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Dr. Michael Gardner

Overcoming Addiction to Pornography

It’s nice to be here with you all this morning. I always wonder, when I’m asked to speak in church venues like this on this topic. It seems like it’s kind of difficult to have the Spirit and talk about something like this, but I think the beautiful music helped, and I liked Zach’s thought—particularly two things. One, I liked the skirt and tights analogy, because I think it was just this Sunday when I passed my daughter Hannah and said, “Hannah, isn’t that skirt a little short?”

She said, “It’s okay, Dad. I’m wearing tights.”

I thought, “Well, okay.” So I’m glad for the clarification. It didn’t make the dress longer.

But I think the other piece of what he said is critically important, and that is being prepared. And while Zach may have shown up to church not quite shaven and his tie was a little loose, the important thing is that his hands and his heart were clean and pure. And I think that’s what we all need to strive for, because we never know when that moment may come where we have an opportunity to put our priesthood to work or serve someone in some capacity, and we need to always be ready and willing to serve the Lord.

The title that I’ve chosen today is “Reach for the Light: Hope, Help and Recovery from Pornography Use or Addiction.” And I say “use or addiction” because there are varying degrees of pornography use. Obviously, we as LDS Church members believe that any pornography use is detrimental and wrong, whether it’s an addiction or not. Some people have a severe addiction; some people may only dabble in it. But either way, spiritually the consequences are just as serious.

And please, as I’m speaking, if you have a question and want to ask it, that’s fine. This is just a small enough venue to be able to take questions.

I think Craig did a good job of explaining why it’s ubiquitous. Pornography is ubiquitous. If you don’t know what that word means, that’s okay. I didn’t either a few years ago. It means that pornography is everywhere. We can’t escape it, no matter where we go, what we do, what we watch, we are going to in some ways come in contact with pornography of some sort. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that. But does that make sense? Is there a day that goes by where something that is pornographic in nature doesn’t come across your path—whether it’s a TV program, music, something by accident? It may not be what we’d consider hard-core pornography, but it could be some other source.

So, what is pornography? Well, it’s a hard thing to define, so I’ll give you a couple of definitions. Anything that induces an inappropriate sexual interest for that person. Now that’s very general and not real specific, but it’s fitting, because what is pornography for one person may not be pornography for another person. And I’ll get a little more into that. Another definition is material of no artistic or literary value designed to stimulate and arouse sexually; it can be written materials, photographs, films, television programs, electronic images, animation, sexually-oriented chat rooms, telephone sex, etc. And as technology increases, the ways that pornography is presented increase as well. And so it’s hard to have a working, operational definition that doesn’t keep changing.

Let me just read you one thing that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said. This was in 1964, which was back when the Supreme Court and the pornographers were battling to try to determine what was legal and what was covered under free speech and what wasn’t. Of course, pornographers were trying to say “anything we want to say and do is protected under the Constitution under free speech.” And he made this statement, which I think is true. In trying to explain hard-core pornography or what is obscene by saying, “I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced, but I know it when I see it.” And I think any of you who have seen pornography know what it is, because it makes you feel something, and it’s usually not something good. There may be a curiosity, something that draws you to it, but there’s also a feeling that’s telling you this isn’t good. And what would that feeling be? The Holy Ghost, the Light of Christ—you know when you see it, this is bad. This isn’t going to be good. And I think that’s what he was using, and I like that definition because somebody can be looking at the J.C. Penney catalog and be looking at the lingerie section, and to them, that may be pornography if it induces inappropriate thoughts and feelings. And so it’s one of those things that it’s really hard to say, this is okay and this isn’t. It’s really up to the individual.

Let’s talk a little bit about the scope of the problem. I don’t want to bore you with a lot of statistics, but I want to give you some. If we look at the money, it’s a 56 billion dollar a year industry, and that was a few years back. There are other estimates that I have seen that are as high as a hundred billion dollars a year, which is enormous amounts of money. In the United States alone, it’s about a 13 billion dollar a year industry. So there’s big money in it, and that’s one reason you’re seeing new websites, new magazines, new movies, things like that constantly come out to be made. People are going to try to make that money.

One of the issues we’ve kind of battled with a little bit is the involvement of mainstream corporate America, and corporations really throughout the world. It’s another issue that cuts across all social and economic and racial divides. There’s no area in the world that is free or safe from pornography, and it affects everyone, men and women alike. There are certainly more men that are involved in pornography, but unfortunately we are seeing an increase in women’s involvement in pornography, even to the point where there is pornography now being marketed, and their touch-term is “pornography for women by women,” meaning that it’s made by women, designed, written by women, and it kind of caters to a different mindset than male-oriented pornography. Males are very visually oriented, and so most male pornography is visual. Female pornography has a story line; it may have a romantic flavor to it. But it’s still pornographic.

One executive for a large company called Centex said it this way, “Dollars is dollars.” He went on to say, “We’re not perverts. It’s not like we’re selling drugs. But dollars is dollars, and wherever we can make money, we’re going to make money.” Just to give you an idea, these are some of the major corporations that help fuel the pornography industry—AT&T, MCI, Time-Warner, DirectTV, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, Radisson, VISA, MasterCard, American Express. And the list really goes on and on and on. It’s amazing how many corporations in America about ten years ago saw that this is a place where we can make a lot of money. In fact, it’s the one industry that you always make money at. And that’s a sad commentary on both sides. It’s sad that people are exploiting it because they can make money, and that people are drawn to it and becoming addicted, and it’s ruining their lives.

It brings in more revenue than the NFL, NBA, and Major League baseball combined. And you know how much sports figures make, and the amount of money advertising that those industries generate. Pornography far outsells them. So it’s a big problem. And you probably already knew that, but I think it’s important to keep that in mind, because it’s easy to sort of put your head in the sand and say, “Well, it doesn’t affect me. I don’t look at it. I’m not going to worry about it.” But we all have to worry about it. You know someone that’s affected by it when you—are all of you single? Are some of you married? I don’t know the demographics. Some married people? Okay. Your children will be exposed to pornography. Right now the average age of exposure is 11 years old—at 11 years old, children are now stumbling on or being exposed to pornography in some way. So it’s not a problem that we can ignore.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, in section 89, we’ve got some great information on the Word of Wisdom. But one of the things that it says there I think applies to pornography and what I just shared about the money for it: “In the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” (v. 4). And I think that it’s not just tobacco, alcohol, and drugs of some type, but pornography I think also is being used by conspiring men in the last days. And women, unfortunately. I don’t want to be sexist—it crosses both. In fact, I think Playboy magazine corporation is now run by a woman, Hugh’s daughter.

A few years back, when I was asked to come to headquarters, I was the agency director in Los Angeles, and I had done some work with pornography addiction and sexual addictions, and I got a phone call from my boss at headquarters who asked me to come to Salt Lake and be the pornography specialist. And I said, “No thanks. Thanks, but no thanks.” And he called back and said, “Well, we really want you to do that.” And I struggled with it a bit and agreed to do it and came up and just—you know, rest easy, I never had to look at pornography to become the specialist. My role was to see what best practices were out there for treatment and training so that we could bring our staff up to speed. But I went to a training once by the late Dr. Al Cooper, who has now been dead for about four years, and he termed something he called “the triple-A engine.” And it’s really one of the things that has made pornography just explode in the last 15 years or so. Obviously, the advent of the Internet is responsible for the huge increase in pornography. But the three things in the “triple-A engine” were accessibility—now at the click of a mouse you can find anything you want and usually everything you don’t want; affordability—it’s relatively cheap or free; and the notion that it’s anonymous, that you can do it in the privacy of your own bedroom, house, apartment, phone, wherever—that there’s this anonymity that goes along with it, which is somewhat true. But as you know, in the age of electronics, there’s really nothing you do on the Internet that can’t be discovered, can’t be found. But those three things really exploded the pornography industry.

And then what you had, with the Internet, you had other companies jumping onboard, and a lot of the technology that we benefit from today in terms of audio, video and even electronic use of credit cards, began with the pornography industry, so people could buy it easier. You know, back when I was a kid, if you wanted to find pornography you had to go into a store someplace and actually purchase a magazine. And that was embarrassing and shameful, and if you were a kid, you weren’t allowed to do it. But when the Internet came, that changed it. So people who maybe never looked at pornography before had that opportunity, and sometimes all it took was curiosity to get them to take that first step. And as we know from other addictions, sometimes once you take that first step it’s really hard to turn around and go backward.

So to the question, “Is pornography addictive?” by show of hands, let me just ask you. How many of you think pornography is an addiction? It’s okay if you don’t; I’m fine with that. Okay, it looks like a lot of you do. And I do as well, for two reasons. One is because the prophet has said so. President Gordon B. Hinckley, in May of 1998, said this: “Stay away from pornography as you would avoid a serious disease. It is destructive. It can become habitual, and those who indulge in it get so they cannot leave it alone. It is addictive.” [“Living Worthy of the Girl You Will Someday Marry,” Ensign, May 1998, 49] So if a prophet says it, it’s good enough for me. I work with a lot of colleagues who aren’t LDS and they’re experts in this area, and there’s still a lot of debate about whether it’s addictive like other things that we have already identified. But the prophet says it is, and that’s good enough for me.

From my own experience in working with people and seeing the lengths that people are willing to go to to use pornography also have convinced me that it is addictive. I’ve seen people lose everything, and I mean their job, the love of their children, their marriage, the love of their spouse, their Church membership. Everything that really matters to us they have lost, and for what? Really nothing. So when somebody is willing to give up everything that matters most for nothing, that’s an addiction.

However, recently we’re fortunate, because there’s been a lot more interest in it from the academic world and the scientific community. Some of you may know Dr. Donald Hilton. He is a neurosurgeon in Houston. He’s LDS; he’s spoken here a couple of times in Utah, and he’s done a lot of work on pornography and trying to determine whether it is addictive or not. So he’s conducting studies using FMRI imaging to look at the mind and the brain and the effects on the brain when people have used pornography. What he is finding is that it mimics exactly the same affects when somebody uses drugs. They’ve looked at cocaine, methamphetamines, the opiates—and then they’ve looked at pornography, and the same centers of the brain that are triggered, and the same areas of the brain that actually shrink with addiction, shrink with pornography addiction.

So we know from that that there is a biochemical connection. Anybody that’s ever seen pornography knows it, because things change in their body—heart rate increases, pupils dilate, breathing changes. I mean, it really changes you physiologically. Some people will say, “Well there’s no good research,” and there’s some truth to that. The research is coming in, but there are not a lot of articles in tier one journals on this issue. But it will be where we are going in the future. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, like with other addictions, we are able to biochemically start to treat it like we can for some of the opiate addictions.

Any questions at this point? Are you still awake? The question was, how can you tell if someone is addicted to it? That’s a really good question, and it’s somewhat difficult to determine. But one of the things that I use, and it’s very simple, is, have you tried to stop and been unable to. And if the answer is yes, then you’re addicted. Now usually, the answer is, “Yes, about a hundred times.” And they can’t stop. They’ve tried this and this and this, and they can’t stop. If that’s the case, then it is an addiction. And usually they need some help, and we’ll talk a bit more about that. We’re not going to go into treatment a lot today, just for the sake of time, but feel free if any of you have questions and we don’t get to them today, I’ll be around for a few minutes afterward. Ask me then, but let me give you my email address: it’s And you’re welcome to email me. Just say, I was at the devotional and I had a question. And I’ll be happy to try to answer it. It may take me a day or two, but I will get to it.

So, in Dr. Hilton’s work, what he has identified is some of the drugs that it releases in your body. There’s adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin and vasopressin are sort of hormone-type drugs that are used to create attachments. Mothers produce oxytocin in breast milk and it’s one of the things that help children bond to their mother. The scary thing about pornography is it’s producing similar hormones and creating a bond between the addict and the pornography. And anytime you start talking about bonds, you start talking about addictions and making it much more difficult to break, to make those changes. He’s written a good book—I don’t know if I can mention books here, is that okay? He just wrote a great book, probably the best one on pornography addiction, and it’s called He Restoreth My Soul by Donald Hilton. It has a subtitle, but I don’t know what that is. I think it’s available at Deseret Book, and if you Google it, you can always find anything that you want. So I would recommend that if you want to learn a little more about it that you look at that book, because he looks at it both from the scientific side, but also heavy emphasis on the spiritual side. And we’ll get to that in just a moment.

But let me just say that the costs of pornography—not monetary costs but the effects and the damages, the personal price that people pay because of pornography, are huge. The effects on women, I think, are very detrimental; whether women look at pornography or not, what it does to men and the way men think is very damaging to women—they’re objectified, they’re sometimes victimized. Again, the industry says there’s no correlation or connection between pornography and violence, yet there’s a lot of very good anecdotal evidence, and there is beginning to be some good empirical evidence that says pornography does lead to violence.

One of the assignments I have at Church headquarters is to answer the Church’s abuse hotline. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a 24-hour help line for ecclesiastical leaders to call whenever they learn of any type of child abuse, whether it’s physical abuse or sexual abuse. The bishop’s supposed to call us and then we help them decide what needs to be done—is there a report that needs to be made, can you get this person into treatment. And every single time, when there’s sexual abuse, pornography is involved. Now we can’t say pornography caused the abuse, because we don’t know cause and effect. But there’s definitely a correlation between pornography and abuse. And we see it most dramatically with young men—young boys from the age of 12 to 16 who are addicted to pornography, become curious, and then end up unfortunately victimizing a younger sister or a niece or someone like that. So the costs to women are huge, and the long-term effects are big.

The effects on relationships—my personal view is that it’s impossible to have a good, intimate relationship if pornography is involved in either person’s life. And when I say intimate, I’m not talking about sex per se; that’s part of it, but I’m talking about emotional, mental, spiritual intimacy—having that connection with a partner that is what marriage is intended to be. If pornography is involved, you are not going to have that. Even in relationships where the wife says, “Oh, I don’t care. It’s okay if he looks at pornography,” it’s damaging to that relationship.

The effects on the person who’s using pornography—their self-esteem goes down, it creates a lot of shame and guilt. Spiritually, obviously, the Spirit is driven away and really can’t come back and dwell with that person as long as they’re using pornography. And I think one of the more difficult things is being of service to others. If somebody is addicted to pornography, they’re not going to be ready to serve the Lord when that call comes, whether it’s to give a priesthood blessing or accept a calling. They’re not going to be spiritually ready to make the kind of contribution that they can.

The effects on society, I think we see. It’s touted as “it’s okay; it does no harm.” We know better than that. Not just because you’re so smart because you go to LDS Business College but because you’re children or adults of the covenant. You know the truth. You know what right and wrong is, and you know that it’s something that can destroy our society. Crime increases.

QUESTION: If someone goes to their bishop for help, is there a cost for treatment or is it through the Church?

ANSWER: There are both. If somebody makes a living providing treatment specifically to this problem, or just does it as part of this practice, then there’s usually a fee associated with it just like any therapy fee. Bishops often refer people in and there’s a fee, so if the member isn’t able to pay, then the bishop is able to pay through fast offering funds. That’s an approved use of fast offering funds. However, there are 12-step support groups for addictions and for pornography that are free of charge, and there are some clinics that offer free services. So if somebody really wants treatment and money is an issue, or something they have used as an excuse not to get help, it really can be obtained without money.

QUESTION: Can you explain what the 12-step groups are?

ANSWER: Sure. Are most of you familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous? What the Church did a few years back was they took those twelve steps and just altered them slightly. They didn’t change them, other than the original twelve steps, one of them, says we “rely on a higher power.” It used to, years ago, say “God,” but at some time it was changed to “a higher power” so it could be anybody’s anything. So what we do is we refer to that as Jesus Christ, because we know that Christ is our higher power, and Heavenly Father. So we just kind of make it cleaner and clearer. So the 12-step program is basically the equivalent of somebody going to AA or any of the other anonymous groups and working the steps. And if you aren’t familiar with the steps, whether you have an addiction or not, I would encourage you to read the steps because they’re wonderful. And if we all were to work those steps and to live them, we would be better Latter-day Saints. And you can get the addiction recovery manual, which is the 12-step manual—you can download it for free on the Church’s website. So LDS Family Services has a website, and you can go there and download it for free. So I would encourage you to take a look at that, just for your own curiosity, and someone may come along that you can refer them to.

So the positives. Let’s talk a little bit about change, because the first thing I want to say is that change is possible. Everybody needs hope. People who are struggling with addiction, I think particularly a sexual addiction, lose hope. Why do they lose hope? Because they have tried repeatedly to stop, on their own, usually, and failed. Sometimes they’ve gone to their bishop and asked for help, and they have failed. And they don’t have to fail. You can overcome this, but it does take a few things. It takes a lot of hard work, and it takes help. It’s not something you can do alone. And I believe that. The longer I’ve worked with people, the more I believe that you can’t do it alone. In fact, the first step in the 12 steps is admitting that, basically, you are powerless to overcome this problem on your own.

So, what that means is that you have the Lord. You always have to rely on the Lord. You have to rely on the Lord’s anointed—His bishops or branch presidents, or stake presidents, mission president—whoever is your ecclesiastical leader should be involved in that recovery process. And then obviously, repentance is a key. And one of the things that we’ve—I don’t know if we’ve discovered it, but we’ve recognized it—is there is really two parts that have to be done when somebody is dealing with any addiction. There’s the repentance piece, which is between the individual and the Savior. It’s when you access the Atonement and use that to heal from anything. And isn’t it true that the Atonement can overcome any problem that you have? Do you believe that? I hope so, because it can.

But in addition to just repentance—I’ve seen people come in, they’ve got the broken heart and the contrite spirit. They want to change. This problem is making their life miserable. They’re sincere, and they repent, and I think they’re forgiven. But they slip back up. Does that mean they didn’t repent? Well, I can’t say. But what I can say is repentance alone, in most cases, isn’t enough. Somebody has to repent, and then they have to work some kind of recovery program, whether that’s a 12-step program or what their bishop advises them to do. There has to be follow-up.

What Dr. Hilton has discovered with addictions in general is that it takes about 18 months for the brain to get back to normal after a substance addiction. That’s a long time, 18 months. And what he is surmising and trying to prove is that it takes as long for a sexual addiction. So people who repent and maybe go to counseling a few times and then, they’re feeling good, they’re not struggling. They stop. And they haven’t changed behaviors, they haven’t changed thoughts, they haven’t changed some of the things that might have led them into addictions. And every time they do that, their hope diminishes a little bit more, they get a little more discouraged, and eventually they give up and they just quit trying. So we can’t do that. We’ve got to get the message out there that people can change no matter how low they have gotten in this.

I personally have worked with people that have come full circle and continue to do great. And I believe the key is the Atonement. Without the Atonement, I think it’s very difficult. There are non-members, obviously, who overcome it, but they use a higher power. And I think that same higher power is Jesus Christ; they just don’t really know it. So the cure is possible.

Let me just touch briefly on the Combating Pornography website. When I first came to headquarters, that was the first thing I said, “The Church has no information to deal with this problem.” I searched the Internet. There were articles, you know, conference addresses and things like that, there are Ensign articles, but that was it. There was nothing that brought it all together and really provided help. So for five years I worked tirelessly to try to get approval to try to do a website. If you’ve worked for the Church in some fashion, it’s a bureaucracy and there’s a bit of red tape and it takes a while. But finally we got the attention of the people that matter, who are the Brethren, and once they got ahold of that idea, it started happening. So about a year ago, we started designing a website and building it, and with luck we’ll get it launched either at the end of the year or the beginning of next year. It’s done, but we’ve got IT and correlation to get through, and again, just approval from the First Presidency or maybe just the Bishopric. Once that’s done, it will provide hope and help for members.

What we’ve done and what I’ve done is, there are five audiences that we’re focusing on in the website. Those are individuals, which is a better way than saying addicts. We want the site to be uplifting and hopeful. We don’t want, “You’re an addict. You’re the struggler.” They know they’re the struggler. So they’re the individuals; that’s the addict. Second is the spouses, which is huge—spouses hurt over this problem, I think, more than the individuals do, if you’re married. Parents hurt more, sometimes, than their children do. So there’s individuals, spouses, parents, youth—we’re trying to tailor some things for youth, because again, 11 years old and they’re getting introduced—and then leaders, meaning church leaders primarily, but the site is generic enough that if it’s a rabbi, or if it’s a Catholic priest, or anybody, they are welcome to use this site.

Then within those five audiences, we’ve got four main areas of focus, and that’s prevention, recognition, overcoming the problem, and then support to remain porn-free and stay out of it in the future. As I said, it’s a new site. It’s not perfect. I’ve already got my mind wrapped around phase two, which will be a lot more interactive. This site is basically information only. There’s not a lot of interaction. There are some video clips and some audio clips and things like that, but it’s not a really interactive site, which I think we need. And so phase two, hopefully we can incorporate some of those things.

The site doesn’t look like most Church sites. There’s no blue in it, or very little blue. It’s green, and we did green because it represents hope, spring, a new life, a turning over and changing. So it’s kind of just got a clean, fresh feel to it. And the goal was to draw people to it and then within the site they can learn things that lead them to help—a bishop, hopefully, therapy if necessary. And there’s a lot of ways that people can get help.

But the key, really, is the Atonement. And I can’t stress that enough. I just think, in my experience it’s interesting that people come in and they’ve struggled with this problem, say, for ten years and they’ve been to five bishops. And they say, “You know, the bishop has never been helpful. All he says is, ‘Study your scriptures, say your prayers, come to church.’ And I’ve done that, and it didn’t work.”

And I say, “Okay, well, let’s look at some other things.” And so, we spend time and we look at some other things. But in the meantime, I say, “You know, your bishop’s telling you to do these things, and I want you to do them. And I promise you that if you do them, you’ll be blessed. It won’t hurt you. You’ll be blessed if you do them.” And so a year later, the person’s clean from pornography, no problems for a year, and they’re doing great. And I’ll say, “What do you think were the critical things that got you out of it and keep you out of it?”

Guess what they all say? Saying your prayers, studying your scriptures, and fulfilling your Church responsibilities. And so the problem is not that those things that the bishop says to do were the wrong things; it may be more a function of timing and other issues that have to be resolved while they’re doing these other things. And in the past, all they did was those things. And so, we’re trying—and it’s difficult to train bishops. Not that they don’t want training, but we don’t have the authority from the Brethren to tell bishops how and what to do.

It’s been interesting—we’re doing a pilot study down at BYU. There are 25 stakes there, and we got permission to work under Elder Hafen and Elder Snow and Frasier Bullock to create some information for bishops—assessment, developing a repentance plan, support, and kind of getting bishops a little bit better trained—because in any student ward you have a large problem. Hopefully it will go well, and we’ll be able to share that with other priesthood leaders.

QUESTION: How do we help our children, whether they’re not here yet, or those who have children, to stay away from pornography and avoid its evil influence?

ANSWER: There are a couple of things. One, probably the most important thing, is education—talking to your kids about pornography. Talking to your kids about sex is very important. A lot of parents don’t do enough sex education. So kids need to know and understand, not just “don’t do it; it’s wrong” but why. So a comprehensive approach to teaching them about the dangers, the risks of pornography, what it can do to people, as well as certainly taking precautions—just the general, basic things. No child should have a computer with Internet access in their bedroom. Any house computer should be in an open area.

I have a list of some other things, so if you want to email me, I’d be happy to send that out. Let me just say in closing, these are the things that I think we have to do. One, instill hope. We have to keep people hopeful that change is possible. Use the Lord’s anointed servants, and certainly use the Lord. People have to develop a relationship with the Lord to help them overcome this problem. Parents can play a vital role, if you’re a child or living under their direction. Spouses can play a vital role—not to be the policeman or fix it, but they can play the role of support. The role of professionals, sometimes, is important. And then those daily things that the person themselves have to do—their work, their scriptures, their basic everyday efforts to stay away from pornography. Because you can’t avoid it.

And that’s another problem that I really didn’t have time to get into. People have to be okay to say, “Okay, I saw something that triggered a thought, but that’s all it did. I don’t have to act on it; I don’t have to dwell on it. I can go back to mowing the lawn” or whatever you were doing. But people tend to focus too much and say, “Oh, I can’t think about that! I can’t think about that!” And by doing that, they end up thinking about the very thing they’re trying not to think about.

So thank you, and I hope this was meaningful, and maybe we’ll talk again.


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