Wait, So Is Porn Addiction Even a Real Thing?

With all this culture hubbub about porn addiction and how free, unhindered access to thousands upon thousands of orgasm-long clips of people mashing their genitals together on the internet will turn us all into masturbating zombies incapable of copulating with a live, human person, we ought to first ask ourselves if porn addiction is really even a thing. Well, science? Is porn and orgasm reinforced pleasure rewiring porn inundated brains, or is Big Addiction just trying to make some ca$h money on what seems like a really obvious and shameful correlation, i.e. that porn watching can become an unbreakable habit that poisons the blossoming sex orchid inside each and every human?

Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory recently interviewed clinical psychologist David Ley, asking him about the validity of the phrase "porn addiction," a snap diagnosis that's been tossed around in movies and the media over the last few years by people as reputable as, say, Patti Stanger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Ley's recent paper about porn addiction, the result of a survey of clinical investigations into porn addiction, concluded that research about "porn addiction" has so far been hindered by "poor experimental designs" and limited methodological rigor." Porn science, in other words, has been pretty sloppy.

Ley explained that pop psychology diagnoses and diatribes about how porn addiction is quickly becoming the affliction of our modern, internet-addled cultural consciousness have confused a lot of researchers. People seem to placidly accept that porn addiction is a thing, but less than 27 percent of the articles published on porn addiction actually include any empirical research. That's not a lot, and yet, says, Ley,

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.

Part of the reason porn addiction is such a universally accepted and legitimate-seeming affliction is that it offers an easy, obvious correlation: onanistic behavior stimulated by porn keeps people from having real sexual experiences with other people. Orgasms triggered by porn scramble someone's brain chemistry, positively reinforcing the porn viewing habit until it becomes something the body and mind craves. (Ley, by the way, calls that whole idea of porn causing chemical changes in the brain into question, labeling it a "scare tactic" in the same style as Nancy Reagan saying, "This is your brain on drugs").

If that sounds reductive and simplistic to the science nerd in you, that's because, according to Ley, it is. He and his fellow researchers suggest three reasons "porn addiction" has become such a common diagnosis for the modern human's social ills: it's an easy explanation for a myriad of other, trickier problems, porn threatens cultural control of sexuality, and a lucrative industry of porn addiction treatment has sprouted in recent years to help people deal with their reliance on porn. Ley explains:

We put forth three reasons [for why porn addiction has become such a popular and widespread concept]. One is that it is an easy answer. It is an easy answer and an easy scapegoat in a society and a media that applies the concept of addiction to any overuse of anything. Secondly, it is a cultural control of sexuality, and particularly the forms of sexuality that are now widely available and difficult to control due to modern technology. There is the old saying "don't give away the milk away for free because nobody will buy the cow" as a way of controlling sexuality. Well, porn, and Internet porn in particular, doesn't just give away milk, it puts it in a high-speed faucet right in your room. That is concerning to society, to people in relationships, because it represents a significant loss of control of sexual expression and experience. Lastly, and this is one of the ones that is gonna be controversial, there is a large, lucrative industry that experiences tremendous secondary gain from the promulgation of this concept[…] There is an industry — and unfortunately I count the media in that as well, because the media makes lots and lots of hay by touting the issue of porn addiction, and even by raising the controversy of "is it real or not?" There is a lot of money to be made in keeping this thing alive.

Ley's last point about Big Addiction trying to promulgate and prop up the concept of sex addiction to feed itself more patients/clients verges into conspiracy theory territory, but it touches on the fairly recent phenomenon of addiction and rehab becoming more culturally familiar. Labeling something an addiction seems to put a person's behavior above the critical fray, and Ley's overview of porn addiction should make us realize that the science of addiction is just that — science. Just because concern-trolling columnists write trend pieces about how prevalent porn is or how easy-access to porn is turning everyone into a porn-dependent hermit, doesn't mean that porn is addictive in the same way that huffing sweet, sweet glue is addictive.

Wait, So Is Porn Addiction Even a Real Thing?