The Research That’s Turning the Notion of Pornography Addiction on its Head

Is it time to do away with the idea of pornography addiction once and for all?

Darrell called me freaking out. He was frantic. He was upset. His life was falling apart, as one nightmare cascaded into another, walling up into a massive tsunami of shame. His new girlfriend had caught him watching pornography. He’d crept into his room, lifted the screen of his laptop, and thought he was all alone for a little alone time. But shortly thereafter, the door flew open and he was busted.

“She was irate,” he told me. “I just don’t know what to do, man. I think I’m addicted to pornography.” He went on to explain he had the same troubles with his previous relationship.

Reading between the lines of Darrell’s story, it began to seem as if he was caught between a rock and a hard place. Darrell had grown tired of his partners. The sex wasn’t happening. Their bedrooms had fallen silent, places where not even a whisper of affection could be heard. And from what I know about this game, it usually takes two to tango.

These kinds of relationship troubles don’t happen overnight. In fact, there’s a compelling argument that they’re perfectly natural, a result of biological shifts in hormones that humans undergo as we shift from forming a pair-bond to sticking it out for the long haul, having children, moving to the suburbs, the works.

We talked for a few hours and I reassured my friend in earnest that I didn’t feel he had a pornography addiction. For one thing, “pornography addiction” has proved a very difficult term to pin down and define. It’s tough to disentangle the moral component of sexuality from the pathological component of sexuality.

In other words: just because someone doesn’t approve of your sex life doesn’t make it a disease.

Once upon a time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, too. The American Psychological Association didn’t remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders until 1973.

And this is the foundation of the “is porn addictive” debate, the juxtaposition of moral approval or disapproval and the desire to engage in sex or pornography use. And now, some say we’ve jumped the gun and concluded that everyone is susceptible to pathological porn habits.

Hypersexual Disorder, often called “porn addiction,” or, “sex addiction,” isn’t in the DSM-V, the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. So it’s not technically a mental illness, though many activists and some medical professionals believe it should be.

In 2018, a team of researchers, Joshua B. Grubbs, Samuel L. Perry, Joshua A. Wilt, and Rory C. Reid, published a paper titled Pornography Problems Due to Moral Incongruence: An Integrative Model with a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.

“Moral incongruence” describes the inner conflict of a person between what they’ve been raised to believe about sexuality and their practice of it.

In other words, it might not be the pornography itself that’s addictive, it might be how people have been raised to view sexuality more generally that’s the problem. It appears as if the problem of pornography addiction doesn’t just affect anyone. Coming from a strict religious upbringing plays a massive role in this process.

In fact, not only does it play a role in perceptions of feeling that our pornography use or sexuality is “uncontrollable,” it’s in fact the single biggest predictor of those feelings and cases of self-reported sex or porn addiction.

Most people don’t feel like their relationship with sex or porn is out of control, unless they were raised in a sexually repressive household, or have moral views about sex that conflict with their desire to have it or seek it out in the form of pornographic entertainment.

The authors of the study see this as a better model for our conception of pornography addiction. Focusing on our moral beliefs about sex rather than the sex (or porn) itself.

Last month, a self-professed pornography addict in Atlanta strolled into several massage parlors where he took the lives of several people, tragically. His motive? Feelings that he couldn’t control his addiction to sex and pornography. He wanted to eliminate what he considered “temptation” of the sexual sort. This abhorrent act should be a wake-up call that we need to change the way we view and discuss sex, moving away from shame and toward acceptance.

And just like clockwork, the news broke soon thereafter that the killer was raised in a strict evangelical household and took those messages to heart. The study author, Joshua Grubbs, commented on the case saying, “It’s not a jump to say white conservative Christianity played a role here,” as if the 2018 study could’ve predicted some elements of this 2021 nightmare.

Higher levels of internal conflict over porn use have also been shown to cause other mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. And guess what, those are the exact same symptoms that people who claim to have pornography addiction suffer from.

All of this brings me back to my friend Darrell. What about Darrell?

Darrell wasn’t brought up in a strict religious household. His father was extremely liberal and embraced secularism, the arts, and much more. Neither of them even went to church. His dad is a really chill guy, his mom isn’t particularly religious either.

So what gives?

In his current and prior relationships, pornography was off the table. His partners viewed it as taboo, an inappropriate way to express his own sexuality. Both of his partners have essentially made porn an off-limits activity that, in his mind, he must feel guilty about.

He has to hide it, sneaking it behind closed doors when they’re not around, hoping, praying he doesn’t get caught. This is what happens when we sex-shame people.

Stop for a moment and think about what that does to someone’s sexuality.

Our moral incongruence between sex (or porn) and our beliefs about human sexuality doesn’t necessarily stop at religion. Moral incongruence happens when what we believe we ought to be doing and what our biological natures tell us we must be doing come into conflict.

Consider what it would be like to have suddenly been truly convinced by someone that food is morally impure and that eating anything whatsoever was a grievous sin that would send you to a place where you would be tortured in a pit of fire for eternity.

How would that change your perception of the foods you once enjoyed if you truly believed this without any doubts?

Would you still be able to devour delicious pizza and creamy cheesecake with ease? Or would you rack yourself with guilt each time? Would it produce the kinds of depression and anxiety we see in people with self-reported pornography addictions?

And now Utah Governor Spencer Cox has signed a law that assures that electronic devices need to block pornography before they can be legally allowed into the state, signaling a willingness to try a cure that’s probably more dangerous than the disease.

This disposition is to pornography what the War on Drugs was to drugs themselves. You can’t just get rid of the object of the desire and expect the desire to cease. That’s exactly what the Atlanta shooter tried to do and it’s striking that their views on sexuality and pornography could be so similar, even from across the country. They share the same strict religious roots.

This has always tickled my brain. I’ve always wondered why some people watch porn, even a lot of porn, and don’t find themselves addicted to it. They never report feeling compulsive, or feeling like it dominates their lives. They just enjoy it whenever they can and walk away, but other people feel like they crave pornography. And sometimes, they feel like it’s ruining their lives entirely.

What if self-acceptance is the key rather than our desire to remove what we desire from society altogether? I think it is.

We shouldn’t teach kids to hate their bodies and their sexuality.

In closing, perhaps it’s not the porn itself that’s bad, just as it isn’t the alcohol itself that’s bad. Plenty of people drink and never become alcoholics. Many people take their opioid pain medication as prescribed and come off of it once their injuries have healed. Perhaps it’s not the porn we need to change but our beliefs about human sexuality and what it means to be sexually free and liberated.

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The Research That’s Turning the Notion of Pornography Addiction on its Head
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