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Is Porn Addictive? There's No Proof

The author of a new study on "porn addiction" talks about why the concept is all wrong.
 
 
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Porn addiction is arguably the diagnosis of our time. The idea has thrived in a time of anxiety about the proliferation of free, ever-intensifying adult material — and how it might be changing our relationships, our sex lives and our (zombie voice) braaains. The addiction concept shows up in  Hollywood movies, celebrity cheating scandals — even news articles. But a new study suggests there is no evidence that it actually exists.

With the help of an addiction specialist and an expert in neurophysiology, clinical psychologist David Ley did a survey of the existing investigations into porn addiction. The resulting paper is published in the scientific journal Current Sexual Health Reports and concludes that research on “porn addiction” is hindered by “poor experimental designs” and “limited methodological rigor.” Ouch. The burns don’t stop there: The authors argue that the porn addiction model ignores the real issues underlying compulsive smut-watching, and that the “lucrative” treatment industry that has arisen to address this new diagnosis has no evidence of effectiveness.

I spoke with Ley by phone about morally driven research, how to address compulsive porn-watching and why the addiction concept is actually kind of homophobic.

What does the body of research on porn addiction look like?

The literature on porn addiction is really fractured. There are an awful lot of pop media claims that get embroiled into what literature there is on porn addiction. It is not a very heavily scientifically driven field. One of the things I find significant is that in a recent review of basically all research on pornography, they found that less than 1 percent of the 40,000 articles that they looked at were deemed scientifically or empirically useful. The literature is weighted with moral and cultural values. There are tons and tons of theoretical statements that are made but never evaluated. The exact same thing is true for what literature there is on porn addiction. The media, the public and, unfortunately, clinicians and legal professionals are subject to the very heavy weight of all that unscientific literature. They don’t know what to sort out and how to use it. I see lots of fairly well-trained clinicians who, because the concept is so embraced uncritically in the media and general literature, don’t know what to believe.

I was asked to do this article in order to come up with something that was fair, objective and could really look at the questions of addiction, neurophysiology and general sexuality issues. I brought in two eminent co-authors: Nicole Prause, a UCLA researcher with an extraordinary level of expertise in neurophysiology and sexuality, and Peter Finn, a University of Indiana addictions researcher who has no training or approach toward sexuality but is a very established researcher with regard to substance addiction.

And what did you find?

Unfortunately, we found what I expected to find, which is that the literature is so poorly organized and uncritically produced that there is not a lot of clinical or research usefulness to the concept of porn addiction. The overwhelming majority of articles published on porn addiction include no empirical research — it’s less than 27 percent. Less than one in four actually have data. In less than one in 10 is that data analyzed or organized in a scientifically valid way.

It is a very common statement in all of the porn addiction research that high rates of porn use correlate with high rates of depression, problems at work, et cetera. Overwhelmingly, the research, when there even is research, is cross-sectional in its structure, meaning that they’re looking at people in a snapshot of time, and we can’t generate causality from that. The common assumption in porn addiction research has been that porn is contributing to and causing those negative emotional states and life events. In fact, there have been two or three longitudinal studies that looked at this question, and what they found consistently is that porn is a symptom, not a cause. There do appear to be folks who increase their use of porn as something akin to a coping method when they are experiencing increased levels of depression or loneliness. The reason I think that is important is that it leads us to focus not on the pornography, but on the person. Instead of talking about porn causing these bad feelings, now we can say this person is using porn to manage the bad feelings. Is that a bad thing? Sexuality and sexual arousal is a very effective, perhaps the most effective, method of distracting oneself from negative emotions. There is an assumption in the porn addiction field that using porn and masturbation is negative and unhealthy in some way — but that is a critically unevaluated assumption that is very heavily driven by cultural bias and norms.