How the new House Speaker Mike Johnson avoids sin — an ‘accountability app’

We have learned so much about new House Speaker Mike Johnson since he was elected to the post last month.

For starters, that he exists.


Inevitably, this uber-conservative MAGA Republican from Louisiana has found himself subject to the laser-level scrutiny befitting a once-obscure backbencher who suddenly becomes second in line to the presidency.

Johnson, we know, is virulently opposed to gay marriage and abortion. He is an election denier and religious extremist who has promoted teaching the Bible as history in public schools and has said, “God invented civil government.”

That is to be expected, I suppose, from a man whose party, under the sway of former President Donald Trump, become nearly indistinguishable from a cult.

Turns out, there’s also a lot about Johnson that is kind of weird.

He does not report having checking accounts, savings accounts or retirement accounts.

He has either four or five children, depending on how you count.

He has blamed the fall of the Roman Empire on “rampant homosexuality” and has supported criminalizing gay sex.

And — perhaps most strangely — he and his teenage son monitor each other’s every keystroke in an effort to make sure they don’t expose themselves to pornography.

This was recently revealed in a clip that was posted by the user Receipt Maven on X. Last year, Johnson spoke on a panel during a “War on Technology” conference sponsored by a Baptist church in Benton, La. In it, Johnson enthusiastically endorsed a surveillance app called Covenant Eyes. The app, which is promoted by churches and other conservative religious groups such as Promise Keepers, has users designate “accountability partners” to hold them to task in the event they stray into illicit digital outer space. Often the accountability partner is a pastor or fellow church member.

Covenant Eyes, which costs about $15 a month, takes one screenshot per minute, Wired reported last year in a story about what it called “anti-porn shameware,” which is a multimillion-dollar industry.

Johnson’s accountability partner, he said, was his teenage son Jack. Once a week, he said, he and Jack receive a report of what the other has been doing on his phone, laptop or tablet.

“If anything objectionable comes up, your accountability partner gets an immediate notice,” Johnson said. “It looks for keywords, search terms and also images. It’s really sensitive.” Johnson said he once got an alarm about Jack’s questionable internet usage involving a blurry image of two women. “I had to zoom in on it and unblur it,” Johnson said, “and it’s two middle-aged teachers.”

Not doing anything porn-y, I presume.

David J. Ley, an Albuquerque-based clinical psychologist and sexuality expert, told me he doesn’t think accountability apps are inherently bad. “I do think that it’s healthy for people to spend some time thinking about what role they want sexuality and pornography to play in their lives,” said Ley, author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction.”

However, he added, “if the speaker was sitting on my therapy couch, this is not a strategy that I would recommend. It doesn’t seem likely to support healthy boundaries between him and his son, or to help his son develop a responsible view of sexuality. We don’t develop healthy sexuality by trying to control and suppress negative urges.”

I guess when it comes to porn, I am in the “whatever floats your boat” camp.

I think porn is kind of gross, but I don’t object on religious grounds, think it causes erectile dysfunction or that it messes with your brain wiring, as some anti-porn crusaders contend.

(What it can do is give impressionable users unrealistic ideas about sexual performance, which is a lot more complicated than porn makes it seem. As Ley joked, “The internet is conducive to sex. You don’t have to find its clitoris or buy it dinner.”)

There is a wealth of research disputing the very concept of pornography addiction. Some studies even show that, as one put it, “religiosity and moral disapproval of pornography use were robust predictors of perceived addiction to Internet pornography while being unrelated to actual levels of use among pornography consumers.”

In other words, you might consume pornography as much or as little as the next person, but if you exist in an environment that considers it dirty or immoral, you will be more likely to perceive yourself as a porn addict.

When I spend any time thinking about porn, it’s usually in the context of gender and politics: Does it exploit women or empower them? Or both?

But that is not what accountability apps like Covenant Eyes are about. At all.

“In my experience,” Ley told me, “accountability partners are using this software to monitor not just looking at explicit or illicit material, but to regulate or monitor anything other than heteronormative monogamy. We are inviting external morality police to monitor our sexual thoughts, impulses and desires.” (Not to mention masturbation, which may be the ultimate target here.)

In any case, Ley said, there is no clinical evidence that apps designed to bring shame or embarrassment actually have their intended effects.

“Very often, we find that men are using pornography to cope with anxiety, stress and depression,” he said. “What that means is we need to help this guy develop other strategies and coping skills to deal with those feelings.”

I tried to reach the founder of Covenant Eyes but was rebuffed by a company spokesman. “Here is our statement,” he wrote. “Porn harms people. We help anyone who commits to staying clear of it.”

One way to reduce the allure of pornography is almost never addressed by folks who promote apps like Covenant Eyes: sex education, a bugaboo of the religious right.

“We are engaging in gross national neglect of the sexual education needs of our young people,” said Ley. “We pretend that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen, and when bad things happen, they blame pornography, which kids go to because we don’t teach them about sex. It is this horrendous spiral of sexual self-sabotage.”

Speaker Johnson and his son have every right to pursue “accountability” in whatever way they see fit.

But I think they are deluding themselves for two reasons: Porn is not, in and of itself, a problem. And anyone who really wants to see prurient material will always find a way to get it.

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