A society hell-bent on hypersexualizing its youth, yet stigmatizing the behavior that ensues, is bound to run into conflict. Among those conflicts is the business of sex, namely, pornography. And while the conventional wisdom holds that people can get addicted to porn just like they do with gambling, drugs, or exercise, a new scientific review suggests porn addiction isn’t only exaggerated in our culture. It may not even be real.

Scientists concerned with what other people are up to, and more specifically, what their brains are up to, tend to employ a fairly wide definition of “addiction,” whereby a person grows dependant on a stimulus in order to keep some baseline function. Otherwise, they withdraw. But according to Dr. David Ley, a clinical psychologist who says he’s seen too many patients misdiagnosed as porn or sex addicts, heavy porn consumption is usually symptomatic of a far larger problem.

“It is much more important for clinicians, and individuals, to understand an individual's porn use within the context of that individual, rather than the porn,” Ley told Medical Daily.

No Evidence of Addiction

This is a critical distinction. The only addictive disorder listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and the Statistical Manual (DSM 5), the gargantuan, 947-page reference work that serves as the gold standard for proper terminology, is gambling addiction. Pornography addiction was excluded because of a lack of evidence, Ley says. Fewer than two out of every five articles (37 percent) the team reviewed about high frequency sexual behavior describe it as an addiction. And only 27 percent of studies on the subject contained any hard data.

Overall, there was little, if any, compelling evidence to uphold the idea that people who watch large quantities of porn find other aspects of their lives suffering as a result. Contrary to the deviant sentiments spouted popular culture, Ley argues, porn wasn’t shown to produce unhealthy tendencies, as much as it revealed them. Porn wasn’t the striking of a match. Porn was the sorry fizzling after period of intense burning.

“There is a belief that porn use causes negative consequences in most people who use it, especially those who use it a lot,” Ley explained. “In fact, our review suggests that less than one percent of people actually experience negative consequences of their use, and that further, those negative consequences are rarely attributable only to porn, but to a host of other causes and variables.”

What kind of causes is Ley talking about? His research suggests people are more likely to begin heavier porn viewing after facing bouts of depression, navigating the unfriendly waters of divorce, and after experiencing long periods of loneliness. If a patient tells his physician (Ley’s team found the average heavy porn consumer is non-heterosexual and male, with conflicting religious views) that he’s feeling down and has turned to porn to numb the pain, it does the patient a disservice to medicate only the porn viewing.

The logic holds for any harmful behavior, be it porn or exercise. Someone who works out to the point of sheer exhaustion, and rarely eats, isn’t helped by having her gym membership revoked. “So, when clinicians or people see individuals' using porn at high levels it might be an indication of preceding difficulties,” Ley said, “or it might merely reflect that this is a person with a high libido or desire for sensation-seeking.”

Confronting the Bird and the Bees

The consequences of porn viewing stretch even across generations. Whether it’s the 1600s, the 1920s, or Feb. 13, 2014, human biology dictates that kids somewhere between 11 and 14 years old eventually succumb to their so-called “urges.” Basically, they start noticing the opposite sex. And Ley’s research indicates that children whose parents who don’t broach the topic proactively implicitly pass the torch onto the next available teaching source. Enter porn.

The problem is, porn was always intended to be used as adult entertainment, never education. The extent to which porn objectifies women and otherwise lies about sexual conventions isn’t a viable argument, Ley says, because truth telling was never the point. Porn offers the escapist fantasies of sex in much the same way romantic comedies offer the escapist fantasies of emotion, or action and sports movies of adventure and triumph.

In any of these cases, the true danger lies in children not being able to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s business as usual — the only difference being that Die Hard isn’t provoking kids to save their wives from German terrorists in the way porn viewing may precede risky sexual behavior.

“We don't let people learn to shoot handguns by watch Bruce Willis movies,” Ley said. “Why would we let them learn about sex from porn, or be surprised that someone gets hurt if they do?”

 

Source: Ley D, Prause N, Finn P. The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Review of the ‘Pornography Addiction’ Model. Current Sexual Health Reports. 2014.