A Conversation on Things of the Spirit, Pornography, and Certain Kinds of Movies, Books, and Magazines


The prevalence and widespread influence of questionable movies, books, and magazines are so forceful in contemporary society that the New Era decided to set up a discussion about things of the Spirit and the problem of pornography. Invited as the key conversationalist was Dr. Victor B. Cline, associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah and an active member of the Church. A year ago he made nationwide news in America when he appeared before congressional subcommittees in Washington, D.C., and attacked the report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. He is well known for his research into the effects on children of violence on television and in motion pictures. Participating in the conversation were Karen Call, Brent Ward, Debbie Roberts, Lief Sponbeck, Karl Haglund, and Alice Clark.

Q: You were a witness before members of subcommittees of the U.S. Congress who were dealing with the problem of pornography. What caused the congressional interest?

Dr. Cline: Congressmen became concerned because of the tremendous amount of mail that they were receiving from constituents—even more mail than on the war in Vietnam. The thing that incensed so many U.S. citizens was that they were receiving through the mail unwanted advertisements that were pornographic. Parents don’t want this mail to come into their homes, especially where mothers are working and the kids intercept the mail before the parents return home.

After reading the letters from disturbed citizens, many congressmen felt that receiving pornographic mail and advertisements was an invasion of privacy in the home—that is, if you don’t want pornography, you shouldn’t have to be in the position of getting it stopped. Hence, Congress established a commission to study the problem and to find out (1) who sells pornography and makes the money from it; (2) what are the legal complications of prohibiting it; (3) what are the known effects it has on people; (4) what are the needs of families and youth in properly under standing sex—is sex education outside the home the answer?

Q: Is it true that pornography in America can’t be stopped by reliance on the U.S. Constitution?

Dr. Cline: No, that’s not true. The U.S. Supreme Court has never held that pornography is protected by the First Amendment. Slander, conspiracy, false advertising, libel, and certain other kinds of speech are not protected by the First Amendment either.

Q: What do we know about the effects of pornography on people?

Dr. Cline: As we all know, the social sciences have a difficult problem proving anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. Human beings are just too complex and come in too many variations to allow easy conclusions to be drawn. For example, you remember the cigarette-lung cancer controversy. For years the tobacco industry said that even though there was a high statistical association between smoking and death due to lung cancer, there still wasn’t absolute proof that there was a direct causal linkage. We all know what time and studies have shown in that area.

Well, in areas such as pornography, it is much more difficult to obtain absolute, final, and conclusive evidence that pornography does indeed negatively influence and harm its readers or viewers. Our situation here is somewhat similar to the situation in the early days of the tobacco studies. For example, I have reviewed almost all of the published evidence, plus the private commission studies, and I can tell you clearly and simply that there are a number of studies that show high linkages, high statistical correlation indicating negative results from being exposed to pornography, especially among youth. Study after study shows this relationship, even though the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography didn’t report this data. But even though there are definite statistical linkages, you cannot prove absolutely that a particular person is going to be harmed or become sexually promiscuous or that the relationship is directly causal. This kind of thing is difficult to prove conclusively in the present state of our knowledge about pornography. But there is enough evidence to suggest that there ought to be cautions on the basis of the scientific evidence.

There is also the evidence and research of Albert Bandura of Stanford University. He has been working in the area of what we call social learning, imitative learning, and modeling, where he has repeatedly demonstrated that people are affected by what they see modeled before them. He has a lot of data on television and movie violence and its effects on children and adults, and these studies have a relationship, in my judgment, to the problem of pornography. There are just too many cases suggesting a negative result, even though we don’t have enough purely scientific knowledge yet to absolutely prove that pornography will harm a person. But if we believe that the scriptures can have an effect on a person when he reads them, if we believe that the educational system has an effect on a person, that it may change his life by his being exposed to it, it makes sense to me that repeated exposure to pornography can have an influence on the viewer. You don’t have to be told that.

Q: I suppose it would be especially difficult to determine the influence of the more subtle types of pornography.

Dr. Cline: Exactly. In fact, Kenneth Hardy, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, has argued that soft-core pornography is, in some ways, far more damaging and offensive than hard-core pornography. For example, he points out that many have seen the movie Dr. Zhivago, which glamorizes and rationalizes adultery. The film shows how Dr. Zhivago was unfaithful to his wife, and almost everyone who sees the movie—youth included—identifies with it in an emotional setting and receives the message that love transcends all, that infidelity can be justified and is ennobling. Nonsense!

Ironically, this isn’t the message of Pasternak in his book Dr. Zhivago. The overwhelming message of Dr. Zhivago is that no matter what is done to man or what happens to him, he will not give up his faith in God; that even though he is abused by others and he betrays his own honor, he is still a believer, and outside pressure cannot make him an unbeliever. But as is usually the case, Hollywood distorts or ignores the great idea and centers on the commercial and sensual.

Well, the sum of Dr. Hardy’s argument—and it is held by a number of others—is that things portrayed by such movies as Dr. Zhivago or some kinds of magazines, even though they are not hard-core pornography, in some ways are far more devastating in changing values and affecting behavior. Particularly does this seem true in the case of many movies that we might call marginal. These movies teach, with great power, attitudes and values that are antithetical to the gospel and the Judeo-Christian ethic and are frequently foreign to the moral standards of the community; but because the sentiment or value is relayed through exciting and glamorous settings and by attractive actors and actresses who quote highly contrived dialogue, these movies appeal widely, and undoubtedly have some effect on those who view them.

Q: As a Latter-day Saint father, what would you do if your son or daughter wanted to see a movie like The Graduate, Love Story, Romeo and Juliet, Dr. Zhivago, or Ryan’s Daughter?

Dr. Cline: Well, first of all I’d be delighted that he’d ask my opinion! In fact, I’d like to suggest something here. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you—all Latter-day Saint youth, for that matter—could respect and love your parents sufficiently to ask their thoughts about a film you might want to see, especially the more controversial movies, because of your awareness of the confusing values these movies might relate about life?

In this instance, as I said, I’d be delighted that he or she would ask, as would your parents be. Then I might say, “Let’s go together and see it; then we’ll talk about it afterwards.” It would provide a marvelous opportunity for us to talk and get our values straight. Certainly we wouldn’t want to see everything that comes out. After a while, I’d hope, he’d come to learn that the very advertisements themselves are often good clues as to the type of values the movie will relay. Then we could begin to learn how to discriminate and to discover other kinds of activities than the latest movies—activities that would hold more likelihood of being productive and worthwhile experiences.

Q: What would your thoughts be about the kinds of movies we see and the books we read—where should we draw the line?

Dr. Cline: All I can tell you are my personal feelings. Certainly it’s difficult to live in the world and to avoid knowing and seeing what’s going on. The problem is, of course, that many movies are worthwhile. They may be sheer entertainment or about a great historical person or about an event in human history, and yet they may contain several moments of inappropriate behavior.

If you’re a sound, active Latter-day Saint, certainly you should be able to keep things in balance and not have your mental and spiritual nature disturbed or affected by these influences. That’s the challenge! Simply being in the world presents these challenges to us. I don’t see, frankly, how we can avoid them. Even if you read only one of the ten best sellers in fiction, you may run into a problem, for nearly all of them contain a tremendous amount of anti-Christian values. A while back I checked the best-seller list. There was not one book listed that didn’t have quite a bit of immorality, violence, or antisocial behavior in it.

Does this mean we must stop reading books altogether? It is true, as Jesus said, that we are indeed living in a corrupt world, and we cannot totally screen out all of these kinds of things. We have to learn to live above them. The problem of how to derive truth and value from literature is another problem and another discussion, and many are the views and attitudes on that subject. But simply said, Jesus gave us the clue: Even though we live in the world, and will read and see and learn, still we are not to be of the world. We must evaluate why we are doing, seeing, or reading something—check our motives.

In addition, sometimes we need to evaluate our priorities. There are lots of things that we could do that might be interesting, even productive; but we might ask ourselves what we should do that would be of most value or best for us at that moment. Then when we see or read things such as we’ve discussed, we will have clearly determined within ourselves why (and there may be a variety of reasons), and we should attempt to relate their message to the gospel so that we’ll keep things in balance.

Q: Don’t some proponents of pornography, or at least some defenders of it, say that it influences only the unstable person, the person who is already insecure and having problems?

Dr. Cline: They like to say that, but it’s not true. Even the stable and mature person can eventually be affected by it. And this is an excellent point to make—that is, you do not necessarily have to have a personal problem in order to become negatively influenced. Everything we experience becomes part of us and influences us.

Brent Ward: For me, the Church makes all the difference in the world in this problem, because even though others can debate and try to rationalize themselves into thinking nothing is wrong or scientifically known about negative influences, the Church considers pornography an evil per se. In other words, we don’t need to prove that it results in deviant behavior. The gospel’s very philosophy suggests that it would be debasing and low and injurious to the development of a refined and spiritually sensitive person. In the Church we know intrinsically that pornography is evil. We can experience that effect of it personally. We sense a degrading of our spiritual sensitivity, for example, and become obsessed with vulgar and sordid thoughts. The gospel’s teachings are the key; through Church experience, exposure to our doctrine, experience with the Lord in prayer and personal testimony-building experiences, we have built into our system by the Holy Ghost an aversion to what pornography represents. To me, this is a wonderful thing.

Karl Haglund: Just about any guy in the Church knows what it’s like to walk into a dorm room in college or into a high school locker room or something like that and see a whole wall or locker just covered with pictures. Someone else may walk in and out and maybe not seem to be bothered by them, probably because he has put himself on the level of accepting and being a part of this type of situation. But when a Church member walks in and sees them, he walks out feeling shabby for maybe the next couple of hours, just remembering what he has seen.

Dr. Cline: The point is that you can’t go into a sewer and come out smelling like a rose. Most boys and a lot of girls will likely be exposed to some pornography and a great deal of violence. In fact, it seems that you cannot go to a movie—sometimes even G-rated movies (so-called “general,” or acceptable for all age groups)—without having some of this material presented to you. Also, let’s face it—you can hardly open a popular magazine without being exposed to some kind of sexually provocative material. We live in a world that is presently full of it, and Latter-day Saint youth need to learn to not let it overwhelm them. Certainly in some parts of the world, pornography is presented quite openly.

The one saving grace is that after a certain amount of exposure, a desensitization does set in, and there is some evidence to suggest that after awhile a normal person may be able to turn some of it off and thereby reduce its impact.

As I personally see it, the big problem with pornography is that it presents sex out of context. It presents sex in an untrue manner and creates an image that sex exists as an entity all by itself. This, of course, is not the way real life usually is. I do a lot of marriage counseling. I’ve seen people go into marriage on the basis of great physical attraction and hardly anything else. Such a marriage cannot survive. There has to be more. I’ve seen it happen many times; these marriages eventually break up.

Pornography is counterfeit sex. It’s sex without affection and tenderness and dedication; and most of all, for Latter-day Saints, pornography is without an understanding of the purpose of sex and how it relates to the eternal scheme of things. And that’s the great problem with some kinds of publications. Women are presented as things to be exploited and used rather than as people. Love is presented as a physical thing and nothing more. Movies legitimize adultery, infidelity, and immorality because “the physical attraction is so beautiful.” All they are doing is justifying irresponsibility, telling us that passion overwhelms and justifies all. Well, in my view this is an antisocial message, destructive and Satanic in impact. It degrades love, and it is destructive of human personality and male-female relationships.

Q: You said the commission conducted studies to see if there should be sex education outside the home.

Dr. Cline: Yes. The family has the primary responsibility for sex education. And the fact is that the mother, whether she likes it or not, is generally the key person in most homes to communicate this information, because she’s at home when the preschoolers and younger children are asking questions. What she should do is answer these questions honestly, but at the child’s level of understanding. By the time a person gets to be eleven, twelve, thirteen, I’d hope that parents would continue to be the source of information.

Some people want to have sex taught in the schools. The chief problem with this is that schools can’t teach values with sex education—and sex education without values would be most unfortunate, in my opinion.

Many Latter-day Saint youth around the world are being taught sex education in school. You are taught about conception, about abortion, about all kinds of things. But how can you talk about these things without letting values and ethics enter in?

Latter-day Saint youth should have been given the values and understandings that we have about sex—the importance of constraint, responsibility, and control before marriage, and the beauty and importance of sex in the setting of marriage.

In this kind of discussion, we need to make one point. The Church teaches us that sex is a great power that God has blessed his children with and that certain rules surround it. In the eternal scheme of things it is extremely important that you understand this and that you do not use sex outside the setting that our Heavenly Father has ordained for its use. Inside the marital setting, it is the means whereby we bring precious spirits and personalities into our homes and lives to train and teach.

Q: What are the effects of pornography on the spirit?

Dr. Cline: Well, to me pornography has a degrading effect. I also think violence has a degrading effect on the spirit. An example is found in the early days of Rome, when the Christians were tossed to the lions. I’ve wondered how highborn women could sit there and watch other human beings torn to pieces and eaten by animals. What probably happened is that, with time, the viewers became desensitized. Their senses, compassion, and empathy became blunted. And those weren’t the only feelings of sensitivity that became blunted. Their consciences also became numbed. This sort of experience does injury to our spiritual receptivity and sensitivity.

Karen Call: In the context of Latter-day Saint youth, it seems that the really important thing is that even though few, if any, of us would go out and do something violent after being exposed to violence on television or in the movies or after being exposed to pornography, still the thought and image and memory will be there. And when we consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to be seeking a higher plane of life, thoughts and attitudes and feelings from even so-called soft-core pornography can be destructive to us and to the spirit of the Holy Ghost in us.

Brent Ward: I think that we can determine that exposure to pornography is in conflict with godliness, that it detracts from the godliness of the individual, and that when you permit it, you’re compromising yourself. It’s really a blessing that the gospel instills in us a kind of instinctual desire to know God. These feelings and attitudes are nourished in our religious experiences. The beautiful thing is that even though we experience from time to time a certain desensitization because of things we may read or see, we still have in the back of our minds and hearts a certain instinctual desire to regain our sensitivity to the Lord. This is the great blessing of the Holy Ghost and the gospel to us as Latter-day Saint youth when we are confronted with a threat to our emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being.

Dr. Cline: That’s true. It’s like Joseph Smith said: “I teach the people correct principles, and they govern themselves.” So whether you’re in Samoa, Sweden, or the United States, if you have the basic principles, you have the power to apply them in the particular culture in which you’re living. Even though the ways you apply them may vary from age to age and from culture to culture, still the principles are eternal, right, and good, simply in the nature of things.

If I had one final thing to say, it would simply be that life with all of its challenges and difficulties should be wonderful and beautiful for all of us. It should, for the most part, be a happy and good experience. We are told in the scriptures, in fact, that man is that he might have joy. Thus, each youth must seek to make his life one of joy, of happiness, of goodness and fulfillment. Read good books and see good movies. Participate in good experiences. And when, in the normal course of events, books and magazines and movies aren’t all that they should be, learn to discriminate, to seek the good, and to seek things that are really praiseworthy. Pray in your personal lives; talk with your parents; and learn to trust your conscience and follow the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. If you are sensitive to the Spirit, you’ll be able to keep things in balance, face with courage the adversities that affect all men, and govern your life so it will be one of happiness and fulfillment.

[photo] Brent

[photos] Lief; Karen; Debbie; Karl

[photo] Alice