Science Stopped Believing in Porn Addiction, You Should Too

What does it mean that religion, not porn use, predicts porn-related problems?

Posted Aug 21, 2018

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Source: Pixabay

Though porn addiction is not diagnosable, and never has been, there is a large self-help industry surrounding the concept. Mostly on-line (though in religious areas of the US, such as Utah, there are numerous in-person treatment sites), this industry promotes the idea that modern access to the Internet, and the porn that thrives there, has led to an epidemic of dysregulated, out of control porn use, and significant life problems as a result of it.

Over recent years, numerous research studies have begun to suggest that there is more to the story than just porn – instead, we’ve had growing hints that the conflicts and struggles over porn use have more to do with

morality and religion, rather than use of pornography itself. I’ve covered this growing surge of research in numerous posts and articles.

Now, researchers have put a nail in the coffin of porn addiction. Josh Grubbs, Samuel Perry and Joshua Wilt are some of the leading researchers on America’s struggles with porn, having published numerous recent research studies examining the impact of porn use, belief in porn addiction, and the effect of porn use on marriages. Rory Reid is a UCLA researcher who was a leading proponent gathering information about the concept of hypersexual disorder for DSM-5. These four researchers, all of whom have history of neutrality, if not outright support of the concepts of porn addiction, have conducted a meta-analysis of research on pornography and concluded that porn use does not predict problems with porn, but religiosity does.

The researchers lay out their argument and theory extremely thoroughly, suggesting that Pornography Problems due to Moral Incongruence (PPMI) appear to be the driving force in many of the people who report dysregulated, uncontrollable, or problematic pornography use.  Even though many people who grew up in religious, sexually conservative households, have strong negative feelings about pornography, many of those same people continue to use pornography. And then they feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior, and angry at themselves and their sexual desire to watch more porn.

In the early 1990’s, as the Internet burst upon the screens of the world, Al Cooper was a psychologist who suggested that the Affordability, Anonymity and Accessibility of the Internet was leading to an explosion of Internet porn addiction. Though intuitively appealing and often cited, Cooper’s theory was only empirically evaluated once,  in 2004, which found that the variables of accessibility, affordability and anonymity actually had no empirical connection sexual behaviors, change or use of Internet porn. BUT – what the Internet did, was put porn in the hands (and laps) of people who had been woefully unprepared to manage it, or their sexual desires. Religiosity is associated with a host of sexual difficulties, and now, porn-related problems can be added to that list.

In their study, Grubbs, et al., analyzed data from about 15 different studies by varied researchers (and reviewed many more), comprising nearly 7000 different participants. Studies were conducted in-person and on-line, in the United States and Europe. They found that first, religiousness was a strong, clear predictor of moral incongruence regarding porn use. This is important, as it indicates that we can and should use a person’s religiousness as an indicator of the likelihood of moral conflict over porn use. Not all people who are morally opposed to porn are religious, but it appears that religiosity captures the majority of people who feel this way. Given that the WHO and ICD-11 recommend an exclusion of moral conflict over sex from the diagnosis of Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder, this finding suggests that when diagnosing CSBD, a person’s religiousness is a critically important factor.

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Source: Pixabay

Secondly, and most to the point, the meta-analysis found that “moral incongruence around pornography use is consistently the best predictor of the belief one is experiencing pornography-related problems or dysregulation, and comparisons of aggregate effects reveal that it is consistently a much better predictor than pornography use itself…” The analysis DID find small effects between use of pornography and self-perceived problems with pornography, but the researchers suggest that this is likely an artifact of the simple fact that, in order to feel morally conflicted over your use of porn, you actually have to use some porn. If the ideas of pornography addiction were true, then porn-related problems would go up, regardless of morality, as porn use goes up. But the researchers didn’t find that. In fact, they cite numerous studies showing that even feeling like you struggle to control your porn use doesn’t actually predict more porn use. What that means is that the people who report great anguish over controlling their porn use aren’t actually using more porn, they just feel worse about it.

Having moral conflict over your porn use (PPMI) does turn out to be really bad for you. But not because of the porn. Instead, higher levels of moral conflict over porn use predict higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, diminished sexual well-being, as well as religious and spiritual struggles. In one study by Perry and Whitehead, pornography use predicted depression over a period of six years, but ONLY in men who disapproved of porn use. Continuing to use porn, when you believe that it is bad, is harmful. Believing that you are addicted to porn and telling yourself that unable to control your porn use hurts people’s well-being. It's not the porn, but the unresolved, unexamined moral conflict. 

Even though Grubbs et al. left the window open, acknowledging that there may be people who report porn dysregulation without a moral conflict, and that there also may be people who actually demonstrate objectively dysregulated porn use AND have moral conflict over it (in other words, they feel bad about it and they are actually using a lot of it), neither of these two data patterns appear to occur in the studies and participants they analyzed. Instead, across all of these studies, which would surely include these two groups if they exist, the statistically significant finding is that it’s not the porn use itself which creates porn addiction, but it is the use of porn by a person with moral conflicts about it, that is fueling modern porn-related issues.

I will add something to the arguments made by the authors of this study – having demonstrated that it is the moral conflict and self-identity of porn addict which is harmful, it thus upon us to confront the social, media and clinical use of this concept. It is causing and perpetuating harm, by focusing attention upon porn, rather than the true cause, the moral conflict over one’s sexual desires. Clinicians who continue to promote the idea of porn addiction are, like those who promote age-regression hypnosis or recovered memory therapy, engaging in harmful malpractice. Websites and advocacy groups who promote and encourage the identification as a porn addict are doing harm to their followers, and are like the hucksters who promote naturopathic treatment, despite federal medical groups identifying these treatments as ineffective and potentially harmful. Ultimately, all should be held accountable for their inaccurate, outdated and exploitative actions.

It is noteworthy that in this research, and in the numerous commentaries in response to it, no one at all is defending the porn addiction model. None of the researchers looking at data on porn-related problems have chosen to argue that an addiction model or treatment strategy is appropriate. To be sure, some researchers are still defending a compulsive model, or suggesting that pornography itself is too broad a concept to be neatly captured by a single theory. The editors of the Archives of Sexual Behavior invited only commentaries on this article from researchers – who must argue based on science, as opposed to anecdote. None of them argue that porn is addictive, changes your brain or sexuality, or that use of porn leads to tolerance, withdrawal or other addiction-related syndromes. Put simply, while the nuance of porn-related problems is still being sussed out, the idea that porn can be called addictive is done, at least in the halls of sexual science.

Clinically, what these findings mean is that instead of assessing porn use in people who seek help for porn-related issues, clinicians and therapists should be assessing a person’s moral attitudes towards porn, and their level of religiosity. In therapy, instead of trying to change people’s porn use patterns, we should instead be focused on helping them to make their values and behaviors congruent, and learning to understand and recognize the impact of their moral beliefs. This conflict between morality and sexual behaviors may be resolved by changing one’s sexual behaviors OR by changing one’s values OR simply by helping people become conscious and mindful of this internal conflict. Many of the moral values we were raised with, about sex, race or gender, are no longer fully applicable to the modern world. Because of religious opposition to sexual education, many people struggling with masturbation to porn don’t understand what is normal, and that their sexual interests are healthy. Helping people to consciously examine and consider their religious beliefs about sex, masturbation and porn, with modern, adult, self-determining eyes, may help them reduce the pain and suffering caused by this moral conflict.