There are two kinds of Christians in America — those who watch porn and those who lie about it.
A new study by the Barna Group shows that 64 percent of Christian men and 15 percent of Christian women admitted to viewing pornography at least once a month, compared to 65 percent of men and 30 percent of women who identified as non-Christian and said they watched porn at the same rate.
Of the Christian men who did look at pornography, the majority did so several times per week.
Some psychologists and sociologists said it’s not surprising that men of any faith act out on basic human urges.
But Joel Hesch, president and founder of Prove Men Ministries, which commissioned the study, said the results point to a frightening pattern of addiction.
“It needs to be openly addressed in the church, a safe place within the church,” Mr. Hesch said. “[Pornography] is addicting. It is a problem not just affecting individuals, but families. The church needs to be the front-runner in this. Heaping guilt and shame on a person only leads them to escape into the things we’re trying to rescue them from.”
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The survey was taken earlier this year, and the results were compiled from the responses of 1,000 U.S. adults. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at a 95 percent confidence level.
The survey did not break down Christian men who viewed pornography by their ages. But the poll did have age groupings for all male respondents, and 79 percent between the ages of 18 and 30 said they watch pornography at least monthly, while 29 percent of them said they view it daily.
The definition of pornography was left up to the respondents, Mr. Hesch said.
Jeremy Thomas, assistant professor of sociology at Idaho State University, said any survey involving sex is going to be limited in its data.
“It’s hard to get good information on sex, generally because people tend to be hesitant to respond,” he said. “One of the other things to realize is you could be getting a response bias. It could very well be religious and non-religious people view porn more or less [the same], but religious persons are a little more hesitant to say so.”
However, Christians might be more likely to self diagnose themselves as addicts. According to the survey, 15 percent of men who identified as Christian said they thought they might be addicted to porn, compared to 6 percent of non-Christian men who considered themselves addicted.
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The trouble is that “pornography addiction” doesn’t exist in the professional mental health community, said Joshua Grubbs, who focuses on clinical psychology of religion and addictive behavior patterns at Case Western University.
“It’s not a diagnosis that’s recognized,” he said. “I know there are some people who believe it is a diagnosis, but it’s not recognized by the community at large.”
Though research is just beginning on why people might be anxious to admit their addiction, Mr. Grubbs said religion does play a big part of it.
“Religious people are more likely to say they feel addicted,” he said. “That seems to be stemming from religious people disapproving of pornography.”
The thinking, he continued, is “I’m religious. I think pornography is bad, but I’m a sexual person who thinks pornography is enjoyable. What would cause me to do something that is bad? Maybe I’m addicted.”
That doesn’t mean pornography can’t have a negative impact on someone’s life, said William Struthers, a psychology professor at Wheaton College.
“What happens is [pornography viewing] can become an addictive pattern if they’re not careful,” Mr. Struthers said. “You may find those individuals who are feeling low or down, now they can view pornography, they can sexually act out, and the high of the orgasm gives them that moment of ‘OK, that’s gone, everything’s better.’”
For Christians, faith can put them in a bind.
“Religion can serve to provide a richer understanding of sexuality. It can add spiritual and moral dimensions,” Mr. Struthers said. “The problem is this cuts the other way. You can have higher highs but lower lows when committing sexual transgressions.
“They can have a better understanding of sexuality, but that religion causes them to become much more compulsive in the ways in which they think about sexuality. That’s why I think they’ve gotten the message wrong,” he said. “The church’s message is ‘Sex is bad. Don’t do it until you’re married.’”
Some churches are having to re-brand their teaching on sexuality, whether by choice or because the culture is changing.
“Churches will lose this sexual red herring,” said Eric Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Winchester who focuses on masculinity and sexuality. “They lost on premarital sex, on masturbation, on gay sex, on anal sex among heterosexuals and they will lose this war against pornography.
“If you want evidence, all you have to do is look at the research, at what percent use pornography, and how young they start using it.”
Perhaps the way for everyone to win is to embrace both the human and spiritual urges of Christians, said Mr. Grubbs.
“That’s what we do, what humans do. If you feel bad about sex in general, it’s going to create problems for you elsewhere,” he said. “Let’s talk about what’s going on in your head, so we can avoid those problems elsewhere.”