The Right Wing

Porn Addiction: The Christian Right's Latest Quack Crusade Is No Excuse for Trading in Child Pornography

There's no evidence that millions of men are addicted to porn, whatever the desperate Christian right claims.

Photo Credit: View Apart / Shutterstock

Until late last year, Christian Hine was primarily known as a ferocious Tea Party activist and prominent volunteer for North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s 2012 campaign. But in November 2015, Hine was arrested and hit with over 20 charges of sexual exploitation of minors for the cache of child pornography that South Carolina officials found on his computer. Last week, he pled guilty to 10 felony charges.

To make this strange story even stranger, Hine’s lawyers floated a relatively novel argument in an effort to get the sentence reduced: They claimed Hine is a porn addict, and that his alleged disease led him to keep seeking harder stuff to get his fix, which is why he ended up trading child porn on the internet for what the police say was more than a decade.

“His descent into depression and pornography abuse was as swift as it was tragic,” Hine’s lawyer, Johnny Gasser, wrote, while emphasizing Hine’s history of conservative political activism and his youthful religious participation.

Blaming Hine’s depression and lack of romantic prospects, Gasser argued that Hines “became addicted to pornography,” and that he has “no intention of ever returning to pornography.”

While Hine was still slapped with some jail time — he will likely be out in two years — it’s understandable why his lawyers went with these arguments. In the Christian conservative circles, which are dominant in South Carolina, the idea that pornography is “addictive” has become a widely accepted truism.

The only problem is that there’s no real evidence for the idea that porn is actually addictive.

It’s easy to see why Christian conservatives would be drawn to this idea of pornography as an addictive substance like cocaine or alcohol. While the Christian right has no real compunction about controlling female sexuality through punitive means — see attacks on legal abortion and affordable contraception — when it comes to controlling male sexuality, things get a little stickier. It’s hard to police male sexuality without threatening male privilege, after all.

That’s where the notion of porn “addiction” becomes useful. By taking a medicalized approach, religious conservatives can discourage porn use while still letting men off the hook, painting them as not entirely responsible for their own sexual decisions. It preserves the notion of male virility as a force that can’t quite be contained, while still maintaining social disapproval of the behavior. No wonder up to half of conservative Christian men describe themselves as porn addicts, or that there’s a strong link between religiosity and believing that porn addiction is real.

In recent years, there’s been an effort in conservative circles to claim scientific evidence for the porn addiction theory.

“You see, your brain comes equipped with something called a ‘reward pathway.’ Its job is to motivate you to do things that keep you and your genes alive — things like eating or having sex to produce babies,” the anti-porn site Fight the New Drug argues. “The way it rewards you is by releasing dopamine into your brain, because dopamine makes you feel good.”

The notion that feeling good is suspect should be a reader’s first clue that this site is dealing more in conservative Christian propaganda than science, but I reached out to an expert, Dr. Nicole Prause, for a response to this argument. Prause, a scientist who started the research firm Liberos, has done research that turned up no real evidence for porn addiction.

“Sex films are rewarding,” Krause explained over email, “and there is greater activity in dopamine associated with learning rewards (not pleasure) when people view sex films.”

“However, the same could be said for watching puppies play, and we do not call puppies addictive,” she added.

To be clear, no one denies that there are people who act out sexually in inappropriate ways, or whose sexual behaviors are compulsive to the point of being destructive. (Everyone watching this week’s edition of the ongoing Anthony Weiner saga can see that with their own eyes.) But that doesn’t mean that the behavior should be classified as an addiction, which is one reason that various editions of the DSM have rejected porn or sex “addiction” as a legitimate diagnosis.

“We have ruled out addiction,” Krause explained. “The three best candidates at the moment to explain these behaviors are: high sex drive, social shame (i.e., behavior is normal, but they are shamed for it), or compulsivity,” any of which requires “different predictions from addiction models and would require different treatment approaches.”

Believers in porn addiction also tend to be big believers that the so-called addiction escalates over time.

“The problem is, when a person consistently looks at porn, their brain is constantly being flooded with a high level of dopamine,” Fight the New Drug argues. This supposedly creates a tolerance, so “consistent porn users often find themselves looking for harder and harder images” in order to get the same fix.

It’s the old “smoking weed leads to heroin” theory, and it’s clear how this idea seeped into Hine’s legal defense. His legal defense, after all, was that child porn is the “harder stuff,” as if a man who likes looking at naked adult women will somehow get his fill and graduate to looking at minors.

But actual research shows no evidence that people grow a “tolerance” for porn and need to start hitting the “hard” stuff in order to get a rise.

“There is one study showing that people over time became more likely to view BDSM scenes, but there was not evidence that a tolerance had developed or that they continued to watch this type of material,” Krause said.

Comparing it to someone who enjoys running 5Ks and therefore is more open to running longer races, Krause added, “There is no evidence that viewing ‘needs’ are actually escalating, but it seems reasonable from the one study that people who enjoy sex films might at times explore other material in a way normal to any entertainment interest.”

If someone enjoys “Star Wars” and that leads him or her to start reading more in-depth science fiction, we don’t characterize that person’s interest as an addiction, even though the goal is clearly the pursuit of pleasure. Nor do we assume that person will continue to escalate until she or he embraces criminal behavior, like breaking into NASA to steal a spaceship. But the conflict between Christian expectations of strict monogamy versus people’s lived realities — which inevitably include sexual fantasies — has created an incentive to label normal sexual appetites as “addiction.”

The problem, as the Hine case shows, is that once you start regarding normal sexual behavior as dysfunctional, that allows people who are engaged in genuinely deviant and harmful behavior (like child porn) to, perversely, recast themselves as normal. That person is just a porn addict, like so many others! Such a false or dubious diagnosis simultaneously stigmatizes non-harmful behavior like sexual fantasy and masturbation while minimizing genuinely harmful behavior.

 

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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