FIGHT THE NEW DRUG

10.20.15 5:00 AM ET

‘Porn Kills Love’: Mormons’ Anti-Smut Crusade

You can’t miss the billboards plastered all over San Francisco, declaring that ‘porn kills love.’ But here’s the thing: It doesn’t.

Bay Area porn performer Siouxsie Q came home after two days of shooting in Southern California with her boyfriend to find that “a giant billboard” had been erected “a block from [her] house” in her absence. Its message in block letters: “Porn Kills Love.”

She wrote in her weekly column, “I squeezed [my boyfriend’s] hand as we pulled into the driveway, marveling at how that threatening statement could be so preposterously untrue.”

If you live in the Bay Area, the “Porn Kills Love” billboards are hard to miss. Local news outlets spotted 100 of them earlier this month, correctly identifying their sudden appearance as a new campaign from Fight the New Drug (FTND), a Utah-based anti-porn organization with an all-Mormon founding team. And if you don’t live in the Bay Area, you might have seen a clean-cut student sporting a “Porn Kills Love” tee on a college campus near you.

FTND’s billboards and T-shirts are flashy but their message is rooted in pseudoscience—a classic case of style over substance. And, in the wake of Proposition 8—which banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008 with substantial support from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—this current Mormon intervention in Californian sexuality is hitting an especially raw nerve.

Established in 2009, FTND takes what founder Clay Olsen claims is a fact-based approach to online pornography.

“It’s not a religious or a moral approach, it’s just the facts,” Olsen told the Mormon-owned Deseret News in 2010. “We think that once people in our generation know how manipulative and harmful pornography can be, they won’t want to have anything to do with it.”

When asked about any official Mormon ties, Olsen told The Daily Beast, “We have no affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other religion for that matter. This issue goes beyond personal values or beliefs. It’s a public health concern and we, as a society, need to start treating it as such.”

Since its founding, FTND has grown among youth, now boasting over a million Facebook fans and even landing an Instagram endorsement from Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews. But the supposed facts behind the “Porn Kills Love” billboards are not quite so convincing without eye-catching graphic design to back them up.

The director of research for FTND, Dr. Jason Carroll, is a professor of Marriage and Family Studies in the School of Family Life at the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University. Last year, attorneys for Carroll and another BYU professor filed a brief (PDF) in Bostic v. Schaefer—a lawsuit which successfully challenged Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban—defending the state and arguing that the legalization of same-sex marriage would harm children by “weakening the connection of heterosexual men to marriage and fatherhood.”

An attorney for Carroll and a colleague also filed an amicus curiae brief in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case (PDF), this time arguing that same-sex marriage would “would have a profound impact on the United States’ already below-replacement level fertility rate,” and potentially cause socioeconomic problems.

This repeated anti-gay advocate is the man who “keeps things factual” for FTND, according to his bio on the organization’s website.

Carroll’s politics aside, the facts that he curates for the organization are questionable at best. For one, the central analogy guiding the organization—porn is a drug—is coming under fire with new research in neuroscience. A 2015 study in Biological Psychology examined people who reported experiencing “major problems” related to porn use and found that their patterns of brain activity did not resemble that of drug addicts and were, in fact, opposite to them.

“Porn addiction,” a phrase used liberally on the FTND website, is not recognized by the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and efforts to reintroduce “sex addiction” into the DSM have been rejected multiple times based on a lack of evidence.

Recent research published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors even suggests that believing you are addicted to porn may cause depression, anxiety, anger, and stress.

When asked about porn addiction’s conspicuous absence from the DSM, Olsen told The Daily Beast that “the research on the harms of pornography is still relatively new” and expressed confidence that it is only “a matter of time before the DSM catches up with the truth that pornography can lead to addiction as well as other harmful effects.” In this respect, Olsen compared the current perception of pornography to beliefs about cocaine and tobacco in the late 19th century.

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Olsen added that their campaign is “founded on thousands of peer-reviewed research studies from top-tier neuroscientists, clinical psychologists, sociologists, and more,” and forwarded a copy of the organization’s 2016 reference guide to The Daily Beast.

This reference guide repeatedly cites Donald Hilton, a Mormon neurosurgeon and author of He Restoreth My Soul: Understanding and Breaking the Chemical and Spiritual Chains of Pornography through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, to make several key claims.

Worth noting here is a 2014 Archives of Sexual Behavior study which found that religiosity is a predictor of belief in porn addiction, and that this belief is “unrelated to actual levels of use among pornography consumers.”

Much of the other literature on FTND’s guide is general information about dopamine and addiction stitched together into faulty syllogisms. Citations from peer-reviewed journals are mixed in with quotes from popular anti-porn tomes like Pornified and Big Porn Inc. And bold headings like “How Pornography is Similar to a Drug” ultimately rely on Hilton citations to hold water.

Also cited in the guide are anti-porn activist Gail Dines—who told Alternet in 2010, “They don’t make love in pornography, they make hate”—and feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon, who campaigned in the 1980s for antipornography ordinances that conceptualized porn as “sex discrimination” and would have allowed women to sue pornographers for civil damages.

Mary Anne Layden, a women’s studies professor and another frequent FTND source, once claimed in The Washington Times that “[t]he more pornography women use, the more likely they are to be victims of nonconsensual sex,” sparking outrage from critics like clinical psychologist Dr. David Ley, who called it a new low for the “blame the victim” argument.

Ley, the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, examined the research cited by FTND and told The Daily Beast that it was “extremely one-sided, and is not composed of empirical studies on the actual effects of pornography.”

“Instead, their citations largely include writings in pop psychology and by writers who are not conducting actual research, and who do not have backgrounds in sexuality research or treatment,” Ley added.

As Ley notes, more credible research can be used to paint a rosier picture of pornography’s social effects: studies that show that pornography is associated with more egalitarian attitudes toward gender or that pornography consumption predicts support for same-sex marriage among adult men.

And it is San Francisco’s historic support for sexual freedoms, some say, that make the “Porn Kills Love” billboard campaign especially grating. Olsen told an SFGate reporter that his group does not have billboards in any other city, and said that they chose San Francisco in order to reach “influencers and world changers.” But Kink.com spokesperson Mike Stabile doesn’t buy that explanation, especially given the founders’ Mormon beliefs.

“It’s offensive that they launched this in San Francisco,” Stabile told SFGate, citing the area’s progressive history as a subtext to the billboard campaign.

And although the Mormon Church is not officially involved in the FTDN campaign, Bay Area residents are certainly taking the religion of its founders to heart in their criticism. Same-sex marriage may be legal now, but Prop 8 is still a fresh wound.