© Paul Wilson for Auckland Therapy Blog, 8 April 2019
Is pornography addictive? (part 2)
In my last post, I began exploring the issue of whether pornography can be considered addictive. When using a neuro-biological perspective on addiction, the answer is no.
But a physiological perspective is not the only ways to look at problem of addiction. Many addiction researchers and therapists approach addiction more from a psychological or behavioural perspective.
A behavioural addiction is when someone engages in a temporarily psychologically rewarding behaviour repeatedly (and often compulsively), even though the behaviour causes subsequent harm to either themselves or others. Some examples of possible behavioural addictions are gambling, shoplifting, shopping, hoarding, etc. that is negatively affecting someone’s relationships, employment or causing legal issues.
Whether problematic pornography use can be considered a behavioural addiction is still controversial amongst researchers. Regardless of the research consensus, there are an increasing number of people contacting therapists in considerable distress because they feel that they are addicted to pornography.
They admit to watching pornography, usually in the context of masturbation. Afterwards, they feel guilt, shame and anxiety about having done so. They make promises to themselves that they won’t do it again. Yet they can’t seem to keep them and the cycle repeats. They feel their behaviour is ‘out of control’ and their psychological distress can be intense and keeps escalating.
Isn’t this addiction?
Self-Perceived Pornography Addiction
For people familiar with other addictions, whether it involves substances or behaviours, there are two aspects of this that are somewhat unusual.
Firstly, most people with addictions are reluctant to admit that it is causing problems in their lives or they minimise them. They don’t have a problem with their drinking or their gambling. Other people do. So they often end up in therapy either because other people are insisting or because their life has fallen apart so badly that they can’t deny it any more. In contrast, these people I’m taking about both openly admit that they feel addicted to pornography and are very explicit about the distress it is causing them.
Secondly, when these individuals are asked about their frequency of pornography use, it often isn’t necessarily that high. In fact, there are many people who view pornography as much or more, yet without it causing them any noticeable distress.
Researchers have come to refer to this phenomenon ‘self-perceived pornography addiction’ which is somewhat unfortunate. Even though it might not be functioning like a normal behavioural addiction, the sufferer’s distress is very real and something they are truly looking for help with.
Thankfully, in the past five or six years, researchers have determined a possible common factor across individuals that contributes to this experience which they call ‘moral incongruence’. Moral incongruence is the experience of engaging in activities that violate one’s deeply held moral values.
Historically, many religions have held deeply negative views of pornography and many denominations and churches still do today. However, completely aside from religion, people can hold moral values that condemn pornography for other reasons such as individuals who believe that pornography is inherently degrading to women or encourages attitudes that legitimise sexual assault.
Psychologists have known since the 1950’s that having one’s behaviours and one’s thoughts be out of alignment is psychological uncomfortable – a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. As a result, we often feel motivated to change either our behaviour or our thoughts to bring them back into agreement.
When the behaviour in question is fuelled by powerful forces like sexual desire or libido and the thoughts at issue are deeply held moral values which are core to our sense of identity, giving up on either isn’t at all simple. The ongoing internal conflict can feel intractable and the psychological distress can be intense.
Many people in distress about their pornography use have strongly held beliefs – religious, cultural, ethical, moral or personal – about pornography. So for them watching pornography can trigger intense shame, guilt, disgust or anxiety. Yet denying themselves sexual expression also causes feelings of deprivation and depression. This is why it’s not about how much pornography they view – they struggle with the fact that they view pornography at all. So there is an internal war raging between their sexual and their moral selves. The shame and stigma attached to pornography makes it hard to talk about so they often feel very isolated.
If you are facing this kind of conflict, having someone alongside you who can offer compassion and empathy can make a big difference. It’s important that they are non-judgemental as you already have more internal judgement than you can handle. Then you can gently begin to untangle the knot inside you and find your own individual path that reconciles and values both your sexual and moral selves.
Find a Therapist
Questions or comments : If you have a question about this post or a question on another topic relating to therapy that could be answered here, please email Paul and we’ll see what we can do.
NB: For some people porn use is part of wider alcohol, substance or other addiction problems. In this case we recommend one of addiction counsellors with experience in porn use. See either :
Addictions Counselling Auckland
An experienced group of accredited addiction cousellors offering counselling services citywide in Auckland. Find an Auckland Addiction Counsellor by suburb or learn more about the Issues with work with.