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A person's religious beliefs and attitudes toward pornography addiction are "uniquely intertwined" with the anxiety they experience from viewing explicit material, according to a new study by three Brigham Young University researchers.
The study, published in March by The Journal of Sex Research, relied on data from an online survey of 686 unmarried individuals who were asked how frequently they view pornography, their religious affiliation and the self-perceived social and relationship effects stemming from their porn use.
The results suggested that people experience relationship anxiety to the extent that they perceive themselves to be addicted to porn, BYU researchers Nathan Leonhardt, Brian Willoughby and Bonnie Young-Petersen wrote.
"This adds support to the idea that religious individuals either have a higher propensity for developing a pornography compulsion," the report states, "or simply misattribute their pornography use to be an addiction, due to the guilt and shame accompanying sexual expression."
Willoughby said the study did not look at whether pornography addiction exists, or whether viewing pornography damages relationships. Instead, he said, the BYU research team was focused on the distress people feel when discussing pornography and when disclosing their own adult material habits to a romantic partner.
"In our society in general, and particularly in religious cultures, there needs to be more openness around this topic to help people reduce some of their anxiety," Willoughby said. "Right now, a lot of our conversations around pornography are very black and white you either are a pornography addict or you're not."
Willoughby said his own research and that of his peers suggest a small correlation between pornography and negative relationship effects. And he estimates that roughly 15 percent of all pornography users experience daily, secretive, compulsive behavior that mirrors or could be perceived as addiction.
But while most people who view pornography do not experience compulsive behavior, Willoughby said, their personal attitudes toward sexual expression can lead them to label themselves as addicts.
"That perception of addiction tends to exaggerate any negative effect that would be there," Willoughby said. "People that come from religious cultures are more likely to have, obviously, more negative perceptions of pornography. They're much more likely to perceive any use as addictive."
The concept of pornography addiction is controversial, with proponents pointing to studies linking graphic content to decreased sexual satisfaction, while detractors emphasize the impact on self-perception of moral dissonance and limited sex education.
A study published last year in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that the perception of pornography addiction, but not the use of pornography itself, correlated with instances of psychological distress.
The BYU report included a related finding, focused on the impact of perceived pornography addiction on communication between romantic partners.
"A lack of such sexual communication can be problematic because dishonesty regarding pornography use may contribute more to relationship dissatisfaction than pornography use itself," the report states.
But Willoughby said it's a step too far to say his research suggests attitudes surrounding pornography are more harmful than pornography consumption.
He testified in 2016 in favor of a Utah law labeling pornography as a "public health crisis," and said that there are nuances to pornography consumption lost in the current social and religious dialogue surrounding sexual expression and sexual health.
"What I hope a bill like that does is get this issue out for public dialogue and discussion," Willoughby said. "It's not something as simple as banning all pornography or allowing all pornography. There's a lot of things in the middle that we need to understand."