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Addiction

The Trouble With Porn "Addiction"

The urge may be natural. The guilt may not be.

Key points

  • People who believe they have a porn addiction typically think their sexual behaviors are abnormal when, in fact, they’re not.
  • Porn addiction typically involves a moral incongruence between sexual attitudes and sexual behaviors.
  • By medicalizing problematic porn use, people can avoid taking personal responsibility for their sexual behaviors.

The problem of "pornography addiction" is much discussed on the internet, including here on the pages of Psychology Today. However, as French psychologist Barbara Smaniotto and her colleagues point out in a recent article, there’s no consensus within the professional community as to whether problematic porn use should be thought of as an addiction in the same sense that psychoactive substance abuse is.

Nevertheless, the term “porn addiction” is in common use in the language, and therapists are seeing more and more clients describing themselves as “porn addicts.” Clearly, these people see their porn use as problematic, causing them much personal distress. The question then is how to best help these people resolve their issues.

In an article published recently in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Smaniotto and colleagues present a case study of a man who had come to their clinic seeking help with his porn addiction. Through this case study, these psychologists highlight problems with common thinking about porn addiction, and they also describe a therapeutic approach that helped the patient regain control of his life.

Anatomy of a Porn Addiction

The client was a 34-year-old French man named Kevin, who had been in a relationship with a woman for ten years. She was the first and only sex partner he’d even had. They had no children. Kevin was professionally successful, and although he was cordial with his workmates, he had no close friends. Instead, his social life centered on his partner’s friends.

Kevin claimed that he’d had an “obsession with pornography” since he was 15, in that he spent much of his free time alone watching porn and masturbating. He felt no urge to watch porn when he was busy at work or with his partner, only when he was by himself.

Although his porn use seemed to have no negative impact on his professional or social life, he felt ashamed of it and hid it from his partner. It was only when she caught him masturbating to porn one day that he confessed to his “porn addiction,” and he voluntarily sought help because he feared she would leave him on account of it.

In therapy, Kevin revealed that he had very conservative attitudes about sexuality, which he had picked up during childhood. For instance, he had disparaged high school friends who bragged of casual sexual encounters, and he had his first sexual encounter, with his current partner, when he was 24. He considered his relationship to be completely “normal,” but his strict moral code led him to feel guilty if he even looked at another woman.

Kevin believed that he was sick and that healthy people didn’t obsess about sex the way he did. After starting therapy, he stopped watching porn, but he also avoided having sex with his partner for fear that it would cause a relapse of his porn addiction.

Porn Addiction and Moral Incongruence

This case illustrates the issues involved in diagnosing "porn addiction." First, addictions are characterized by cravings and intrusive thoughts as well as tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. While it’s true that Kevin “craved” watching porn whenever he was alone, he felt no urges to do so when he was at work or with his partner. Nor did he experience tolerance in the form of increased porn usage over time or withdrawal symptoms when he stopped watching porn.

Thus, it’s hard to justify calling Kevin’s case one of addiction or even obsession. Instead, watching porn seems to have been a habitual way of passing time alone, although it’s likely he was also using porn as a way of dealing with unresolved sexual issues.

As Smaniotto and colleagues point out, a perceived addiction is not the same as an actual addiction. Nevertheless, it still involves psychological distress. The goal of psychotherapy is to identify the source of that distress and help the client resolve it.

Other researchers have reported that clients seeking help for porn addiction typically feel shame or guilt about their porn use. That is, they believe that porn use is morally wrong, in that it goes against their restrictive attitudes about sex in general. This finding suggests that it isn’t porn use per se, but rather the person’s moral thinking about sexuality that leads to psychological distress. The goal then of psychotherapy should be to help clients resolve the mismatch between their sexual behaviors and their moral beliefs.

Medicalizing Porn Addiction

Smaniotto and colleagues also point out another contentious issue regarding the concept of porn addiction. While most professionals concur that problematic porn use doesn’t fit the symptomatology of substance addiction, the concept of “porn addiction” is still very appealing to the general public. It provides people with a way of reconciling their porn use with their moral beliefs.

The rationalization goes something like this: I believe sex is only sanctioned within a committed relationship. Therefore, other sexual behaviors, such as casual sex, watching porn, or even feelings of sexual attraction for people other than my partner, are morally wrong. However, I’m a moral person, and those strong urges to watch porn are caused by addiction—a psychological disorder. With help, I can overcome this disorder.

In other words, by medicalizing porn use, people don’t have to accept responsibility for their behavior. It also helps them find forgiveness for their supposed transgressions.

The goal then of treatment for perceived porn addiction is not to help clients to stop watching porn. Rather, it’s to get them to understand that their sexual urges are natural, and furthermore, that they have control over them.

As his treatment came to a close, Kevin no longer saw sexual thoughts as dangerous or unhealthy. He also understood that the restrictive sexual attitudes he’d been given as a child were creating sexual frustrations that he was trying to release through pornography. With time, he felt fewer urges to masturbate to porn, and at the same time, he began to experience a more fulfilling sex life with his partner.

The problem wasn't porn. After all, plenty of people include porn use as part of their healthy sex life. Rather, the problem is with the sexual negativity that society foists upon us. Once people understand that sexual urges are natural, they can then decide for themselves how to act on them in ways that will lead to happiness and satisfaction as opposed to frustration and guilt.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Vasin Lee/Shutterstock

References

Smaniotto, B., Le Bigot, J., & Camps, F.-D. (2022). “Pornography addiction”: Elements for discussion of a case report. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 51, 1475-1381.

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