Is porn addiction real?

Examining the evidence

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Exodus Cry is an organization which claims to be “anti-trafficking” but is in reality working to make sex workers’ lives more dangerous. They support criminalizing sex work, even though everyone from Amnesty International to the ACLU agrees that decriminalizing sex work promotes public health and safety and criminalizing sex work does not help stop human trafficking.

Their latest initiative is a campaign to shut down Pornhub, claiming without evidence that the website facilitates human trafficking. In explaining why the Timothy Plan Fund, a religious-based investment product, is matching funds to the campaign their President said, “Because of its addictive nature, [pornography] poses great risk to the consumer.

But is that true? Is porn especially addictive?

Like sex-trafficking hysteria, anti-porn campaigners make a lot of unsubstantiated claims. For example, one website says “at least 200,000 Americans classify as having a ‘porn addiction.’” But then when you follow the links, you end up at a 2013 Forbes article with no mention of the original statistic.

Certainly some people can be said to be addicted to pornography. At the very least, there are people whose porn use can be reasonably considered problematic.

But it’s important to note that the vast majority (between 92-97%) of porn users suffer no measurable ill effects from pornography.

Wikipedia defines pornography addiction as looking at porn “despite negative consequences to one's physical, mental, social, or financial well-being.”

Interestingly, neither the DSM-5 nor the ICD-11 recognize pornography addiction as a mental disorder.

However, that’s true of nearly any pleasurable behavior. Gambling is an obvious example of a behavior. But you can also get addicted to exercise, work, and shopping. There are even studies showing that some people can get “addicted” to dancing and fishing. However, gambling is the only behavioral addiction the DSM-5 recognizes.

So is porn addictive like drugs, like gambling, or like dancing?

Examining the evidence for “biological” addiction to pornography

Groups like the American Society of Addiction Medicine claim pornography use impacts the brain in a similar way as physically addictive drugs like cocaine. They point to fMRI studies, echoing claims from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that drugs cause “brain changes” that “challenge an addicted person’s self-control and hamper his or her ability to resist intense impulses to take drugs.”

Painting drug addicts as sub-human, with less self-control and lower levels of rationality, has helped justify horrific violations of their fundamental human rights such as anal probes, mass surveillance, and no-knock raids. But recent research shows the Drug Warriors are wrong about drug addiction. Drug addicts actually have just as much self-control and rationality as non-addicts. While self-professed drug addicts may feel “out of control,” when craving their drug of choice, in studies they’re still able to make rational choices based on incentives.

One big problem with the “brain changes” theory of addiction is that fMRI is notoriously unreliable. “An fMRI scan once detected ‘evidence’ of brain activity in a dead salmon,” Psychology Professor Christopher J. Ferguson wrote. He points to studies showing a weak-at-best link between even excessive porn use and neurologic changes. And thus far no evidence links casual porn consumption (which is far more common) with brain changes.

Another problem with the rampant porn an addiction claims is that even those who look at porn very frequently don’t suffer ill effects. And the 3–8% of problematic power users had related problems like hypersexuality, depression, susceptibility to boredom, low self-esteem, and shame around pornography.

Is porn especially addictive?

It’s hard to know how many Americans use porn, how often they look at it, and how long they spend looking at it. Many Americans lie about their porn consumption to pollsters because, like drug use, porn use is heavily stigmatized. The right, especially the religious right, has a tendency to deny the existence of healthy, casual porn use and conflate any porn use with porn addiction. Even therapists, whose entire job is to be a safe, non-judgmental place for people to talk about their problems, are uncomfortable talking about pornography and have a hard time seeing anything positive about looking at porn. This is especially true of particularly religious counselors.

Yet objective datareveal that porn consumption is pretty common. And while the research on porn addiction is messy and contradictory, according to Ferguson, “There’s no particular evidence that pornography is especially addictive.” In one study just 15% of people who use the internet for anything sex-related could point to any problem it caused for them, even as minor as staying up later than they wanted to.

“There really isn’t the science to demonstrate that porn is in and of itself harmful and addictive,” said Ian Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist and sex counselor. “That has not been, in my estimation, scientifically or clinically proven.”

Nearly every harm researchers have associated with overuse of porn, including anxiety, shame, guilt, can be directly tied to shame and stigma around pornography use, and not the pornography itself.

Even problems with real-life partners can be explained by partners’ propensity to shame and stigmatize porn use. There’s absolutely no evidence that porn replaces sex for most users. In fact, studies show watching porn is actually associated with greater arousal for and sexual interest in a partner. What creates problems in relationships isn’t porn. It’s shame and stigma leading one or both partners to hide their porn use and/or resent their partner.