Yet More Pseudoscience About Porn “Addiction”

This goes in the “just because you read it on the internet doesn’t make it true” file.

The Guardian has yet another article about porn addiction, this time with a focus on women. Now, I certainly understand that a lot of people get sucked into porn habits that aren’t good for them. Whether it’s taking up so much of your time that you miss important events, you’re spending more money than you can afford, you’re unable to connect with a real-life partner, or you keep trying to act out what you see on the screen instead of enjoying your partner, there are lots of ways that porn habits can be problematic. Many of the same things could also be said about World of Warcraft or football and that’s rarely acknowledged among the people who treat people with sex/porn addiction take money from people who are convinced that they’re addicted. Getting stuck in habits isn’t limited to sex or porn, as any reputable therapist (including my fabulous sex therapist colleagues who specialize in porn habits) know.

In any case, the scientific justifications to explain porn addiction usually make claims about dopamine and oxytocin, even though it’s much more complex than that. This article by the amazing Heather Corrina at scarleteen.com is one of the best literature reviews on the topic and anyone who wants to write about oxytocin should read it. Given how confusing all of the science can be, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, but the Guardian article links to a book that doesn’t even support their claim.

Here’s what they said:

Orgasm releases a dopamine-oxytocin high that has been compared to a heroin hit, and many regular users of internet porn report experiencing an almost trance-like effect that not only makes them feel oblivious to the world, but also gives them a sense of power that they don’t have in real life.

If you click on the link, you’ll be taken to page 154 of The Science of Orgasm, an amazing book by some of the leaders in sexological research. And here’s what the page says:

PET (positronic emission tomography) studies found that the ventral tegmental area was activated in men during ejaculation (Holstege et al., 2003), and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies showed the nucleus accumbens area to be activated in women during arousal (Komisaruk, Whipple, Crawford, et al., 2002, 2004). Since this dopaminergic brain system is activated both by opiate drugs and by orgasm in men and women, this parallel could help explain the intensely reinforcing nature of both orgasm and heroin in men and women. It is likely, however, that the addictive craving for opiates is due to a mechanism other than the acute orgasm-like effect. [emphasis added]

Strictly speaking, the reporter was accurate. The effects of orgasm were compared to the effects of opiates. And what was left out was that the comparison didn’t lead to a conclusion that they are the same. I could compare the Mona Lisa to a mailbox- that doesn’t mean they’re equivalent. But the way the article is phrased, it sure sounds like orgasm = heroin, doesn’t it?

I can’t tell if this is because the reporter started off with a bias (although the tone of the article certainly seems like it), if she wanted to scare people (which always increases how many people read an article), if she simply doesn’t understand the science, or if she skipped over the last sentence in the paragraph. Whatever the reason, it’s irresponsible to make a claim that simply isn’t true. To do it by contradicting the source you’re linking to is simply unacceptable.

This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the way that sex & porn addiction is framed. Yes, there are definitely people who have problematic relationships with porn. And no, there isn’t any actual research to explain it or justify the existence treatment centers. So people make things up and misrepresent the science. Unless you’re willing to click on the links (if there are any) and check the sources, how would you know?

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