“Porn Addiction is a Myth”: The Debate Continues

What if someone told you—despite what popular media says—that “sex addiction” or “porn addiction” aren’t real? What if someone told you the whole thing is an inaccurate label that isn’t helping but is rather harming people in the long run?

The concept of “sexual addiction” has been around a long time. In 1897, Sigmund Freud wrote, “It has occurred to me that masturbation is the one great habit that is a ‘primary addiction,’ and that the other addictions, for alcohol, morphine, tobacco, etc. only enter into life as a substitute and replacement for it.” The 1970s saw the genesis of groups like Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous, following the traditional 12-steps of AA. Today one can find sexual addiction treatment centers, become certified in sexual addiction therapy, and attend sexual addiction conferences.

Porn Addiction is a Myth

But men like Dr. David J. Ley think we’ve got the whole thing wrong. “Sex addiction is a fictional disorder,” Ley writes, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

If Not Addiction, What Is It?

Ley agrees that people can and do engage in problematic and even destructive sexual behavior, but this, he says, is a result of a number of factors.

First, what many call sexual addiction is just being human: human beings enjoy sex, some enjoy lots of sex, and some enjoy taboo sex. Moreover, when people desire sex it is normal for them to make bad decisions that have negative impacts. Sexual addiction, he says, is just pathologizing male sexuality, high libido, and undesirable sexual behavior.

Second, there are already classified disorders that include a hypersexual component. These are often the problems that undergird and drive what many experience. Why, Ley asks, do we need an additional diagnosis, an additional disease to add to our theories?

For Ley, sexual addiction is just another example of the optimistic American tendency to believe that every problem has a name and every problem has a solution.

Blame It On the Brain

David Ley sounds like a lone voice crying in the wilderness, especially since so many therapists believe sexual addiction is a real phenomenon.

Dr. Donald Hilton calls pornography “a powerful, $100 billion per year brain drug that is changing human sexuality.” His vivid description is not new; the porn-is-a-brain-drug language has been around a long time. A decade ago, a U.S. Senate subcommittee brought in a panel of experts to have a hearing on “the brain science behind pornography addiction” (you can read the lengthy transcript if you are interested). The panelists made some bold claims, saying that modern science shows us that “the underlying nature of an addiction to pornography is chemically nearly identical to a heroin addiction.”

Some neuroscientists argue that porn taps into the same neural connections that make drugs addictive. Drugs can be addictive because they “trick” the brain, says Dr. William Struthers. “The only reason there are any drugs of addiction at all is because those drugs activate the brain’s natural pathways which are involved in reinforcement and pleasure—so, things like eating, drinking, and sex.” Pornography, he says, hijacks this system in a similar way, tricking the brain into thinking it is getting sex—and like a drug, the forced high can become a deadly habit.

Brain Controversies

Recently, these assertions about the brain have been brought under sharp criticism. In March 2012, David Ley’s The Myth of Sex Addiction hit the bookstore shelves in full force, challenging the notion that “sex addiction” and “porn addiction” are the best models for understanding these problems. A year later the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience of Psychology published the results of a study about our neurological response to sexually explicit images. Dr. Ley explains that what they discovered was not consistent with the addiction theory:

If viewing pornography actually was habituating (or desensitizing), like drugs are, then viewing pornography would have a diminished electrical response in the brain. In fact, in these results, there was no such response. Instead, the participants’ overall demonstrated increased electrical brain responses to the erotic imagery they were shown, just like the brains of “normal people” as has been shown in hundreds of studies.

The psychology community replied with a flurry of responses to the study, such as Dr. Linda Hatch, Dr. Robert WeissDr. Brian Mustanski, Dr. William Struthers, and Dr. Donald Hilton. They criticized everything from the absence of a control group, not enough prescreening of the subjects, insufficient EEG data collection, and the limitations of the laboratory setting compared to “real life” use of porn.

In summary, what does this new brain study tell us about porn addiction? Not much, say the critics.

Still, Ley contends that sex or porn addiction “is a belief system, not a diagnosis; it’s not a medically supported concept.”

Is Sex Addiction Based on Bogus Science?

The biggest deathblow to the “sex addiction” label, Ley says, is that the APA has utterly rejected it as an official diagnosis. For seven years the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) included the concept of “sexual addiction” under the general diagnosis “Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” but it was removed later because of insufficient research. With each edition of the DSM, despite all the advancements made in neurology and all the studies of human sexuality, sexual addiction is not included in the DSM.

Ley contends that careful scientists know there are absolutely no differences between the brains of alleged sex addicts and non-sex addicts. The advocates of sex addiction and porn addiction who use brain science are merely building credibility with what he calls “valley-girl science.” Advocates will say, “sex addiction is like an eating disorder, it’s like a heroin addiction.” Ley says this form of argumentation is very weak: “When they tell you that sex addiction is like an eating disorder, they don’t tell you all the things that are different about it. They live by anecdotes, because they don’t have good science.”

Still, many sexual addiction advocates don’t buy Ley’s theories. Dr. Hilton acknowledges that the DMS doesn’t include “sexual addiction,” but the most recent edition of the DSM (the DSM-5) now says that addictions need not merely be substance related. One can have a “behavioral addiction.” The DSM-5 mentions only one type of behavioral addiction: pathological gambling. What about sex? It is included in a subsection titled “Conditions for Further Study.”

Dr. Hilton asks why Internet pornography is not included as a behavioral addiction when pathological gambling is. “Is it precisely this inconsistency that supports that premise that cultural and political biases tend to minimize addictive sexual behavior.” In other words, Hilton believes the powers-that-be behind the DSM are not being persuaded by research in this area, but by politics.

The Neuroscience of Porn Addiction

Is there any evidence that sex addiction and porn are addictive? That depends on who you ask.

In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) modified its definition of addiction to include behavioral addictions for the first time, departing from the traditional definition of addiction that includes substance dependence only. This new definition says addiction is “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” This is why they now consider sex a possible addiction: though sex is naturally neurologically rewarding, someone addicted to sex is engaged in the “pathological pursuit of rewards.”

Cambridge Neuropsychiatrist Valerie Voon says her research demonstrates that the brains of habitual porn users show great similarity to the brains of alcoholics. A brain structure called the ventral striatum plays a significant role in the reward system and pleasure pathways of the brain. This part of the brain “lights up” on a brain scan when an alcoholic sees a picture of a drink. Likewise, those who believe they are addicted to porn show similar brain activity when shown a pornographic image.

In addition, Dr. William Struthers says research shows that masturbating to pornography actually weakens the cingulate cortex of the brain—the region that is responsible for moral and ethical decision making and willpower—a process that is seen in every addiction. This phenomenon is known as hypofrontality. In The Porn Circuit, Sam Black explains: “Compulsiveness is a good descriptor of hypofrontality. Many porn users feel focused on getting to porn and masturbating even when a big part of them is saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ Even when negative consequences seem imminent, impulse control is too weak to battle the cravings.”

Beyond the Brain: Is the Language of Addiction Helpful?

Debates about the neurology of sexual addiction are, at best, confusing to those who aren’t well-versed in neuroscience (myself included). But these debates tend to bring to the surface something more fundamental: the language of addiction itself.

David Ley believes that the very label—addict—causes problems for those who feel impacted. “When we tell them they are enslaved, they are.” The label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we convince people they have a disease which renders them powerless, and this belief in turn makes them powerless.

Furthermore, the term “addiction” means the person has a disease, and while many find this comforting in the face of relationally destructive behavior, Ley says this means people really can’t own up to their choices as choices.

Psychotherapist and certified sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein agrees. His remarks are worth reading in his own words:

I don’t use the diagnosis of sex addiction. In thirty-one years as a sex therapist, marriage counselor, and psychotherapist, I’ve never seen sex addiction. I’ve heard about virtually every sexual variation, obsession, fantasy, trauma, and involvement with sex workers, but I’ve never seen sex addiction.

New patients tell me all the time how they can’t keep from doing self-destructive sexual things; still, I see no sex addiction. Instead, I see people regretting the sexual choices they make, often denying that these are decisions. I see people wanting to change, but not wanting to give up what makes them feel alive or young or loved or adequate; wanting the advantages of changing, but not wanting to give up what makes them feel they’re better or sexier or naughtier than other people. Most importantly, I see people wanting to stop doing what makes them feel powerful, attractive, or loved, but since they don’t want to stop feeling powerful, attractive or loved, they can’t seem to stop the repetitive sex clumsily designed to create those feelings.

Dr. Robert Weiss, however, says the language of addiction, while not necessary, is “clinically useful.” He cites three primary reasons:

  1. It is the language that clients speak. Clients don’t drag themselves to a counselor because they think they have “hypersexual behavior disorder” or “high sexual desires.” They come because they feel “addicted.”
  2. It is the term most often used by physicians.
  3. It is a language that reduces shame and immerses a client in “a community of support that involves accountability and taking responsibility for one’s behavior.”

In other words, “sexual addiction” has worked its way into the culture and has some canonical status. Rightly or wrongly, it is the colloquial term everybody uses, so instead of fighting it, let’s use it and define it carefully to help set people on the road to recovery.

Dr. Linda Hatch echoes these sentiments. The reason why “sexual addiction” is a useful label is because it helps people understand their destructive relationship with sex. Pathologically speaking, people can have a relationship to porn or sex that is akin to one’s relationship to a drug. Like a drug addict uses drugs, sex addicts use sex as “a drug to kill pain and escape unpleasant emotions,” Hatch writes. Saying a habitual porn user merely has a “high sex drive” does not describe one’s relationship to their sexual behavior.

The Symptoms of Porn Addiction

Dr. Weiss and many others stick with the addiction label for other reasons. “As a licensed sexual addiction specialist with over 20 years experience in the field of sex and intimacy, I have seen thousands of individuals whose sexual behaviors satisfy every criteria of addiction.” Sex addicts and porn addicts, they say, show symptoms of…

  • Tolerance: A markedly diminished sexual satisfaction over time when looking at porn or engaging in sex
  • Withdrawal: Showing symptoms of irritability, violent dreams, mania, insomnia, violent mood swings, paranoia, headaches, anxiety, and depression when going without sex or porn
  • Progression: Needing more sex, more risky sex, or more porn over a longer period of time to get the same high
  • Unsuccessful quitting: No ability to cut down or control sexual behavior
  • Increased time: More and more time and effort is spent seeking out sex
  • Sacrifice: Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up in order to engage in sex
  • Stubbornness: Despite knowing the negative physical or psychological effects, destructive sexual behavior continues

Weiss agrees with Ley on at least one thing: other underlying problems often drive the compulsive use of sex or porn. However, the the same can be said of alcoholism or drug abuse, Weiss argues. We don’t reject the label “drug addiction” even though we know people use drugs to self-medicate their pain or disorders. Why would we reject sexual addiction on the same grounds?

Over-Diagnosis as Part of the Controversy

Others see the sensationalization of sexual addiction as a major player in the debate. While many are willing to admit that sexual addiction is a legitimate diagnosis, they would not say that every instance of claimed sex addiction in the tabloids should be taken seriously.

Dr. Susan Block believes sex addiction is a real problem, but “much of what is solemnly or sensationally labeled ‘sex addiction’ is just normal erotic angst, sexual experimentation, fetishistic fun and relationship troubles.” What used to be a stigma, is now, well, sexy. “Some long to wear a glittering Scarlet Letter ‘A’ for Addict on their breast,” Block writes. They even seem disappointed when they find out that their fantasies and behaviors are not evidence of an addiction.

Outsourcing Moral Authority

Close to the heart of the debate—though not the substance of it—are the politics involved. Those, like Ley, who reject the label “sexual addiction” don’t just dismiss it because they think it is pop psychology and valley-girl science. They reject it because they believe it is part of a moral agenda against sex.

Ley says, “Religious groups are using porn addiction pseudo-science labels to mask their moral attacks on porn and sexual behavior.”

They are typically unable to put forth a healthy model of sexuality, and when they do, it is so transparently conservative and religiously driven that it’s frightening. Most of the leaders of the sex-addiction movement are themselves recovering supposed sex addicts and religious folks. That’s fine, it’s fine for them to be advocating, but what they’re advocating for is a moral system, not a medical one.

Many non-religious advocates of the sexual addiction model would, of course, disagree with Ley that their agenda is morally motivated. But leaving this aside for the moment, how should Christians react to Ley’s theories?

In my opinion, Ley’s arguments can border on the error of a genetic fallacy: while it is true that addiction language was and is used by religious organizations to bring about changes in society concerning porn, this does not mean, therefore, that the addiction model is wrong or unscientific.

But giving Ley the benefit of the doubt, is there something to his argument? I believe there is.

In a study of the popular evangelical magazine Christianity Today from 1956 to 2010, Jeremy Thomas found that while outward opposition to pornography has remained steady and robust over the last 50 years, during this same time, evangelicals’ anti-pornography declarations have become increasingly secular. More than half a century ago, pornography was judged by the moral authority of Scripture. Today, more secular forms of moral authority are used, such as psychological health or humanistic conceptions of individual rights. This, Thomas says, is evidence that the church is outsourcing its moral authority.

While we might disagree with Ley about his scientific or therapeutic take on the topic, I am inclined to agree that, as Christians, we should avoid making neuroscience or diagnostic categories a cover story for our obvious moral stance. It is dishonest, at best. The church must remain clear that pornography is not essentially wrong because it is addictive, but because it rips sexuality from its relational context and presents human beings not as creatures made in God’s image, but as sexual commodities, something to be bought and sold.

If we champion the notion that sexual addiction is real, then let’s do so believing we stand on solid scientific ground, but let’s not pretend that there’s a scientific study validating every belief we have about godly sexual expression. Let’s avoid giving people the impression that we make objective moral judgments on the basis of a brain scan. Our morals are based on something far more solid than that.

Photo credit: 125992663@N02