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Pornography and Sex Addiction

I don’t want to belittle what comes between committed partners in their relationships. I’ve watched enough couples lose trust and fall apart; I’ve seen enough of them stay together, too, to know that there is no guarantee how any strife will end. Nevertheless, even allowing for Jimmy Carter (neé Jesus) adultery, I find it difficult to call the watching of pornography a sex addiction: it seems to me that doing so diminishes the power of both sex and addiction.

Porn-is-sex advocates call porn sex because, they say, the compulsive ways in which porn is viewed disrupts true intimacy. The Sexual Recovery Institute, for example, explains that fear is to blame:

Sexual addiction is not necessarily defined by having sex with another partner, some sexual addicts are too afraid of getting caught, getting a disease or being rejected to seek out partners for their acting-out. Instead, those involved in compulsive masturbation or compulsive viewing of pornography may lead lonely, disconnected lives, never really understanding what it is that keeps them from real intimacy and connection with those around them.

It’s a neat definition: presumably, were porn-lookers and “compulsive masturbators” less afraid, they’d all be enjoying quickies behind the 7-Eleven, but fear drives them to porn and self-stimulation until they become detached from the world and confused about their own relation to sex. It’s a neat story, but it doesn’t actually identify a problem with pornography. It instead identifies a problem with people who watch pornography—perhaps understandable, given that the goal is predestined to identify those characters as addicted. It locates the problem of pornography in the person of the viewer but finds the fact that sex is the subject of the viewing to be cause of, rather than incidental to the problem.

Several weeks ago the theme on This American Life was the 10 Commandments. The act on adultery (beginning at 31:40) is narrated by David Dickerson, who grew up an evangelical Christian, afraid to death of lust (Dickerson, on reading for TAL). While he was in college, his fear consumed him:

At 22 I started finding myself walking, slowly on campus, or in supermarkets or the library, hoping to see another accidental glimpse of something. It took more and more of my time. My grades started to suffer. I was like a stalker, but a shy one with incredibly low standards.

Then, after a couple of unbearable months of this, I begged my pastor for help. He suggested Sex Addicts Anonymous.

At my first meeting, we all told our stories. There was a guy who’d spent thousands of dollars on prostitutes in a single, long weekend. There was a woman who’d slept with a different guy almost every night for years. There was a huge tattooed biker who was so ashamed to be there that a friend led him in blindfolded. And then there was me, a 22-year-old virgin. When I told my story, there was an awkward silence. Even here, nobody understood my problem.

The difference between a sex addict and a porn junkie is the same as that between sex addict and David Dickerson: sex addicts abuse sex itself. Whatever pushes them to be dissatisfied with the most intimate of moments, always the dissatisfaction is in relation to an other, their partner(s). It is a dissatisfaction with experience itself, and as such, it victimizes all involved. In contrast, watching pornography is first and foremost an act of voyeurism. Sex (usually autoerotic) while watching pornography is always secondary to pornography’s textuality. Pornography, argues A White Bear, is foremost a rhetorical appeal, which means that

pornography can be thrilling because it insists there is no wall between the represented experience and the experience of the reader/viewer/listener, only a thin membrane.

But this is also why pornography presents a moral problem. By luring the reader into an illusion of an unmediated experience possible through the text, it creates a situation in which the artificiality of the pornographic experience (whether sexual or not) becomes a part of the viewer/reader/listener’s memories of experiences, not with texts, but with the world.

The claim of pornography, in other words, is that there is no distinction between text and self, between story and experience. To abuse pornography is to place a constructed narrative between one’s self and one’s experience as if it were experience itself. (Not coincidentally, doubts about whether sex addiction itself exists and is even classifiable turn on the distinction between experience and substance.) In that light, I’m not surprised at all that my friend might have become so ensconced in pornography that his marriage suffered. In high school he was not much more prone to becoming immersed in narrative than I—he played Doom; he adored Rush Limbaugh’s spirit of being besieged. But he was always reticent to push himself out. I can imagine what their lives must have been like the past ten years: fits and starts, a dream dreamed, then put aside by the need to raise the kids. He, while gentle, had never been particularly intimate and could be a little malicious, retreated; she, while loving and devoted, had always been quick to scold and admonish according to a standard high on expectation and short on grace, grew frustrated. Something, perhaps indeed fear, kept them both from becoming. Pornography’s appeal to vicarious experience drew him in.

As bad as it might become in a marriage, a porn habit’s not a sex addiction; it’s very nearly the opposite. Seeking solace in sex is seeking solace in connection, even though that connection might not be immediate. Seeking solace in pornography is seeking solace in isolation.

This post was originally published with the following introduction. Imagine my surprise to learn, during an idle Google search, that an old friend was recently part of a “sex addiction” panel! At a church! It was enough to send my imagination searching: had his appetites been so ravenous as to embarrass his spouse’s modesty? Had he been soliciting prostitutes on the streets at night? Driving to the city to hook up with strangers at bars? No, I reasoned, none of those were likely. He had never been very forward, not with women especially; it must be porn. A few minutes and a few searches later: Bingo! The Internet tells all. His wife was either on the panel too or on a different, concurrent one, and someone who was there reported: she had called him a sex addict and said that the porn he watched almost ruined their marriage. (According to one report, his wife said she “is married to a sex addict…. An addiction to pornography almost ruined her marriage. She felt so ostracized by her husband and she just could (sic) understand it. She also felt distrust because he never brought up his struggle with her when it is something they should have been working on together.”)

 

Comments

Ugh. So consider this something of a thesis with a few supporting points but too little argument to connect. Any points of clarification or arguments for or against (assuming there’s something to argue with) are welcome…

Maybe the real point here is a question: what’s with all this talk of sex addiction in churches? Is it an attempt to redefine desire as something pathological and therefore treatable?

It’s kind of a disturbing trend.

I’m reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality right now, and his basic argument so far is that in the last three centuries there has been a sudden proliferation of discourse about sex, which goes hand in glove with an effort to surveil and direct sexuality by Church, State, and society.

This has been my read on the proliferation of sex talk in conservative churches since I really began to notice it whilst at HU. It’s largely about control, I think.

This is really well written, greg. I’ve been interested in the recent surge of interest in sex within the church (especially conservative churches) and can only imagine that JH is quite correct when he mentions the issue of control. All of my book boxes are packed, so I don’t have access to reference materials, but I remember reading about the history of the church’s first foray into all things sexual in the Synod of Elvira (ca. early 4th century) whereby the shifting status of the church as an alternate city or prophetic sect into the state religion required a new emphasis for group identity. This led to a new group of rules/punishments for various sexual behaviors. When Constantine takes over and makes Christianity the religion of Rome, Christians become known for their stance on sexuality instead of the earlier emphasis on bringing about the “kingdom” through unique sharing communities.

A surge in the church’s interest to control sexuality indicates a sea change in the state of the church. If we’ve seen this happen in the past, what does this say about the church today?

It’s a convenient distraction in my estimation.

HoS is not one I’ve read, though I own it. I buy the notion of control, and I’m sure there’s some justification for why sexuality must be brought under thumb. But of course those great historical narratives don’t help so much in defining the course of any particular person’s life, or why any group chooses to join in any particular justification. (That’s always what’s frustrated me about F, how damn huge it all is. Ever try to read The Order of Things? Gah!)

So say that conservative churches are again being confronted with a the fact that it’s really hard to censor desire, to enforce some kind of moral code on their members. Why, though, would they embrace the twelve-step pathology rather than, say, feminism, which might try to insist upon equality and self-respect?

4 to 2.

Krister, was that a quid pro quo identity crisis? As in, Romans primarily saw Christians as prudes, such that prudishness became a Christian identity (insofar as identity was defined by other). Christians then adopted that identity because it helped to bolster their own power?

That would be my primary beef with F’s work: it’s a whole hell of a lot of grand, sweeping statements. I’m pretty sure he’s got good documentation for most of it, but I would like to see it every now and then.

The twelve-step pathology is inherently theocentric, and feminism is evil, of course. So that decision would be a no-brainer for most conservative churches, I should think.

Don’t think, by the way, that it doesn’t disturb me that it appears my friend was on the forum in a show of public confession/excoriation, especially given his wife’s accusations. Not being in the south anymore or for that matter a minister involved in keeping up with pastoral trends, is such confessional theater popular? Is it a new manifestation of the theatrical “coming forward” for the invitation? What’s the justification, anyway? (I can come up with a few arguments both for and against, but I wonder whether mine would be the same…)

This sort of thing has been around for decades in vanilla fundamentalist churches, particularly those that exert a large amount of conformity and surveilance on their members. There was one church in my hometown that was infamous for this. They focused on young people, particularly. It’s happening in the CoC now to the same degree that the CoC is continuing its slow slide into generic American Jesus land.

The confession stuff reminds me of something in Dostoevsy’s The Devils, where one character leads around a secret group of radicals by the nose, and eventually has them murder someone for the purposes of binding them together into a permanent, obedient whole. The idea is to have everyone completely naked in front of everyone else.

Seeing sin through the lens of therapeutic language is easier (mainly because “recovery” is possible) than confronting the systems behind the pathology because it keeps everything within the realm of the individual as opposed to the systemic. Conservative churches preach a “Jesus is in my heart” and a “I need to get right with Jesus” message that is more manageable than trying to change structures (in so doing they threaten themselves as well).

No, unfortunately, though I have little documentation for my claim, F’s power lies in his rhetoric and the appeal of his paranoia than in his documentation.

Plus, he’s constantly apotheosizes France and French history, and overextends this to the rest of the West…. but that’s Foucault… he is maddening because a lot of his claims have an aura of truth, and it’s not that they don’t possess a kernel, but at the end of the day there is the problem of scale and method (or documentation) that trips him up

RE:8

It is more and more popular in Evangelical settings, especially with this sort of thing.

RE:6

Come on! Do you really think Feminism is going to be the way it is addressed by most fundamentalist groups?

RE: Intimacy

One thing that allows the connection to be made, beyond the fact that both involve sex acts, voyeuristic or otherwise, is that both are claimed to be, at heart, a problem of intimacy.

Which leads points to a problem with therapeutic language… not all sex addicts or porn addicts are drawn to their addictions because of intimacy issues.

RE: Current Day Focus

It seems to be, along with the fact that it has to do with naked people and lust, a question of compulsive behaviors and the thought that the Christian Life, at its heart, is about self-control. And, though certainly there is a strong moral vein (and that’s putting it lightly) in the NT, the heightened interest in porn “could be” an instance of turning away from the world by turning inward. That is, it makes “the battle ground” personal rather than communal.

Contradicting that, today there seem to be that many more venues for addiction or compulsive behaviors and a proliferation of these types of behaviors… an interest in this seems to be an instance where the symptom gets cured but the illness goes unacknowledged—if indeed attraction to prurient things is higher today than before, etc.

re:3

what is the sea-change? as in, what was the church before this interest in sexuality and what is it now?

and, slightly different…

can we say that to the extent that the moral code of the NT is related, possibly strangely, to ascetic, celibate, apocalyptic communities, todays moral code, which claims the NT as its source, is actually quite different, since today’s emphasis on morality is for the protection of the nuclear family (and with it the literal propagation of the church and the perpetuation of the state)?

oh, yeah, and if i haven’t already said this…

porn in the cross-hairs is a much easier target than other aspects of cultural assimilation—religion and jingoism, materialism, etc.

I think that’s right on the sex/intimacy connection as well as the compulsion. (I saw my own slippage there while writing, but thought I’d put this out anyway to and correct later.) I’m not saying that to call porn an addiction—or sex an addiction, for that matter—isn’t a compelling argument. Addiction is compulsion, and the more we know about brain chemistry and desire, the more we can ascribe to compulsive behavior the name addiction. I think this is more a reason to revise our understanding of what addiction has meant and continues to mean, which I suppose is exactly what’s happening: the definition is being broadened. The broadening suggests to me an impoverishment of the language, though. We don’t really have the words to define compulsion with as much nuance as we need. For example, shouldn’t there be some term to name a great natural desire (would lust or ardor really suffice?) that is acted upon in extranaturally, or to excess (_orgiastic_)? Likewise, is addiction nuanced enough to encompass all of the ways that a foreign substance acts upon the brain (heroin and cocaine do very different things, for example)? To attribute it all to addiction is to do what Krister summarizes well in 10: 1) invoke the language of clinical treatment at the expense of other metaphors (perhaps that’s good for grant money, but what is lost?); 2) “keeps everything within the realm of the individual as opposed to the systemic.” (Moreover, in the confessional scene, there’s a nod to a community-based approach, but I’m skeptical that it’s really communitarian….)

Oh yeah, BG, your summary sounds to me right: the early church’s switch was from the apocalyptic, separatist, otherly political to—well, something else, but especially away from the apocalyptic…

Perhaps this is a pendulum swing. In emails from the editor of the Christian Chronicle, it became apparent that sex abuse stories are coming out from all over “the brotherhood,” to an extent that the CC felt the need to cover them. Sex abuse meaning much more than porn: ministers touching teens, etc.

Not that this contributes much to the conversation, but I wonder…

My own take, in emails to the editor, was that so much of our “preparation” for ministry at places like Harding (where more than a few of the accused attended) focused on ministry as technique. Spiritual formation was never really talked about…

It’s been more than a couple of years since I read the CC; I didn’t realize they’d been making a series of it. Are you talking about personal correspondence, GKB?

Yes. I am on a “list” that Bobby Ross sends around every few weeks or so, looking for feedback on articles and such. Personally, the sexual abuse of a youth group member by the preaching minister in one of the churches mentioned struck close to home, as it was the church my roommate attended growing up. That sort of made my ears perk up at any mention of a CoC and a sex scandal. Someone else related that there tends to be a cycle, something like 20 years, where batches of these stories come to light. Depressing.

I see…

That is almost another discussion…

but, the fact that “ministry” schools don’t deal with this well is curious. at the same time, is it does it really fall under “spiritual formation”?

sure, in a way it does, but what/how would such a course work? thinking specifically in minister/sex scandals?

relatedly, i’m sure in a way there is the feeling that it’s like a “dark art,” to coop HP into the discussion.

and, as far as i remember, and this is no slight of present ministry majors that read this… if i could create a profile of the harding ministry major, it’s that of an amazingly horny guy, much more so than all the other sexually frustrated post-teens that roam harding campus.

that, though is just salacious slander…

That it’s another discussion is pretty much why I thought to leave it alone. Given scant evidence otherwise, I find it hard to believe that any particular publication’s interest with sex to be significantly separate from broader, middle-class cultural fears about sexual predation. Which is to say, I’m skeptical that sexual abuse in any particular faith is happening in greater numbers at this moment in time than it happened ten or fifteen years ago. As I see it, an inability to separate pornography (again, voyeurism, which is also founded on objectification) from sexual abuse scandals (abuses of power via sex) is actually part of the problem that creates the “trend.”

going back to the whole narrative thing… one reason why it seems that the porn=sex addiction=intimacy issues is so popular because it is a story that works for numerous people. granted, sex-addict groups have largely adopted the AA narrative and rhetoric, but they have done so because it works. though johns and compulsive onanists may not “be” the same thing, to the extent that the narrative works and helps people understand their situation, or at least gives them a plot-line they can follow out of the woods of compulsion to something more healthy, the narrative will continue to be the operating one.

re: the impoverishment of the language, these sorts of “addictions,” though employing different chemical pathways, are like other compulsive behaviors classified as addictions… gambling, gaming, etc. and, can be quite destructive behaviors…

which, because of their potential to become consuming, their potential to escalate (a central thread of the porn=sex addiction narrative, is that porn is the gateway hook to other, more dangerous behaviors), and their potential to destroy the individual and the family (the latter to the extent that trust broken, etc., the former to the extent that they become consuming), i don’t necessa think that guarding against this is a bad thing.

now, public spectacles are another thing all together.

Following 21: (If it were happening in greater numbers, wouldn’t that kill the conservatives’ thesis that harsher punishment curbs crime?)

re:communitarian and public spectacle…

maybe this is too cynical, but it public performance of the penitent spouse in some settings can be little else but feeding the voyeurism.

re:23 one could also argue though that great access to the “gateway” drug, through ease of internet porn, has caused an upward trend in abuse… tendency to escalate, etc.

25: That’s exactly what is being argued. I also don’t dispute your sense of the relative ease of the AA narrative for “treatment”; however, I think Krister’s sense that treatment doesn’t really address systematic injustice is a keen point that shouldn’t be lost. Because along with the AA treatment is AA’s slippery slope, which I see as both nominally correct and woefully simplistic at the same time. “Gateway drugs” whether they’re actual drugs or metaphors for slot machines and B movies, 1) aren’t always gateways, 2) are often the opposite of gateways—indeed, are frequently destinations, and 3) for that reason are meaningful in themselves without arguing that they only point elsewhere.

re:systematic injustice…

didn’t you attend all those gender-specific talks… boys are made with lustful hearts, roman hands, russian fingers, and gypsy eyes…

it’s the way we are made brother; so God help you stay faithful to the little woman lest you burn!

Dude, I don’t know whether you noticed, but the blog’s motto? “Eschewing your gender since 2003.” Somebody around here has to live up to that, don’tcha know?

by the way, i should written stage directions for the last bit…

it should read:

(read in the voice of andre the giant doing the voice of the dread pirate roberts, as he goes up in flames before the gates of the castle of prince humperdink)

so God help you stay faithful to the little woman… lest you burn!

i couldn’t find a good picture of that scene so here is the man

andre!

re:gaming

Re:31 which brings up a whole other issue—the need to codify behaviors as diagnoses so that diagnostic codes can be applied to them and doctors can bill for them and drugs can be approved for them and insurance companies can fight about whether to cover them.

There’s a weird sort of parallel—many people believe that the world is horrible because of sex abuse and murder, not because, say, the government lied its way into a disastrous war.

I started typing this last night and then was interrupted, and now I can’t remember the other half of the parallel, but perhaps someone else will see it.