3 minute read

Should We Call It Porn Addiction or Something Else?

Last Updated: July 22, 2021

Matt Fradd

Matt Fradd is the author of Delivered: True Stories of Men and Woman Who Turned from Porn to Purity. After experiencing a profound conversion at World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, Matt has worked through full-time lay ministry in Australia, Ireland, Canada, and Texas. He has served as an apologist for Catholic Answers and has traveled all over the world, speaking to tens of thousands of teens and young adults. He and his wife Cameron have four children and live in North Georgia.

There’s a debate among medical professionals when it comes to the terms we use to describe problematic use of pornography. Should we call it porn addiction? Should we call it compulsive pornography use? Should we call it pornography dependence? Or something else?

The debate is actually a fairly old one, and it is bigger than just pornography, involving all kinds of addictions and compulsions. In medicine, there has been a long-standing debate about these terms. Sometimes the definitions have considerable overlap.

For instance, back when the DSM III was being edited, there was considerable debate among committee members between the words “addiction” and “dependence.”

  • Those who favored “dependence” felt it was less pejorative than “addiction”; it was a more neutral term that would not stigmatize substance abusers.
  • Some committee members favored the label “addiction” when it came to drugs and alcohol because it they thought the word more accurately portrayed the overwhelming habit of substance abuse as distinguished from “physical” dependence (which can occur in anyone who takes medications that affect the central nervous system).

In end the room was split, and the word “dependence” won over “addiction” by a single vote.

Arguments For Calling It Addiction

  • Some prefer the word “addiction” because it denotes a sense of proper seriousness—it is something oppressive and requires help from a Power greater than yourself.
  • Some prefer the term because, like it or not, it is a common term: let’s not fight it. Let’s just used it and then help people define it well.
  • Some prefer the term because it has a lot of utility for people who have these habits—it can really free people up to talk about their problem. When they see their problem as partially “medical,” regardless of what it actually is medically speaking, then the shame factor is reduced and then we can immerse people in communities of support where they can really take responsibility for their behavior.

Arguments Against Calling It Addiction

  • Some are okay with the term itself, but they just think it is overused. Not everyone who looks at porn is really addicted to it, they say, so don’t use it as a blanket label, which is the tendency we see happening.
  • Some reject the term altogether because they think the term denotes something of permanence: once and addict, always an addict. This unnecessarily seals a person’s fate where they never feel like they can ever fully recover, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, make stay locked in patterns of behavior even though they don’t want to.
  • Some dislike the term because they hate this disease-model—they think if something is a disease, this makes it excusable.

Debating Labels

The primary concern here is over labels. Words can be defined different by different people, and words change meaning over time.

Over 100 years ago, the word addiction didn’t have a medical flavor at all, nor was it universally negative. It was just a way to talk about a compulsive sort of dedication and devotion to something. Today, the term has a real medical feel. For instance, the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines “addiction” as a chronic disease of brain circuitry.

I’m less concerned about the terms we used, and I’m more concerned about what we mean by those terms. Not everyone shares our definitions, so we have to be cognizant that the words we use often carry a lot of baggage.

Tell me your thoughts? Should habitual porn use be called an addiction, a compulsion, or something else altogether? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

  • Comments on: Should We Call It Porn Addiction or Something Else?
    1. JeremiahP on

      I wrote an article on this on my new blog, if you don’t mind me plugging it:
      http://addictionbattle.blogspot.com/2015/10/this-is-site-to-journal-my-fight.html

      I think that there is a physical dependency built upon repetitive behavior, and similar to substance abuse, there is a set of chemical responses and rewards. We act in a Pavlovian response to our brain as it sets off neurochemicals in response to the mere promise and preoccupation with porn; and this increases in strength and severity the longer we engage in the activity. HOWEVER, the biblical response is to realize that we can become enslaved to our flesh with such ingrained responses, and that it is still our responsibility to re-align ourselves with God’s way. Adultery (if you lust after a woman, you have already committed adultery in your heart) and sexual aberrations (porneia) are things that miss the mark (sin) of God’s perfect paradigm of sex only in marriage. So, even if we have been become enslaved to the flesh, which is a closer definition to how a Christian should view the word “addiction”, we have a responsibility to fight for the re-programming our minds, which takes a transformation that involves all Godly devices that He and we can muster in our lives.

      On another note, many attempt to use the pre-programmed at birth argument, arguing that “it’s just the way you are”, it’s written in your DNA, the person has no choice, etc.; which has yet to be completely proven, and I sincerely doubt this position because it doesn’t really fit entirely with scripture. There is much more likely the predisposition for aberrant behavior that is based on abnormalities – hormones that are imbalanced, enzymes that come preconditioned to process substances in an overly efficient manner and provide all of the “reward” with little consequence, etc. But a predisposition to sin, which proves nothing more than the fact that we live in a fallen world where we have to deal with sin nature in the flesh, does not excuse sin. Paul discusses much of this in Romans, and concludes that it is still our battle to be waged.

      Bottom line? It’s still our sin, no matter how ingrained, and it is our job to own up to it and fight it, with all the power of the Creator on our side.

      Reply
      • JeremiahP on

        Oh, sorry, as far as the label itself, I think that the word addiction is fine, as long as we are willing to provide a biblical backing for what that means, and that we do not agree completely with the worldly definitions.

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Yes, any habits we may be predisposed to are merely signs of the impact of Original Sin on the human person. The sin is still ours, and the responsibility to repent and believe the gospel is our summons.

        No doubt, there’s a physical dependency created with a number of sins. Paul says as much in Romans 7 and Colossians 3 when he talks about sin being rooted in our “members” (the physical members of our bodies). This is the beachhead of sin for the Christian—the ingrained habits of brain and body.

    2. Nick on

      I’m more inclined to call it an addiction. I can speak from personal experience. I used porn as a way to reward myself, help myself though those down days, escape, get the high I “needed”, etc. As I participated in Celebrate Recovery, I discovered that others used food, drugs, even control over others in much the same way. In my understanding, addiction is that thing we turn to at those times that we feel like nothing else will “scratch that itch” in the same way. I understand I’m reducing it and generalizing it, but there are similarities.

      I think the hard part is that people who are addicted to heroin have physical pain accompanying their withdrawals, which is tempting (and perhaps the best argument) for distinguishing between chemical dependency/addiction and the “mind” addictions.

      The word dependency is not as accurate either, because I have a dependency on food, oxygen, and water, but that doesn’t imply I abuse them. You could even reduce those down and call them chemical dependencies, but that’s silly and true at the same time.

      Addiction implies that there is an unhealthy abuse of whatever it is you’re addicted to, and I think that is what the word should convey. I tell the guys I sponsor, “I don’t care if eating blue peeps is what you’re addicted to. If that’s what you use to mask your emotions and the pain inside, then you’re abusing those blue peeps.”

      Reply
    3. Steve on

      The medical pros maybe discussing this but many of us who have battled
      porn and are staying “sober” and trying to help others do the same think it is a big waste of time and energy. I say whatever is working for you–12 step spiritual group, 12 step secular group, accountability, scripture, prayer or all of the above. There is no one “right” way to deal with porn use. Some say we should not say we are powerless over an addiction or habit because we are Christians and it is not taking responsibility for our actions. Yet the Apostle Paul said he did things he did not want to do and those things he wanted to do he did not. It sounded pretty powerless to me. It is majoring on the minors. Just a few days ago one person wrote about not repenting the “right” way. I read the article and I get it but it is just one more thing I am not doing “correctly” according to one person. It can be a source of discouragement at times rather than its intended purpose–encouragement. Psalm 50:15 Steve

      Reply
      • Ralph on

        I think we try to hard to put labels on things, which is a product of our natural mindedness. To be naturally minded is death! You have 2 worldviews in conflict here. One that try’s to find chemical and biological triggers, which the Bible writers do not mention, not because of ignorance or lack of intelligence, but the Holy Spirit that authored the scripture knows is a dead end study. When trying to understand God in a “mechanical ” sense, we lose spiritual understanding for the sake of our deeply ingrained natural senses. While I do think that porn is a problem, it is no more a problem than our so called scientists trying to find a way to “measure” immorality by our chemical responses or how our brain activity “responds”. I think the Lord laughs at our attempts to underhandedly find ways around plain scripture. The nuts and bolts of sin are for the individual to read,realize and repent. Are you really going to stand before the throne with a briefcase full of “scientific data” and reason with almighty about how the chemical processes and brain activity caused you to miss the mark? Are you going to argue that the scriptures lacked the “scientific data” that “should” have accompanied them. The war is yours to win or to lose. The armor of God is all you need to fight in the war! You have to go to Him to get it! Scientific data is not one of the pieces mentioned. Your firstborn nature is subject to the environment you keep around you. We are products of the environment we CHOOSE to keep around us. I think this where evolutionary thinking gets its dead wrong! Quit trying to label things and put things in a box! We inadvertently put God in a box when we try to label things. Realize how disordered we are on the individual level and it will help us understand that God is the only one who can bring order and labels!

    4. Hank on

      Let’s call it sin…as a Christian anything that does not bring me closer to God is up for scrutiny. Personally,I am learning to ‘eschew evil’…saw that in a Psalm recently… not a phrase we use everyday.If I look around the glamor and lascivious appeal,I see the faces of souls who Chris died for…lately when the thot of straying enters my mind I find myself praying for those thousands of women who are caught in the same Web that He set us free from. It’s been a workable formula so far…genuine prayer takes care of opportunistic lust. Lastly I read once that if you stumble and view porn on a tablet,expand the pic to just the eyes and pray for that soul of whom God is willing to come to repentance…and pray for a divine view of sin.

      Reply
      • Hank on

        Recently,I retired after 43 yrs with the US Postal Service. About two months after retiring,our home flooded…we have flood insurance,but in the stress of this experience,I lapsed after more than 5 months of walking in the power of the Spirit over sin snd death. My wife and I have considered Web accountability,but we are closely watching our budget and are uncertain of the extra expense . Pray for us…we have never been closer to God or one another. Thank you for your daily articles. May God bless you as you point others toward freedom in Christ.

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks, Hank. I wrote an article about this very issue a while back regarding “addiction” language in the church, outlining several approaches Christians take. You might find it an interesting read, especially as someone who obviously has a burden for others as you do.

    5. Ben on

      I have found the word “addiction” to be helpful when applied to my use of pornography, because I realized that I had to admit some helplessness, and having an addiction connotes having some helplessness in relation to being able to break a habit. However, “addiction” seems to be too strong of a term to describe my present situation, which has seen progress when compared to some times in days gone by. Now loneliness and anxiety can trigger an urge to look at pornography. I feel pretty sure that, although my use of pornography is not accompanied by masturbation, there is still something chemical going on inside me. Unlike alcohol though, just using a little doesn’t make it all right. Looking at porn for me is probably similar to what some people experience after a glass of wine — there is some soothing going on. Hopefully, by God’s grace, I can put away my dependency on pornography once and for all.

      Reply
    6. Alison Rachel on

      Hi Matt, its pretty straight forward for me. My hubby is healing from his use of porn. It’s pretty clear that biologically, what it does to a guys brain, its worse than heroine. The effect of It biologically shrinks ones pre frontal cortex, the spot for decision making and reason. Dr William Struthers’ book ‘Wired For Intimacy’, chapter four, is especially illuminating. Also, we talk about hubby’s ‘addiction’, in terms that it is a sin. A sin is anyway that we by comission or omission are not living up to God’s perfect standard for our lives. The Bible does reveal to us how to live. That’s why we need Jesus, and also the person needing healing, because we cannot overcome sin on our own without Jesus Christ and his good news for us! It warns us in many places in the Bible that the sexually immoral, along with liars etc, will not make it into God’s Kingdom. But for God’s grace through Jesus Christ as we can receive the free gift of Jesus atoning sacrifice on the cross. Without Jesus work on Calvary’s cross we would be without hope for healing and life forever with him! But for the grace of God go I!

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Interesting you would mention Dr. Struthers, because he’s one who actually thinks the term “addiction” is overused in Christian circles when it comes to porn.

        There are a lot of approaches to this subject. I wrote an article on this blog about the different ways Christians appropriate the term “addiction” when they speak about these subjects.

    7. Eleica Rowe on

      This is the way I see it. Sin. If we label things as God defines them, there is no argument, no need for discussion, just go and sin no more.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        I see your point, Eleica. The problem with pornography–use? compulsivity? addiction? sin?–is that “go and sin no more” doesn’t work out so simply. We’d like it to, but it just doesn’t. The repentance part (“go and sin no more”) is just the beginning. There is a big ball of brain chemistry, lifestyle habits, defense mechanisms, relationship mess that all has to be untangled. That takes time and hard work. I think the more people understand that, the more they can make good choices about counseling, groups, etc.–the things that ultimately will help them be successful at going and sinning no more. Blessings, Kay

      • Norb on

        Go and sin no more. Right. Piece of cake. Follow that to the letter and you won’t even need the grace that was provided by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice! Why, you’ll be perfect! Maybe it’s a better idea to read and heed Mt 7:1-6. You could also try on Mt 18:21-35. I assume your sin no more quote is from Jn 8:11. As an FYI, the NIV bible says “Go now and leave your life of sin”, which is not the same. Never mind. It might not be a dumb idea to read the entire chapter. That would give proper context to the quote.

      • Ralph on

        Amen! Nothing more to be said. His statutes and judgments are supposed to be in our mouth ready for speaking. Psalm 119 is the longest psalm and the the one we tend to forget. His judgments and statutes are all that matter!

    8. Juanda on

      I think the term addiction is more fitting, because of how it changes the brain and the chemical high they receive and the progressive affect that continual viewing leads to. The brain of a cocaine addict and a person who views porn is the same. If the person continues to view porn it leads to adultry with a willing person from the community not internet and or unwilling such as rape or pedaphilia or can manifist into emotionally, mentally and or physically abusing family members spouses and children.
      this is a lot of time a silent disease because people people can’t see the emotional and affects it’s causing in the family.
      the porn viewer is unable to connect intimately with live human beings. they appear as church goers, clean cut, social, professional,
      these individuals have perfected the art of deceit, they think it is a sign of maturity if they can live this other life without anyone finding out.
      they are great at the art of causing confusion and chaos as so things never get into a peaceful predictable routine for the whole family.
      they usually do not like to get involve in trying to solve problems or address a negative situation.
      they want everyone to act happy all the time like a picture. They don’t talk about hopes and dreams and they don’t want to hear about others hopes and dreams. their conversations are very surface usually about a new client or a difficult one or a new hire or who is leaving the company.
      they never are at fault about anything it’s always somebody else’s fault.
      they expect others to complement them or focuse attention on them. they are critical of their spouse about everything even for not running to the door to greet them when they come home.
      they get upset if the spouse is helping or taking care of the children, but won’t help to care for them. example a child is sick or scared so a spouse tends to the child then the porn addicted spouse gets upset because you are not in bed with them, but yet won’t get up and stay up to soath their own children. they affear to be praying intently at church, but won’t pray with the family or spouse at home. the changes they make never last, they job hop, they go to counceling for a couple of months almost to just check off their list, never a real desire to change anything, everything always reverts back to the same action, lies, deceit, manipulation, trampling of spouse dismissing spouse and children …..disconnecting. I lived with an alcaholic father I saw the sign but I was looking for the booze instead of the porn. Always trust your gut instinct. If while dating something doesn’t feel right cut it loose before you get trapped and you are robbed of your life and the person God intended you to be, kind, honest, charitable, happy, joyful, living and loving life that can ride the storm and see the rainbow. living with addicted individuals all that can be seen is the storm constantly, it is emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically taxing. Only by Gods grace can you not plunge into despair. So you till me………..and the doctors need to live and be married with a person who has been changed by porn and see how that can affect their own personality especially if they don’t know the cause of their spouse behavior.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Hi Juanda. I was just at a meeting about internet porn with a big group of counselors this last week. Everybody was using the word “addiction.” The reality is, we like to play around with words, but you know what you’re living with. It’s interesting that you saw the signs, but looked for alcohol because the symptoms are so much the same. Whatever name we give to this behavior, the good news is, when you see the truth, you can start to make healthy choices for yourself. Getting support through counseling or a group like Celebrate Recovery can be very helpful as you try to find a way forward. Blessings to you, Kay

    9. Japheth on

      Will God be merciful to me if I am constantly repenting from the same old sin?

      Reply
      • Norb on

        Sure. Just see what Jesus commands Peter to do in Mt 18:21-22. I asked that same question in a men’s bible study once. The answer I got from men wiser than me was that we get into trouble when we start thinking that our sins aren’t sins after all and we stop repenting. At that point, our hearts harden and we fall away from the faith.

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Yes! He commands his followers to forgive if someone sins against them 70×7. We believe God follows the same ethic. The grace of the cross overwhelms the most frequent sins.

        If you want to read more on real repentance, I recommend this article we posted earlier this month.

    10. Norb on

      An interesting discussion as to what should or shouldn’t be called addiction, but ultimately it comes down to semantics. Bottom line is, if you’re doing something compulsively and it’s causing damage to your relationship with God and/or other people, then you’re obviously headed in the wrong direction and need to turn yourself around.

      That being said, I don’t buy the idea that habitual porn use (or other compulsive behavior) is addiction in the way that alcoholism or drug abuse is. As far as I’m concerned (and I’m not alone), addiction is a physical and/or psychological dependence on a mind altering substance brought upon by continued abuse of said substance. In other words, you are altering your brain and body with a chemical, and you thus come to depend on it. When you withdraw, the effect is profound, to say the least. In the case of alcohol, (I speak from experience), withdrawal was incredibly painful, even though I had not reached the point of physical dependency. The intense emotional changes, intense cravings, and dreams that I encountered after quitting alcohol was an experience that I won’t forget. Not using porn is not in the same league.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        It is semantics to be sure, but words have power. How we use words matters. I wrote a whole article on this a while back regarding addiction language in the church that explores four different viewpoints.

        I have no doubt there are differences, and so do neuroscientists. One is more of a synthetic addiction, the other more natural or behavioral. We talk some about the addictive nature of porn in this video.

    11. Gary. Crosslin on

      The labels can truly cause unnecesary stigma for the person with these habits. As a trained Substance abuse counselor nyself the greatest outcome I have witnessed for anybody with addictions or compulsions is that they can become part of a support group where they find fellowship in friends who think just like them. This creates an atmosphere of trust and healing while teaching beneficial life skills along the lines of seeking God and developing new habits.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks for the comment, Gary. So, in your experience, is the label “addiction” helpful? Unhelpful? Both?

    12. Carol on

      When’s the last time I heard a sermon about sin? Can’t remember… When did sin become cop out words – “mistakes”, “addiction”, “a bad habit”, “dependence”, etc., just so depraved human beings wouldn’t feel bad about themselves? What is so bad about shame??? Isn’t that what brings us to repentance? If it’s just a bad habit or an addiction, then it’s something that a person only has to work at & deal with at his/her own pace, giving him/her space then to fall again & again, “as long as you get back up again”. Meanwhile, the spouse loses dignity & sanity by being left hanging indefinitely, waiting for what??? Covenant Eyes is great, in that it controls my husband’s internet porn use for him, but what about the thousands of images in his head that he can access at any given moment & still have virtual sex with? If he can use the word “addiction”, etc., as an excuse instead of calling it the sin it is, followed by true repentance, I can’t see any hope for our 35 year marriage. After 5 months of feeling beaten up by all this, I’m not sure I will have any love left by the time the supposed 5 year recovery possibly takes place.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Actually, scripture says that the kindness of God is what brings us to repentance (Romans 2:4). And I’ve found in my experience with my husband’s recovery that as long as shame was his primary emotion around sex and porn, then he kept hiding things and failing in recovery. It was only as love grew to be his primary experience–God’s love, my love–that he was able to move forward into true recovery. It was his choice to accept that–nothing I could do to make it happen. He chose.

        But we have to learn to hold Love and boundaries together. We can’t ever override someone else’s boundaries by manipulation or control; we have to allow them their free will and trust that God can heal them, even when we can’t be in a close relationship due to their continued rejection of God’s love and healing in their lives. And this is what a lot of men choose: they choose porn instead of God’s Love for them. When they do that repeatedly, we might need to just let them have the consequence of those choices with a separation or even divorce. We hate it when that happens! But sometimes they keep making that choice to turn away from Love, and we have to accept that. Here and here are some thoughts about boundaries.

        Whatever your husband chooses, though, you can choose to be healthy. Personal counseling, just for you, is a great step to take. Groups can be so helpful as well: Celebrate Recovery, S Anon, xxxChurch.

        Blessings, Kay

    13. Anon on

      As someone who has witnessed what this addiction can do to a family… YES… YES… YES… they should call it addiction!!! By not doing so, they make it impossible to medically codify or insure… forcing families to deal with it out of sometimes meager resources…. so, while they spend their life away on health insurance, they end up with little money to cope with cleaning up what ultimately becomes a health issue. If it affects a youth or teen, it can lead to crippling social problems later in life, and sometimes lead youth into [dare i say] dark or criminal alleyways. It boggles my mind that we live in a nation where infanticide is a right and a “health” issue, and crippling addictions like this are labeled as mere “obsessions” or “hey every guy loves the stuff it’s no big deal.” The stuff kids read in local high schools practically encourage the use of it.

      There are people, even when every avenue is taken away, will seek to find that stimulation in any way possible, even if it means breaking the family trust (or equally worse, the law). Some people can become incapable of functioning in a normal societal way. It is visual alcoholism. If many of the same docs encouraging trans-genderism and abortion would figure that out, it might be easier to get people treatment.

      Reply

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