Usually on Thursdays, I answer a reader’s question. Today, I want y’all to answer my question. Here it is:
What should we call ongoing and persistent porn use? If you read various marriage blogs, you might have seen some recent discussion about porn “habit” vs. “addiction.” (You can see my post here.) Some say it’s a habit and calling it an addiction makes it harder to fight because that connotes that it’s outside their control. For others, it feels well beyond habit and calling it an addiction prods them to getting the help they need to overcome.
While I understand that “addiction” isn’t quite the right word, “habit” doesn’t seem enough. At this point, I’m thinking maybe we need a better label. What alternative words could we use to refer to a porn addiction/habit?
I’ve honestly believed this argument over semantics isn’t nearly as important as just fighting off this evil. But after reading various comments on the subject, I’ve decided it matters to some to use the right words.
Calling it a habit gives some porn users the empowerment they need to gain victory, because then they feel like it’s a behavior they control. For others who have tried to quit, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, labeling it an addiction encourages them to seek the outside help they need to break free.
Honestly, I don’t want to cause problems for either group. I’d hate to think that my word choice inadvertently hindered anyone’s ultimate victory over this terrible temptation.
But what is persistent use of pornography?
Is porn use an addiction?
Substance addictions and persistent porn use have these similarities:
- Someone else often offers you the first “hit”
- You try it out of curiosity or intrigue
- Your body delivers a natural chemical reward
- You might seek out stronger forms of the substance to receive the same or a more intense effect
- You experience a mix of good feelings and bad consequences
- If you try to quit, you may experience resistance or a sense of loss
Chris Taylor of The Forgiven Wife wrote an excellent post on Is Porn Use an Addiction (and Does It Even Matter)? In that article, she also points out:
For a person who is trying to medicate emotional pain, the “high” they feel after using a substance is a respite from their pain. When the effects go away, they often feel worse emotionally—but they don’t know how else to address the pain, so they continue using, again and again.
I also believe many porn producers are like drug dealers, in the way they entice users, offer increasingly intense experiences, and ignore the damage they do users and those around them.
However, recent research studies have shown that persistent porn use doesn’t behave physiologically like an addiction. For instance, in one much-touted study, “subjects who reported experiencing problems as a result of their pornography use did not display characteristically addictive brain activity when viewing sexual images” (The Daily Beast: “Your Porn Addiction Isn’t Real”; Journal of Biological Psychology: “Modulation of late positive potentials by sexual images in problem users and controls inconsistent with ‘porn addiction'”). Rather, some experts propose it’s more analogous to a compulsion (see American Psychological Association: “Is Pornography Addictive?”).
Moreover, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — the manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors to diagnose and treat clients — does not recognize a hypersexual disorder or porn addiction. The experts determined there was insufficient evidence to support these labels and the treatments that would follow.
Is porn use a habit?
Habits and persistent porn use share these similarities:
- You form them through a system of cue/trigger, routine, and reward (see ABC News: “Science of habits: Understanding why we do what we do”)
- You reinforce the habit through repetition
- In anticipating the reward, you create a craving to engage in the routine
- You link the habit to other environmental triggers (e.g., a certain room in your house or time of the day)
- Even when the habit is clearly hurting you (or people you love), it’s an entrenched routine you tend to fall back on
According to researcher Dr. Wendy Wood, as you repeat behaviors in the same context, thus forming a habit, your brain shifts from processing in the decision-making center to a sensory motor loop that no longer retains information on the goal or outcome. The result, according to Wood, is “our minds don’t always integrate in the best way possible. Even when you know the right answer, you can’t make yourself change the habitual behavior” (Science Daily: “How we form habits, change existing ones”).
For example, in one interesting study on habits, 98 people watched movie trailers and were given popcorn to munch on, some of it fresh and some of it one week old. Those used to eating popcorn at movies ate the same amount of stale popcorn as fresh, because — even though stale popcorn is yuck — they had an entrenched habit triggered by the environment (LA Times: “People eat out of habit, a study finds, even when food is stale”). That sounds like the persistent porn user who — regardless of how yuck the porn is — feels compelled to watch, because it’s a triggered routine.
The habit argument is laid out well in “Does Your Spouse Have a Porn Addiction or Just a Bad Habit? The Difference Matters!” on Sheila Gregoire’s To Love Honor and Vacuum blog.
Yet, habits run the gamut in whether they’re good, neutral, or bad. Thus, when some hear the word “habit,” they’re more likely to think about how their kid puts his dirty shoes on the couch or their husband leaves the Worcestershire sauce on the wrong refrigerator shelf than someone taking up smoking or losing himself in hours and hours of porn. And calling it merely a habit sounds to some like you’re putting what is adultery of the heart (Matthew 5:28) on the same level as consuming more coffee than you know you should.
Moreover, the suggested way to kick a habit is to change the trigger. But what if the craving is the trigger? Or what if the trigger is something you can’t control, like having a computer (that you need for work, home tasks, etc.) or being sexually refused by your spouse? (This is not blaming the spouse for porn use! That spouse is not responsible, but that action could be something the porn user has in his habit loop.)
Is porn use something else?
I asked on my Facebook page for alternative words, and here are some of the answers:
- self-control problem
- virtual adultery
- spiritual stronghold
Let me clarify one more thing. I’m not a licensed counselor, but I went through a graduate program that prepared me to become a counselor, including making diagnoses. I do not contend that porn use can be classified for medical treatment or insurance reimbursement as an addiction, because that is a specific definition in that context.
However, if someone writes me a question or a comment that refers to the person or spouse being “addicted to porn,” I’m not going to argue with them. When your co-worker says, “I’m addicted to coffee,” or your best friend says, “I’m addicted to superhero movies,” or Robert Palmer says, “You might as well face it, you’re addicted to love,” we understand that they’re using “addicted” colloquially. I hope to use more precise language from now on, but quibbling over their terminology still seems far less important to me than providing insight, encouragement, answers, and hope.
Now I hope you’ll chime in! What alternative words could we use to refer to a porn addiction/habit?