For many years, Claudine Gallacher worked alongside Kristen Jenson, founder of Protect Young Minds. Claudine has spent many years encouraging parents to teach their young children what to do when they see pornography. As a writer and researcher, Claudine has interviewed many whose lives have been negatively impacted by pornography, including LDS teens and adults who were exposed to porn as kids. She would like to share what she has learned.
To help you understand what happens in the mind of a kid who is completely caught off guard by pornography, I’m going to tell you the story of a real boy I’ll call Ethan.
When Ethan was 7 years old, he went with his parents to the home of family friends. At one point, two older boys told him they wanted to show him something in the garage. When the door was shut behind them, the boys showed him hard-core pornography.
To say that Ethan was shocked is an understatement. He knew nothing about human intimacy—let alone what was in front of him. He was traumatized, confused, ashamed, scared, and felt incredibly alone. It never crossed his mind to tell his parents. But even if he had wanted to, he would have had no idea what to say. He certainly didn’t know the word pornography!
He “felt yucky inside with an immediate and overwhelming desire to see more,” leading him to feel something must be wrong with him. This is where the inner conflict started. Ethan went on to use pornography—sometimes compulsively—in ways that negatively impacted him. To this day, his parents don’t know.
What Ethan never heard from his parents or church leaders was that his reaction to pornography was normal. Feeling “yucky inside with an immediate and overwhelming desire to see more” is a natural response to seeing pornography. Feeling this way is not a sign that something was wrong with Ethan. In fact, most kids feel both positive and negative emotions when they see pornography.
But Ethan never heard his feelings were common. Instead, the only thing he was ever told about pornography was that it’s bad, repulsive, and wrong. Unable to distinguish pornography from how he felt about it, Ethan heard that he was bad, repulsive, and wrong. After all, pornography seemed to have a power over him, pulling him back no matter how he tried to get away. Ultimately, every “stay away from porn” talk at church reinforced his belief that something was wrong with him. He subconsciously thought, “Porn is bad, but I want to see more. I must be bad.”
In other words, Ethan felt shame. Shame isn’t the same as remorse. Remorse leads us to question behavior and utilize an experience to make better decisions in the future. Shame sees our behavior as connected to our worth. Where remorse is a temporary feeling that can move us towards positive action, shame often sticks with us and leads to despair. When shame takes hold of a person, emotional pain is a near constant companion.
Here is what shame can sound like:
- I don’t deserve to be loved/accepted.
- I don’t want people to know what I really feel because I would disappoint them.
- It’s too late for me.
- I’m a failure.
- I don’t belong.
- I’ll never be good enough.
- I’m bad.
- There is something wrong with me.
- God is disappointed in me.
Shame intensifies the desire to use porn because porn (at least temporarily) diverts attention away from emotional pain. The more shame a person feels, the more tempting pornography becomes. Therefore, talks at church that focus on “stay away from porn” messages may do more harm than good. Rather than deterring use of porn, these warnings can reinforce feelings of shame which increases pornography’s power.
You might think that if the typical talk at church reinforces shame, girls would be better off because leaders rarely talk to young women about pornography. However, the lack of talks for girls often creates even more shame because it reinforces an inaccurate belief that only boys are enticed by porn. Many LDS young women are using pornography and nearly all of them believe they are the only one. These girls think, “If any other girl was using pornography, leaders would be addressing young women.”
Both boys and girls need open, non-shaming discussions with leaders who understand their challenges and validate their feelings. Bishops could begin this process by reading Ethan’s story to youth, helping them better understand how pornography impacts kids. (Parents would benefit from hearing this story, too.) Most kids today, through no fault of their own, have been exposed to pornography before they leave Primary. And even if a curious kid typed a sexual word into a search engine, what came back at them was not what they expected. Acknowledging this would be a good start to reducing the shame young people feel.
Shame is not the only obstacle for youth who want to stop using pornography. Many bishops, though well-intended, regularly create goals for teens to eliminate this behavior. Unfortunately, the subconscious mind cannot process negative commands. Creating a goal NOT to do something is counterproductive.This is why asking someone not to think of a pink elephant backfires. Setting goals to “not look at porn” keeps the brain focused on pornography because youth must constantly remember what “not” to do!
If a young person is looking at porn, it’s important to talk to them about whether or not they are using it as a way to cope with uncomfortable feelings—like being bored, angry, stressed, lonely, tired, ashamed, or discouraged. Professional counseling can help adolescents learn alternative methods of coping with painful emotions.
A counselor can also help a teen recognize the feelings, thoughts, and environments that trigger pornography use. Once a youth understands their triggers, they may need assistance making a plan for what new action they will take when these triggers arise. What will they do when they have the desire to watch porn? How can they channel those uncomfortable feelings into a new action? Many find that goal-oriented exercise and/or getting around other people are positive actions to take.
3 Other Messages Youth Need to Hear From Parents and Leaders:
- We are sorry. Our generation has not done a very good job of preparing you to navigate today’s digital world and much of what we have said has led you to fear your sexuality—which is an integral part of who you are as a child of God. Sex is an awesome part of marriage, a powerful way for two people to bond; pornography is a poor substitute for real human intimacy.
- If you have been completely caught off guard by the strength of your sexual feelings as you entered puberty, you are NORMAL. For boys, testosterone increases as much as 5000%! Nearly all boys and many girls discover masturbation; it is a normal part of development. Part of growing up is figuring out how to cope with (sometimes strong) sexual feelings. In today’s world—where explicit imagery is everywhere—we understand this isn’t easy.
- Worth is NEVER determined by behavior. God is with you, rooting for you, and loving you in your imperfections. [Bishops: Consider using the word prepared rather than worthy when talking to youth. The word worthy (and its opposite unworthy) describes a person and can be easily construed as connected to that person’s value or worth. On the other hand, the word prepared describes a person’s readiness, a state of being. Youth who see themselves as unworthy are more likely to believe they are unlovable.]
If teens want to learn how to avoid turning to pornography as a means of coping with difficult feelings, they need to learn skills that allow them to enjoy close relationships. Johann Hari wisely said, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s human connection.” Pope John Paul II shared a similar idea when he claimed, “the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.” Human beings crave both respect and heart-to-heart connection. If leaders can teach youth how to give and receive pure love, they will be helping youth build the essential foundation to enjoying the god-given gift of sexuality.
Pornography is a poor substitute for accurate sex education. It’s also not a healthy long-term strategy for dealing with stress. It is my hope that parents and leaders will give youth straightforward information about human sexuality and guide them in healthy ways to cope with uncomfortable emotions. Simply telling young people what not to do isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to try a different approach.