New Research Suggests Porn is NOT an Addiction. It is a Compulsion. Here’s Why That Matters.

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

New research puts another nail in the coffin of the idea that pornography is an addiction.  First the study, then I’ll explain why this matters for treating problem sexual behaviors and why it’s GOOD news for sufferers.  According to ScienceDirect.com…

A new study published in Biological Psychology provides provocative evidence in favor of dropping the addiction label because what’s going on inside the brains of so-called porn “addicts” is nothing like what you would expect from someone who has an addiction.

In this study, researchers recruited 122 heterosexual men and women who reported “problems regulating their viewing of sexual images.” These participants came to a lab where they viewed a series of images (some sexual, some non-sexual) while an electroencephalograph (EEG) measured their brain waves.

The researchers focused on one specific brain activity pattern, the late positive potential (LPP), which reveals the extent to which a stimulus evokes an emotional response. LPP is a frequently used measure in neuroscience studies of emotion.

Previous studies of drug addicts have found that, when shown images of their drug of choice, their LPP levels spike—that is, they show a strong emotional response to images of the drug.

To the extent that pornography is addictive, one would expect a similar finding when a so-called porn addict is shown sexually explicit imagery; however, that’s not what was found in this study. Instead, what researchers found was the reverse—that is, these individuals showed decreased LPP levels when viewing sexual images compared to non-sexual images.

As noted by the study’s lead author, Dr. Nicole Prause, in a press release: “While we do not doubt that some people struggle with their sexual behaviors, these data show that the nature of the problem is unlikely to be addictive.”  In light of such findings, it would seem advisable to drop the “addiction” label when talking about people who are having issues regulating their porn use because it does not appear to be accurate.   

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Saying that pornography is not addictive does NOT mean it is not problematic.  We know that it is–unquestionably.  BUT if the urge to view pornography is an addiction then that means that one can never hope to fully recover from the urge to view pornography and/or masturbate.  As the saying goes, “Once and addict, always an addict.”   Although some people are helped by recovery programs that follow an addiction model, many other people are demoralized by the idea that they might never be free of the struggle.  This idea causes many to give up treatment or never try in the first place.  “After all, if I’m never going to be free, why start in the first place.”

This might seem like a cop-out on the surface, after all, plenty of people have drug and alcohol addictions and they seek help.  But the difference is that with drugs or alcohol, you can learn to avoid the chemicals that drive the addiction.  But if pornography is actually an addiction, you always carry the chemicals that cause the addiction inside of you. You can never really be sure when they might strike again.  An alcoholic can tell himself, “I can be OK as long as I don’t take the first drink.”  but while a “porn addict” can avoid pornography, they can’t avoid feeling physically attracted to someone.  If they’re married, they can’t avoid sex.  They can’t avoid every image on TV or in the movies the might provoke arousal.  Can you imagine the kind of pressure this approach can put on a client and why so many people despair of ever recovering when they are treated using an addiction model?   No matter how many controls you put on your computer, no matter how accountable you make yourself to a partner, you can ever be scrupulous enough to get away from every imaginable trigger.

GOOD NEWS

The mounting research suggests that rather than an addiction, it might be truer to call porn and problem sexual behavior “compulsions.”  To say that the urge to view pornography is more like a compulsion than an addiction means that it can be treated like many other impulse control problems such as, anger control problems.  The treatment for compulsions involves helping clients learn mindfulness-based techniques that empower them to avoid triggers when possible, recognize urges early, identify the problem driving the urge and address the real, underlying concern.  There is good reason to believe that this approach actually heals the damage compulsions can cause in the brain and enable clients to experience healthy arousal without triggering a compulsive response. Many clients who learn this approach report that they can become free from the urge to view pornography or engage in other problem sexual behaviors altogether AND go on to have healthier and more intimate marriages post-treatment.

Through the Pastoral Solutions Institute tele-counseling practice we successfully treat problem sexual behaviors such as compulsive pornography use using this compulsion model of treatment.  We also encourage our clients to use a wonderful support program called ReclaimSexualHealth.com which created a coaching program to support clients going through therapy for this issue.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The bottom line is that if you or someone you love is struggling with problem sexual behavior, there is hope.  There is healing.  There is a way through.  And if you need assistance, we are here to help.

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