Porn Addiction Is Real, and People Are Losing Their Jobs Over It

The facts are in, and they aren’t in porn’s favor.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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The facts are in, and they aren’t in porn’s favor.
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Art Credit: Ed Ivanushkin

Is porn addiction really a thing?

This question came up recently in a conversation with a friend, after discussing news of those judges in Britain who lost their jobs after porn was discovered on their computers. Alcoholism is real for sure. Prescription drugs are no doubt the cause of many devastating addictions. But porn? She was incredulous. Let’s not let moralizing get in the way of rationality. Porn is harmless and may even be good for some people’s relationships.

This is that moment in a conversation when I pause to light my metaphorical cigarette and wonder where to start. Harmless? That’s a stretch because a significant number of women in porn are actually trafficked. Good for relationships? Research suggests men who consume porn are often less interested in real-life sex with real-life partners. Easy to stop whenever you want? Not according to men who speak up on the subject (including, famously, Russell Brand), who seem to have a very difficult time of it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re talking about whether porn addiction is real. Sure, not every person who has ever seen porn has been addicted to it. That’s not the question. We’re asking whether porn addiction is a real thing for some people. Can porn addiction happen for real, like other destructive addictions, or is this just a figure of speech some people use to describe porn’s tempting appeal? Or that moralizers use to try to scare us?

There are two reliable places we can look for answers. If porn is truly addictive, we should be able to see two things as a result: scientific research on the neurological impact of porn, and evidence of porn making people’s lives unmanageable in the real world.

When it comes to the science, the facts are in, and they aren’t in porn’s favor. As psychiatrist Norman Doidge described in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, “the addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act.”

OK, well, if porn addiction is sort of like a running addiction or my need for a cup of joe when I wake up, that’s not so bad, right?  Unfortunately, with porn addiction we’re talking a little higher on the addictive scale than your morning coffee. More like cocaine. Yes, neuroscientists have compared addiction to sexual images and behaviors as similar in strength to that of cocaine. And, in the wise words of Rick James, “cocaine’s a hell of a drug.”

But is there evidence of general life dysfunction? Or as Alcoholics Anonymous famously calls it, the “unmanageable life.”Among the earliest exercises in twelve-step programs, addicts are invited to assess how unmanageable their lives have become—in other words, how their addiction has affected things like their job security and their family.

And porn affects people’s jobs. Lest we forget those judges in Britain who recently lost their jobs over porn use. It might seem unbelievable to imagine someone having so little discipline as to watch porn on an office computer, but it happens more than you’d think. One editorial colleague I know used to work in an office with a man who was caught watching porn—more than once. How could he watch it again when he was caught before, you ask? Shouldn’t he at least be too embarrassed?

The sooner we realize this is a real addiction, the sooner it starts to make sense. The office computer for the porn addict can be like the hotel liquor cabinet for an alcoholic. A mother of four I know encountered a man watching porn at her local library (according to policy, the librarians could not restrict him from watching it). Another woman saw a man openly watching porn on an airplane flight. I’ve seen someone watching porn in a coffee shop. What we might be tempted to think is happening on just the fringes of society—or in the headlines—is more difficult to deny in our very midst.

If watching porn in public places and letting it interfere with one’s job aren’t enough to convince you of how dysfunctional porn addiction can be, there’s further evidence that it breaks apart families.Research suggests that porn is one of the top reasons for divorce and family breakdown today. As with alcoholism, it’s hard to have a healthy relationship with any addiction playing a major role in one’s life, but porn and sex addictions bring with them unique wounds for families. Due to the sexual nature of the addiction, many spouses feel personally betrayed by the addict’s infidelity and find it hard to rebuild trust.

With all the research and evidence out there, the question isn’t whether porn addiction exists. The question is, why isn’t it taken seriously?

The answers are manifold. First, an addiction is, of course, seen as a bad thing, and no one wants to admit to doing something bad—whether they’re dabbling or an addict. Then there’s the argument that, also much like any addictive behavior, it’s enjoyable at first. How can something be bad, when it brings such a dopamine rush? Perhaps most of all, for something usually done in private, porn is generally accepted in society. Advertisements and mainstream entertainment live and breathe hypersexualized content inspired by porn. Carl’s Jr. ads abound. Soft-core porn is all over television and film. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton became famous because leaked sex tapes skyrocketed them to reality TV stardom. There’s an entire generation growing up that thinks sexting photos is normal relationship behavior—girls and women who resign to thinking “either your boyfriend is going to look at porn, or he’s going to look at you.”

Often the voices that speak critically on porn get treated as old-fashioned, backwater, or fringe—certainly not relevant. At worst, they get targeted by cyberbullies and hackers.

Interestingly, the only critical voices on porn that haven’t been dismissed in pop culture have come from young men—I’m thinking of actor Russell Brand in his recent video and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his film Don Jon—who wonder if porn is leading us to a world where objectification rules and intimacy is dead.

But of all the critical commentary and evidence of pornography’s addictive effects, perhaps the most valuable is that coming from the addiction recovery community. Beneath all the media messaging and cultural debates are quiet but powerful forces, impervious to pop culture. There’s Sex Addicts Anonymous, brought to you by the people who brought us Alcoholics Anonymous. There are online movements, notably Fight the New Drug, and communities such as No Fap. And there is a growing number of therapists and facilities that help people who seek recovery from porn and sex addictions. These, the voices of those suffering from and recovering from addictions, are the only voices that count in some ways. They know an addiction when they see it. And they know the challenges of overcoming it. They experience it, after all.

If we listen to them, to reason, and to science, then we’ll stop pretending that what they’re fighting isn’t real.