This week a video about pornography produced at the Idaho campus of Brigham Young University went viral, and not in the usual way pornography videos go viral.
Set to a voiceover from the university's president Kim Clark, the video interchanged World War I reenactment footage with the tale of a lonely college student who struggles with an affection for Internet porn, only to be saved by his dorm mate who helps him seek treatment. The online response was swift and unanimous. The Huffington Post proclaimed the video compared "self pleasure to war." Mediate announced "BYU Implores Students To Report Masturbating Friends." As the Daily Beast put it, "The Mormon university is urging its students to narc on chronic masturbators."
For Clark, the sudden online attention missed the point completely. “Neither my talk nor the video has anything to do with masturbation. There’s nothing in the video or in my talk about that,” Clark said, in an interview with TIME Thursday. “We were really focused on addictions, pornography, things that are really damaging spiritually to people.”
The story behind the film actually begins with a devotional talk that Clark gave to students six years ago. Brigham Young University is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, a religion known for its conservative sexual values. At the time of Clark's talk, the Rexburg Temple was about to open near the campus, and Clark wanted to talk to students about how to prepare themselves to be pure for the temple, and especially how to prepare eventually to be married there.
Clark drew on three passages from the Bible for that talk. First, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan to show why you should not ignore your neighbor in need. Second, from the book of Revelation, where John writes about the casualties of a Great War over good and evil in heaven. The LDS church believes that all humans had a pre-mortal life, and the battles over good and evil on earth—and things like addiction and sin—stem from this first Great War in heaven. Third, the Apostle Paul’s message to Christians to wear the full armor of God, a spiritual armor of faith and truth to fight dark powers.
Clark then gave an example of what these passages are important for spiritual life today. “A lonely, confused young man gets addicted to pornography…the young man is spiritually wounded on the battlefield of the Great War…his roommates know, but they do nothing to help him,” he said. “You can help the spiritually wounded find the Savior.”
Five years later, Clark's speech was used in an educational video for BYU's student living program, which stresses communal responsibility. Students decided to create the video to share how important it is to help their peers—and they chose Clark’s 2008 speech as the spiritual voiceover for their spiritual message. The housing office showed the video on campus in a devotional last month. It was posted on YouTube, and it soon spread to meet the criticism of the non-Mormon world.
On Thursday, TIME spoke with Clark about why the message of the video is important for students, the harm that pornography and masturbation can cause and how they fit in LDS teaching. Here’s what he had to say.
Do the church and the school see masturbation as a sin?
Well, it is interesting. I would frame it this way. Masturbation is a behavior that, if continued, could over time lead to things that are sinful, so the counsel that the church gives to its leaders is to counsel with young people to help them understand that their bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost. That comes right out of Corinthians, that is what Paul taught, and it is a beautiful doctrine—that our bodies are a great gift from God and we need to take good care of them, and that the procreative powers that God has given us, he cares very much about how they are used, and so that we need to learn to use them in ways that are in accordance with his will and his mind.
Is there are larger effort on the part of the school to educate young people on the dangers of pornography?
There certainly is the larger effort, meaning, helping our young people live a righteous life. Pornography is one of the addictions that if not dealt with and addressed can lead to very, very serious problems. Because we live in a world where the media is just saturated with sexuality, and where lots of things that are out there in the mainstream are pornographic, we felt it important to teach people and to help our students understand the dangers out there. . . . Pornography is like a plague in our society. We want to educate our young people to be aware of that. That is also true of drugs, alcohol, sexual activity before marriage. Lying, cheating, stealing. But pornography is particularly salient in this media-saturated world.
Do you find that students suffer a lot of guilt when it comes to pornography? Is that a problem?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. One of the characteristics of people who get involved in pornography is that it is done in the dark. It is something people try to hide. Oh yeah, they feel very guilty. Because they know, it is like anyone who gets caught in bad choices they make or situations where they choose to do things that are not right. We have really great young people here. I mean these are great young people. Sometimes they make mistakes or make bad choices and yeah they feel guilty and often work very hard to hide what they are doing. That is true of everyone who gets involved with pornography.
What do you do to help students overcome those feelings of guilt?
Feelings of guilt are very useful. You do not want them to get rid of the guilt by anything other than turning to what is right. The real question is, what are we doing to help them caught in the situation? What are we doing to help them get help? Where they can turn to light? So actually guilt is there. It is the part of this wonderful blessing that God has given us, that we have a conscience, that when we do things that are wrong, we feel guilty. It’s like pain in the body, spiritual pain. What we try to teach the young people is, there is a redeemer, he is real, and there is hope, because he has power over all things.
What advice would you give to other campuses could be doing to address the issue?
One, draw on the fundamental beliefs and principles that are in the institution. The second is to encourage this spirit of concern for one another and love, and then to teach the students to be aware of one another and courageous enough to take action. It all comes back to the parable of the Good Samaritan.
What’s the attitude on campus now that the video has taken such a different public turn?
If you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have to expect that from time to time you will be the recipient of scorn and ridicule, because you believe things and know things are true that are not fashionable and that other people will poke fun at and even ridicule or heap scorn on you. When it happens, say, well, that’s okay. That’s what we believe, we know it is true, and we stay the course.