares pornography consumption as a statewide health crisis. While the author, Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, has said the non-binding measure is primarily aimed at curbing pornography exposure to children, it also intends to “prevent pornography exposure and addiction.”

Addiction to pornography is not a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Psychological Disorders, a standard text used by many medical professionals, but countless people say it’s an affliction as intense and destructive as any drug. Musil isn’t alone in connecting his urge to watch porn with his guilt as a Christian, either. A 2014 study by Proven Men Ministries showed that men claiming to be Christian were twice as likely as non-Christians to think that they might be addicted to porn. 

Joshua Grubbs conducted some of the first-ever studies exploring the connection between religious beliefs and perceived addiction to porn. Grubbs is a doctoral candidate in psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

He has previously noted that most books on porn addiction are found in the religion and spirituality sections. His research, conducted in 2014 and 2015, produced a few other notable results. One, that religious people tend to admit to viewing slightly less pornography than non-religious people, but still consume it at “very high rates.” Two, that religious people were much more likely to say they were addicted to porn based on moral notions of sex, no matter how much adult content they consumed. And three, that religious people were much more likely to experience more psychological distress because of perceived porn addictions — and that admitting to a porn “addiction” may cause more complications than guidance down a path toward recovery.

Weiler’s resolution, he said, is a moral declaration. 

“I would 100 percent stand behind the notion that religious culture is a large part of it,” he said. “You don’t see that legislation passed in California, or Oregon … I would be very confident in saying religion is a factor here."

That’s not to say Grubbs thinks the pain people of faith feel about watching porn isn’t real.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible to be addicted to pornography, I’m not saying it’s not real,” he said. But considering a recent resolution passed by the Utah Legislature, “I don’t know if it’s at the public health crisis level that it’s described as."

In many Christian churches, viewing pornography is seen as a sin. Ogden’s Refuge Church Preaching Pastor Brian Sauvé pointed to two passages in the New Testament of the Bible about sexual sin that he believes apply to pornography. 

The first passage Sauvé referred to, found in Romans 1:1-32, discusses how one aspect of God’s judgment is based on resisting temptations, like sexual desires, which limit consciousness of what God commands of his people. 

Then there’s 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 which, according to Sauvé, states that people who give in to lust will destroy their relationships with God. 

Sauvé said it’s the nature of Christians to feel more guilt and shame when they sin. 

“One of the things sin does is it numbs us to the fact that it even exists at all,” he said. “It’s actually the grace of God to allow sin to result in shame or a hurt conscience in order that we will be pointed to Jesus for removal of shame.”

Many times church followers don’t believe they have an avenue for help in their churches, Musil said.

“Today, porn is accessible, available and affordable,” Musil said, pointing to a majority that is obtained online. “We also need resources that are accessible, available and affordable.”

A study conducted by the Barna Group and funded by the Josh McDowell Ministry found that only 9 percent of churches have formal programs to address the needs of members who say they’re addicted to pornography. The study, titled “The Porn Phenomenon,” also states 26 percent of all Christians surveyed say they come across pornography weekly; 28 percent of young adult Christians said they seek pornography at least weekly.

“For Christians in particular, using porn comes with feelings of guilt and shame, and many local faith communities do not seem like safe places to admit a struggle with sexual sin,” the report says.

People from several northern Utah churches contacted by the Standard-Examiner said leaders tend to wait for members to express a need before they address pornography addiction. All those questioned said they don’t have formal programs. Some refer church members to Christian addiction counseling. Among the denominations questioned were Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, non-denominational, Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches, as well as Assemblies of God. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a pornography addiction website and holds community meetings through its LDS Family Services offices.

Many who say they’re fighting addiction to pornography think more needs to be done.

Rhyll and Steven Croshaw, who have been married for 43 years and are both in their mid 60s, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their nonprofit agency, S.A. Lifeline Foundation, is not connected to a church but recommends people turn to spiritually based 12-step programs.

“This is not a willpower issue,” Rhyll said. “In the 1930s, they discovered that alcoholics couldn’t stop drinking with willpower alone. We need to treat pornography addiction in the same way.”

Rhyll said her husband went back and forth with his pornography addiction, which also led to a sex addiction, for 32 years of their marriage, finally culminating in Steven being arrested with a prostitute.

“He did want to stop, and he couldn’t on his own,” she said. “Lust never has enough. Lust is the issue here. It’s not sex. ... He will always want more and different when it’s a lust addiction.”

They use an article — “Pornography and the Brain: Understanding the Addiction,” by Donald L. Hilton Jr. — to explain how pornography can lead to an addiction. Hilton is an adjunct associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas.

“Addiction — whether to cocaine, food or sex — occurs when the drug use, eating, or sexual behavior ceases to contribute to a healthy state of homeostasis and instead causes detrimental consequences,” Hilton writes. “Pornography causes harm when it impairs or destroys a person’s capacity to develop emotional intimacy.”

He describes an unbearable tension that builds up in a person’s brain if not allowed to participate in the behavior.

“Addiction occurs when this natural drive for pleasure gets out of balance, and instead of simply motivating us, it dominates and controls,” he said.

“Once we understand how the brain changes with addiction, it shouldn’t be surprising that we can become addicted not only to substances but also to behaviors,” Hilton writes.

The couple has run their nonprofit for seven years and have 400 people from Alaska to Arizona attending weekly meetings they’ve set up.

“We have not seen good, long-term recovery without a working 12-step program with a sponsor and commitment to working the 12 steps,” Rhyll said about those with the addiction. But she said the person with the addiction isn’t the only one who needs to focus on recovery. 

“Recovery from sexual betrayal is very, very difficult in a marriage,” she said. “Marriage recovery means recovery of a family. ... We can’t recover families if we are in hiding or in shame.”

Steven said clergy often tell pornography addicts to pray more, sing a hymn, read the scriptures more and have better time management. 

“We need to have a much higher understanding of what is porn addiction and what is necessary to stop behavior,” Steven said.

Reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this story.

You may reach reporter JaNae Francis at 801-625-4228. Follow her on Twitter at @JaNaeFrancisSE or like her on Facebook.  

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