The Science of Pornography Addiction
There is some controversy as to whether sex and pornography should really be categorized as “addictions.” As described in the video below, sex and pornography release dopamine in the brain, which over time can create long-term neoplastic change. Your brain can actually be rewired to become more tolerant to exposure, crave more, and set aside other needs in order to pursue more stimulation.The embedded video from AsapSCIENCE does a good job offering an overview of how this rewiring can occur.
As the video above states, “in many ways, pornography acts as a drug” and offers profound consequences for the brain. More importantly, increased exposure to pornography makes the “fantasy” more attractive than reality and can have severe repercussions on our “normal” relations. And yet, why does the establishment insist on debating the topic of addiction at all?
Generally speaking, the discussion of sex addiction and sexual behavior therapy can be broken down into two categories: “The Researchers” and “The Fundamentalists.”
Most Researchers feel very strongly that any treatment which suppresses sexual expression is bad for the client. In essence, they feel it would be encouraging the client to revert back to a more repressive, less liberated style or type of thinking concerning sex. Institutes of higher learning are stacked with researchers that hold onto this core belief. This response seems to have come largely from the women’s liberation movement of the ’60′s and ’70′s (and ’80′s and ’90′s) that sought to establish a dynamic of equality from a sexual perspective between the sexes. While I can agree that we have lived in a culture that has historically suppressed and minimized the rights and privileges of women, one might argue if fighting for women to attain the same rights and privileges as their boorish oppressors from the past is a worthy goal or not.
On the other hand, there is a large and powerful contingency, led mostly by hard core fundamentalist Christian organizations, who demand that any treatment for sex disorders conform to very strict interpretations of scriptural morality. This position does not acknowledge the legitimacy of any relationships outside of wedlock (or same-sex couples) and they reject the usage or viewing of any type of pornography. The Fundamentalists also embrace a “black and white” perspective, whereas sexual ideas and values are quickly labeled as “bad” or “good”. This means, like with the rival camp, there is no “grey” area available for the client to use. There is no middle ground for an individual to heal or find equilibrium within this environment, only extreme solutions, e.g., “No pornography, ever! You won’t be OK until you reach that goal.”
With the battle lines defined between Researchers” and Fundamentalists, we find two groups that are deeply committed to their own worldview. Ask each side and both will cite a stack of research studies that will support their position over the others.
Too often the debate decays down to: “is pornography OK or not?”, “Is (this) OK or is (that) OK?” What researchers can’t answer is: “Is it OK for me?” While many people incorporate different sex practices into their lives, the question isn’t “is it bad or not?” but rather, “is it working for you?”
The shame of this situation is that the man or woman whose life is falling apart around their sexual behavior is currently given a political choice to either: a) believe your sexuality is your sexuality – any effort to impose limits or boundaries disrespects the individual and their right to be themselves. or b) accept that your sexuality must fit into a black and white theological “box”, where anything outside of that is bad, therefore, you are bad if you engage in those activities.
Here’s a summary of the criteria for both Alcohol and Substance Dependence from the DSM-IV-TR:
Increase tolerance over time / withdrawl symptoms when discontinued / increased quantity usage over time / unsuccessful efforts to quit or cut back / increasing time and effort obtaining / connected occupational, social , or relational problems / continued use despite knowledge of negative effect.
If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck, then why is there such a strong resistance to accepting “sex” as something an individual can become overly dependent on just as anything else?
This same standard is politically accepted within the worlds of gambling, eating, shopping, and internet use. So, when a man that has been caught by his employer for accessing internet porn at work tells you that he is in real danger of losing his job then goes on to explain that he prefers porn over his partner and is in danger of his spouse leaving him, is it in his best interest to force him into picking a side of a political battle?, i.e., Choose between being forced to recognize himself as a “deviant” and work toward a Victorian aged sexuality or be feed an equally dangerous line “it’s your body, do whatever makes you happy”
Bottom line: If anything is causing problems to your relationships , job, or ability to progress and you can’t stop, then it’s likely a dependence or addition, and if you’re not comfortable using the word “addiction” then I hope you would agree that the man in our example at the very least has a “life situation” that requires a response to break the destructive downward cycles and restores his ability to thrive in life and relationships.
Ultimately, I’m not interested in the politics of having problematic sexual activities gain the status of “ADDICTION” or get a spot in the DSM-V. My concern is for the people that walk into an office seeking help who may get caught in a political web. When politics and “greater social agendas” are imposed in treatment it comes at the expense of the client’s goals. Basically, the practitioner is placing their need to further their own agenda over the client’s individual circumstances and treatment options. The goals of the care giver then supersede goals of the client. Therefore, I’ll stay out of the politics so that those who have the courage to defy the extremists in our field will have a place to heal.