Obscenity—How It Affects Us, How We Can Deal with It

“Obscenity—How It Affects Us, How We Can Deal with It,” Ensign, Apr. 1984, 32


How It Affects Us, How We Can Deal with It

Nutritionists tell us we are what we eat. Similarly, the quality and character of our spirit is a reflection of what we feast upon—including the books and magazines we read and the motion pictures, television shows, plays, and other public entertainments we witness. Unfortunately, much of what is available is not conducive to building healthy spirituality.

For a small rental fee, it is now possible to witness on a videocassette—almost any motion picture ever made—good or bad. Or we can choose our entertainment from scores of cable television channels which, at the present time, are almost totally unregulated in the United States. This means that programming on all of the major U.S. cable networks mixes films and programs of good taste and value with others that are extremely malignant, involving soft-core pornography and excesses of violence. Even commercial TV has much of questionable worth. The outside world truly has entered into our homes—into the family room, the kitchen, and the bedroom. The seriousness of the problem has prompted this examination of a sensitive and distasteful subject.

The media have a great potential to teach, inspire, inform, and entertain, but they may also corrupt, degrade, and pervert. They have the power to influence profoundly for good or evil all aspects of our values and feelings, as well as our behavior. We are affected by what we choose to expose ourselves to.

For example, I have a letter from a fourteen-year-old girl telling of the death of her ten-year-old brother by hanging. With naive innocence, he had imitated the scene of a mock hanging he had witnessed in an evening television movie. He thought he could escape death as the actor in the movie had. He didn’t.

As a clinical psychologist, I see examples almost daily of gracious and good people (all ages, both sexes) of exemplary upbringing who have become addicted to viewing violence. Many have also cultivated an appetite for voyeuristically viewing stimulating, sexually explicit scenes of multiple adulteries, rape, or the seduction of innocents—all in living color and accompanied by a memorable musical score.

Evil is presented as attractive and good. Destructive behaviors are marketed as exciting and rewarding. Often humor is used to make pornography, rape, or the loss of innocence entertaining and palatable.

But what starts out as a spectator sport introduces into one’s brain a vast library of antisocial fantasies. These have the potential, much research suggests, of eventually being acted out—to the destruction of the individual and others around him.

I have found that four things typically happen to some people who become immersed in erotic or pornographic material.

First, they become addicted. They get hooked on it and come back for more and more.

Second, their desire for it escalates. They soon need rougher and more explicit material to get the same kicks and excitement.

Third, they become desensitized to the abnormality of the behavior portrayed. In time, they accept and embrace what at first had shocked and offended them.

Fourth, eventually there is a tendency and temptation to act out what they have witnessed. Appetite has been whetted and conscience anesthetized.

I have observed this progression countless times with some users of pornography. And everyone is vulnerable—even good people. In spite of the significant risks in voluntarily exposing oneself to this kind of material, I see many people who feel they are the exception. They feel they can journey into the sewer and somehow come out still smelling like a rose. Some feel that if they can indulge in “adult materials” without their wives and children ever finding out, they can escape any negative effects. But the laws of learning apply to us all.

A mother brought into my office her thirteen-year-old daughter who, with a fourteen-year-old boyfriend, had uncovered the father’s secret cache of pornography. The pictures and stories helped break down their self-restraint. Now the girl was pregnant and uncertain of her father’s real values.

The human reproductive drive is one of God’s great gifts to mankind. It allows us to participate in the act of creation, to know the great joy of having children who are forever linked to us biologically and spiritually. Sexual intimacy with genuine affection may also bond the husband and wife together, heal wounds in the relationship, and bless the man and woman with a special kind of joy and caring for each other. Indeed, the physical union of husband and wife is not only a commandment of God, but it is also a great blessing for us.

But pornography degrades sex. It dehumanizes the participants and those who witness it. Much of this filmed, photographed, or written “prostitution” is actually antisexual, because it gives a great deal of misinformation about human sexuality. Rather than being sex education, most of it is sex miseducation. Introducing abnormal stimuli into the mind of those who view it, it could create fantasies that may never be erased. It has the potential of corrupting values and degrading those who indulge. It suggests behaviors that could destroy one’s marriage and family.

Yesterday I saw a young woman, religiously devout, who had followed the advice of a marriage manual and repeatedly indulged with her husband in some very hard-core pornography. The manual had promised that this would enhance the affection in their marriage relationship. But unfortunately the strategy had boomeranged. She found that her guilt over her subsequent fantasies turned her away from her husband. The pornography she had voluntarily exposed herself to had, in this instance, damaged the most intimate aspects of their marital relationship.

Pornography leads to a loss of contact with, and consciousness of, God and the Holy Spirit. It fills the mind and soul with ugly images. It can lead to a psychological, sexual, and spiritual regression. Getting into a cycle of pornography use and escalation can lead to infidelity or other inappropriate sexual behavior. Becoming addicted to pornography can lead to a loss of control, and eventually to the loss of moral agency.

Some American motion picture producers in recent years have marketed what is called the “hard R” film. These usually involve what is called “porno-violence,” a combination of soft-core pornography and extreme violence, with women usually cast in the role of victims. Several years ago this kind of film would have received an “X” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. But the erosion that has been occurring in motion picture ratings has made it possible for these movies to now receive “R” ratings, making them more accessible to much broader audiences.

Those who witness this porno-violence in commercial cinema, on cable television, or on a rented videocassette and who allow their children to view it—in my judgment do great injury to themselves and their children. This exposure creates false images and feelings about men and women and sexuality and raises the possibility that the viewer may be conditioned into practicing sexual deviancy. For, as much evidence has suggested, all sexual deviations are learned, not inherited.

I have heard some argue that it is all right for moral, religious people to view soft-core pornography, such as that found in some R-rated films. They say this isn’t the really “rough stuff” found in the so-called hard-core films. But actually, the only difference may be a slightly different camera angle. The inappropriate behavior witnessed is still the same.

Sociologist Diana Russell says pornography is vicious antiwoman propaganda: “It tells lies about us. It degrades women. Pornography is not made to educate but to sell. … What this involves is for the most part totally contrary to what we know about female sexuality [devoid of tenderness or caring] to say nothing of love and romance.”

But women aren’t the only victims. Anyone who participates in or witnesses their degradation may become, in time, a victim too.

Some have argued that there is no scientific evidence suggesting harm to those indulging in pornography. Their arguments are patently untrue. Following are several representative studies and evidences. (See the list of sources at the conclusion of this article. A more extensive research bibliography can be obtained from the author on request: Dr. Victor Cline, Department of Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112 USA.)

• Drs. Keith Davis and G. N. Braucht studied how pornography affects moral character, deviance in the home and neighborhood, and sexual behavior. They worked with seven different populations of subjects, comprising 365 people. In this study, impressive in its rigorous methodology and careful statistical treatment, they concluded that exposure to pornography is the best predictor of sexual deviance among young subjects.

• In a national survey conducted by Drs. Morris Lipkin and Donald Carns at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, 254 psychotherapists indicated having had patients who had been “harmed or damaged” by exposure to pornographic materials. Another 325 doctors indicated they had had patients with some evidence of harm. Although other therapists in the survey did not report having such patients, the evidence of pornography’s harm cannot be disregarded as insignificant.

• In the past five years a series of studies on the effects of pornography has been conducted by such investigators as Neal Malamuth at the University of Manitoba in Canada, Seymour Feshbach at UCLA, Edward Donnerstein at the University of Wisconsin, and Dolf Zillman at Indiana University. They have found that a merging of sexual and violent imagery increases the viewer’s aggressiveness, especially toward women. They found that it also lessens men’s sensitivity about rape, increasing their callousness toward women and stimulating fantasies of aggressive rape. Many viewers have admitted entertaining the idea of raping someone—especially if they thought they could get away with it. In one study at UCLA, 51 percent of the males studied admitted to such a possibility if assurred they would not be caught. So-called “nonviolent pornography” was also found to have a series of negative consequences for the viewers in studies by Dr. Dolf Zillman at the University of Indiana.

• Three British scientists, R. J. McGuire, J. M. Carlisle, and D. G. Young, have noted how such sexual activity as masturbation, homosexuality, exhibitionism, and voyeurism can be prompted and reinforced by pornography. A number of studies I have reviewed suggest that persistent deviant sexual fantasies frequently lead later to deviant behavior. (“As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7.) Dr. McGuire found that any type of sexual deviation could be acquired this way—including more than one in the same individual. Experience shows that it usually takes special reconditioning therapies to eliminate these deviations. Without outside help, attempts at self-control are largely ineffective. One’s agency in this matter to a large extent has been lost.

Dealing with the Problem

How can we responsibly deal with the flood of erotic and pornographic images which we find on every side? On the personal, individual level, we have the agency to avoid it. If we know something is poisonous, we are careful not to eat it. If we know a certain drug is highly addictive and would have a noxious effect on our body, most of us would avoid its use. Likewise, we can make a personal decision to avoid pornography, resisting the temptation to take that first look—to see what it’s all about.

But what can we do if we are exposed to inappropriate materials through no fault of our own? We can resist the temptation to go back for the second look. We have the agency to choose not to indulge in explicit images that might eventually “hook” us. These will be times when no parent, bishop, or stake president will be present. We will be on our own; the decision will be totally ours to make. It’s up to us to act in our own self-interest.

How can we protect our families from the influence of this kind of material? First, I think we should discuss with our children the dangers of pornography in clear, helpful, tasteful terms. If we don’t do this, who will? In family councils, we should establish rules and guidelines for TV, movies, and reading material. Discussions of this kind are more productive if the children (especially the teenagers) contribute their ideas and solutions. If they do, they will be more likely to abide by the codes which your family establishes.

Remember also that if you have a good relationship with your children they will be more likely to emulate your values and pay attention to your wise and loving counsel.

What can we do on the local level? We can get involved in the community, schools, and government. Latter-day Saints who live in democratic countries can try to influence their legislators and thus have an impact on the law. We have a right to speak up—to create the kind of society we want. But this doesn’t come easily or without pain and effort. If we want a better community we have to pay the price of becoming involved.

I find that we can have more influence working through groups than as isolated individuals. However, individuals who are knowledgeable can do much good. We must know the facts—what the law says, what the research suggests—if we are to have credibility. In order to be responsible, we have to make ourselves more knowledgeable than just about everybody else.

The media do have incredible power to influence us and shape the nature of our civilization—for good or evil. Our hearts and minds—and those of our children—are vulnerable.

The media can make a real contribution to our society. But what we need—from the moviemaker, the television producer, the novelist, poet, playwright, and advertiser—is a new vision of man and woman, a new set of heroes. We need to see heroes who can cope, who can solve problems—not by violence, but by peaceful means. We need to see models of people sacrificing for a greater good, overcoming temptations, disciplining their emotional and psychological resources.

If our civilization is to survive, our arts and media will have to convey more positive values—reflecting the greatness of man and woman, their potential for good, and their capacity to love and express concern for others.


Bandura, Albert, Principles of Behavior Modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.

Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Cline, Victor B. “Critique of Commission Behavioral Research.” In The Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. New York: Bantam Books, 1970, pp. 463–90.

Cline, Victor B. Where Do You Draw the Line? Explorations in Media Violence, Pornography and Censorship. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1974.

Cline, Victor B. “The Scientists vs. Pornography: An Untold Story.” Intellect, February 1976.

Davis, Keith E., and G. N. Braucht. “Exposure to Pornography, Character and Sexual Deviance: A Retrospective Survey.” Journal of Social Issues, 1973, pp. 183–96.

Donnerstein, Edward, and L. Berkowitz. “Victim Reactions in Aggressive Erotic Films As a Factor in Violence against Women.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1981, pp. 710–24.

Donnerstein, Edward, and N. Malamuth. “Pornography: Its Consequences on the Observer.” In Sexual Dynamics of Anti-social Behavior, edited by L. B. Schlesinger. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, (in press).

Evans, D. R. “Masturbatory Fantasy and Sexual Deviation.” Behavioral Research and Therapy, 1968, p. 17.

Feshbach, Seymour, and N. Malamuth. “Sex and Aggression: Proving the Link.” Psychology Today, December 1978, pp. 111–22.

Lipkin, Morris, and D. E. Carns. “Poll of Mental Health Professionals.” In University of Chicago Division of Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine Reports. Winter 1970, p. 1.

Malamuth, Neal. “Rape Proclivity among Males.” Journal of Social Issues, 1981, pp. 138–57.

Malamuth, Neal M., and J. P. Check. “The Effects of Mass Media Exposure on Acceptance of Violence against Women: A Field Experiment.” Journal of Research in Personality, 1981, pp. 436–46.

McGuire, F. J., J. M. Carlisle, and B. G. Young. “Sexual Deviations As Conditioned Behavior: A Hypothesis.” Behavior Research Therapy, 1965, p. 185.

Rachman, Stanley. “Sexual Fetishism.” Psychological Record, 1966, p. 293.

Rachman, Stanley, and R. J. Hodgson. “Experimentally-induced ‘Sexual Fetishism’: Replication and Development.” Psychological Record, 1968, p. 25.

Russell, Diana E. H. “Pornography: A Feminist Perspective.” Privately printed paper. Berkeley, Calif., 1977.

Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, 2 vols. NIMH, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1982.

Church Leaders Suggest Ways to Fight Pornography

As Individuals

President Spencer W. Kimball: “We abhor pornography that seems to be flooding the land. … The best way to stop it is to have men and women, with their families, build barriers against it.” (Ensign, May 1975, p. 7.)

“Each person must keep himself clean and free from lusts. He must shun ugly, polluted thoughts and acts as he would an enemy. Pornography and erotic stories and pictures are worse than polluted food. Shun them.” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 283.)

President Gordon B. Hinckley: Begin with yourself. Reformation of the world begins with reformation of self. It is a fundamental article of our faith that ‘We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, [and] virtuous.’ (A of F 1:13.) …

“Respect for self is the beginning of virtue in men. That man who knows that he is a child of God, created in the image of a divine Father and gifted with a potential for the exercise of great and godlike virtues, will discipline himself against the sordid, lascivious elements to which all are exposed. …

“I should like to give to every man … a challenge to lift his thoughts above the filth, to discipline his acts into an example of virtue, to control his words that he speak only that which is uplifting and leads to growth.” (Ensign, Nov. 1975, pp. 38–39.)

“Be clean. Watch what you read. No good and much harm can come of reading pornographic magazines and other such literature. They will only stimulate within you thoughts that will weaken your discipline of yourself. No good will come of going to movies that are designed to take from you your money and give you in exchange only weakened wills and base desires.” (Ensign, Nov. 81, p. 41.)

Elder Thomas S. Monson: “Return to righteousness. An understanding of who we are and what God expects us to become will prompt us to pray—as individuals and as families. Such a return reveals the constant truth: ‘Wickedness never was happiness.’ (Alma 41:10.) Let not the evil one dissuade. We can yet be guided by that still small voice—unerring in its direction and all-powerful in its influence.” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 67.)

As Parents

President Spencer W. Kimball: “Teach your children to avoid smut as the plague it is. … Precious souls are at stake—souls that are near and dear to each of us.” (Ensign, Nov. 1976, p. 6.)

“We need to constantly guard against immorality, pornography, and sexual permissiveness that would destroy the purity of the family members, young and old. …

“What must we do? We must be constantly alert to their evil presence in our homes and destroy them as we would the germs and filth of disease. We must hunt them from the closets of our minds, freeing ourselves of such worldliness, quenching the embers of wickedness before they become destructive flames. How do we do this? …

“There is only one sure way and that is through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and being obedient to its profound and inspired teachings. Surely we must be made to realize that the purchase price of a family hearth free of such evil influences is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (Ensign, May 1979, pp. 5–6.)

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley: “The home is the cradle of virtue, the place where character is formed and habits are established. The home evening is the opportunity to teach the ways of the Lord.

“You know that your children will read. They will read books and they will read magazines and newspapers. Cultivate within them a taste for the best. While they are very young, read to them the great stories which have become immortal because of the virtues they teach. Expose them to good books. Let there be a corner somewhere in your house, be it ever so small, where they will see at least a few books of the kind upon which great minds have been nourished.

“Let there be good magazines about the house, those which are produced by the Church and by others, which will stimulate their thoughts to ennobling concepts. Let them read a good family newspaper that they may know what is going on in the world without being exposed to the debasing advertising and writing so widely found. When there is a good show in town, go to the theater as a family. Your very patronage will give encouragement to those who wish to produce this type of entertainment. And use that most remarkable of all tools of communication, television, to enrich their lives. There is so much that is good, but it requires selectivity. Elder Kimball spoke … of the efforts of the television networks to present in prime-time evening hours suitable family entertainment. Let those who are responsible for this effort know of your appreciation for that which is good and also of your displeasure with that which is bad. …

“Let there be music in the home. If you have teenagers who have their own recordings, you will be prone to describe the sound as something other than music. Let them hear something better occasionally. Expose them to it. It will speak for itself. More of appreciation will come than you may think. It may not be spoken, but it will be felt, and its influence will become increasingly manifest as the years pass.” (Ensign, Nov 1975, p. 39.)

Elder Marvin J. Ashton: “I challenge parents to be concerned about what your children read or view. … Consider the difference in children who are cuddled and snuggled by parents at bedtime as they listen to stories from good books, and then kneel at their bedside in prayer, as compared to those who go to bed after having viewed a violent television program.

“Next, I challenge grandparents to foster reading programs with your grandchildren. If you are close enough to be with them, read the books to them that will help develop character and ideals. If you’re a distance away, send them books, old or new, with a personal invitation to read them and report how they like them. …

“Next, I challenge families to foster movie viewing that is wholesome. Parents should know the movies their children attend, and children should attend only the movies they have parental permission to view. If movie viewing is an important part of your family life, and good ones are not available in commercial movie houses, wise parents will rent full-length movies that entertain and edify.” (Ensign, Nov. 1977, p. 72.)

As Citizens

President Spencer W. Kimball: “Members of the Church everywhere are urged to not only resist the widespread plague of pornography, but as citizens to become actively and relentlessly engaged in the fight against this insidious enemy of humanity around the world. …

“As citizens, join in the fight against obscenity in your communities. Do not be lulled into inaction by the pornographic profiteers who say that to remove obscenity is to deny people the rights of free choice. Do not let them masquerade licentiousness as liberty.” (Ensign, Nov. 1976, p. 6.)

Elder Robert L. Simpson: “How about taking a few minutes … to voice objection to the local supermarket manager about easy availability and prominent display of unacceptable material on his periodical display rack. …

“Perhaps we should all become a lot more interested in what the school is recommending and making available to our children. How many school meetings or visits did you make during the past year?

“Do the men you vote for feel as you do on these vital matters? Is there some legislation that needs to be encouraged, some petitions that need to be circulated, some telephone calls that need to be made?” (Ensign, Jan. 1973, pp. 112–13.)

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley: The building of public sentiment begins with a few earnest voices. I am not one to advocate shouting defiantly or shaking fists and issuing threats in the faces of legislators. But I am one who believes that we should earnestly and sincerely and positively express our convictions to those given the heavy responsibility of making and enforcing our laws. …

“Let our voices be heard. I hope they will not be shrill voices, but I hope we shall speak with such conviction that those to whom we speak shall know of the strength of our feeling and the sincerity of our effort. Remarkable consequences often flow from a well-written letter and a postage stamp. Remarkable results come of quiet conversation with those who carry heavy responsibilities. …

“Speak to those who enact the regulations, the statutes, and the laws—those in government on local, state, and national levels; and those who occupy positions of responsibility as administrators of our schools. …

“God give us the strength, the wisdom, the faith, the courage as citizens to stand in opposition to [obscenity] and to let our voices be heard in defense of those virtues which, when practiced in the past, made men and nations strong, and which, when neglected, brought them to decay.” (Ensign, Nov. 1975, pp. 39–40.)

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Obscenity—How It Affects Us, How We Can Deal with It,” individually or as a family, you may want to discuss the following questions and ideas.

1. Why is it so dangerous—spiritually and physically—to view violent and sexually stimulating material?

2. Why does Satan try so hard to pervert the normal, God-given feelings we have? How does pornography contribute to that perversion?

3. The author suggests that deviant behavior is learned. How can a person keep from learning such behavior? How can a person who has learned deviant behavior unlearn it?

4. How can we protect ourselves and our families from the influences of pornography?

  • Victor B. Cline, professor at the University of Utah, is a high councilor in the Salt Lake Valley View Stake. He and his wife Lois are the parents of nine children. Dr. Cline is nationally regarded as an expert on the influence of pornography on society.

Illustrated by Mark Robison