Conflicted over porn use?

© 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 neurobiological perspective on addiction, the answer is no.

But a physiological perspectives 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.

Behavioural Addiction

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 therapistsin 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 has been 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.

Most people with addictions are reluctant to admit that it is causing problems or they minimise them. They don’t have a problem with their drinking or their gambling. Other people do.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 openly admit that they feel addicted to pornography and are very explicit about the distress it is causing them.

The other unusual factor is that 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 any noticeable distress.

Researchers have come to call this phenomenon ‘self-perceived pornography addiction’ which is somewhat unfortunate. Even though it might not look like a true behavioural addiction, the sufferer’s distress is very real and something they are looking for help with.

Moral Incongruence

Thankfully, in the past five or six years, researchers have determined the common factor 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.

Many religions have historically had deeply negative views of pornography and many denominations and churches still do. 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. We 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, the internal conflict can feel intractable and the psychological distress can be intense.

Many people in distress about their pornography use have  well-held religious, cultural, ethical , moral or personal concerns about pornography. So for them watching pornography can trigger intense shame, guilt, disgust or anxiety. Yet denying themselves any sexual expression also causes feelings of deprivation and depression. 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.

Getting Help

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. You already have more internal judgement than you can handle.Then you can gently untangle the knot inside you and find your own individual path that reconciles and values both your sexual and moral selves.

Find a Therapist

Paul Wilson : Auckland therapy Paul Wilson (Grey Lynn) is a sex-positive therapist and part of our Citywide team of counsellors & therapists. For more information or to arrange an appointment please contact Paul any of the team.

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.

Addiction therapists

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 :

Blair Schulze (Grey Lynn) | Hamish Brown (Te Atatu)
Daniel Harrison (Pakuranga) | Margo Regan (Ponsonby & Sylvia Park)

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.

Is pornography addictive?

© Paul Wilson for Auckland Therapy Blog, 18 February 2019

Porn and the media

is pornography addictive?In popular Western media, pornography is being talked about a lot more than it used to be. When I say popular media, I’m including websites, online forums, blog posts, and youtube videos, not just more traditional news outlets.

It’s not surprising that as online pornography has increased in availability over the past decade, there has been a corresponding increase in commentary and concern about it too. As a sex-positive therapist, a lot of the public discussion about pornography troubles me. Partly, I think that’s because, as a member of the LGBTQ community, I’ve been sensitized to what gets said about how people “should” and “shouldn’t” be in their sexual lives.

We all have our personal values and our blind-spots, that’s an inevitable part of being human. And to be clear, I think it’s perfectly valid for people to have moral objections to pornography (or anything else). However, I’m especially leery about the blurring of the distinction between moral values and medical or therapeutic values.

Human beings have enjoyed looking at erotic imagery for as long as there have been human beings. However, acknowledging that has long been socially or morally unacceptable. So looking at porn, like masturbation, becomes one of those things that many people do, but few people admit to. The resulting silence is very problematic since that leaves negative messages dominating any public discussion.

The big question

The biggest area of popular concern about pornography that I see revolves around the question of whether it can be (or is) addictive. This is often raised with particular concern about how pornography might be affecting adolescents and their development.

Now, this is clearly a very important question, but it’s far from a simple one, partly because it depends on what you mean by the term addiction. The word addiction is used in a number of different contexts and has multiple meanings. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to explore each of those different meanings in relation to pornography.

The medical definition of addiction

In this post, I’m going to look at the medical or scientific definition. In that context, addiction is viewed as a brain disorder (i.e. a mental illness) which is characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences. This is a neurobiological perspective in which the substance (or behaviour) causes actual changes in the wiring of the brain that make the illness increasingly worse over time.

Is pornography neuro-biologically addictive?

There are a number of groups that claim that pornography fits this medical definition of addiction, causing the same kinds of changes that a drug like cocaine does. They argue that pornography is thus a public health issue, not a free speech issue, and access needs to be curtailed accordingly.

The most notable examples are www.yourbrainonporn.com (YBOP) and fightthenewdrug.org  (FTND). They prominently feature the work of Gary Wilson drawing on his book, “Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction”.

Gary also gave a TEDx talk in 2012. You can’t find it on TED anymore but you can still find it on YouTube. A short summary is that this position centres on the claim that internet pornography is different from the porn of the past. It’s more powerful and changes the brain of those who view it, causing dependence and desensitisation. To get the same ‘fix’, viewers feel compelled to watch increasingly deviant and violent content. Alongside this goes the claim (for males) of ‘porn-induced erectile dysfunction’ which is the idea that males became unable to be aroused by the ordinary stimuli of sex with a partner as a result of their pornography exposure.

It all sounds pretty dire, right?

The actual science

The problem is that the science does not support any of what Gary Wilson claims it does. He’s not a neuroscientist or a sexologist and much of the research he quotes is cherry-picked and misinterpreted to support his stridently anti-pornography stance. TED removed his talk because of the many false claims he made about the science. For a breakdown of the problems, an anonymous neuroscience student offered the following: patheos.com

The Fight The New Drug (FTND) group is closely linked to Your Brain On Porn and Gary Wilson. They are primarily based in Utah and, as well as their website, were very active in Utah high schools offering their message to young people to ‘educate’ them about the dangers of porn. This caused considerable concern to actual sex educators in Utah and also the neuroscientists whose research was being misused.

The neuroscientists in question subsequently published an open letter about FTND in 2016 criticising the misuse and misrepresentation of neuroscience about pornography and addiction: archive.sltrib.com

Morality & science

Essentially, YBOP and FTND have a moral problem with pornography (which is fine) yet they are misrepresenting it is a scientific one (which is far from fine). It’s not that they don’t know they are misstating the science, it’s that they don’t care because they feel doing that makes them more persuasive. The ends can start to justify the means when you are on a moral crusade.

Based on the available scientific evidence,
pornography is not neuro-biologically addictive.

(In my future blog posts, I’ll be exploring other broader definitions of addiction in relation to the issue of pornography which are more nuanced and explore the possibility of psychological addiction so please follow us on FaceBook.)

Pornography problems

What we do know is that while pornography may not be neuro-biologically addictive it can cause some people distress and result in some relationship difficulties.

So, if you are troubled by pornography use, including feeling that you are ‘addicted’ or your use has become out of control, exploring the issue with a caring and non-judgemental therapist can make a big difference in improving your psychological well-being.

NB: If porn use is a problem in your relationship we generally recommend couples therapy to work on any damage this has done to the relationship, especially if it has resulted in a breakdown of trust or ongoing conflict.

Find a Therapist

Paul Wilson : Auckland therapy Paul Wilson (Grey Lynn) is a sex-positive therapist and part of our Citywide team of counsellors & therapists. For more information or to arrange an appointment please contact Paul any of the team.

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.

Addiction therapists

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 :

Blair Schulze (Grey Lynn) | Hamish Brown (Te Atatu)
Daniel Harrison (Pakuranga) | Margo Regan (Ponsonby & Sylvia Park)

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.

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