Porn "Addiction" in the Mainstream Media

Popular media claims are not based on research.

Posted Jan 15, 2018

The last posting in this series offered a review of recent studies questioning the legitimacy of porn addiction, which indicate its etiology, prevalence, and diagnostic criteria remain unclear. Regardless, the mainstream media speaks of the condition as if it is a valid affliction rather than one requiring additional research.

Montgomery-Graham et al. (2015) compared popular magazines and blog postings to academic literature concerning the impact of pornography on romantic relationships.[i] The authors found that in the popular literature the most common theme was porn addiction, which was mentioned in 53.4% of the sources. They also found:

  • Pornography addiction was discussed with a considerable amount of certainty as to its existence.
  • Popular media discussed pornography addiction using the language of addiction, including terms such as ‘cravings,’ ‘tolerance,’ and ‘withdrawal.’
  • The popular media frequently asserted that initial pornography use can act as a gateway to accessing increasingly deviant forms of pornography.
  • There was a consensus that males are far more likely to develop a pornography addiction.
  • Many sources claimed porn addiction is harmful to relationships, including detaching from one’s partner or modifying a couple’s typical sexual routine.
  • Recovery from pornography addiction requires group and individual psychotherapy and 12-step programs.

These assertions by the popular media are in stark contrast to peer-reviewed academic literature. In this latter source, the authors found no accepted diagnostic criteria for ‘pornography addiction’ and no consensus on symptoms. They concluded that the mainstream media’s use of the term addiction is “unjustified” and cautioned:

Discussions of pornography addiction are fear-based and gendered. Reading the media articles gives a reader the impression that the harms of pornography are known and pervasive and involve all of the characteristics of substance use addiction and afflict only men. Readers of lay media articles might reasonably be left with the impression that pornography addiction is an actual diagnosis and that no amount of pornography use is safe. (p. 252).

One response to the above admonishment was taken by Sirianni and Vishwanath (2016).[ii] They began their article too by reporting “the bulk of online pornography addiction research is scientifically weak and lacks data to support its findings” (p. 22).  They instead introduced the phrase “problematic online pornography use” and hypothesized that this use can lead to problems ranging along a continuum from benign to severe; this is much more in line with the changes in the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders introduced in the DSM-V. The researchers postulated that the existence of negative repercussions does not automatically justify a diagnosis of a mental health problem. Being late for dinner twice due to porn use is very different from losing one’s job for workplace porn use after repeated warnings.

In summary, those seeking information on porn addiction are unlikely to come across peer-reviewed journal studies. Instead they will find a multitude of newspaper and magazine articles and, in particular, blog postings. These sources can be and frequently are misleading; we know much less about porn addiction than they suggest.

References

[i] Montgomery-Graham, Stephanie, Taylor Kohut, William Fisher, and Lorne Campbell. "How the Popular Media Rushes to Judgment about Pornography and Relationships While Research Lags Behind." The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 24, no. 3 (2015): 243-256.

[ii] Sirianni, Joseph M., and Arun Vishwanath. “Problematic Online Pornography Use: A Media Attendance Perspective.” The Journal of Sex Research, 53, no. 1 (2016): 21-34.