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If Porn Addiction Isn’t Real, Why Do Very Religious People Think They’re Hooked?

It isn’t hard to think of times when people misuse the word “addiction” (as in “I’m addicted to this song;” “I think I have a Nando’s addiction;” “My Flappy Bird addiction is getting out of hand”), but most of the time we know that we don’t actually mean it. There’s a distinct barrier between really, really liking something and being addicted to it, and we’re usually aware that we haven’t actually crossed that.

Imagine, however, if you were really convinced you had an addiction that scientists have said doesn’t actually exist in terms of the generally accepted disease model. It would be like experiencing all the signs and symptoms of the flu, and believing you’re suffering from it, only to be told that the flu isn’t real.

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A recent study led by psychologist Joshua Grubbs, of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, has shown that people who consider themselves to be very religious have a much higher chance of self-identifying as addicted to internet porndespite in some cases having only watched it once. Grubbs studied at a conservative university as an undergraduate and became interested in the relationship between strong moral beliefs and perceived addiction to pornography after observing his fellow students’ distress after viewing porn; they thought that something was wrong with them.

Another point that attracted Grubbs’ attention was that over half of the 1,200 books about pornography addiction on Amazon were listed in the religious/spirituality sections, and many of those books were personal testimonials about struggling with the addiction. In an earlier article, we spoke to a self-professed porn addict who also mentioned that a lot of resources he found online about porn addiction and escaping it were “Christian,” including his NetNanny software.

Grubbs’ research, entitled “Transgression as Addiction: Religiosity and Moral Disapproval as Predictors of Perceived Addiction to Pornography,” consisted of three studies in which participants were surveyed on their strength of faith, their religious practices, and their online viewing habits. Internet pornography was defined as “viewing online sexually explicit pictures or videos” (I wasn’t aware there were any other types of internet porn, to be honest, but maybe I’m old fashioned), and participants were also asked to fill out a survey that measured their perception of addiction. Grubbs was surprised to find that “the amount of viewing did not impact the perception of addiction, but strong morals did.”

Grubbs’ findings have coincided with the release of a review article by David Ley, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of a large behavioural health program. The article, published in the journal Current Sexual Health Reports, discusses the “pornography addiction model.”

Ley purports that there is no strong scientific research to suggest that addiction to pornography actually exists, and includes figures to support his claims. Fewer than two in every five research articles about high-frequency sexual behaviour actually define or describe it as being an addiction; only 37 percent do. Only 13 out of 49 (that’s 27 percent) of articles on the subject contained any actual data, and only one psychophysiological study appeared on the issue in 2013. Ley’s review goes on to critique the poor experimental designs, methodological downfalls and lack of studies surrounding the topic. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that “pornography addiction” was not included in the recently revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

That’s not to suggest that people who suffer from what they consider a porn addiction are making it up; it just means we should maybe reconsider the term “addiction” in this situation, and look to other ways of understanding the condition.

So why might highly religious people believe themselves to suffer from an addiction that doesn’t fit the usual model? It seems people are more likely to report having an addiction to pornography if their religious values conflict with their sexual desires, although as Grubbs’ study was one of the first of its kind in the field, the reasons why that might be have not yet been fully explored.

Ley’s team concluded that their findings should be able to help therapists and patients understand that the perception of addiction is much more about beliefs and morals than about actual viewing. They believe that by labelling something as an “addiction” in the first place, any positive effects might be overlooked and only the negative aspects focused upon. In the case of pornography, positive benefits includea decrease in sex offences, and the research indicates that this is because viewing sexual images provides a legal outlet for illegal sexual behaviours or desires.

Ley also claimed that viewing sexual images increased pleasure in long-term relationships, and contributed to a better quality of life. I’m not quite sure how they quantified that, but I’m not one to judge—happy viewing!

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