By Rory C. Reid, Ph.D
Psychologist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Pornography is increasing in popularity and accessibility, and many think of it as harmless fun. But Church leaders have consistently warned us about its destructive nature. President Gordon B. Hinckley cautioned: "Stay away from the great and terrible flood of pornography that is sweeping across the earth and makes a few men rich while it destroys many others who become enslaved to it. Stay away from it."1
Tragically, some have dismissed our prophet's counsel and have become entangled in this salacious material. They have discovered that, like many other addictions, a pornography habit is extremely difficult to break.
But success is possible. As a psychotherapist counseling numerous clients struggling to overcome a pornography habit, I have observed several common denominators among those who have successfully abandoned pornography. The following suggestions, while not comprehensive, are intended to provide some direction and possibly a beginning point for anyone who seeks to abandon the use of pornography.
Acknowledge the Problem
Many individuals minimize the extent of their problem because of feelings of shame. The Lord's way, however, requires that we acknowledge our faults to Him (see Ps. 32:5; Alma 38:14; Alma 39:13; D&C 5:28). Such confession is actually an exercise in honesty with ourselves, as we acknowledge to ourselves that which is already transparent to God. Involvement in pornography should also be acknowledged to one's spouse (and for youth, one's parents) and bishop or branch president.
Many who view pornography fear that a disclosure to their spouse may place their marriage at risk. Yet some studies indicate that most marriages stay intact if both partners are willing to work through the problems together. Sometimes individuals put off disclosure because they fear they will hurt their spouse. A reason like this is usually just an excuse to protect the individuals with the problem from their spouse's reaction and from other consequences of their behavior. Thus they may continue to indulge in pornography while trying to keep it secret. But dishonesty in a relationship can be as damaging as pornography, and many spouses eventually discover the problem anyway. Spouses are more likely to offer support when approached in humility by a struggling partner who confesses the problem and requests encouragement in recovery.
Even if someone is able for a time to hide his or her actions, our secrets are never hidden from God. As Jacob tells us, "He knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it" (2 Ne. 9:20).
Being truthful frees up energy previously used to maintain secrets and can provide a sense of relief for the person disclosing the problem. In fact, many spouses report that their partner's disclosure, although painful, gave them relief because they learned that their suspicions were not based on their own insecurities. When someone establishes honesty and begins the process of repentance, the Atonement can remove the burden of sin. And through the Atonement, the spouse can be given the strength to forgive the violations of his or her sacred trust.
Accept the Atonement
The Hebrew equivalent for the word atonement is kaphar, a verb that means "to cover." 2 Therefore, the word atonement suggests that Christ can cover sins by "blotting" them out through His mercy if we repent (see Acts 3:19). As a result of this process, our sins can become "as white as snow" (Isa. 1:18).
In contrast, the adversary tempts those with a pornography addiction to try to hide, or cover, their sins—thus thwarting the repentance process and avoiding the true source of healing. In so doing they add the sin of dishonesty to the sin of pornography, "and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell" (2 Ne. 28:21).
The story of Adam and Eve illustrates how Satan tries to enslave us. After transgressing one of God's commandments, Adam and Eve were shamed by Satan, who told them to cover themselves and hide. Similarly, Satan tries to get us to turn away from God when we make mistakes. But an angel of the Lord instructed Adam to "repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore" (Moses 5:8). Adam and Eve learned to turn their fear and shame into faith and trust. Likewise, individuals struggling with pornography must turn their fear and shame into faith and trust in the Lord and His Atonement.
When we accept the Atonement, we confess our sins and submit to the consequences of our choices. If we attempt to punish ourselves for sin through self-imposed guilt or shame, we erroneously try to usurp the authority of the Savior. The Savior has the right to extend mercy and the right to pass judgment. Our right is to submit our hearts to God and accept His mercy and justice in accordance with divine law. Although not entitled to mercy, we may qualify for it by the grace of God and through a broken heart and contrite spirit. This mighty change of heart, which sanctifies a son or daughter of God from unrighteousness, is a gift that comes through faith and trust in Him and by the power of His Atonement. Redemption from sin through this process will most likely take time, but eventually we can know, as the Spirit imparts assurance to our soul, that our sins are forgiven.
King Benjamin wisely admonished, "Watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds" (Mosiah 4:30). One seeking to overcome a pornography habit should identify patterns and weaknesses in his or her life and be aware of events that may trigger indulgence in pornography.
One individual realized that when he experienced a negative emotion, he tried to escape his discomfort by thinking about pornography. As a result of this new awareness, he began to offer a silent prayer whenever he felt a negative emotion, asking for help to withstand the experience and to resist the urge to escape.
A Book of Mormon story helped this man understand how the Lord could help him with his problem. He noted that when the people of Alma were in bondage the Lord promised that their burdens would be made light (see Mosiah 24:14); He did not promise to completely remove their burdens. Likewise, this man did not expect the Lord to eliminate the negative emotions in his life but to help him cope with them in a healthy way.
As we take time to ponder our lives, awareness will come, especially if it is requested as part of sincere prayer.
In overcoming pornography habits, individuals must make many adjustments to their behavior or attitude. Often they have become "past feeling" (1 Ne. 17:45; Moro. 9:20). They must learn to reconnect with their feelings and with God, to be humble again, and to trust. The role of the Holy Ghost is paramount in this endeavor and can help individuals experience "a mighty change" of heart that will influence them "to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2; Alma 5:12 ; see also Alma 5:26).
Help can also come from those around us. As President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) taught, the Lord often uses others to bring about His righteous purposes. 3 Bishops or branch presidents, family members, and qualified counselors can help someone successfully abandon a pornography habit. As the old adage goes, the Lord helps those who help themselves. And we are expected to take advantage of resources available to us.
Another necessary adjustment includes rededication to a daily, consistent habit of studying the scriptures. Great strength can be drawn from regularly feasting upon the words of Christ. The book of Alma teaches that the word has a "more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else" (Alma 31:5). Similarly, Nephi told his brothers, "Whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction" (1 Ne. 15:24).
The power of the word is manifest in our lives when we live the principles we learn in our personal scripture study. The Lord will add to our sincere efforts the strength necessary to follow through with our righteous desires. He embraces us as we embrace His word.
Adjustments must also be made to the way we choose to interpret our experiences. Changing the way we think can be the most difficult change to make. Simply telling someone not to think about pornography is paradoxical in nature. To avoid thinking about something, people must know what they are to avoid, and so they must give thought to the very thing they're trying not to think about.
Many who successfully abandon pornography report it is more helpful to focus on positive goals that are incompatible with viewing pornography than to divert all their energy to just not thinking about pornography. If individuals decide to focus instead on being more honest, for example, they could allow themselves to think often about honesty. This strategy avoids a focus on eliminating pornography—and subsequently thinking about pornography—that can trigger more pornography use.
I often suggest that people think honestly about their temptations. One individual who tried this approach realized the women depicted in pornography would not act that way in real life. He learned that the images he saw were enhanced using computer technology and did not represent reality. He further discovered that some of the actors indulged in alcohol or drugs to numb their feelings, allowing them to participate in degrading activities. Because of this man's honest approach to pornography and his efforts to recognize it for what it is, its attraction diminished significantly. He was able to cultivate more fully his ability to distinguish good from evil (see Gen. 3:5; Moses 4:11).
Many people minimize their behavior by using phrases such as "I just happened to notice," "I didn't realize," "It took me by surprise." When we are accountable, we accept responsibility for our behavior. We are willing to make changes in our environment that will make acting out less likely. For example, a person who is tempted by pornography on the Internet might agree to have filters installed on his or her computer, to leave the door open when using a computer, or to place a computer monitor so it faces high-traffic areas.4 The person would avoid being isolated in situations where he or she might be tempted to act out.
Consider the story of King David, who, "at the time when kings [went] forth to battle, … tarried still at Jerusalem" (2 Sam. 11:1). He should have been with the army, but instead he "walked upon the roof" and saw Bathsheba bathing (see 2 Sam. 11:2). He then made the mistake of succumbing to the temptation of lust. Likewise, those struggling with pornography should avoid any potentially compromising situations.
Abandon the Behavior
People struggling with pornography habits need to understand one aspect about their sins that is not often addressed: Sin and lust do bring temporary pleasure. If they didn't, they would have little power to entice us. President Hinckley acknowledged that those who view pornography may find it to be exciting. "But," he said, "it will destroy you."5 This destruction may take months, even years, but it always occurs. Contemplating the wickedness of his people, Mormon said, "The Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin" (Morm. 2:13).
Trusting the Lord enough to let go of pornography may be one of the most monumental steps people take on their road to repentance. But that's what repentance is about—a change of heart and mind and a willingness to abandon behavior that is contrary to God's will. Such abandonment replaces temporary gratification with permanent satisfaction in a healthy, meaningful marriage relationship, with closeness to God, and with the self-respect that comes from righteous living.
Know There Is Hope
If you struggle with a pornography habit, there is hope! Abandoning it and becoming free of its influence will require commitment, strength, and perseverance. Part of the battle will be fought by surrendering instead of fighting as you allow your will to be "swallowed up in the will of the Father" (Mosiah 15:7). Some battles will be fought within the silent chambers of the soul, where only you will know of your small victories along the road to recovery.6 The desire to abandon pornography is a righteous endeavor, one the Lord will support, provided you do your part.
What Is Pornography?
Legal, academic, and other definitions of pornography vary widely, but in a practical sense, pornography is any visual or written medium created with the intent to sexually stimulate. If the work was not intended to stimulate but nevertheless causes sexual arousal in an individual, it constitutes pornography for that person.
If you find yourself asking whether a work is pornographic, the question itself suggests the material makes you uncomfortable. That should be enough to tell you to avoid it.
Repentance: A Process of Cleansing
"Satan strives to convince one that sins can be hidden from others, yet it is he that causes them to be revealed in the most compromising circumstances. His objective is the enslavement of God's children. All of his enticing, alluring temptations have as their root the destruction of the individual. …
"Seek out your bishop. He will show you how to repent and will help you do it. As you pray and act, you will be led to others who will support you. Repentance is a process of cleansing. It is difficult, but it has an end, a glorious end with peace and refreshing forgiveness and the miracle of a new beginning." —Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "To Be Free of Heavy Burdens," Liahona and Ensign, Nov. 2002, 87.
"The Road Back: Abandoning Pornography" was originally published in the February 2005 issue of the Ensign, pages 46–51.
- "Selections from Addresses of President Gordon B. Hinckley," Ensign, Mar. 2001, 65.
- See Russell M. Nelson, "The Atonement," Ensign, Nov. 1996, 34.
- See The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (1982), 252.
- See M. Russell Ballard, "Let Our Voices Be Heard," Liahona and Ensign, Nov. 2003, 16–19.
- "A Prophet's Counsel and Prayer for Youth," Liahona, Apr. 2001, 37; Ensign, Jan. 2001, 8.
- See David O. McKay, in Conference Report, Oct. 1954, 83; see also Ezra Taft Benson, "In His Steps," Tambuli, Feb. 1989, 3; Ensign, Sept. 1988, 2.