Cameron Staley is a clinical psychologist at Idaho State University. He completed his psychology residency at Brigham Young University’s Counseling and Psychological Services where he first learned Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as an effective treatment for unwanted pornography viewing. In an effort to make these principles more accessible, he developed an online self-directed program called Life After Pornography based on ACT concepts proven effective in research to reduce unwanted pornography viewing in adults. Cameron lives with his wonderful wife and four amazing children in Pocatello, Idaho where he has enjoyed serving in the primary, young mens, elders quorum, and as a ward mission leader. He has written several articles about the Book of Mormon for LDS Living. His unique perspective and love for the scriptures led him to write the previously untold story of the Lamanites in his debut novel, In the Hands of the Gadiantons. You can read his LDS Living articles, research on pornography, and review mental health resources on his blog.
I was in my first semester of graduate school, excited to begin my journey on becoming a clinical psychologist. The problem was, all of my peers seemed to know exactly what they wanted to research for the rest of their professional career. I, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue.
A few weeks passed and our deadline to decide on a research topic was looming. One Sunday afternoon, as I was sitting in church one of the speakers spoke about the evils of pornography and how “addicting” it was. Typically, I nod along as I too have moral concerns with the pornography industry. But for the first time I wondered, What does the research actually say about pornography? Is it in fact harmful to view? Does porn destroy relationships? Is it really addicting?
Is Pornography Really an Addiction?
As I began exploring the existing research, I was surprised how few experimental studies even existed about pornography. I could not find a single study that demonstrated that pornography was an “addiction”. So, I decided to do the research myself.
My mentor was a renowned sex researcher. Together, we designed a study where we invited participants into the lab who reported problems controlling their viewing of pornography. We monitored their brain activity as they viewed a variety of films including ones with sexual images to determine if their brain patterns resembled those who were addicted to drugs. I was confident we would be the first laboratory to find neurological evidence that pornography was an addiction.
I was wrong!
Emotions Play a Major Role in Viewing Pornography
Even though I was being trained to be open-minded, curious, suspend judgment, challenge my assumptions, investigate new ideas, make observations, and test my hypotheses before arriving at conclusions, I was still really surprised because the only message I had heard in my life was that “pornography is addicting” just like drugs. It turns out the brain patterns of our participants looked nothing like the brains of those who use drugs. We did find something really important though. Our participants who had greater difficulty with unwanted pornography reported more negative emotions like anxiety, disgust, and distress while viewing the sexual films than individuals who had less difficulty with pornography. We discovered that emotions played a major role!
After graduate school, I completed my yearlong psychology residency at Brigham Young University’s counseling center. I was surprised to learn that many of the psychologists at BYU did not classify unwanted pornography viewing as an addiction either. Instead, they had been offering a treatment approach known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for many years that has been found effective in treating “compulsive” behaviors.
The Impact of Compulsive Behavior
This is how compulsive behaviors work: we experience a negative emotion such as stress, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, or shame, then engage in a behavior to reduce the negative feeling by viewing pornography, or eating, shopping, gaming, etc., which helps us feel better temporarily, but then leads to more negative emotions, such as feelings of guilt or shame. In order to cope with these increased feelings, we return to the behavior that temporarily worked in the first place, but also caused the ongoing problem. We view more pornography, or shop, eat, game, etc., again and again and again. Viewing pornography helps you feel better temporarily because it stimulates physical pleasure which masks distress, but worse in the long run, because you feel ashamed of yourself for viewing porn.
Although this pattern can repeat for years, there is good news! Effective treatments for compulsive behaviors have been around for decades. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is a mindfulness-based treatment helpful in treating many disorders including, depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and anxiety. Importantly, ACT has already been found to be effective in treating other compulsive disorders such as OCD. If unwanted pornography viewing operated more like a compulsion than an addiction, it made sense that ACT would be effective, and it was!
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy -Why it Works
In 2016, researchers from Utah State University and McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School, published the first randomized clinical trial on ACT as a treatment for reducing unwanted pornography viewing. Their participants exhibited on average over 90% reduction in pornography viewing after 12 weeks. ACT is the only therapy with published research I have been able to find regarding its effectiveness in reducing pornography viewing. This is exciting news!
Over the last decade, I’ve published several research studies on pornography and worked with many individuals in counseling to help reduce their unwanted pornography viewing using mindfulness-based ACT principles. What I’ve learned over the years may surprise you. Often I find that individuals spend more time trying to overcome their “pornography addiction” than time spent actually viewing sexual images. For many, the battle to overcome “pornography addiction” has actually become the “addiction.”
Viewing Pornography is not an Addiction – It is a Symptom
Instead of focusing on pornography as an “addiction,” I have found it more helpful to think about unwanted pornography viewing as the “cough” or the symptom of an underlying “cold.” The “cold” is often stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, limited awareness of emotions, or shame. Fixating on getting rid of the “porn cough” doesn’t treat the cold. Pornography is simply a coping strategy many use for dealing with suffering. Address the cold and the coping strategy of “viewing porn” becomes obsolete and goes away.
The “pornography cough” is visible and annoying so we want to stop it. The best way to overcome a cough is not by trying to suppress it, but by treating the underlying “cold.” Once an individual receives care for depression, treatment for anxiety, addresses emotional needs, or establishes meaningful connections in their life, the “pornography cough” typically goes away.
Step 1 to Success – Become Aware
Over the last few years, researchers and clinicians have discovered common traits among individuals struggling with unwanted pornography viewing. First, individuals with compulsive sexual behaviors tend to score lower on levels of mindfulness which is the ability to be aware, present, and willing to experience thoughts, emotions, and urges, in a curious, nonjudgmental way.
Often individuals are unware that they are experiencing an emotion like loneliness, sadness, stress, despair, or boredom prior to experiencing an urge to view pornography. Overtime, viewing pornography becomes a primary coping strategy for addressing emotional distress. This pattern continues as individuals feel ashamed for what they are viewing and continue to have difficulty identifying and expressing the underlying emotions that maintain unwanted pornography viewing. Helping individuals identify what they may be struggling with in their life or what they have been feeling prior to experiencing an urge to view pornography is a helpful first step in overcoming unwanted pornography viewing.
Step 2 to Success – Focus Your Mind to the Positive
Second, we’ve learned that the way an individual interacts with their inner experiences (i.e., thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and sexual urges) can result in increased pornography viewing and distress. Specifically, individuals who attempt to avoid, escape, or otherwise control these unwanted inner experiences often struggle more with compulsive behaviors like unwanted pornography viewing.
When we try and not think about something like a “pink elephant” we are still thinking about, well, a “pink elephant.” Spending your time trying not to think about pornography, counting days since you last viewed, or trying not to notice sexual urges tends to amplify these experiences. Our minds cannot not think about something. I know that wording sounds strange but the principle holds true. Our minds cannot not think about something.
Instead, it is more helpful and productive to focus on things your mind can do. Attend to your emotions through mindfulness. Enhance your connections with others by sharing your experiences instead of reporting whether or not you have viewed sexual images. When appropriate, encouraging sacrament and temple attendance can be a powerful way to support an individual learning to better manage sexual urges. Devote your energy to meaningful pursuits in education, recreation, physical health, friendships, family, and faith. Living consistent with your values is building your legacy! We want to be known for the good things we have accomplished instead of the things we have tried to avoid.
Step 3 to Success – Address Underlying Emotional Concerns
Third, unwanted pornography viewing is more of an emotional concern than a sexual problem. Individuals with compulsive sexual behaviors experience higher rates of impulsivity, shame, interpersonal sensitivity, low self-esteem, loneliness, insecure attachment styles, emotional suppression, difficulty taking perspectives, self-contempt, self-hostility, and are lower on self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Most individuals begin viewing pornography when they are young as a primitive coping strategy for these underlying emotional difficulties. As individuals mature and develop, they continue to turn to pornography even though it is not effective at addressing these complex emotional experiences, but viewing pornography is one of the few coping strategies they have developed.
I have found it helpful to find a way to relate to the struggles others are going through to increase compassion and understanding. You may not struggle with unwanted pornography viewing but you may turn to food, scroll through social media, play video games, shop, or watch hours and hours of sports instead of addressing important underlying emotional concerns. Finding a way to relate and fostering connection is the antidote to unwanted pornography viewing.
Step 4 to Success – Identify Yourself in a Positive Light
Fourth, individuals who are religious are more likely to perceive themselves as “addicted” to pornography even when they are not viewing at higher rates than less religious individuals. Importantly, the perception of individuals who see themselves as “addicted” may lead to increased pornography viewing. Many of the individuals I counsel perceive they are “porn addicts” even though their behaviors are largely inconsistent with what we would consider “addictive” behavior.
I encourage individuals to identify themselves in ways that enable agency such as being a disciple of Christ or a child of God. Labels like “pornography addict” often erode our sense of self-worth and limit our ability to see our value and true potential. Religious individuals may be motivated to embrace the idea of pornography addiction specifically because it helps relieve a sense of moral responsibility for their pornography use which mitigates feelings of shame. However, this can also limit our capacity to take responsibility for our actions.
We may not be able to control whether or not we experience an emotion or a sexual urge, but we are able to choose how we respond to these inner experiences. Mortality provides us an incredible opportunity to learn the extent of our ability to make choices consistent with what we value most. Constructing your identity around an unhelpful coping strategy like unwanted pornography viewing may interfere with this process and mask our true identity as children of loving Heavenly Parents who are doing our best to learn and develop.
How you Can Make a Difference
In an effort to address the complexities of unwanted pornography viewing, I shared my research and counseling experiences in a recent TEDx talk, Changing the Narrative Around the Addiction Story. I hope what I shared will be helpful in fostering more open and understanding conversations around sexuality and with those who struggle with unwanted pornography viewing.
We all struggle with something in this life. Some deal with depression, some battle with anxiety, many have experienced abuse, and some struggle with compulsive behaviors around things like eating, pornography, or social media use. I believe all of us can make a difference in the lives of those who are struggling by being a little kinder, a little more understanding, and being open to offering our love and support. In the end, or should I say, in the beginning and throughout eternity, we are all brothers and sisters.
Let us support one another on this wonderfully challenging journey together!