Too embarrassed to talk: the vice of pornography in marriage
Pornography addiction is a rapidly growing condition affecting thousands across the world. The addiction has grown tremendously alongside advances in internet speeds and usability that make more accessible the internet’s reportedly 4.2 million pornographic websites. At any given second there are estimated to be over 28,000 people worldwide viewing online pornography, and a growing number of families (in some surveys nearly 50 percent) are reporting that pornography is a problem in their home. Among the many ill effects of pornography addiction are those that bring strain to marital relationships, and these effects are not absent from the American Muslim community as well. To respond, American Muslims need to better understand the nature of this addiction and develop creative ways to prevent addiction and help those affected.
THE GROWING PROBLEM
Over the last decade, pornography has played a staggering role in the breakup of marriages (with most recent American statistics suggesting that it has contributed in part to 2 out of 3 divorces). The American Muslim community has not been immune to these startling trends. Muslims scholars have reported an increasing number of inquiries related to pornography use and related ailments; several even informing me that they receive more questions on this topic than any other. A simple search through some of the more popular Islamic websites providing answer services confirms this.
Muslim legal scholars on these sites and others agree to the impermissibility of viewing pornography; often citing the Qur’anic verses,
[Prophet], tell believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. God is well aware of all that you do. And tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, [and] guard their private parts… Believers, all of you, turn to God so that you may prosper.
To those who fall into this sin, Muslim scholars often encourage to make a sincere repentance; including a firm resolve never to commit the act again. This is, of course, a sufficient response to the sinful aspect of the action, however it leaves much still to be addressed regarding the psychological and sexual damage such acts, if repeated, may bring into a present or future marriage.
An overexposure to pornography has been a contributing factor for many Americans—including those from the Muslim community—in their forming of serious mental health problems, so it is important to address this issue as soon as possible and not allow prolonged use to cause more damage.
UNDERSTANDING THE ADDICTION
Pornography addiction may develop when it is used to manage difficult feelings, stress and underlying emotional conflicts in one’s life. If an individual has become reliant on pornography as a means to cope with stress and anxiety, they are already exhibiting high-risk behavior. Misuse of pornography (and masturbation) as a “quick fix” for emotional difficulties may appear to the user as “harmless” at the time, however there are damaging psychological effects to their action. As the individual repeatedly commits the act, they grow more and more dependent upon the endorphins and adrenaline released in the brain in relation to the act.
Addicts often refer to the rush they feel from pornography (and masturbation) in ways that makes it sound like a drug. The user may feel an initial “high” or “numbness”, but these feelings are soon followed by shame and frustration; particularly if the user has been trying to refrain but failed. Internal conflict, both emotionally and morally, may then drive the user to repeat the action, as the action itself has become like a coping mechanism for their life’s difficulties. If this behavior continues the user may already be, or is danger of becoming, addicted.
Pornography addiction, like other addictions, is marked by five essential characteristics:
(2) Symptoms of withdrawal,
(4) Loss of willpower,
(5) Distortion of attention.
The first, tolerance, is the increase of desire for more of the addictive behavior in order to feel satisfied. If the behavior includes the use of pornography, a tolerance may also grow for the types of sexual acts they view—driving the user to seek out more and more extreme forms to achieve the same level of satisfaction. Symptoms of withdrawal may include feelings ranging from mild uneasiness and irritability to extreme agitation in the absence of the behavior. This is, in fact, the body’s stress reaction to the deprivation of something it has become accustomed to. The third, self-deception, includes the denial by the user of their destructive behavior. This may also be accompanied by a rationale for why they engage in it.
An all too common excuse for pornography use (and masturbation) is that, though they have tried, they have not yet been able to marry. While it is true that many Muslims in North America have been finding it difficult to marry—and communities must find and be open to creative ways to remedy this—by engaging in such behavior they are at risk of developing habits and conditions that may bring harm into any future relationship. If the user develops the habit before marriage, there is no guarantee that the behavior will cease once married. In fact, it is precisely because this behavior does not cease for many that simply getting married cannot be presented to the user as an alternative to their addiction; they may simply be adding another casualty to those affected by their habit. Getting married is not the solution to the problem, it is simply adding to it.
Addiction also includes loss of willpower; or the feeling of inability to cease one’s behavior. One may tell themselves that they can “stop at any time” and “I won’t need to view pornography or masturbate once I get married”, but too often this is not the case. If a user says they can stop at any time, ask them to perform a simple test: go ahead and stop. If they pass this test and successfully cease the behavior, then there is no addiction. If they fail, no amount of rationalization will change the fact that addiction exists.
Finally, pornography addiction is also characterized by a distortion of attention, or perhaps the consuming of one’s attention by their addiction and that which is related to it. Adverse affects of such a consumption of one’s attention is that it is less available for others, including ones spouse and other loved ones. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
THE AFFECT OF THE PROBLEM ON MARITAL LIFE
Pornography use creates a multitude of wedges between the user and their spouse, including emotional and sexual ones. These wedges strain the relationship and often lead to divorce. Here I will speak briefly about just a few of them.
- “Small Lies”. Pornography use almost inevitably entails the hiding of one’s habit behind a veil of “small lies”. This behavior leads to an unhealthy level of mistrust in the relationship and can be especially damaging when a spouse finally discovers the user’s habit. At this point the spouse may feel betrayed, angered, hurt and, if the relationship is to continue, they will have to work together to address the damage the secret behavior has caused the relationship.
- Loss of Time. Furthermore, if each partner works, or one or the other is attending school, supporting a pornography habit may also take a serious toll on the family and the spouses’ time together (which, if they have busy life schedules, can be especially precious). Time spent viewing pornography could have been better spent completing tasks and freeing up one’s schedule to allow more time with one’s spouse.
- Unaddressed Sexual Insecurities. Unfortunately, pornography’s dissociation from real-life pressures, emotional entanglements, and commitments is one of its major attractions. An individual may be drawn to pornography due a feeling of sexual insecurity. If that is the case, the user may see pornography as a means for the expelling of their sexual energy without having to face the expectations of another and reveal one’s own vulnerabilities. By getting used to expending one’s sexual energy in this way, they may come to rely on pornography which will be seen as an easier means to an end. Even if a pornography user is in a marriage with a spouse not only willing but desiring sexual relations, a user may still be drawn to pornography because they find it to be an emotionally and physically easier means to sexual satisfaction than having to deal with another human being. In these cases, a wife might even complain that although her husband is obsessed with sex (i.e., viewing pornography) she is not “getting any”.
- Skewed Expectations. Exposure to pornography, and especially prolonged use, may skew the user’s expectation of sex with their spouse. Skewed expectations affect not only how the user desires his wife to dress, but also how her body should look, the type of sexual acts they should engage in, and how the woman should perform sexual acts. Wives who discover their husband’s porn use are also led to wonder if they are “just not good enough”, causing many who may have never felt self-conscious before to begin worrying about whether or not they are “too fat” or “not sexy enough”. This is troublesome not only in the demands on the wife that the pornography user might make, but also that he has come to believe that this is what sex is supposed to be like; limiting the unique sensual chemistry that exists between a husband and wife to what the user has viewed online.
- Objectification of Women. Women portrayed in pornographic videos often have had a lot of cosmetic surgery, setting unrealistic expectations for a wife to live up to. Such expectations have even led some women to complain that most men today just don’t have a realistic idea anymore of what a normal woman’s body looks like. Pornography addicts place significantly greater emphasis upon physical attributes over others, they also find it difficult to be around women in professional relationships without either becoming uncomfortable, or making the other person uncomfortable.
- Focus on Male Gratification. Pornography portrays the sexual act as primarily revolving around male gratification and less about pleasing the woman. Some women complain that pornography users seem “distant and unconnected” during sex, appearing more self-interested and as if the woman was merely a “masturbatory accessory.” In fact, pornography teaches—and reinforces through repeated use—an incorrect image of what sex should look like, its etiquette, and the expectations of one’s spouse. Pornography does not portray how real women are, so if the viewer believes that repeating the same acts they have seen will result in the same responses in their partner the user will become, as one woman put it, “horrible lovers.” Merely imitating what one sees on video also detracts from the couples own unique exploration of each other’s desires and fantasies, which may help the couple to maintain and enhance their relationship.
- Regular Marital Relations Becomes Less Stimulating. Prolonged exposure to pornography may also lead users to view sex with their partner as “boring”. Repeated use of pornographic stimulants takes an emotional toll on the user, making it more difficult to achieve the sexual highs they once felt. Unable to feel satisfied, boredom sinks in. Furthermore, the material which is available online is diverse and tailored to appeal to people of varying sexual persuasions and fantasies. Due to this, online browsing may even lead the user to become curious about other expressions of sexuality that are also available on pornographic websites, including child pornography, rape reenactments and homosexuality; though they may have never expressed an interest before. If such behavior continues, it can eventually contribute to the users inability to maintain intercourse with his spouse; either by his inability to become aroused (without a pornographic stimulant), possessing a weak erection, or ejaculating too soon. If the damage is not too severe, and there are no other contributing causes, it may be possible for him to regain his sexual capability after practicing natural and religiously permitted forms of intercourse. However, throughout this process the user and their spouse may have to address some of the effects that the prolonged use of pornographic stimulants has had on the user’s expectations and ability to be intimate.
A USEFUL QUESTION
If someone is wondering whether or not they are addicted to pornography, a simple question to ask them (or one’s self) is: “Do you believe your sexual behavior negatively affects your sense of integrity?”, or “How does your sexual behavior make you feel about yourself?” If one believes that their behavior is in conflict with their moral beliefs concerning the issue, yet continues to engage in the activity, they may have an addiction.
To imams and chaplains I respectfully ask: If anyone says “yes” to this question and is genuinely seeking help, how do you expect to assist them?
A place to start may be Purify Your Gaze.
Here Zeyad Ramadan, initially trained as a life coach, provides a unique online program which walks members through a series of steps that first explain aspects of the addiction, and then provides means by which one can overcome it. Ramadan’s work should be known and supported, and communities should consider offering in addition education in healthy sexual habits and lifestyle.
A PROPHETIC REMINDER
Before I conclude, there is a notable instance from the life of God’s Messenger ﷺ that I would like to draw light upon and I pray we can also take example from. A young man once approached the Prophet ﷺ asking for permission to commit fornication.
Hearing this request, people nearby started to rebuke him and advised him not to ask such things. The Prophet then asked him, “Would you like such permission to be granted so that another man may lie with your mother?” The young man said, “Absolutely not!” The Prophet ﷺ then said, “Neither do others wish that.” The Prophet then asked, “Would you like such permission to be granted so that a man may lie with your daughter?” The young man replied, “No, absolutely not!” The Prophet ﷺ then said, “Neither do others wish that.” The Prophet then continued asking, “Would you like such permission to be granted so that a man may lie with your sister?” The young man replied “No, absolutely not!” The Prophet ﷺ again reminded him, “Neither do others wish that.” The Prophet then asked, “Would you like such permission to be granted so that a man may lie with your aunt?” The young man replied, “No, absolutely not!” The Prophet ﷺ then gently reminded him, “Neither do others wish that.” Thereupon the Prophet placed his hand upon the young man and prayed, “O Allah! May you forgive his sins, purify his heart and make him chaste.”
The Prophet ﷺ did not simply say to the young man “this is ḥarām” and turn him away. Rather, he took the time to explain to him the nature of his request. Perhaps we should also consider this as well; not simply explaining the religious ruling of pornography when asked but also the fact that it is exploiting other people’s mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. Of course, the Prophet did not stop at simply answering the young man’s question. After advising him he also prayed for his forgiveness, purity of heart, and divine assistance to overcome his problem. We as a community should also take a similar approach.
Habitual pornography use—whether done before or within a marriage—can have damaging affects for present and future marital relationships. A pornography user may not even realize that they cannot stop until they try repeatedly to end the behavior; at which point their addiction only then becomes evident. An addict or at-risk user may even disagree morally with their own behavior, so reminding them of its impermissibility may not be enough.
Unfortunately, many sites that Muslims write to simply provide pornography’s legal ruling—ḥarām (religiously prohibited)—but do not provide serious steps for the questioner to overcome an addiction; though we cannot be too critical of these sites for their primary role is to respond to legal questions. In a sense, people are turning to lawyers (jurists) for counseling since they do not know to whom else to turn.
Since most pornography users feel too ashamed to seek help from the community, it is the community that should seek to help them.We must provide programs to assist those looking for a way to overcome their addiction, as well as provide parents with information on how to prevent it in their home.
I pray that this article is used and read as a step towards that direction, and to those facing this addiction I pray that Allah forgives them, purifies their hearts, and makes them chaste.