Porn and sex addictions: Real or bullsh*t?

There's no doubt porn and sex "addictions" can cause distress, but not necessarily in the way you'd think

By Carrie Weisman
Published October 1, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)
  (<a href=''>ericcote</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(ericcote via iStock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Porn addiction does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And yet the label seems to pop up everywhere. There are counselors who warn against the addictive nature of pornography. Anti-porn advocates have been quick to blame the industry for the degradation of human relationships. And others have begun advertising treatment plans to remedy the "disorder."

But without much reliable empirical data on the subject, the idea of lumping sex and porn into the list of addictive substances remains a matter of debate. Of course, that hasn't stopped certain outlets from doing so. The Sexual Recovery Institute website offers a sex addiction screening quiz to visitors worried they may be addicted to pornography or have a “hypersexual disorder” (the clinical term for sex addiction). The men’s quiz presents 27 questions about sexual history and habits. The women’s quiz brings you to a broken link.

There are individuals who lose hours — even days — to pornography. There are also a number of individuals who have spent all their money on porn products and escorts. That’s a real problem. Compulsive behavior patterns are a real problem. And those consumed by them need professional help.

What’s curious, however, is that these individuals don’t seem to make up the majority of self-identifying “porn addicts” out there.

Joshua Grubbs of Case Western has been examining the concept of porn addiction for the past five years. He told AlterNet, “I noticed that people, particularly religious people, were really quick to use the addiction label. They were really fast to say, ‘I’m an addict, I’m an addict, I’m addicted to this. I can’t control myself.’ And I started to think, ‘Well, something’s not adding up.’”

He added, “You know how hard it is to convince [an addict] that they have a problem? They don’t just come out and say, ‘Oh, I’m an addict.’ They don’t do that until they’re in recovery.”

So when are these labels most likely to come up? And by whom are they assigned? Some experts suggest that the concepts of “porn addiction” and “sex addiction” are used to explain away behaviors condemned by socially (and sexually) conservative societies. Think about celebrities like David Duchovny and Tiger Woods, and what led them to come forward with their “addictions.” Dr. Mark Griffith writes, “It becomes a problem only when you’re discovered.”

Grubbs suggests most self-identifying “porn addicts” simply don’t meet a clinical criteria.

In January 2015, he published research finding that religiosity tended to be more closely related to porn addiction than porn consumption itself.

“Porn addiction, sex addiction are so closely related to religious and moral beliefs about sexuality," Grubbs says. "If you’re coming from a religious tradition that says that indulging sexual desires outside the confines of heterosexual committed marriage is wrong, any sexual impulse that you have that doesn’t fit that prescribed criteria is going to produce guilt and distress.

“Conceptually, it would make sense that it’s easier to say ‘I’m an addict’ than to say that what I believe about sex is maybe not the healthiest belief.”

At Grubbs’ suggestion, we went to Amazon to check out its selection of books on “porn addiction.” No fewer than 404 results popped up in the Religion & Spirituality category. Less than half that number appeared in the Psychology & Counseling section.

Grubbs’ most recent research suggests that porn addiction does indeed cause harm, but not in the way that you may think. Grubbs and his team found that the “psychological distress” caused by porn addiction relates to the label itself, not the material it refers to. According to his research, identifying as a porn addict was likely to bring on feelings of depression, anxiety, anger and distress. Porn use itself had no “reliable relationship” to these symptoms.

Grubbs asks, "What is driving people to think they have a problem? And does assuming you have a problem actually create problems for you?

“We need to think before we throw out these labels, because clearly, people self-diagnosing these labels over time is related to other mental health problems," he explained. "Let's think about what we're saying."

For Grubbs, the question of whether “porn addiction” exists remains secondary to the fact that the label causes distress to those who are assigned it. His goal, primarily, is to home in on why people see themselves as addicts.

He explained, “You can swap out the word ‘porn’ for ‘video game’ or ‘online shopping’ or ‘binge watching’ — any behavior that is getting in the way of the rest of your life and that you want to work on. Sex has its own kind of unique flavor to it, but you’re still going to use the same clinical technique. That’s a very different thing from someone coming into the office depressed because they’re a ‘porn addict,’ and when you asked the last time they viewed porn they say, ‘Well, two weeks ago.’"

Clinical psychologist David Ley, author of "The Myth of Sex Addiction," told AlterNet in an email, “Decades of research shows that sex and porn are not addictive. Instead, the notion of porn addiction reflects people's moral and social fears of sex.”

He added, “I've seen countless people who were taught to fear and be ashamed of their sexual desires, all because they were told they were addicted to sex. But the idea that there is such a thing as too much sex is based on a subjective, relative judgment: too much sex compared to what? Or who?”

In 2003, Eric Blumberg authored a study called “The Lives and Voices of Highly Sexual Women.” Of the 44 women interviewed, all expressed the desire to have six or more orgasms a week, either solo or with partners. All considered having lots of sex an important element in their lives. And all admitted to having labeled themselves “sluts,” “nymphomaniacs” and “sex addicts” in the past.

Grubbs says, “Ideally what we’re doing now will help people change their approach to treatment. Just because someone identifies as a porn addict doesn’t necessarily mean you need to treat them like an addict. You need to treat them like someone who is experiencing a lot of self-stigma.”

Carrie Weisman is an AlterNet staff writer who focuses on sex, relationships and culture. Got tips, ideas or a first-person story? Email her

Carrie Weisman

MORE FROM Carrie Weisman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alternet Porn Porn Addiction Sex Addiction