Porn Causes Depression … But Only When People Believe It’s Sinful

Porn Causes Depression … But Only When People Believe It’s Sinful May 7, 2019

Now this is interesting.

In his new book, “Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants,” Samuel L. Perry draws on interviews and survey data to show how the availability of Internet porn is affecting traditional, religious Christians.

Perry, a sociologist of religion, finds that pornography causes depression—but only when those viewing it believe viewing it is wrong.

Well, in terms of individual consequences, what we find is that … there’s a connection between viewing pornography and experiencing depression. But we found it’s really only for men who are violating their own moral beliefs when they’re viewing it. In other words, it’s not necessarily that porn makes you depressed. It’s watching porn when you’ve already said that that’s an immoral thing and you don’t want to do it. That can lead to guilt and shame that makes you feel crappy about yourself, that you are immoral, that you’re violating something that’s deeply held and sacred.

Imagine that! It’s almost like it’s the guilt and the shame that are causing the problem, not the practice of watching pornography itself! Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy!

Where have I see this before … oh, right. Premarital sex. I have seen premarital sex fundamentally damage relationships, but only when the parties involved believed that having premarital sex was wrong. In other words, it’s the guilt and shame and violation of principles, not the premarital sex itself, that create the problem.

When you don’t believe premarital sex is wrong, having premarital sex isn’t going to cause guilt and shame. Similarly, if you don’t believe watching porn is wrong, watching it isn’t going to cause depression and unhappiness.

Perry goes on:

And yet they watch it just a little bit less than everybody else does, which means that they are experiencing this kind of moral incongruence quite often, and it has consequences for their mental health. They have a greater likelihood of experiencing depression and depressive symptoms, like feeling bad about yourself, feeling like there’s a sadness that you can’t shake. This also has to do with the experience of feeling like you need to hide or lie about it.

You don’t say.

Perry conducted interviews as well as surveys. He mentions situations where men arrived home to find their bags on their doorstep, because their wife discovered their porn habit.

There’s this fascinating stat about divorce:

Conservative Protestant women are twice as likely to divorce their husband because of his pornography use. And it’s not because their husbands are looking at porn any more often than non-conservative Protestant husbands. It’s because they draw a hard line, and they consider pornography use not just analogous to but literally adultery, or a betrayal, or a perversion. And so the consequences of pornography use for their relationships are extreme compared to consequences for anybody else’s relationships.

When I began dating my husband, I still considered myself an evangelical Christian. I was young, though, a newly minted adult, and I was still trying to figure out exactly what I did—and didn’t—believe. I remember the moment I came closest to breaking up with my now-husband. It was when I found out that he watched porn. I remember sitting there, in shock. I literally could not think of anything worse.

I’m not going to go into more detail about how we handled this, except to say that I did not break up with him, and that I eventually reached a point where I no longer saw watching porn as either wrong or a problem. For a time, though, porn caused tension in our relationship. It injected anxiety, suspicion, and guilt. This was one of the worst patches in our relationship. And you know what? After I changed my views on porn use, all of that went away. 

Not the porn use; the anxiety, suspicion, and guilt.

It’s bizarre, to me, to consider how close I came to breaking up with my now-husband over this. I’ve had friends come to me for advice, when dealing with relationship problems with their significant others, and I’m constantly amazed by how good I have it. My husband isn’t perfect—no one is!—but he’s pretty dang amazing, and he’s a wonderful father to our two children today. And to think, I almost threw all of that away.

Oh! And here’s something else Perry says:


But I think what struck me in that quote, that I’m fascinated by, is the connection to how the Christians that I interviewed responded to repeatedly looking at pornography. And I showed this with statistical data as well. After looking at pornography for a long enough time, they started to back away from their faith a little bit. They were less likely to pray, less likely to attend church, less likely to feel like God is playing an important part in their lives.

Fascinating. It’s almost like they realized that porn use only caused them a problem because of their religious guilt, not because it created an other problems in their lives. I’ve seen this happen with premarital sex, too. I know of a case where a couple had premarital sex even though they believed it was sin—that’s what they’d been taught—and over time, as their practice didn’t make anything bad happen, their beliefs shifted.

I wonder how prominent this phenomenon is. If you’re taught that a practice is sinful and harmful, and you do it anyway, one of two things will happen. There’s the first option, where you feel guilt and shame and anxiety, and see these consequences as a fulfillment of what you were taught—that the practice is wrong. In the second option, you feel guilt and shame and anxiety, but you also notice that the practice itself, outside of these feelings, isn’t causing any harm, and you conclude that maybe the practice isn’t wrong. Your beliefs shift.

Perry finishes with this:

I think what has been driven home to me by my book is that, whether people find it immoral or they don’t, whether their spouses think it’s fine or they think it’s betrayal, people need to talk about it. I’m not trying to say conservative Christians should just get with the program, and not be such prudes, and become O.K. with pornography, because for them that’s a complete non-starter. And yet the way they’re handling a lot of it can be maladaptive in that there’s a lot of isolation, and a lot of hiding, and a lot of shame. My counsel to anybody who is thinking through this is that you should talk about it.

I understand what he’s saying, but I’d like to point out that he also found that conservative Protestant women are twice as likely to divorce their husbands over porn as other women. And I’d like to mention, once again, that I came very close to breaking up with my now-husband when I learned, while we were dating, that he watched porn. Very close. Coin flip close. Just talk about it, in other words, can have some pretty severe consequences.

Earlier in the article, Perry noted something I’ve noted before—that evangelicals see porn use as being on the same level as adultery. Telling conservative Protestant meant to talk to their wives about their porn use is akin to telling them to confess to their wives that they’ve been cheating on them with other women. Yeah, that’ll go well.

So I’ll say it: Conservative Protestants would just get with the program. Their beliefs about pornography use are causing harm. Period and full stop.

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