© Paul Wilson for Auckland Therapy Blog, 18 February 2019
Porn and the media
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.)
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.