Pornography and Addiction

Art of Manliness recently did a series of articles on pornography which covered the history, neurochemistry, and consequences of porn use from a scientific and data-backed perspective. The whole series is worth reading and if you think porn is harmless or even beneficial it will have you checking your assumptions on the subject. As much as I liked the series I was mildly disappointed that when discussing the pitfalls of too much porn use Brett refused to call pornography an addiction. Here’s his take:

What about when porn use turns into a full-blown addiction? Is that another one of its pitfalls? Can it even truly become an addiction or is it just a habit?

Suffice it to say, these questions are the subject of much heated debate.

Currently the DSM-5, the Bible of psychiatric diagnosis (which, just like the actual Bible, is super controversial) does not consider behaviors like porn use, eating, or gambling, to be addictions. Only dependence on substances, like drugs, alcohol, and nicotine, are “officially” considered addictions. You can have a look at the criteria the DSM-5 lays out for substance abuse dependence, here. The list includes things like strong cravings for the substance, the creation of professional and relationship problems, needing more and more of the substance to get the same high as before, difficulty quitting, and withdrawal symptoms when doing so.

Looking over that list, one can easily see how certain behaviors outside drug and alcohol use would seem to qualify as an addiction. Millions of people have reported behaviors like compulsive gambling, shopping, and web surfing as meeting several of the criteria.

So, while the DSM-5 still does not currently consider behaviors to technically be addictions, a case could be made for labeling compulsive porn viewing as such. Different studies have both supported and contradicted the idea of porn being addictive. Given the length of this post, I won’t go into the details of these studies; this article from the APA does a good job examining the two sides of the issue. Ultimately, drawing the line between habit and addiction is always going to be subjective, no matter what scientific research and opinions are brought to bear on the question.

I also admit that there isn’t a consensus agreeing that pornography can be an addiction but I want to explore why I think Brett is wrong to reject that label.

The fact that the DSM-5 doesn’t consider behaviors such as pornography use to be addictions deserves to be addressed. Brett’s own post on why pornography has such a strong pull on the human brain clearly answers how pornography can become an absolute addiction even with that restriction. I’ll skip all the fascinating details of the neurochemistry and sum it up by simply saying that pornography, like any other sexually stimulating activity, provides a dopamine hit for your brain just like smoking a cigarette provides a nicotine hit for the brain. In other words, what we might call a cigarette addiction is classified as a nicotine addiction and what we should call a pornography addiction would be classified as a dopamine addiction.

When Brett rejected the addiction label he chose to articulate why he rejected it. While I don’t agree with his conclusion I think his reasoning is compelling and deserves to be considered by pornography opponents:

Labeling impulsive behaviors as addictions may hinder an individual from feeling capable of conquering an undesirable behavior. “Addiction” is a very loaded – even scary — word. When we tell ourselves we have an addiction, we’re implying that we’ve lost control of ourselves, that our ability to make our own choices is impaired, and that it may even be impossible to change course. Something else is in the driver’s seat, so to speak.

Thus, calling an undesirable behavior an addiction has the tendency to shift us from an internal locus of control to an external one. Research has shown that those with an internal locus exhibit greater control over their behavior and deal with challenges and stress better. Those with an external locus of control, on the other hand, feel like they’re a victim of powers outside themselves, which leads to stress, anxiety, and depression. The desire to soothe these hopeless feelings will then often lead right back to porn. And on the cycle will go.

If you’re trying to stop using porn (for whatever reason) and you are calling it an addiction, you handicap yourself by starting off with a frame of reference that you don’t have, or can’t regain, control of your behavior. While acknowledging that porn is a significant problem in your life is healthy, I think there’s a point where dialing up the seriousness actually makes it harder to quit. It makes the problem seem like a giant boogeyman, something you won’t be able to shake without a big-time intervention, rehab, special expensive retreats, that sort of thing.

If, on the other hand, you think of your porn habit just like any other habit you want to break, that debilitating weight goes away. Telling yourself that you’re “changing a habit” seems more in the realm of possibility and puts you in a proactive mindset. Even the way most “porn addiction” experts treat compulsive porn use is exactly the same as how you break any bad habit from swearing to biting your nails; so if you’re going to ultimately address the problem as a habit, why not frame it as a habit from the get-go?

While I respect Brett’s reasoning for avoiding the addiction label I would take a more nuanced position. Based on the science of how pornography operates within the brain I contend that it can absolutely become an addition just like alcohol and drugs. At the same time, just like alcohol and drugs, exposure to pornography or even repeated casual use doesn’t constitute an addiction. For those who are willing to label pornography use as an addiction (whether their own use or pornography use by others), we should be very cautious in applying that label. We know that most people who drink alcohol aren’t alcoholics and that drinking alcohol doesn’t always lead to an alcohol addiction. Likewise I believe that most people who use pornography aren’t addicted to it and that despite its natural pull toward addiction many who use it never become addicted in any clinical sense.

If we label something as an addiction too easily we create two problems. First, because addiction is a scary word we can do what Brett warned about by placing the habit in an external locus of control. For those who want to free themselves from the habit this can impede their ability to loose themselves from the pull of pornography and make healing from the habit much harder. Second, by too easily labeling porn use as an addiction we can cut off the conversation about the harmful effects of pornography with those who are disposed to defend it. Those who are tolerant of using pornography almost certanily know a number of pornography users who are clearly not addicted to it so the addiction claims ring hollow in their ears. In fact, by giving a blanket label of “addiction” to pornography use we may actually make addiction more likely or more gripping by prematurely terminating the conversation with those who need help. A new movie called The Heart of the Matter addresses that very concern.

If someone asks whether pornography can be an addiction the answer is yes. If someone asks whether average pornography use qualifies as an addiction the answer would more likely be no.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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