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Karen Franklin, Ph.D.
Karen Franklin Ph.D.

“Pornography Addiction:” Science or Naked Rhetoric?

Debate growing over pornography's role in life problems

No one really knows what percentage of Internet use is sexually oriented, or how much money the porn industry is making. Many commonly cited figures are widely exaggerated, and the true figures remain murky and highly contested. Yet it's safe to say that for some portion of the public, the easy accessibility leads to habitual use that interferes with other activities, such as family life, relationships, work or school.

No worries. Treatment providers are standing by to help. A quick Google search produces dozens of residential treatment programs for pornography addicts.

What's not so easy to find is the price tag. The sites I surveyed require that you call them, or submit an online application for more information. That reticence is not surprising, given that costs average about $675 per day, or more than $180,000 for the nine-month minimum stay that some programs recommend.

This burgeoning pornography addiction industry is the latest example of the therapeutic opportunism that has swept across the United States, selling snake oil remedies for alcoholism, drug addiction, overeating, adolescent rebellion, and so many more problems of modern living.

Unbeknownst to a gullible and desperate public, this new treatment industry is largely unregulated, and its grand claims have scant scientific support. Indeed, its underlying theory of sexual addiction has been widely repudiated by scientific researchers.

In a scathing new critique in Current Sexual Health Reports, authors David Ley and colleagues challenge the scientific basis for the sexual addiction industry. They argue that the pathologization of visual sexual stimuli (VSS), as they prefer to call it, reflects religious and moral values rather than science.

Chicken or egg?

There is no question that many people are discontented with their use of pornography. About one in 200 Americans reports problematic viewing habits, according to Ley and colleagues’s estimates. The ambiguity is whether pornography is a cause, or a reflection, of life dissatisfaction. Supporting the latter possibility, for example, is a large-scale Dutch study finding that lower life satisfaction predicted greater use of online pornography, not the other way around. Similarly, people with more severe psychological problems and drug and alcohol use are more likely to be heavy viewers of visual sexual stimuli.

It makes sense that people might escape into fantasy not only for sexual release but also to avoid negative mood states such as loneliness. We have only to look to the wave of relationship-phobic soshoku danshi (literarally, "grass-eating boys") in Japan to technosexuals like Davecat (whose YouTube video has gone viral) who prefer robots or blow-up dolls to "organic partners" to sense the breadth of interpersonal alienation is contemporary culture.

Thus, pornography consumption is perhaps more a symptom than a cause of angst, and targeting it for primary intervention might distract from the deeper issues at play.

Ley and colleagues go further, arguing that a skewed focus on negative effects, such as erectile dysfunction and relationship difficulties, hides potential positive health outcomes of "sexual visual stimuli" consumption. Of relevance to forensic practice, there is some evidence that pornography viewing may reduce risky sexual behaviors, especially among individuals who report high levels of sexual sensation-seeking.

Stigmatizing sexual minorities?

One of the more intriguing topics raised by Ley and colleagues is the religious tenor of many treatment programs and advocates of the addiction paradigm. High religiosity turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of treatment-seeking for sex addiction, suggesting that conflicts over personal values rather than the use itself may be driving dissatisfaction.

Taking this one step further, they argue that the anti-pornography movement serves an ideological function of promoting certain values while suppressing others. Individuals reporting addictive use of visual sexual stimuli tend to be non-heterosexual males with high libidos and high levels of sensation seeking. The sexual addiction model, they claim, is an effort to exert social control over technological expressions of sexuality, suppress marginalized forms of sexuality, and stigmatize sexual minorities.

Intriguing as this argument is, I am disheartened by polemics that minimize the dehumanization and degradation of women, in particular, that are the mainstay of pornography. As revealed by scholars Miranda Horvath, Peter Hegarty and colleagues, the messages about women in British "lads mags" are indistinguishable from the rape-justifying statements made by convicted rapists. It's hard for me to see how this could be harmless, both to viewers and to society at large.

It's ironic to me to see the 12-step style pathologization of individual use ascend parallel to the rapacious lucrative pornography industry. They are two counterbalancing, mutually reinforcing, symbiotic industries – porn and anti-porn, each of them resting on an anemic foundation of hyperbole.

And the few who try to explore the deeper and more nuanced cultural implications of pornography find themselves attacked. I was shocked to hear a couple of years ago about a tenured sociology professor getting suspended for showing a progressive critique, The Price of Pleasure, which delves into the seamy underbelly of the lucrative industry. (My first thought was “Whew! Glad I didn’t get any complaints when I showed that same film in my Sexual Violence course at San Francisco State University a few years ago.”)

Ascendancy of the “sex addiction” model

Lest we forget, Ley and colleagues’ critique is not really new. It used to be pretty well accepted among serious scientists that "sex addiction" was a bogus pop psychology invention, yet another example of the quasi-religious 12-step model being grafted onto every conceivable behavior.

Detractors hail back as far as the late 1990s, when sex therapist Marty Klein, Ph.D. wrote his prophetic essay, "Why ‘Sexual Addiction’ Is Not A Useful Diagnosis -- And Why It Matters," dissecting the politics of this social movement. More recently, Forbes writers Matthew Herper, David Whelan and Robert Langreth tackled "The Shadowy Science Of Sex Addiction." British psychologist and sex educator Petra Boynton followed up with a 2008 critical essay, "Medicalising sexual behaviour" (which includes some good links and discussion of the parallel construction of "female sexual dysfunction”; see my review of Meika Loe's The Rise of Viagra for more on that topic).

The media hype over the sexual peccadillos of golfer Tiger Woods (which had a lot to do with cultural angst over a Black man having lots of sex with white women, blondes no less) proved a huge boon to the fledgling industry.

Also lending an aura of legitimacy was the ill-fated proposal to add "hypersexuality" to the DSM-5. A training announcement for sex offender professionals on "Sexual addiction and compulsivity -- the proposed DSM-5 diagnosis of hypersexuality” mustered a veritable grab-bag of 12-step pseudoscience: Patrick Carnes' "levels of hypersexuality"; the "family of origin of a sex addict" and "co-dependence and the co-addict spouse." (I'm not making this stuff up!) And now there’s even an academic journal with the trendy title Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity.

But unless and until the data comes in to establish sexual addiction as a viable scientific construct, it’s yet another example of an over-eager industry putting the cart before the horse.


The article, "The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Review of the ‘Pornography Addiction’ Model," by David Ley, Nicole Prause and Peter Finn, is part of a topical collection on "current controversies" in Current Sexual Health Reports. It may be requested from the first author (HERE).

About the Author
Karen Franklin, Ph.D.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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