Last week I posted on Facebook an America article written by an anonymous priest struggling with his porn addiction. I knew it would get strong reactions. (For the record, I am not the anonymous priest.)
I expected people to say more or less the following: “Thank God someone was brave (or mature, or selfless, or vulnerable) enough to talk openly about this. You know, I struggle (or my husband struggles, or my son struggles, or my boyfriend struggles) with this addiction. It is always best to be honest, and, as we all know, we are only as sick as our secrets (or the truth will set us free, or we have to keep working the program, or the more we know about these addictions the better).”
And those were, in fact, the most common responses.
What I did not expect were the number of people who said (I am paraphrasing): “Of course he is addicted to porn; he’s celibate! That’s what happens when you don’t have any outlet for sex!” Or: “More proof of how bad celibacy is. If we had married priests this would never happen!”
If you sit in the confessional long enough, you will realize that almost every man struggles with porn.
It reminded me of the frequent and erroneous conflations of celibacy with pedophilia during the height of the publicity surrounding the clergy abuse crisis in the early 2000s. In articles, in lectures and when speaking with reporters, I had to remind people that celibacy does not inevitably lead to sexual abuse. How do we know that? One way to know that is to remember that the majority of sex abuse takes place within families, often by adults preying on children.
So saying celibacy, or the celibate priesthood, leads inevitably to sex abuse is false. Think of an unmarried aunt or uncle. Does one assume that they are predators or pedophiles?
It is the same with porn. If you sit in the confessional long enough, or if you just listen to men talk honestly, you will realize that almost every man struggles with porn. (And, I would assume, many women do as well.) Its availability online only makes the problem worse.
Why, then, do so many people think that celibacy leads to porn use? Probably for the same reason that people thought it led to sex abuse. Basically, some people think it’s weird. Unnatural. Impossible. Sick.
Why do so many people think that celibacy leads to porn use?
Celibacy is a complex topic, but it is one that I can speak about from experience—30 years of experience. It is a different way of loving people—freely and deeply but without the attachment of what we call an “exclusive relationship.” One has many friends, and one gives and receives love, but one is not committed to a single person.
One could make the argument that the sexual intimacy that the celibate person sacrifices leads him (or her) to seek gratification in porn, but you could make the same argument about a married man (or woman) who is sexually or emotionally unfulfilled in his (or her) marriage. You could also make that case for an engaged person. Or a single person who is dating. Talk to enough married men and women and you will also find out that there is a kind of “involuntary celibacy” that goes on in marriages. Yet no one assumes that the married life inevitably leads to porn addictions.
There are healthy and unhealthy ways of living celibacy just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways of living a married life. There are psychologically healthy married men and psychologically healthy celibate men.
It’s a complicated topic of course, worth a book, but I lament the widespread lack of understanding around celibacy and chastity. Usually, in a discussion on celibacy with people who have little experience with it and who know few committed celibates, the following issues get lumped together: celibacy, mandatory celibacy, chastity, sexual abuse, homosexuality, pedophilia, ephebophilia, married priests and women priests. Some of these things are related to one another; most, however, are not.
Porn is a real problem, an occasion of sin, as it was for that anonymous priest-writer. But that’s not because he’s a priest. It’s because he’s a human being.