Illustration by Blain Heffner

At the bottom of his downward spiral, Brian couldn’t stop himself from going online in search of pornography. 

It started in grad school. He’d watch porn to escape the stress of his studies. Later, even after he married, he’d sneak online to search out “artistic nudes” on flickr after his wife went to work.

Brian, fearing ostracism, asked his real name not be used in this article. And he says he mostly viewed “teaser” videos of sex acts and wet T-shirt contests—soft porn or T&A. He also read descriptions of sex acts. 

It sounds tame, but his church, many therapists, thousands of Utahns—and Brian himself—consider him a pornography addict, desperately fighting the allure of ever harder-core porn, self-degradation and even sexual perversity that threatens to destroy his family and his life.

The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., cites research that porn has led to bankruptcy, divorce and ironically, sexual dysfunction. Pornography, the think tank says, celebrates the things that destroy marriage: disrespect, detachment, promiscuity and even sexual abuse. Porn use leads men, some experts say, into extramarital affairs and makes them more aggressive, putting spouses in physical danger. A study found teens exposed to porn are more likely to sexually harass peers.

The broader American culture considers watching porn healthy eroticism, a privacy issue or, at worst—“just stuff guys do.” 

But Brian lives in Utah—a semi-puritanical subset of America where alcohol, watching pornography, masturbation, even wearing revealing clothing, falls into the category of “sin” according to the still-dominant LDS religion. In this culture, Brian labels himself an addict because he compulsively sought out porn to deal with stress. The time he spent surfing for it undercut his studies, his work and social life. He deceived his wife about it. “I was depressed. I couldn’t get things done. It was a lead weight, dragging me down—I didn’t want to do it, yet I kept finding myself doing it,” he says.

Porn addiction fighters say he was addicted to the flood of dopamine, endorphins and adrenaline released during sexual arousal and the release afterward. “Unfortunately, these women were tools,” Brian says. “They were objects to get me to this place where I was excited and have the rush.” Though he says he never touched another woman, Brian believes he was having a sexual affair. 

“If you look at the word ‘fidelity,’ it’s to be true to someone, your heart is theirs, your affection and sexual interests are theirs. To turn that sexual interest to something else, an image or video, or even to turn it to yourself and masturbate—it’s infidelity,” he says.

Brian sought help from his LDS bishop and eventually joined the Mormon church’s 12-step meetings to treat porn addiction. He says it helped to share his burden and meet others going through the same struggles, but after four years of being “sober,” Brian still considers himself an addict. “I know that pretty quickly I could go right back to it. It’s a pattern of behavior my body knows very well and likes a lot in terms of the chemical rush,” he says. “I do have to be vigilant about ‘eye-bouncing’ —not looking at women’s magazines at the check-out aisles,” which, he says, could lead back to online porn. “I didn’t have hope before, but I have it now,” he says. “I’m a lot more open and honest. I’ve got a very healthy marriage.”

This Place of Porn


Illustration by Blain Heffner

Utah’s stereotype nationally used to be its conservative politics, large families, prudish culture and its labyrinth liquor laws. And, of course, its legacy of polygamy.

Now Utah’s claim to shame may be its Internet-porn click rate. According to a recent map depicting what each American state is the worst at, which recently ran on washingtonpost.com: Utahns subscribe to online pornography at higher rates than any other state. Harvard economics professor Benjamin Edelman found 5.47 of every 1,000 Utah households with broadband access had paid for online pornography. Montana had a national low-libido rating of 1.92.

Edelman notes that, ironically (or perhaps not), porn subscriptions are higher in places with more married and young residents, people who regularly attend church and agree with the statement: “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage.” Basically a definition of Utah.

There’s no need to tell Dan Gray something’s amiss in Utah. The clinical director and founder of LifeSTAR Program, a network of therapists dedicated to helping Utahns get a grip on their sexual desires, calls the several thousand clients LifeSTAR has treated for porn addiction, “humble warriors.” “It’s hard not to feel you’re in a battle when people are struggling so hard to heal, to get better,” Gray says. “These are good, wonderful people who found themselves trapped in this bondage. It takes a warrior attitude to overcome.”

But even as Utah therapists and church leaders build practices or Sunday talks around fighting the “plague” of pornography addiction, the American Psychiatric Association avoids using the “addiction” label for frequent porn viewing.

All of which leaves most Utahns with a question: Do we really have a porn problem? Or, like many other issues in Utah, is the problem a puritanical culture that defines pornography over-broadly to encompass even risque advertising and edgy art, and considers any erotic exploration a sinful addiction? 

DIY Sex Ed

If looking at online porn is a mental illness, it’s a worldwide epidemic. It’s also a multi-billion dollar business—porn sites, such as xvideos.com, pornhub.com and xhamster.com outrank usatoday.com, Buzzfeed and walmart.com. And every advance in information technology—from Gutenberg’s printing press to VCRs to smartphones—has been embraced by the porn industry as a business opportunity. Google Glass is seen as the next portal for porn—there’s even a pioneering app called Tits & Glass.

Members of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, one of many organizations springing up to fight pornography, argue it’s a national problem and Utah’s high online use results from a lack of brick-and-mortar sex shops forcing Utahns to the Internet for smut. 

“Another theory is that young kids perhaps are not having access to sex education,” says Pamela Atkinson, a leading advocate for the poor who also is chairwoman of UCAP. “We were appalled to find a lot of people were learning about sex ed in the backseat—to put it bluntly.”

Instead of asking their parents or teachers about sex, she surmises, kids now turn to Google.


Pamela Atkinson, photo by Adam Finkle

And Anne Lin, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at the University of Utah, says she and a colleague who trained out of state never encountered “porn addiction” until they started working in Utah.

“It could be because of the culture here,” Lin says. “They could be more sensitive to pornography use or abuse or possible addiction.” Even if porn viewing is a true addiction, she adds, “I don’t know if Utah has a bigger problem.”

Vauna Davis, executive director of UCAP, sees another complicating trait in the Utah character: “I don’t believe we have a bigger problem than other states as far as usage. But people here generally feel more guilty. More people here believe that it’s wrong.”

Fighting the ‘Plague’

Billboards on I-15 have beckoned porn addicts to seek help, including one reading “Real Men Don’t Use Porn.” Mormon leaders in Salt Lake frequently intone against the “plague” of pornography  in church conference talks that are broadcast worldwide and the Utah Coalition Against Pornography’s annual conferences are packed with attendees hoping to learn how to safeguard their homes and hearts against online sex.

A milestone of sorts in the addiction battle came when the LDS church-owned college BYU-Idaho released a 4-minute video comparing watching pornography and masturbating (the church also teaches that masturbation is a sin) to a war. “The temptations of the great war are many,” intones college president Kim B. Clark while on screen a young man’s face is illuminated by a notebook computer. Then the video, which encourages snitching on porn-watching friends, cuts to a battlefield, showing a soldier aiding a wounded comrade. “Tell someone who can do something that you have a friend in trouble,” Clark implores. “Don’t leave the wounded on the battlefield.”

Online porn makes viewers “curiouser and curiouser,” Atkinson says. “It starts to get them aroused because of the release of various chemicals in the brain. They start with this very soft porn, but it becomes insufficient for them. Gradually they move into the hard porn and even the hard porn sometimes becomes insufficient to satiate them, so they start acting out.”

She says it can destroy marriages, and she believes it can lead to exploiting children.

Not all researchers believe that pornography use follows this addiction-based model of needing more to get the same effect. And anti-porn crusaders’ definitions of “hard” porn (Victoria’s Secret ads are considered a gateway to addiction) would make the Motion Picture Association of America’s R ratings look libertine.

UCAP measures its success in the number of people who attend its annual conferences, recently more than 1,000. “Have we decreased the use of pornography in Utah? I don’t think we can say that,” Atkinson admits. But, she says, UCAP’s goal has never been to stop people from looking at porn.

“That’s intruding into people’s private lives,” Atkinson says. “There are people who feel that viewing simple pornography or soft pornography is part of their everyday lives. (Though she believes it can lead to ever harder porn.) That is their business. I feel strongly that we have succeeded in helping people understand the dangers of pornography, how to have age-appropriate discussions with their children, how to prevent it from occurring in their own homes and families and what to do if it is occurring and where to go to get help.”

A Business Model 

An industry has emerged in Utah to to treat sex, pornography and masturbation “addictions,” terms often used interchangeably.

LifeSTAR’s Gray says his therapy business took off in the mid-1990s, when nearly everyone started using the Internet. Now, LifeSTAR has 10 Utah offices, and 35 in 17 other states, where therapists busily run group therapy for individuals and couples, individual counseling sessions and a program for teens. Children, he says, are being exposed to porn by age 9.


Dan Gray, photo by Adam Finkle

The same problems that lead some to turn to drugs and alcohol —depression, loneliness, rejection, anger, past trauma—sends his clients to pornography, he says. Porn is more appealing than vodka or cocaine, he says, because it’s free and can be easily hidden. And it feels good.

Therapists aren’t exploiting a new hysteria, says Gray, who warns against getting “hung up” on whether it’s an addiction. “We’re responding to clients who come in and tell us they’re addicted. People believe their lives are being affected, in some ways destroyed, because of a person’s inability to control and manage their behavior.”

Therapy for porn addiction typically lasts at least a year. Besides limiting their use of computers and getting rid of smartphones, clients learn to find better ways to deal with their underlying problems and to avoid reliving the porn images embedded in their brains, Gray says.

There’s even a residential treatment center for addicted boys, ages 13–17, called Oxbow Academy in rural Wales, Sanpete County, which provides individual, group, family and an equine therapy program.

LDS Family Services offers counseling and recently created a website, called Overcoming Pornography, as a one-stop shop for members at risk. Local churches hold weekly 12-step meetings where individuals and couples can talk about pornography addiction.

Ben Erwin, a marriage and family therapist in charge of the church’s Overcoming Pornography initiative, describes the trajectory of the typical client: A 12- or 13-year-old at the height of puberty stumbles onto pornography and his hormones go wild. “He thinks, ‘that was awesome.’ He probably feels a little guilt, too and shame if he’s LDS.” By age 16, Erwin says, “He might be very addicted, unable to stop looking at it, fantasizing about women or masturbating.” A two-year Mormon mission only delays the worst of the addiction. When the young man returns and gets married, he secretly falls back into the clutches of addiction. Years later, the wife finds out. “She feels betrayed and hurt. There’s a rift in the relationship and then they come see me,” Erwin says. 

Porn POV

The LDS church defines porn broadly, as any material “depicting or describing the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings.” Looking at pornography is considered a sin, akin to adultery. The LDS church definition, of course, would also encompass much fashion advertising, television and Cosmo.

A challenge for Mormons in battling this plague is to encourage members of a culture that emphasizes modesty to talk openly about sex. Apostle M. Russell Ballard advises fathers to have “open and frequent discussions” about the evils of promiscuity. 

“We’re trying to get away from one ‘Big Talk’ to a lifetime of conversations around sexuality,” Erwin says. “If parents aren’t teaching their children, the world is.”

Russ Gaede, executive director at Life Enhancement Center, which has counseling clinics in Utah County, agrees the taboo against talking about sex only fuels interest in pornography. 

“Call a penis a penis. Don’t call it ‘little Willy,’” Gaede says. “Then it becomes, ‘Oh, I can’t use the proper name, it must be something bad. If it’s bad, I can’t talk about it.’ It spirals down from there.” 


Russ Gaede, photo by Adam Finkle

But Gaede says the anti-pornography emphasis in Utah cannot be written off as priggishness. “This isn’t just a Utah thing. This isn’t a Mormon thing,” Gaed says. “Society at large is starting to wake up. “

Lin, president of the Utah Psychiatric Association, says there simply isn’t enough scientific evidence for pornography addiction to be classified a mental health disorder. The American Psychiatric Association does not include it in its latest diagnostic manual. “Pornography obsessions” like any obsession, can negatively affect peoples’ lives. And she says, “People arrested for child pornography on their work computers—at that level it probably is some sort of addiction.”

The danger, Lin says, is that people (think of curious teenage boys) who simply browse pornography could be labeled “addicts” and find themselves in a treatment program.

“It may not be addiction, but it’s porn use and it attracts a lot of attention because of the culture here,” she says. “It gets hard for me to recommend any level of treatment [for behavior] that may not be a disorder and possibly at some level it might be even kind of normal.” 

Next>>>The difference between art and porn in Utah

Back>>>Read other stories from our May/June 2014 issue.