Does it help to view porn use as immoral?

Printer-friendly version

God wagging his fingerSaid a frustrated porn addict who was relapsing regularly:

I even read and studied a great philosophical work by Pope John Paul II entitled Love and Responsibility. If I ever recommend a book to someone, it's this book. I learned full on why porn and lust before love is wrong morally.

Porn recovery is one place where standard morality can backfire, slowing recovery. You're dealing with a brain chemical process: dopamine dysregulation. It takes time and consistency to return your brain to normal sensitivity. This natural healing process can be greatly enhanced by also replacing porn with the rewards that your brain actually evolved to seek: exercise, time in nature, close, trusted companionship, flirting with potential mates and nourishing stillness and connection with the Divine. Obviously, prayer can be a way to achieve the latter. So can meditation.

What doesn't seem to help is dwelling on why porn use is "morally wrong." The reason is that doing "wrong" things is often perceived by your brain as exciting, daring and risky. Your brain evolved to enjoy risk. (It made it more rewarding to hunt mammoths.)

When you relapse, or even consider it, the "morally wrong" angle can also produce anxiety. If porn is a moral issue, then you brand yourself an 'immoral person' each time you relapse. Worse yet, a primitive part of your brain (incapable of understanding the concept of "morality") wires everything associated with your orgasms so that they are "more arousing" in the future.

So, this part of your brain is furiously wiring your sexual arousal and orgasms not only to porn, but also to feeling 'anxious" and 'immoral'. Thus, at a primitive level, "immorality, risk and anxiety = good sex." And the more you reinforce this equation, the harder it is to uproot later in your life. See why Ted Haggard kept increasing the risky stimulation?

The fact is, you may be a very moral person...with an addiction to the dopamine produced by porn, and related brain changes. Period. These changes are reversible, and the process of reversing them operates independently of your morality.

In short, making porn a moral issue can really screw up your sexuality by "rewarding" (or activating) your brain for the very behavior you want to leave behind. This can only make your job harder. If you're honest with yourself, you may even realize that you want porn use to remain a 'sin,' because it makes its use more charged and arousing. This is evidence of the problem explained above. Just smile at the tricks your primitive brain is playing on you, and let go of the enticing 'sin' angle, by acknowledging that this is merely a brain-wiring issue.

You may make more progress by treating porn as nothing but cartoons that you want to stop wasting your time with. Erotica is just "dopamine spurt-producing cues," which are distracting you from the efforts you need to make to interact with potential mates effectively. Nothing more. No different from puffing on a cigarette.

Suggestion: If you want to quit porn, do so because you don't like the effects and distractions, but don't try to quit because of the immorality of porn. It can really backfire.

What can you do to connect more with others? (Connecting with your creator can be soothing, too, but not if it makes you feel unworthy, as that is stressful and can promote relapse.) Give your brain more of what it evolved to seek, and it won't be as hungry for synthetic thrills.

We feel a lot of sympathy for guys who were raised to defer sex to marriage during an era where "harmless" cyber erotica has been everywhere. Who of us wouldn't have thought we were solving the quandary of "high libido, but no premature marriage/sex" by turning to porn? However, today's porn trains brains in unexpected ways.

Fact is, you would be much better off with non-sexual contact with potential mates: dance class, socializing, working together on projects, etc. Even flirting can be more soothing than cyber erotica that leaves you wanting more. But who knew???

Suggestion: Forgive yourself and re-frame your struggle as imbalanced brain chemistry rather than a moral battle. It's fine to seek divine assistance, but ask to have your brain re-balanced instead of focusing on your 'sins.' Maybe your creator prefers you to be operating at full power rather than to be an expert on "sinfulness."

Another recovering addict said:

Just like you, I was fighting this addiction for years and years using nothing more than morality, and it wasn't working. No amount of telling myself 'this is wrong' would get me to stop. I thought I was a terrible person who couldn't stop sinning.

However, my thinking was not complete. As you may know, Catholic teaching says a mortal sin requires three conditions: 1) It must be a serious matter, 2) You must know it is wrong, and 3) You must choose to do it. With addictions, however, there is no choice involved. Therefore, it can't possibly be a sin in the first place! You are not choosing to do PMO, your addicted brain has been compelling you to do it against your will.

This is entirely different from sinning. That is why the Catechism leaves an "exception clause" in paragraph 2352, the section on masturbation: "To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability."

Learning about that certainly made me feel a lot better about myself. I'm not a bad person just because I accidentally got addicted! You will begin to see much more success fighting this as an addiction rather than just a sin.

It's tragic; our Catholic caretakers were all ignorant of the addictive potency of PMO, so they taught it to us in the only terms they knew - in terms of morality and sin. (I predict later editions of the Catechism will be updated to reflect what we are now learning about the nature of addictions and their effects on the brain and the ability to choose.)

Also see Is porn a bigger challenge for religious people?