There's No Such Thing As Porn Addiction, Says New Research

The dirty truth about pornography and sex addiction is that they probably aren't real.

So say the authors of an analysis of previous research on the subject. Their work, published this month in the journal Current Sexual Health Reports, points to poorly conducted experiments, conclusions based on anecdotes, and limited samples.

David Ley, the study's lead author, told Healthline that the limited research that exists on visual sexual stimuli (pornography) is usually written by people working in what he calls a “lucrative” industry.

“Many of these clinicians are themselves self-identified porn addicts, who are treating others who self-identify as addicts," Ley said. "They base their writings upon their own clinical experience and anecdotes.”

Ley, a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, N.M., said the studies that justify the addiction are usually “cross-sectional." This means they may describe how certain groups of people act, but they don't show any real cause and effect. The result is research that is subject to “many forms of bias” and not applicable to larger populations, he said.

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'Reflecting Cultural Values, Not Clinical Ones'

In much of the existing research, subjects who self-report a pornography problem tend to be gay or bisexual men with religious conflict, Levy said. Such a model of addiction is “pathologizing and stigmatizing the normal, even healthy sexual behaviors and desires of some groups, because of cultural biases,” he added.

The high numbers of gay and bisexual men in the “porn addict” groups indicate a “strong likelihood that the label is reflecting cultural values, not clinical ones,” Ley said. He likened the porn addiction recovery movement to gay conversion therapy.

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'Porn Addiction Therapy' Can Be Dangerous Without Qualifications 

Nicole Prause, a co-author of the study, told Healthline that offering treatment without knowledge is dangerous.

“If you are trained as an M.D. and a practicing physician and deviate from best practices and a patient gets hurt, you're accountable. The same is not true in psychology," she said. "You can walk in and see a therapist, and they can do whatever they want with you, not even monitor whether you're getting better, and charge for it.” 

Prause is a researcher in the department of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. She said the industry that is treating pornography and sex addiction does so without a strong model.

“Models matter in this," she said. "The model you go with, or whatever has been supported, determines what treatment you pursue and what's going to be effective. This is not just academic masturbation.”

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Putting Sex into the Addiction Model

Because no clear model of what pornography addiction actually is exists in previous studies, Ley and his colleagues assessed whether pornography is addictive based on a substance addiction model. When a person becomes addicted to a substance, they use it even after it stops being pleasurable. They need it to just to maintain normalcy

“We chose to examine the applicability of the substance addiction model, because the porn/sex addiction crowd overwhelmingly endorses this, with constant statements that 'sex is just like drugs,'" Ley said. “They constantly say, for instance, that 'porn is the crack cocaine of sex addiction.'"

Ley said that while there are anecdotal claims of people “needing” porn, or experiencing “some very vague withdrawal symptoms,” there is no empirical evidence whatsoever.

Sex Addiction: A Complex Issue

Prause is no stranger to the sex addiction debate. She made headlines last summer when she co-authored a study claiming that the response someone has to pornography has nothing to do with addiction. By studying subjects who viewed sexual images during an EEG, she showed that simply having a high libido, absent of a problem, creates a strong brain response.

Rory Reid, a practicing provider of treatment for sexual disorders and gambling and substance abuse problems at UCLA, critiqued Prause's earlier work, saying he doubts whether brain markers of any kind can predict the absence or presence of a disorder.

In a 2013 issue of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, Reid argued that hypersexual activity should not be classified as an addiction despite having similarities with substance disorders. 

But he maintains that the existence of sexual problems cannot be denied. Regarding Prause's research last summer, he wrote, “We have no way of knowing how it might have differed if more explicit, more intense, or stimuli that better mapped to personal preferences were used instead. This issue is discussed at length among sex researchers and is actually very complex.”

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Profiting from 'Sex Addiction Therapy'

Treating sex addiction is big business.

In the report, Ley and his colleagues conclude that the pornography and sex addiction industry makes many claims for treatment and success with little if any data to back up those claims. The treatment can be costly, as much as $677 per day for inpatient care, according to the study. 

“The use of medications ‘off-label’ to treat ‘pornography addiction’ also appears common,” the authors wrote. “Drugs originally designed to treat alcoholism, depression, and ED have all been suggested. This therapeutic opportunism is well characterized. Some have advocated for transparency, requiring therapists to inform patients that such therapies are experimental, and have not been tested for sex addiction.”

The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH) is a global, non-profit organization. Its Web site says it is dedicated to promoting research and educating its members, which include treatment providers for people deemed sexually out of control. SASH did not respond to telephone and email requests for a comment on Ley's research.

Another example is FightTheNewDrug.org.

On their Web site they identify themselves as a non-profit organization. It offers testimonials from recovering “addicts” as well as a video warning of the hazards of pornography.

The video talks about how the pornography industry made big bucks after pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey published research encouraging sex in the 1940s. Now, titillating images can be accessed anytime, anywhere via the Internet.

FightTheNewDrug.org did not respond to an e-mail seeking an interview. A telephone number is not listed on the site.