Sex

Is Porn Addiction Really a Thing?

These academics believe it's just a societal construct.

by Frankie Mullin
Jun 25 2015, 2:30pm

Photo by Jamie Fullerton

Two men. Both with a higher-than-average desire to rub one out over internet porn. Only one of these men is a "porn addict."

"I watch porn on a daily basis and would estimate my collection of videos runs to around seven terabytes, scattered across several hard drives and devices," Ben told me. "I'm fully aware that I masturbate and consume porn more than the average user, and honestly I can't tell you why that is. I think it may be because I had sex later than many of my peers and turned to porn as the only way to explore my own sexuality."

Seven terabytes is a lot of porn to have stored away, especially considering it's 2015 and there are literally millions of videos you can just stream online. But does that make Ben a porn addict? No, not according to him.

Mark (not his real name) similarly finds the lure of internet smut impossible to resist. Even at work, Mark struggles to keep himself from watching porn. He doesn't always succeed. Just before Christmas, a colleague spotted his filth-filled screen, and Mark spent his festive days off waiting to see if he'd be fired. In the end, Mark kept his job, but he decided to seek help. "I'm a porn addict," he admitted.

Like sex addiction—super fashionable in celebrity circles—the concept of porn addiction has attracted criticism. In a new book, Sex Addiction: A Critical History, New Zealand academics Barry Reay, Nina Attwood, and Claire Gooder claim that porn addiction is mythical; a product of "social opportunism, diagnostic amorphism, therapeutic self-interest and popular cultural endorsement." Yet while they don't believe it's an addiction, Reay acknowledges that our sex-negative culture, click-bait media, and flourishing therapy industry have combined to create a fanciful and frightening condition.

Mark, and thousands of other men (few women seek treatment for porn addiction), would disagree. An online " Kick Start Recovery Program," created by UK porn addiction expert Paula Hall, has had more than 11,000 users.

The Marylebone Centre for Psychological Therapies, the UK's oldest treatment center for sex and porn addiction, has seen a spike in referrals over the last five years. It was here that Mark came for treatment; one of around 600 men who the center has helped through a 12-week, talking-therapy based program. There have been no follow-up studies to evaluate the effectiveness of this treatment, but the center's clinical director, psychotherapist Dr. Thaddeus Birchard, says that aftercare groups prove it's working. Birchard has no doubt that porn addiction is real.

"It's a form of sexual addiction," he tells me. "This is defined by four criteria: the behavior is out of control; you find it hard to stop; you are continuing the behavior despite harmful consequences; and the behavior has an anesthetizing function."

Birchard acknowledges, however, that one man's guilt-free masturbation marathon is another man's medical problem. "One of the problems when talking about sex or porn addiction is that everything about it is very subjective," he says. "The only person who can really tell if you're a porn addict is you."

It's the vagueness of these definitions that leaves the addiction model open to attack. Birchard stresses that most of his patients are experiencing distress; certainly grounds for deserving help. However, "shame"—a concept which is meaningless outside a specific culture—is a word that crops up repeatedly, and negative effects are likely to involve the disapproval of a partner. Tellingly, a recent study found that religious people are more likely to believe they're addicted to porn.

"One of the weaknesses of the concept of porn or sex addiction is determining what constitutes distress," Reay tell me. "It is a pretty nebulous measurement. It can't just be left to the individual to determine, but once some kind of criteria is introduced, who is to say what constitutes too much porn consumption?"

Reay believes that "porn addiction" is a cultural product that over-simplifies complex issues. Unquestioning reporting of porn addiction in the mainstream media is certainly rife. This, Reay says, "creates a cultural climate where simple, unchallenged concepts like sex addiction and porn addiction are the easy explanations for any troubling sexual behavior."

Birchard disputes this and says there is evidence that porn addiction is a physical condition. Neuroscience is the go-to favorite when it comes to backing up these claims. Some studies appear to show that sexual compulsion can cause physical changes in the brain, the hallmark of addiction. However, not all of the studies stand up to scrutiny. Several were on rats and, of the few human studies, small sample sizes (eight men in this case) confound data.

Professor David Ley, who has been at the forefront of porn addiction critique, has savaged this flimsiness of research, suggesting it is "hindered by poor experimental designs, limited methodological rigor and lack of model specification."

In theory, people can become 'addicted' to anything: making money, conversation, Snickers bars.

The concept of porn addiction and its treatment models certainly lie within a specific moral framework. Birchard tell me that "women are addictive around relationships and men around sex," that "women have sex to have relationships and men have relationships to have sex" and that men are "attracted" while women are "attractive."

But perhaps all of the debate is secondary to the fact that people are seeking help because they're miserable. Props to you if you're happy jerking off for ten hours a day, but what about the people who aren't?

Psychotherapist Ash Rehn told me: "I don't make claims about whether porn addiction is 'real' or not. The people who consult me about their porn use are in a far better position than I am to judge whether something is real to them. What is clear is that some people do find themselves struggling to stop using or limit using pornography."

However, Rehn says that focusing too much on the "porn addiction" can mean ignoring underlying problems. "If a therapist does that, they risk missing the original purpose or significance of their client's porn use," he says.

In theory, people can become "addicted" to anything: making money, conversation, Snickers bars. Compulsive behavior is often an indication of other mental health issues. In one study of men with "sex addiction," 62 percent had a history of major depression, and almost all had a history of alcohol abuse or dependence, while others reported obsessive-compulsive disorder and social phobia.

None of this means that people like Mark—unable to keep off PornHub for the duration of a working day—don't have a problem or should be denied help. The question is, are we doing them a disservice by calling them addicts? Why is it only the guilt-laden vices—food, sex, gambling—around which these theories spring up? I've yet to meet someone who's worried they're addicted to reading or music.

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