Sex and Porn Addiction?
As a Christian believer, the author does not advocate for promiscuous sex or pornography; both of these are harmful in a myriad of ways to the individual, couples, families, children, and the larger community. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, the author contends that when the fallacy of ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ are promoted, the genuine issues that motivate the individual to engage in illicit sex and porn viewing become dangerously hidden, minimized, missed, and go untreated. There are a plethora of scientific studies to argue either side of the sex-porn addiction debate; some of which have severely flawed premises, processes, methods, and conclusions due to the bias of the designers of the studies. I offer this presentation for consideration of a different view of the issue that may be helpful and enlightening to readers.
The Problem of an "Addiction" Model
Addiction is a medically defined, physiological dependence on a substance outside of the body that is ingested (drunk, eaten, smoked, injected) to maintain normative functioning. Since addiction language has readily been infiltrating the public consciousness over decades (at least since the early days of the first twelve step programs), the definition of addiction has become a cultural euphemism for any behavior that an individual engages in with pleasure and passion (I’m addicted to listening to the Rolling Stones).
Most advocates of the sex and porn addiction band-wagon cite the idea that sex and porn viewing ‘actually do the same thing in the brain as heroin does’. Well, to some extent, that is very true; sexual arousal and orgasm produce neurochemicals in the brain and body that are very opiate-like and induce relaxation and pleasure. That’s pretty much what most sex does to human beings (even married ones who do not engage in promiscuous sex or view porn). So, if fornication, extramarital sex, masturbation, and pornography produce the same neurochemicals and induce the same relaxation and pleasure, then married sex with no porn qualifies as addiction, as well. The fact that a human being tends to desire to repeat the pleasure inducing behavior also does not necessarily qualify as ‘OCD” (obsessive-compulsive), either. Since the neurochemicals that produce the pleasure and desire to repeat the behavior are being manufactured inside the human body as a natural response to sexual arousal, and not coming from outside the body, addiction does not apply.
Much has been made most recently about ‘internet’ or ‘video game’ addiction, with the same reasoning that is used for sex-porn addiction. In fact, internet viewing and video gaming may indeed produce many of the same neurochemicals as sex does in human beings. Remember that medical addiction is a physiological dependence, that when the substance is removed, severe, measurable (and often life-threatening) physiological withdrawal symptoms ensue. Now to be sure, individuals who are compulsive gamblers, view porn for hours a day (or do anything for hours a day, like exercise), may have noticeable behavioral signs that may look very much like physiological withdrawal, but are actually sourced in psychological and emotional reactivity to having their routine and habit interrupted.
Off the Hook
The use of ‘addiction’ as the source of sexual promiscuity, hypersexual behaviors, or porn viewing becomes a very disingenuous, if not harmful label. Calling hypersexual behaviors and porn ‘addiction’ lets the individual ‘off the hook’ not only for direct responsibility for their behavior (“Well, I am an addict!), but allows the individual and couples to avoid the genuine contributing issues that create the symptoms of hypersexual behaviors and porn viewing. It is not uncommon for extremely naïve attempts at finding solution for ‘husbands addicted to porn’ is to demand that a specialized program be added to the fellow’s computer, or that his wife play ‘mommy’ and constantly look over his shoulder or check his online history several times a day. Another alternative is public confession and healing prayer. Such efforts may, in fact, help a few men, but these measures not only routinely fail, but totally mask what may be the genuine issues causing the behaviors in the first place.
Assigning the ‘problem’ to the male in the couple allows the female to ‘get off the hook’ as well. This is in no way attempting to blame the female for the male’s inappropriate behavior in the direct sense, as in ‘she is forcing him to look at porn by holding out’. Rather, when the male is assigned the entire responsibility for the dynamic that is occurring in the relationship (the symptom of which is porn), the woman may get the impression that she is simply a victim, and has no part in the unhealthy relationship dynamic that has developed. So often, porn is blamed as the reason for the difficulties in a failing marriage, when in fact, it is the unhealthy marital dynamic that is contributing to the turning to porn.
When men, wives, girlfriends, pastors, and churches embrace the sex-porn addiction reasoning, they allow men to get ‘off the hook’ for the deeper issues that they are struggling with in their lives, namely, ignorance of healthy relationship, stalled maturation, intolerance for intimacy, and avoidance of self-growth, not to mention diagnosable mental health issues.
What Clinical Experience Has to Share
Mental Health Issues: There are multiple possible mental health disorders that can account for illicit, hypersexual behaviors, including chronic porn viewing. These include: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Bi-Polar Disorder, and various Personality Disorders.
Ignorance of Healthy Relationship Skills: Most adults have learned their pair-bonding relationship skills from their family of origin (parents), peers, or worse yet, the popular media. While many people idealize their parent’s relationship, most parents are not much better off in their relationship health than their children, and most are worse. Even if your parents were married fifty years and it was ‘a marriage made in heaven’, even they likely had some issues in keeping their marriage healthy. Looking to peers to learn how to be in healthy relationship may be a case of ‘the blind leading the blind’. And a surprising number of people actually learn their relationship skills by watching reality television.
When individuals and couples are ignorant of important, key healthy relationship skills, it is very reliable that they will enter into a pattern of subtle and not so subtle estrangement development over the years. This kind of ‘piling up’ of negative interactions is a slippery slope to isolation inside of marriage, and resistance to temptations wears down over time.
Stalled Maturation: There is usually an assumption by both partners that each is more or less at the same level of relationship understanding and maturation when they decide to marry and spend their lives together. In some cases, the assumption is in grave error, and one or both of the partners are emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually quite immature. Further, even if they start out at relatively the same level of relational maturity, this does not mean that couples have the knowledge or skills to do the proper maintenance or development of their relationship over the course of years and decades. There are countless couples who have been together ten, twenty, or thirty years, and they have not progressed beyond the teen years in their knowledge and practice of relationship. Of note is the classic and important behavioral sign of jealousy as an indicator of stalled relational maturation.
Intolerance for Intimacy: As noted couple’s therapist David Schnarch says, intimacy is very hard to tolerate. Particularly for men, intimacy is often seen as simply sex, while women are well aware that there are several different types of intimacy, and bemoan that their men cannot seem to embrace anything but sex. For most men, emotional or spiritual intimacy represents feelings of vulnerability and in our culture, vulnerability is equated with weakness, and for men, that is intolerable. Longing for the deeper intimacies of emotions and spirituality, but not being able to tolerate them, many men turn to the easy and ready availability of porn as a substitute. Of course, the imagined fulfillment of porn use or illicit sex is only a very temporary fix for the fulfillment of the deeper, shared intimacies of emotion and spirituality with their wives.
Avoidance of Self Growth: Life is extremely busy and stressful. Over the course of a long term relationship such as marriage, individuals and couples tend to first put their own continuing self-development on the back burner, and secondarily, the growth and development of the marital relationship. Most couples spend more time, money, and energy on maintaining their automobiles than they do their relationships. Without proper care and maintenance to the marital relationship, the small cracks that inevitably form can grow and become dangerous points of temptation and progressive decay in the relationship. Intentional maintenance and intimacy development has great power to preserve mutual passion, respect, and intimacy such that the satisfactions that illicit sex and porn use promise pale in comparison and become moot. Couples can seek out educational sources concerning maintenance and intimacy development in the form of literature and seminars.
Marriage maintenance and intimacy development educational resource.