Sex addiction is a pervasive concept in contemporary American culture. Is it possible that its influence grew due to the importance that Christianity gives it?
Let me be clear: I don’t know if it’s even possible to prove that religion “causes” sex addiction. But can we demonstrate some correlations? Yes. In fact, researchers already have.
Dr. David Ley has here a round-up of peer-reviewed research exploring the connections between religion and sex addiction. Among the findings (which are direct quotes drawn from his blog post) include:
- [R]eligious people with lower self-esteem are more likely to experience difficulties with porn use, and to have these struggles contribute to greater feelings of anger in general, and anger towards God. When religious people use more porn, their anger towards God, and their general irritability, both increase.
- Atheists and people with lower religious beliefs were much less likely to report problems with their own porn use, or to describe themselves as “porn addicts.” In these results, it was belief in God, not just participation in church, which was most predictive of a person feeling addicted to porn.
- People with higher levels of conflict between their values and behaviors were more likely to have depressed sexual self-esteem. People with high levels of sexual behaviors, including porn use, who feel their sexual values and behaviors are congruent, experience no significant moral or psychological conflict.
- More religious people actually view pornography as a more significant social issue, compared to gun violence or racism.
In other words, sexual activities such as watching porn are not inherently negative or unhealthy; rather, people tend to perceive them that way when primed with religious thoughts and values, or when the people in question already identify as religious. In the final bullet point, we see an example of rape culture at work, where people obscure actual power imbalances that are harmful in favor of making a fuss over less damaging – but more morally incendiary – topics.
The narratives and metaphors that coagulate around sex addiction, porn use, and sexuality in general matter. Religion is a key player here, and one that we must work to better understand. Fortunately, researchers are turning to this topic, and bloggers like Dr. Ley and myself are trying to make the findings more accessible to the general public.
It just so happens that the “sex addiction” metaphor is a particularly powerful and resonant metaphor. Its speaks to our pain, our anxieties, our shame, a particular brand of deeply-engrained sex negativity, and our fear of sexuality as a force terrible and potentially destructive in its sublime majesty. We need better stories. We need better metaphors.
The metaphor of sex addiction resonates because it has a powerful grip on our imagination. This is what stories do; I know this as a folklorist. Religion adds to those stories, and secular culture – especially sex-positive secular culture – can add a counter-narrative. As a feminist, I’m leery of the sexism, heterosexism, and sex negativity I see in most religions, so I’m all about challenging the narratives that come out of established religious traditions.
I’m in complete agreement with Dr. Ley when he writes:
People ARE struggling with porn use. There’s no denying that. What is critical however, is that we begin to help people understand why they are struggling, and to unpack the complex moral, religious, developmental and individual reasons for their struggle.
No one’s trying to minimize the experiences (painful or otherwise) of people who are grappling with sexual materials or behaviors. But we need to keep studying this phenomenon to understand it. And I’m curious to see what we discover next!