Friday, August 26, 2016

Pornography: My Personal Story; A Plea to Change the Conversation

I was exposed to pornography for the first time when I was a young teenager. 

It was minor, in comparison to what it could have been, but it is important to understand what happened and what I have learned from it.

I am sharing more details in this post than I have shared with anyone previously, since all of the people involved back then have passed away - and because I want my children and their children to understand why I despise three things regarding pornography: the industry itself, what it produces, and, just as importantly, how badly we have messed up our conversations regarding it within our religious culture. 

Of these three things, I am focusing most in this post on the final one: the way we converse about and deal with it in our culture. This post is an attempt to explain why, without writing the novel that would be required to address all three. It is not an attempt to be comprehensive, as I am not dedicating weeks to the task of writing this post. 

With that introductory explanation: 

My first "real job" (not delivering newspapers or doing manual labor tasks for a few dollars) was at an elementary school in the neighboring town helping the custodian over the summer. My father, a custodian at another elementary school in that town, arranged for me to get the job. For someone raised in poverty, it was a blessing.

The custodian with whom I worked was an extremely good man - a Stake President with a family he loved dearly and a rock solid, genuine testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He also was a regular consumer of pornography. It wasn't visual, as far as I knew, although it might have included magazines and/or movies of which I could not have been aware. 

My first exposure occurred one day when I was ready for my break, went into his office to clock out for that break, and saw a partially covered book on his desk. I liked stock western books, especially Louis L'Amour (even though I knew they were formulaic brain candy), but I didn't know the author of the book I saw. It obviously was a western, so I picked it up and started reading it. It took only a few pages to realize it wasn't like L'Amour's books, and my curiosity (and hormones, I am sure in retrospect) got the better of me and propelled me to keep reading - that book and the others he brought to work throughout the summer. 

That custodian really was a good man, and I am convinced he would have been mortified if he had known I was reading those books - that he had been my introduction to pornography. Looking back, I am sure he was ashamed of his habit, and especially the hypocrisy of his actions and what he had to preach in his church calling. 

It has been roughly 35 years since I picked up that book, but, occasionally, when I am not thinking actively of other things, one memorable scene from the book will flash across my mind - and I will wonder, once again, at the ability of pornography to embed itself into our neurons and refuse to be deleted. Since then, I have been exposed to pornography at various times (to differing degrees, through multiple media sources), and, with me, the same issue exists across the spectrum: my physiological tendency to have images appear unbidden that I would prefer remain unseen or, ideally, deleted. 

From decades of experience, education, conversation, and introspection, I have come to a few conclusions that I feel the need to share now regarding our treatment of this issue within our religious dialogue. I will start with a few comments about our warped cultural view of all things sexual and end with a summary comment about the nature of the porn industry and its impact on society. I hope nobody reads this post as a defense of pornography or the industry that produces it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1) Nudity is not pornographic by nature, and we fail miserably when we make that overly-simplistic and damaging connection. There is nothing - absolutely nothing - pornographic or shameful in nudity in and of itself, even in nudity that is depicted through the written word or visually. Conflating the two causes deep, destructive, nearly innumerable issues. We need to stop doing so. Full stop.

2) Repeat the last paragraph, inserting "sex" and "sexual activity" for "nudity". (Seriously, re-read the paragraph that way, please, before continuing.) Even visual images of fully nude sexual activity are not automatically pornographic. It is critical to understand that fundamental concept in order to deal with true pornography in a constructive way and stop perpetuating incorrect and debilitating misunderstanding among us.

3) One of the reasons I have not shared my own experiences more often and in greater detail is the culture of shame in which I was raised. When I realized as a teenager that I was acting, in practical terms, like an addict (creating isolation in order to read the books, hiding my actions from everyone else, acting on a compulsion, etc.), shame was the primary reason I kept it a secret - and that shame robbed me of the only chance I had to get the support and help I needed to stop reading them. I questioned my morality, my self-control, my righteousness, my very nature - specifically because what I was doing was described as an ultimate evil - not the natural curiosity and hormonal reaction it actually was. 

4) We need to stop demonizing people who are struggling with occasional (or even regular) engagement with pornography.We can demonize the industry and what it produces, and rightly so, without condemning those who are exposed to it and even engage with it. Simply allowing them to admit engagement, especially early in the process, without any form of discipline or punishment, would go a long way toward eliminating the binding shame that too often accompanies even simple exposure. 

(I need to add a specific note at this point: I am not talking here about users who then act on what they see with people in their lives. I also am not talking about all categories of pornography. There is a proper place for formal discipline and punishment relative to the use of pornography, but we tend to make that place far too broad and inclusive than it should be.)

5) We need to focus on the practical reasons why pornography is so evil as much as the spiritual dangers - and we need to discuss those reasons openly and without shame. We need to be open about how natural it is to be stimulated by nudity, sex, and pornography - and the differences between them. We need to stress that sexual arousal is not a sin. To emphasize that point, we need to stress that sexual arousal is not a sin. We need to incorporate real sex education into our practices, at the very least by supporting it in our schools. Just like educating people about the practical and physical health dangers of smoking and drinking is more effective for many people than focusing on addiction as a spiritual loss of agency, educating people about the evils of the pornography industry itself can provide a powerful motivation to discuss usage openly and constructively - as long as we balance such discussions with a rejection of the personal shaming that has been such a core part of our culture for so long. 

I no longer am ashamed of my reading that summer, since I now understand much better the physiological foundation of why I continued to read those books, but I reflect on my experiences throughout my life and wish someone had talked and would talk now more openly and scientifically about pornography and its allure - and also about the damage it does in practical terms, not just in spiritual terms. I wish the dialogue surrounding pornography had not been so extreme and condemning of the people who read (and viewed) pornographic materials, even as I believe the industry itself is one of the best examples in our world of the evil that exists in the hearts of conspiring humans. It dehumanizes people, both men and women; it degrades people, both men and women; it drives much of the sex slave industry that is vile and depraved to an extent that is beyond my ability to express. 

Ironically, the way we approach pornography actually inhibits our ability to fight the industry that produces it, since that approach drives its use among us underground - which deepens the debilitating shame (and fear of punishment and communal rejection) that keeps it underground - which silences productive discussions about it - which aids and abets its continued production and use. 

Compassion and real charity toward people is the key. We simply have to separate in our rhetoric and in our hearts the consumer from the producer, particularly the good people who are so different from the evil people who are striving to enslave them.  We need a loving understanding of that Stake President so many years ago who unwittingly introduced me to pornography, not a culture of judgmentalism, punishment, shame, and scorn. 

Currently, we are adding chains to their lives, instead of helping to free them. Shame on us. 

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