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Describing the threshold for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said "I know it when I see it." Two panelists at this week's Sunstone Symposium worry that has also become the de facto standard for pornography both in the LDS Church and across America and it brings intense shame to those who wouldn't otherwise have a serious problem.
Infamous criminals from Ted Bundy to, most recently, Cleveland kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro, have blamed their crimes on the influence of pornography. Porn addiction, however, is not an official diagnosis in the DSM-V, and pornography may not be the root cause of porn-related psychological conditions (Castro, for instance, says he was molested as a child). Kimberly McKay and Jeremy Irvin say that inadvertently viewing a Victoria's Secret catalog does not trigger an automatic descent into unspeakable criminal activity.
"What does it mean to have a pornography addiction? Does that mean that you looked at it one time and you felt aroused?" asks McKay, a Widener University doctoral candidate. "Because there's no clear conversation, people can start self-diagnosing themselves and having an addiction that doesn't exist."
Or they may be diagnosed by others spouses or church members who are similarly unqualified, says Irvin, a Widener graduate student. That label, "addict," can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who view porn feel sullied, Irvin says, so it becomes a cycle of wearying guilt and stress releases through masturbation.
Both McKay, from Salt Lake City, and Irvin, from Fruitland, Idaho, grew up Mormon but no longer practice. McKay cites a 1997 quote from former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley that she feels illustrates the church's potentially harmful message about sexuality:
"You live in a world of terrible temptations. Pornography, with its sleazy filth, sweeps over the earth like a horrible, engulfing tide. It is poison. Do not watch it or read it. It will destroy you if you do."
McKay says that without setting any boundaries, those words ensure that people will feel as "destroyed" as their conscience is strong. "It's just 'This is wrong, you should avoid it,' instead of saying 'You're sexual beings. We all have natural desires, it's part of how we are made, and let's find a model for how to live a healthy life.'"
Both Irvin and McKay agree that pornography can lead to negative behaviors, and that some pornography is violent and hateful. But they wish treatment centers would seek healthy outlets for sexuality, rather than a 12-step approach favored by the LDS Church that advocates for suppression of urges. McKay likes a passage written by sexologist Marty Klein:
"At the end of competent sex therapy or psychotherapy treatment, the patient is a grown-up, able to make conscious sexual choices. Sex addiction treatment offers a patient the chance to be a recovering sex addict. Which would you rather be? "