11 minute read

“Porn Addiction is a Myth”: The Debate Continues

Last Updated: July 21, 2021

Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust Through Biblical Accountability and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

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.

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 DSM 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

  • Comments on: “Porn Addiction is a Myth”: The Debate Continues
    1. Jennifer on

      The addiction classification is really important for those whose porn dependency has escalated to a compulsion. My husband went to the church first, saying he “struggled” with porn. No, he was addicted. He was using it as a masturbation aid 5-8 times a day. He couldn’t stop using at work, even though he knew it could get him fired. It was so beyond a “struggle”. The church had no idea how to help someone so desperately addicted. They prayed with him, for him, but even going hours without porn left him with classic withdrawal symptoms. The church told him to pray harder, make better relationship with God, to read the bible more often, but it wasn’t until he started therapy and involvement with 12-step addiction groups that he made any progress at all. If pastors look at porn addiction as both a sin and an addiction, they can suggest appropriate treatment for true addictive dependence. Our church was unable see that his addiction required medical intervention and treatment, because they just saw it as a spiritual sin, and disregarded the neurological and psychological dependence. .

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        I’ve heard similar stories from many men and women. Of course, a man like Dr. David Ley isn’t coming at this from a Christian perspective (nor are many of the people quoted in this article).

        Personally, I think the advice to “pray more” and “read the Bible more” is, at best, surfacey advice for someone dealing with any kind of sin, regardless of whether it is an addiction or not. We misread the Bible and we misread people when we fail to understand that sin runs deep and impacts our whole being—body, mind, and soul.

      • Ernie Chambers on

        I totally understand your insight regarding the lack of dealing with addictive behaviors from the churches perspective. So many churches don’t know or want to understand that this is an epidemic that has protruded into the very ministry that they are involved in. I, too, struggled with these and many other behaviors for years until I came to myself and realized I had a problem. I nearly lost everything I had, including my marriage. But I acknowledged my issues, sought help through several resources, including “Every Man’s Battle” with New Life Ministries, and they helped me turn my life around. I renewed my relationship with God where He gave me a new heart, a new mind that focused on being pure in His sight. Now, after being free from that life since 2000, I’m a facilitator for our men’s group – “Men of Redemption” – where our senior pastor has endorsed, accepted and promoting our ministry to our church, desiring to strengthen the men of our church so that we will have strong marriages and families. There is no shame or condemnation when dealing with addictive behaviors. We encourage and disciple men to become who God created them to be by incorporating new structure in their lives with constant and consistent accountability 24/7, 365 days a year. We getting men healthy, guiding them back to a restored relationship with God. Our church is in agreement and there is no shame or guilt where freedom is being received. I applaud your efforts and pray that your husband continues his efforts with all diligence. Trust God!

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        It’s great when we hear stories of real change. It’s even better when we hear that those who have seen real change are helping others. Thanks, Ernie!

    2. Gabe Deem on

      Luke, I’m concerned you are being misled, or at the very least, caught up in the agnotology surrounding porn addiction. That is to say, you are presenting the topic of porn addiction as if there are two opposing sides with somewhat equal evidence. This is not true in the slightest. There are several important things missing here:

      1) Most importantly. Porn addiction is not sex addiction. Many porn addicts have never had sex, or are unable to have sex. How can you be addicted to something you have not used/experienced or cannot use/experience? This is a question I have asked Weiss and he has yet to answer. You will repeatedly hear the “other side” mix these two up. 

      2) Internet porn addiction is a type of internet addiction. There is no mention of the 70+ internet addiction brain studies in this post. 70+! All showing evidence of addiction related brain changes. Some even showing causation. The “other side” do their best to avoid talking about these, because if “internet addiction” exists, internet porn addiction can exist. In fact, a few of the internet addiction studies included porn use.

      3) The Nicole Prause study was not just critiqued, it was incorrect and actually had no correlation to support it’s claims. It claimed that there was a correlation between EEG readings and Sexual Desire Inventory scores, which did not exist. It was a lie.  Her study didn’t even have a control group to compare brain readings too. She has no clue what a non addicts brain response would look like. However, it did contained a heterogeneous group of subjects (males, female, non-heterosexuals) viewing straight porn, and questionnaires that do not accurately assess compulsive Internet porn use, as they were not made to assess porn use, or made for females, which the study included. 

      Prause made public claims like “The reason these findings present a challenge is that it shows their brains did not respond to the images like other addicts to their drug of addiction.”

      This is not true. The subjects showed a greater response (higher P300 reading) for porn images than neutral images. This IS like other addicts respond to their drug of addiction. Commenting on the claim prause made Psychologist John A Johnson had this to say – 

      “My mind still boggles at the Prause claim that her subjects’ brains did not respond to sexual images like drug addicts’ brains respond to their drug, given that she reports higher P300 readings for the sexual images. Just like addicts who show P300 spikes when presented with their drug of choice. How could she draw a conclusion that is the opposite of the actual results? I think it could be due to her preconceptions–what she expected to find”

      For the best critique of this study check this one – http://pornstudycritiques.com/uclas-span-lab-touts-empty-porn-study-as-ground-breaking/

      4) Ley’s points are easily refuted. 

      “Sex addiction, he says, is just pathologizing male sexuality, high libido, and undesirable sexual behavior.”

      No. First of all let’s keep it on “porn” addiction, or change the title of this post. Second, “addiction” is just describing the physiological changes in the brain after using or engaging in a substance or behavior. The whole reason ASAM changed the definition of addiction in 2011. Ley is just throwing dust up in the air and showing he doesn’t understand current research on addiction. 

      “there are already classified disorders that include a hypersexual component. These are often the problems that undergird and drive what many experience.”

      Porn addicts often times report LOW libido for real partners, erectile dysfunction or delayed ejaculation, inability to masturbate without porn, etc. Chronic consumption of internet porn is having unique effects on people, especially adolescents. Ley wants everyone to believe ANYTHING other than porn is causing the problems. So he will say things like “porn addicts are simply sensation seekers.” When in reality they are seeking sensation more because they have been desensitized and need a great level of excitement to feel normal. Internet porn is unique, and there needs to be a differentiation between it and any other condition.

      “The advocates of sex 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.”

      Ley is up against decades of addiction neuroscience and ASAM. Again, it is well known that ALL addictions share the same fundamental brain changes. Ley is not an addiction expert.

      “he 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.”

      This is not about personal responsibility. It is about physiological brain changes. More dust that frustrates him, and clouds the layperson from seeing the base argument of whether porn addiction exists or not. 

      “Ley contends that careful scientists know there are absolutely no differences between the brains of alleged sex addicts and non-sex addicts.”

      Careful scientists…. like Prause? Who in the critique linked above is shown to be anything but “careful.” Actually, all brain research to date, yes all, shows that the brains of internet addicts/porn addicts have differences. And as the Kuhn study from this past year found, even moderate users show differences that correlated with years of use.

      I could go on… but I just wanted to point out that your describing a dust cloud not a “debate.”

      Sincerely hope that helps. Much Love

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Hi Gabe,

        I agree that porn addiction and sex addition are not the same thing, though they do sometimes go together. Knowing the differences are very important for helping those caught up in either one.

        In this article, I’m focusing more on a specific line of argumentation about the existence of either of these addictions at all—something Dr. Ley would deny. I agree Internet addiction is a real problem today, but this post was deliberately focused on Ley’s theories (and those like him) and how others contend with his theories. If you know of any research critiquing Dr. Ley’s ideas that specifically point to the element of Internet addiction, please let me know. Since Ley’s critics do not introduce the element of Internet addiction, I did not either.

        My lack of citing specific research about Internet addiction was not an oversight. Indeed, I cite almost no “studies” at all, not even concerning sex addiction or porn addiction, aside from quotations and analogies by various professionals.

        The reason I quoted the Prause study is primarily of Dr. Ley’s defense of it. This is why I said that the study provoked a widespread response, saying that the critics of it think the study was fundamentally flawed.

        I am inclined to agree with you that Dr. Ley’s ideas can be refuted, but my underlying reason for doing so comes out at the end of the article as I address the politics behind the words we use and the “clinical usefulness” of our terms. Part of Ley’s theory is that a sex addiction diagnosis is unhelpful and motivated out of a deep-seated prejudice against certain sexual desires. This, I thought, deserved attention because Dr. Ley represents an academic expression of thoughts common in our culture.

        In the end, I welcome your critiques, as the scope of this article was deliberately limited (as all articles should be).

      • Gabe Deem on

        “I agree that porn addiction and sex addition are not the same thing, though they do sometimes go together. Knowing the differences are very important for helping those caught up in either one. In this article, I’m focusing more on a specific line of argumentation about the existence of either of these addictions at all—something Dr. Ley would deny. “

        Internet porn addiction is an addiction to screens, endless novelty constant clicking, voyeurism, seeking searching and masturbating. It is consumed via the internet and is considered a category of internet addiction by the real experts. Sex addiction was coined long before the internet. Behaviors are focused toward involving real people. Ley’s goal is to conflate Internet porn addiction with sex addiction. That way he can base his rhetoric on sex addiction, such as – LEY – “First, what many call sex 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. Sex addiction, he says, is just pathologizing male sexuality, high libido, and undesirable sexual behavior”

        With this paragraph Ley frames the argument – and you spend the rest of the article playing on the sex addiction field. He has already won the debate: It is now about guys just being guys (Tiger Woods), and not about how the internet is a unique, never before seen stimulus. Ley’s sex addiction set up had nothing to do with Internet porn in 2014. The article should be about a 12 year old boy clicking from hard core video to video, day after day, perhaps for years before he has his first kiss. Ley’s framing has nothing to do with adolescents’ conditioning his sexual response to screens and constant novelty. Ley’s argument has nothing to do with the symptoms reported by young such as loss of libido, ED, delayed ejaculation, acquiring weird fetishes, and wanting to act out porn scenarios with their 16 year old girlfriend.

        Read this for more: http://yourbrainonporn.com/porn-addiction-not-sex-addiction-and-why-it-matters

        “I agree Internet addiction is a real problem today, but this post was deliberately focused on Ley’s theories (and those like him) and how others contend with his theories. If you know of any research critiquing Dr. Ley’s ideas that specifically point to the element of Internet addiction, please let me know. Since Ley’s critics do not introduce the element of Internet addiction, I did not either.”

        Yes they do. Why didn’t you link to this 2014 Ley and Prause “review” – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11930-014-0016-8

        Followed by this complete dismantling of it – http://pornstudycritiques.com/the-emperor-has-no-clothes-a-fractured-fairytale-posing-as-a-review/

        You cannot win the sex addiction debate, but you can win the Internet porn debate (What this article is about). Researchers who publish studies on internet addiction classify internet addiction into subgroups: video gaming, cybersex, social media, and general internet use. This is accepted. See this review – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4034340/

        Both Ley and Prause argue that behavioral addictions do not exist, and take it further by suggesting that visual/auditory stimuli are incapable of inducing addiction related brain changes. This is at the heart of their argument and completely ignored in your response.

        The reason I quoted the Prause study is primarily of Dr. Ley’s defense of it. This is why I said that the study provoked a widespread response, saying that the critics of it think the study was fundamentally flawed.

        But you didn’t cite the most complete take down of it. Not sure if you came across it yet but it’s the one I cited above. Here it is – http://pornstudycritiques.com/uclas-span-lab-touts-empty-porn-study-as-ground-breaking/

        “I am inclined to agree with you that Dr. Ley’s ideas can be refuted, but my underlying reason for doing so comesout at the end of the article as I address the politics behind the words we use and the “clinical usefulness” of our terms. Part of Ley’s theory is that a sex addiction diagnosis is unhelpful and motivated out of a deep-seated prejudice against certain sexual desires.”

        The last sentence says it all. Ley has won once you repeat his framing as “certain sexual desires”, rather than Internet porn – which did not exist until the 90’s and only in its current form (Tube Sites) since 2006. When in history have young people had unlimited access to streaming hard core? Never. Only in the last 8 years. This is what the article should be about, not deep seated prejudice against sexual desires. The title of the article “Is Porn Addiction a Myth” and the web address “porn-addiction-like-drug-addiction” suggest that the article is talking about whether porn addiction exists or not.

        “This, I thought, deserved attention because Dr. Ley represents an academic expression of thoughts common in our culture.In the end, I welcome your critiques, as the scope of this article was deliberately limited (as all articles should be).”

        All debates should be limited. In this case it should start with Internet porn is not sex, and any mention of sex addiction is disallowed. Ley must only discuss internet porn when talking about if porn addiction exists or not, with no venturing in sex addiction rhetoric.

        I only care because of the title of this article. So far we don’t have a debate. We have one side with growing evidence to support it, and another side kicking dust in our faces so they can publish misleading and dishonest “studies” and “reviews” while the lay person is scratching their eyes trying to see.

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks for the links! I’ll enjoy the reading.

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Looking back over my article, I can see that I’m not distinguishing (or calling out specifically) “sexual” addiction and “sex” addiction in the clearest way. As you can see in the article, I often mention “porn addiction” and “sex addiction” as two different experiences, but I tend to lump them under addictions that are “sexual” in nature.

        I’m probably framing “sexual desire” similarly to how Dr. Ley is, defining sexual addiction more broadly—an umbrella term for a variety of conditions. I would consider looking at porn a “sexual” act, even though it is a very specific kind of sexual act that includes an addiction to novelty, constant clicking, voyeurism, masturbating, etc. In other words “sexual addictions” include porn addiction and sex addiction, in the sense that both involve our sexuality, but they are distinct experiences. “Sexual addiction” is broad umbrella much like “behavior addiction” or “process addiction” are broad umbrellas. Perhaps that is too broad or confusing, as Gary Wilson argues, and I’m willing to concede to that.

        Gary Willson’s concerns seem to be both PR related and treatment related: if we say porn addicts are like classically defined “sex addicts” we both diminish the visibility of the problem (because true “sex addicts” are rare), and we end up treating porn addicts as if they are sex addicts. I would agree wholeheartedly with Wilson’s assertions here. My use of the term “sexual addiction” is not nuanced enough in the article to distinguish it from “sex addiction” specifically. My bad.

        In my research, I did come across the pornstudycritiques.com article you mentioned, but since there was no author attached to it or credentials of the author, I was unsure how to cite it. As for the Brand, Young, and Laier paper, it is very good research, but they don’t critique Dr. Ley or address the issue of “sex addiction” as a misdiagnosis. I will look over the pornstudycritiques.com article again, for sure. Do you know who authored it?

      • Joe on

        I wonder at the term “valley girl science.” What a horrible stereotype!

    3. Ed on

      Hi Luke,

      The terms “pornography addiction” and “sexual addiction” is junk science and we born again, evangelical believers in America have bought into it hook, line and sinker. It is a manufactured epidemic that has caused God’s children to doubt and question their new life in Christ that was sealed with Jesus’ Blood in the New Covenant. Furthermore, the focus on so-called pornography addiction and sexual addiction has cheapened and diminished the terrible reality of what true addiction actually is. For a reminder, please see this testimony link from the 700 Club:

      http://www.cbn.com/700club/features/amazing/rwr54_mark_and_cheryl_edwards.aspx?cpid=EU_DD_2014_276

      Just out of curiosity, do you consider the products advertised on this particular website to be pornography?:

      http://www.welcomed.com/videos/

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Hi Ed. I’m interested why you think the terms “porn addiction” and “sex addiction” are junk science. Are there scientific findings you believe more accurately represent the truth?

        Thanks for the article about Mark and Cheryl’s story. Very powerful testimony. My question is why you believe porn addiction or sex addiction cheapen the reality of addiction. Personally, I’ve spoken to hundreds of individuals whose lives have been devastated by their relationship to porn or sex—an out-of-control madness that took everything but their life from them. If someone manifests a relationship to porn or sex that is akin to a destruction relationship one can have to alcohol or a drug (both neurologically and psychologically) is that not an addiction?

        I’ve not seen the video content for the products advertised here, so I’ll avoid passing immediate judgment on them.

      • Scott spence on

        I think it’s funny to read some of the article and comments. But it seems to me if you can’t stop for good forever you r addicted. Anyone who has tried to stop and can’t would make good witnesses to the preposterous notion of Porn addiction

    4. Brett Davis on

      Interesting article. I think those that take issue with some of it’s content need to pay attention to the last three paragraphs because that’s where Mr. Gilkerson’s point on this whole issue is and I agree with it. The church battling porn attachment/addiction/usage among it’s members should not be reduced simply to “scientific” reasoning to convince people. It should support the primary reason because of it’s sinfulness and where the Bible stands on sexual sin. That is what his point is. Unfortunately, the church often shies away from calling sin sin because they don’t know how to do so without coming across as judgmental or condemning. Very few people can do this well. To call a person’s sin out (there’s no two ways about it, uncovering a person’s sin makes them squirm), but then to immediately offer Jesus’ loving hand of healing is a prized ability, as I said few can do well. And that’s why I think some Christian healing groups hide behind the scientific so it makes more people feel comfortable and they don’t want to turn people away, but are they really helping anyone if they don’t tell people they HAVE to go through the “valley of the shadow of death,” before they get to the green pastures and still waters?

      Of course some of Dr. Ley’s and some of the other doctors quoted assertions have no merit because they do not come from a Biblical perspective. I don’t think Mr. Gilkerson is giving credit to those assertions. That’s why I think his last paragraph is the key of this whole article.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks, Brett. You’ve assessed my intention correctly. The article is meant to be (1) an informative piece about the state of the debate among counselors about the nature of sex addiction and/or porn addiction, focusing specifically on Dr. Ley and his theories, and (2) a caution to the church that we should not make scientific findings about addiction the basis of our ethics.

    5. Ed on

      Luke, I don’t even need to cite a study or quote from the book “The Myth of Sex Addiction” — I can use simple logic. The truth is that you can’t universally define what porn is because it is dependent on a hundred different perceptions and cultural filters. There is power in being able to make distinctions and you aren’t able to do that with the societal concept that is called “pornography”.

      If I’m an alcoholic, I can make factual distinctions about the physical effects of bourbon vs. whiskey vs. beer vs. wine vs. 100 proof whiskey on my body. But you can’t do that with porn, can you? How can you get “addicted” to something you can’t universally define? Furthermore, how can you avoid something that you can’t universally define?

      By virtue of your background and history, you are presumed to be sort of an expert on the subject of pornography addiction. Yet, I asked you to verify whether the website I listed: http://www.welcomed.com/videos/ was in fact, advertising pornographic products and you declined to answer (which is your choice). I wasn’t asking you to order the products and watch the videos or do an intensive internet researching the company that produces the videos: I was merely asking you to make a reasonable determination from the advertising for the videos as to whether they are are pornographic.

      If Covenant Eyes is all about pinpointing and confirming inappropriate sexual material, then this should be a snap for you. Why the reluctance? Why the reticence? This is an opportunity to demonstrate the value of Covenant Eyes by making a real world distinction regarding a form of sexual media that is out there on the internet.

      If you can’t make a rational distinction about these products, then I guess you that you can’t define pornography itself, let alone porn addiction.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Hey Ed,

        For the sake of conversation, let’s paint a scenario using one of the definitions of porn—one that is put forth by Adult Video News, the major trade magazine of the adult industry. Here, porn would be defined as any of the films and photos that are considered for awards at their annual conventions. This is more of an industry/economic definition of porn—and, of course, only one definition among many. Let’s say you meet someone who says he feels “addicted” to this kind of material and you investigate his claim. Upon investigation you find that despite repeated vows to quit watching the AVN video material, he finds his willpower totally lacking. He gives into his compulsive cravings and watches the material every day for hours a day. He manifests all signs of tolerance, withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit, and progression. He neglects all other life’s duties to pursue this material or else go mad trying to avoid it. Then, let’s say you did a brain scan on this person and found significant loss of volume in the frontal lobes (similar to the loss we see with cocaine or methamphetamine addicts, which thus explains his symptoms of hypofrontality). One could conclude from this that this person is “addicted” to this kind of material that the folks at AVN call “pornography.”

        Are you trying to argue that this person does not have an addiction to the material he views every day simply because he can’t get other people around him to agree to a standard definition of the material? If he said, “I’m addicted to watching videos that are considered awards at the AVN convention,” would you agree with him?

        On your other point, I’m not sure you understand our rating system. The Covenant Eyes’ rating system doesn’t include a “porn” rating. Our website rating system has six ratings, from E for Everyone to HM for Highly Mature. What many consider “porn” would fit into the Highly Mature category, but so would other types of material. The specific page you showed us is currently rated M for Mature (our second highest rating), though other pages on the overall url might be rated higher or lower based on the maturity of the content present. At a glance, I would surmise that some of the video material, if streamed online, would be rated HM, but I have not viewed it to confirm that.

    6. Ed on

      Luke, the human brain has been determined to be extremely elastic and malleable even amongst older persons. In addition to drugs and alcohol, any activity that is anchored in our minds with great emotion has the capability to alter brain chemistry both positively and negatively. For instance, if you have the propensity to be perpetually worried or fearful, then your brain chemistry can change. Since the emotions are arriving from the thought processes of the active brain and the subconscious, it is the strong emotion that is associated with the activity that is altering brain chemistry — not the activity itself.

      What is driving individuals to intellectually accept the concept of their own “addiction” is the emotional judgments, self condemnation and conclusions that they are drawing about themselves in regards to the activities that they are engaging in. If they believe that they are “addicted”, then they are — because that emotional belief is strongly anchored in their mind. The same rationale could support a “golfing addiction”, a “movie addiction” or a “donut addiction”. In fact, I read on an online health forum, that a particular man who likes to chew and consume large quantities of fennel seeds all day along (as an alternative to chewing tobacco) now has a “fennel seed addiction”. In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl explains that it isn’t what happens to us that ultimately determines our feelings but the conclusions and judgments that we make about ourselves and others in the situations that we find ourselves in. The “big picture” lens or paradigm that we see ourselves through determines our emotions which in turn impacts our brains and bodies. If you believe that you have a “pornography addiction”, whether you can objectively define the material or not, then you do — because that is the universal belief that you have chosen to accept about yourself.

      I appreciate your explanation of the Covenant Eyes rating system but you obviously agree that it is far too arbitrary for anyone to use to identify whether a particular medium is considered to be pornography. There is no way that a particular material can be considered to be “highly mature” by one individual and “pornography” by another individual and sustain a workable definition of pornography, let alone “pornography addiction”. That has to be the epitome of abstractions. Does the word pornography even mean anything in practical terms? Are we just throwing jello on the wall to see if it will stick? Is the term so loosey-goosey that can it can mean several things that we choose it to mean but nothing concrete in particular?

      Let’s lay aside the rating systems question for a moment. I didn’t specifically ask about how your software service rates material. I asked you to personally define whether the material from the company The Welcomed Consensus is pornography or not. Just to recap some of the materials for sale on the website: They are educational videos which include manual demonstrations of women sexually stimulating their own genitals to orgasm along with demonstrations of male partners sexually stimulating women’s genitals to orgasm.

      My question to you Luke is this: Do you personally consider what I have outlined in these materials to be pornography in your own life or in the lives of others? Why or why not?

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Hello again, Ed.

        I’m not sure you answered my question yet. I was asking whether the hypothetical person could be addicted to the AVN material even though others around him don’t agree on the definition of the word “pornography.” If you have a thought on that, I’d love to hear what you think.

        I don’t disagree that the strong emotions or intense sensations associated with the activity is what is causing the brain changes, but this is simply the nature of behavioral addictions (at least as the ASAM currently sees it). I fail to see why this makes a difference.

        I also don’t disagree that a personal diagnosis of addiction can be driven, in part, by one’s own emotional judgements and shame. Certainly many people’s experiences testify to this, and I even cite a number of individuals in the article who point this out. In one sense we would expect people who are more morally convicted by pornography to self-diagnose as addicts more frequently that others, all other things being equal. This is because one of the trademarks of addiction is persistent craving and lack of willpower despite the experience of negative consequences. If one experiences negative emotional consequences, such as guilt or shame, by viewing sexually graphic material, and they continue to view it, they are, in a sense, addicted to the material in a way that someone who is not convicted by it.

        I do think this works like a self-fulfilling prophecy for certain people. People can become more enslaved because they believe they are enslaved. They too quickly pathologize themselves. We should root our identities not in our present habits but in our relationship to our Savior, the one who died to sin and thus has made us dead to sin.

        I think the big problem is when people being to make identity statements based on their present condition. Saying, “I’m addicted,” is one thing. Saying, “I am an addict” is another. It sounds like a fine line, but I know many people who say they are “addicted” to something but always strive to reckon themselves dead to sin by alive to God, knowing they are united to the living Christ. For them, the word “addiction” is not rooted in their identity: it is merely a descriptive term for the sensations, compulsions, and cravings they have when a certain substance, object, or habit is concerned. They fight these habits not from a position of shame and condemnation but from a position of Christ’s victory.

        Of course then there are non-Christians to consider in this whole matter. When largely non-religious people who have no moral qualms about porn are experiencing adverse physiological consequences, in part because of their porn use—people who would instinctually resist the “addiction” label—then something more is going on. Self-condemnation and the emotions that stem from it do not explain these cases. I believe this is because pornographic material brings about negative physiological effects quite apart from whether guilt or shame is involved.

        To speak to more to your question about The Welcomed Consensus, I would consider the material you are describing to be “highly mature” within our rating system if you descriptions of it are accurate.

        Based one the etymology of the word itself and the history of its use, I would say pornography consists of printed or visual materials containing explicit displays of sexual organs or sexual activity, whether real or simulated, removing these acts from the intimacy of the partners in order to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic sensations. This is just a personal definition, of course. I would draw a line between pornography and other forms of nude artistic depictions that celebrate the human form, similar to how the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes the distinction: “pornography makes no credible appeal to viewers to consider the mode and means of depiction, as opposed merely to what is depicted; pornography, unlike art of any kind, is wholly transparent in both aim and effect.” Nude art and pornography can both induce sexual interest, of course, but only pornography truly arouses, intending to bring people into “the physiological state that is prelude and prerequisite to release,” as Jerrold Levinson says. In other words, the intention of porn is orgasm facilitation by displaying commercialized sensual content. I would say then, under this definition, that this material is probably pornography (though more exploration would be needed to confirm that).

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