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A Sociologist of Religion on Protestants, Porn, and the “Purity Industrial Complex”

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In his new book, “Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants,” Samuel L. Perry draws on interviews and survey data to show how the availability of Internet porn is affecting traditional, religious Christians. Focussing on America’s Protestant majority, and specifically its pious members, Perry finds that pornography is leading to depression and unhappiness, and it’s disrupting marriages and communities. His book is not an anti-pornography jeremiad; he’s a sociologist of religion, and his work raises questions about how conservative communities are dealing with easy access to material that they find sinful.

I recently spoke by phone with Perry, who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why porn use might be affecting conservative Protestants more than other conservative religious groups, the different ways that religious Americans think about masturbation within the context of marriage, and whether he has changed his views on pornography since starting his research.

How are you defining conservative Protestants?

I went back and forth on whether or not to call this group evangelicals, and I decided not to. For all intents and purposes, we’re talking primarily about evangelical Christians. My decision to avoid the term evangelical is because I don’t necessarily have the political connotations in mind that people think about when they think of white evangelicals, especially since 2016. The people who I’m really talking about are theologically conservative Protestants. People who take the Bible very seriously and take the Christian sexual ethic very seriously.

What was your biggest takeaway from the surveys you studied and your own interviews?

Pornography is becoming more widespread, more prevalent. More people are viewing it than ever, and it’s becoming more mainstream than ever. And so there’s this big debate about whether or not pornography has consequences in people’s lives: whether it can be addicting and whether it can affect us in negative ways; make you chronically impotent or make you a sex monster. What I found is that, whatever we think pornography is doing, those effects tend to be amplified when we’re talking about conservative Protestants. It seems to be uniquely harmful to conservative Protestants’ mental health, their sense of self, their own identities—certainly their intimate relationships—in ways that don’t tend to be as harmful for people who don’t have that kind of moral problem with it.

The effects of pornography aren’t just about watching images on a computer screen but what that activity means to your community. It’s what that activity means to you. And so, with conservative Protestants, you have this fascinating paradox of a group of people who hate pornography morally. They want to eradicate it from the world. And yet, statistically, they will view it slightly less often than your average American. And so you have this paradoxical situation of a group of people who collectively hate it, and yet, as individuals, they semi-regularly watch it. Especially the men. What are the consequences of that kind of incongruence in their lives?

What are the individual consequences, and what are the larger consequences for their communities?

Well, in terms of individual consequences, what we find is that, more often, there’s a connection between viewing pornography and experiencing depression. But we found it’s really only for men who are violating their own moral beliefs when they’re viewing it. In other words, it’s not necessarily that porn makes you depressed. It’s watching porn when you’ve already said that that’s an immoral thing and you don’t want to do it. That can lead to guilt and shame that makes you feel crappy about yourself, that you are immoral, that you’re violating something that’s deeply held and sacred.

And yet they watch it just a little bit less than everybody else does, which means that they are experiencing this kind of moral incongruence quite often, and it has consequences for their mental health. They have a greater likelihood of experiencing depression and depressive symptoms, like feeling bad about yourself, feeling like there’s a sadness that you can’t shake. This also has to do with the experience of feeling like you need to hide or lie about it.

Conservative Protestant women who view pornography experience this even more than men. Conservative Protestants tend to be what we would call “complementarian” in their views of gender—they believe that women have certain roles and that men have certain roles, and that they’re designed by God in different ways. And a corollary of this idea of complementarianism is that women and men believe that they have different sexual appetites, that men are more physical and more attracted to the visual. And so men and porn just kind of go together like hand in glove.

That’s not a good metaphor.

Yeah, sorry. But for women, if they are lusting over things visually—if they are looking at things like pornography and masturbating to them or getting turned on—they really feel like an extreme pervert. They experience what I would call a double shame. They are violating their own sexuality in a way that God doesn’t want. So they’re sinning, but they’re also sinning like a man. And so they feel trapped. They feel like there’s nobody they can talk to, because nobody else understands that experience. They don’t have pastors they can talk to, because most of the pastors are men, and they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing those kinds of experiences. And so a lot of the Christian women feel like you have to deal with that temptation alone.

What are some of the larger cultural consequences?

Let me give you one more example of the individual consequences. One of the things that repeatedly came up is that pornography tends to be associated with poor relationship quality.

So you mean people who view more porn are in worse relationships?

Yeah. But what causes what? Is it that people who are in bad relationships look at porn because they’re struggling? Or is it that people look at porn, and then their relationship goes bad, because of the porn? What I’m able to show is that a lot of that negative association between your porn use and your relationship quality hinges on whether or not you think it’s morally wrong. Or whether you think the Bible is the word of God. Or how often you attend church. And so there seems to be this powerful connection between doing something that you feel like is immoral, and that your spouse thinks is immoral, and getting into relational trouble.

I’ll give you an example of this. Conservative Protestant women are twice as likely to divorce their husband because of his pornography use. And it’s not because their husbands are looking at porn any more often than non-conservative Protestant husbands. It’s because they draw a hard line, and they consider pornography use not just analogous to but literally adultery, or a betrayal, or a perversion. And so the consequences of pornography use for their relationships are extreme compared to consequences for anybody else’s relationships.

In terms of the cultural consequences, an entire subculture has built up around preventing young men and women from accessing pornography. There are a large portion of what we would consider men’s Bible studies or men’s groups, where they get together and they talk in gender-specific terms about the things that they deal with as men. A lot of that is dedicated toward, “Hey, did you look at pornography this week?” Or, “Did you masturbate this week?” There is, in fact, a cottage industry of software companies selling and marketing what we would call accountability software to conservative Christians. If the software detects that you searched for something shady online, it will send an e-mail to your “accountability partners,” and you’re basically tagging your friends, who will get an e-mail that says, “Hey, Sam or Isaac looked at whatever pornographic Web site.” So, they could circle back with you and ask you about it. And that is something that people are paying money to put on their computers, to try to prevent themselves from viewing pornography. I call it the Purity Industrial Complex, of books and small groups and materials, and even software companies, who are basically rising to the challenge of trying to prevent Christians from looking at pornography.

Do a lot of these people view masturbation within marriage as adultery? Or is it just masturbation with the assistance of pornography?

For conservative Christians, pornography is all about violating this Biblical command to not look lustfully and to not have your heart set on something that is not supposed to be yours, in terms of God’s eye. Masturbation is something that’s a part of that, but it’s not necessarily inherently wicked, like pornography is. You can imagine some situations where it wouldn’t necessarily be a wicked thing to do. One example might be that a Christian man and his wife are struggling with infertility, and he has to go to a facility clinic, and he has to masturbate into a cup. He does so to pictures of his wife, and he’s not looking at porn, and he’s trying to make Christian babies, with his Christian wife. Nobody would say, “Hey, that was sinful masturbation.”

Or, you have a Christian soldier overseas who is deployed for two years, and there’s lots of pornography going around. His wife, knowing about this, says, “Hey, I don’t want you to struggle with that temptation, so here are some pictures of me that you can use, and you can masturbate to these, if you feel like you have the need. I’ll know about it.” He feels the freedom within that marriage to say, “I’m looking at pictures of my wife, not lusting over other women.” You have situations like that, where a lot of Christian authors say, “Hey, masturbation in that context is not such a bad thing.”

Why did you decide to write about conservative Protestants rather than all conservative religious people?

I think it’s a fascinating subculture. As a sociologist of religion, that really has been my group. Also, because they’re a large enough group, when I look at survey data, I can show how they’re different from everybody else.

How are they different from other conservative religious people?

Conservative Protestants are very concerned with where your heart is in your behavior. For them, lustful or sexual sin has more to do with what you’re thinking about while you’re doing it, rather than what your physical body is doing. Conservative Protestants have a very weak theology of the body. They tend to view the body as less important than other religious traditions. For example, in Catholicism, and Mormonism, and Judaism, and Islam, what you’re doing with your body matters. There are ideas of cleanliness in washing, and bodily comportment, and position, in ways that evangelical Christians just don’t really care about. They tend to be far more focussed on where your heart is—and that’s the word they use—what you’re thinking about, where your spirit is putting its allegiance.

Is there something that the survey data told you that the interviews didn’t, and vice versa?

With the survey data, I was able to see how consistent this was across the general population, which to me was confirmation that the things I was picking up in my interview data were not just my anecdotal experiences—or even my own biased looking for certain answers. The survey data completely supports the very same things that my interviews did, in terms of the shame, and isolation, and guilt, and mental health consequences or relational consequences that these people face as individuals.

I think the thing that the interviews allowed me see that the survey data could not was the individuals. Take the marriages, for example. You’ve got these marriages that are blowing up because of pornography. With the survey data, I’m able to see the severity of consequences over the general population, but I’m not able to hear the stories. So, what was so powerful to me was when Christian women would describe what it was like to discover their husband was looking at pornography: the anger that they felt, the betrayal that they described, and how they were processing it, how they called it adultery, and how they said it was betrayal. Or the husbands would describe getting caught and talk about how their wives didn’t talk to them for two weeks and threatened divorce. One of them came home to bags packed on the front porch.

Of the women who were watching porn, was it more that they themselves were feeling guilty, as you hinted at? Or was it that their husbands were also mad at them?

I had very few interviews where a Christian wife was looking at porn. In the heterosexual relationships in which I interviewed conservative Christians, it was almost always the man who was looking at porn. The Christian women who were looking at porn that I interviewed were primarily single college girls. I guess when women were married, the temptation to look at pornography was not quite the same.

But, I will say this: the statistic that I gave you about conservative Protestant women being twice as likely to divorce their husbands as non-conservative Protestant women—the reverse is not true. The data that I have shows that men almost never divorce their wives because they’re looking at pornography. It’s just not something that they draw a hard line about, or get offended by, the way women do.

You make very clear that this is not a pro- or anti-porn book. But has your opinion of pornography changed at all since you started this research?

I think what has been driven home to me by my book is that, whether people find it immoral or they don’t, whether their spouses think it’s fine or they think it’s betrayal, people need to talk about it. I’m not trying to say conservative Christians should just get with the program, and not be such prudes, and become O.K. with pornography, because for them that’s a complete non-starter. And yet, the way they’re handling a lot of it can be maladaptive in that there’s a lot of isolation, and a lot of hiding, and a lot of shame. My counsel to anybody who is thinking through this is that you should talk about it.

They should be open with their partners and spouses about, “Hey, here’s something that I’m kind of attracted to, what do you think about this? Can we talk about why you don’t like that in a way that’s healthy and constructive?” Rather than ultimatums, and blowing up, and drawing hard lines, that kind of thing.

This may be too Catholic, but George Orwell once wrote a review of Graham Greene’s novel “The Heart of the Matter,” and stated, of the main character, “If he really felt that adultery is a mortal sin, he would stop committing it. If he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken.”

Wow.

Does this idea relate in any way to something you’ve seen or to what you think will happen if porn is available for a longer period of time?

I think that’s definitely possible as people become more normalized to it. Just look at “Game of Thrones,” for example. I think, twenty years ago, that would probably get categorized as pornography. But I think what struck me in that quote, that I’m fascinated by, is the connection to how the Christians that I interviewed responded to repeatedly looking at pornography. And I showed this with statistical data as well. After looking at pornography for a long enough time, they started to back away from their faith a little bit. They were less likely to pray, less likely to attend church, less likely to feel like God is playing an important part in their lives.

And I think that is how we respond to cognitive dissonance. The classic theory is that, if we find ourselves engaging in behavior that we believe violates our values, we can do one of two things: we can stop the behavior or change our values. And oftentimes, when conservative Christians keep on struggling with this temptation in their lives, it’s just easier for them to say, “You know what? Maybe I don’t believe this so much. Maybe I could just keep doing this and not think the religious part of it is so important.” And so I would notice that the repeated violation of that sacred value led to them changing their beliefs a little bit to accommodate it.



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Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !