A Feature Review of
Addicted to Lust:
Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
The “war on porn” has been a ubiquitous reality within the subculture of conservative, evangelical America for decades. Few cultural forces provoke a more strident reaction of fear and anger – not to mention warfare-imagery – from conservative Christians than pornography. A quick Google search of “books about Christianity and porn” reveals lists upon lists of titles that both decry the onslaught of pornography in American culture and also promise to provide the tools needed for the reader to defeat the mortal enemy of porn addiction. What all these books share is a set of a priori assumptions: pornography is an extremely seductive and addictive evil, and to consume it in any degree is to wreak havoc on your soul.
And while such books have no doubt provided counsel and practical help to many individuals in their personal battles with porn, none have yet paused to interrogate these unspoken assumptions with key questions like: “What effect does viewing pornography actually have on a Conservative, Protestant individual? Or, what does it actually mean to claim one is “addicted” to porn? Or, do narratives about porn use and addiction in our churches impact men and women differently? Or, how widespread is the use of porn in conservative Christian cultures, really? Or, what about the theology and ethics around the supremely awkward ‘elephant in the room’ of masturbation? Or, are the scores of books framing pornography as a ‘battle’ really helping the average individual?
Enter Samuel Perry.
With the keen eye of a trained sociologist, Perry addresses these questions (and others) in his erudite, balanced, easy-to-read and comprehensive study. The reader should know at the outset that this book is decidedly not a theological, moral, or ethical argument against pornography. Perry largely leaves those questions aside, in favor of a strictly sociological examination of a subculture. An essential theme of Perry’s work here is the concept of “moral incongruence,” defined as “the experience of violating socially learned and sacralized moral values.” (x) He teases at the implications of this theme, and frames his overall objective nicely in the introduction:
Specifically, [this book] provides the first comprehensive, sociological examination of how conservative Protestants experience porn use, its consequences in their lives, and how they are trying to respond individually and collectively. But beneath all this, it is a book about culture. It represents an attempt to understand how subcultures bound by a particular set of moral values and standards (in this case, a traditionalist sexual ethic) negotiate a world in which technological advances and broader cultural transitions make that ethic difficult to uphold. ( 6, emphasis added)
Addicted to Lust is structured by largely-self-contained, themed chapters, addressing how the Conservative-Protestant narrative of porn use has changed in recent decades, the ambiguous ethics of masturbation, what Protestants mean by the term “addiction,” how pornography is experienced along gender lines, how pornography impacts marriages in Conservative Protestant communities, and the inherent tensions between pragmatic counsel to decrease porn use (largely offered by local pastors) and the theological/spiritual counsel that prioritizes inner transformation over practical steps (largely offered by writers, speakers and thought-leaders in Conservative Protestantism).
If all this sounds overwhelming, the reader should not despair. Perry’s writing is not at all stuffy or academic. Rather, the book is genuinely enjoyable to read, even occasionally humorous, and concludes in under 200 pages (plus appendices and footnotes).
Though the chapters are individually themed, the book presents a cumulative study that should be read from front to back. Perry introduces various themes and schemas that combine to create a complex portrait of a culture that is facing a deep challenge today. In his brief historical survey, he tracks the ways language about pornography has changed since the 1970s, as well as the “rise of the addiction paradigm,” in which Protestant men, despite watching porn at equal-or-less-than rates of other Americans, have become twice as likely as those other Americans to describe themselves as “addicted” to pornography (33-36).
Like any good sociologist, Perry labels cultural trends with very memorable terms. In his chapter on masturbation, he identifies and develops some “cultural schemas,” which elucidate the ways that Conservative Protestants handle questions of sexual morality and play prominent roles in his study throughout. The first is biblicism, simply referring to the authority of scripture in all areas of life. The hand-wringing and ambiguity evident in Protestant teaching on masturbation are an example of biblicism at work: the absence of explicit biblical prohibition makes it difficult for Protestants to decry the practice in any clear way (42-46).
The second schema is pietistic idealism, an interpretive grid which prioritizes beliefs and intentions over physical actions. Pietistic Idealism, as a framework, opens up the theoretical possibility for one to masturbate (physical action) without lusting, or sinning in motivation and intent (46-51). The third and final schema is the increasing influence of popular psychology. The increased prominence of themes like guilt, shame, and even brain chemistry in Conservative Protestant writing and speaking on the topic of pornography and masturbation is evidence of the growing influence of psychological research in the subculture (51-55).
In the chapter on lust, guilt and shame, Perry coins the term “sexual exceptionalism” to name the “tendency among conservative Protestants to view sexual sin as supremely corrupting” (13). These schemas and concepts, along with the previously-mentioned idea of “moral incongruence,” provide very helpful entry points for readers unaccustomed to sociological research, and are especially enlightening for those within the Conservative Protestant culture. Perry leverages them to great effect throughout his study.
Some of Perry’s findings should be unsettling, or at least convicting, for those of us leading ministries within Conservative Protestantism. For example, he shows that the confluence of “sexual exceptionalism” and the “addiction paradigm” stir up deep “moral incongruence,” and his data suggest that one way in which individuals resolve such incongruence is to simply leave Protestantism. “An almost universal refrain running throughout my interviews with conservative Protestants was that the guilt and shame they experienced from repeatedly failing to avoid pornography made them want to back away from religion.” (77) And in a chilling summary later in the chapter:
The shame and internal discord many Christians feel at masturbating to porn leaves the option of either stopping the behavior (which proves far easier said than done) or pulling back from the source of those moral values – one’s religious faith and community. Faced with the choice, many conservative Protestants eventually choose the latter. (85)
Similarly unsettling are his findings on the experience of conservative Protestant women who use porn. Perry argues that conservative Protestants are, by and large, complementarian and essentialist in their theological understanding of gender. Some readers, particularly egalitarians, will take issue with this aspect of his study, but he makes an effort to nuance and qualify what this means. As it relates to the overall theme of the book, pornography use and “moral incongruence,” it’s a helpful framework, especially for glimpsing the particular burden that women in these communities bear.
Not only do [these women] experience the guilt and shame of committing sexual sin, but also they are forced to deal with the social challenges and intrapersonal turmoil of sinning against their gender – sinning “like a man.” The “double shame” these women often experience poses a unique challenge while also, counterintuitively, serving to reaffirm men’s God-ordained sexuality. (90)
His findings, especially the suggestion that the violation of gender norms may be the primary issue preventing women from opening up about their struggles with porn, suggest that deeper theological reflection and pastoral guidance, particularly on gender issues, are needed.
And that general need, for deeper theological reflection and pastor guidance, may be the broad takeaway from Perry’s invaluable contribution to our cultural moment. Perry is not a theologian, nor does he try to be. But his bracing, compassionate, and honest look at our own subculture is a gift, and should be received as such. Realities like “moral incongruence” especially as connected with cultural phenomena like “sexual exceptionalism,” not to mention the implications of “pietistic idealism” absolutely deserve to be explored with the theological depth that Perry leaves to other scholars.
Addicted to Lust is not a book for culture warriors, but should be on the shelf of every conservative Protestant minister who endeavors to understand the impact of pornography on their congregation, but also the broader culture within which they are participating.