Does it help us to view a porn habit as an addiction?

I’d like to preface this post with a few notes:

  • I am not in any way claiming scientific expertise here. I’ve done a lot of reading and research, but one of my points is that research doesn’t measure everything. If you’re looking for links to scientific studies, you won’t find them here.
  • Many women have a porn problem, too. I’m not addressing that in this post, although if this applies to you, you might find some insight.
  • As I talk about husbands quitting porn, I am referring to men who have a persistent porn habit that they want to quit.

Pornography hurts marriages. Women have shared with me the heartache they’ve experienced upon discovering a husband’s porn habit. It is common to feel hurt and betrayed.

Our shared sex life is where we are most vulnerable with our husbands. It is where we are most naked.

That same vulnerability that can make sex such an exquisite, connecting experience is what opens us up to being deeply hurt when it comes to anything sexual, including porn.

Is porn about sex?

I’ve read books and articles from men who say that a porn problem isn’t really about sex. Rather, it is about addressing an unmet emotional need. Viewing porn allows men to feel sexual without any fear of failure. As they imagine themselves being the object of sexual desire, they feel powerful and masculine. Men who struggle with emotional intimacy may find safety in arousal that doesn’t carry with it any emotional risk.

I am inclined to believe that a persistent porn habit—one that a guy just can’t shake even when he wants to—probably is about deep-seated emotional needs.

It isn’t really about sex.

Except . . . it IS about sex, too. Porn may be about emotional needs, but it is foolish to pretend that sex is not a component.

A husband who uses porn is seeking sexual arousal from someone other than his own wife. He now has a mental bank of sexual images of other women.

He may be right that his use of porn has nothing to do with his wife in terms of his intent. In terms of effect, though, it has everything to do with her.

Can porn use be an addiction?

When a good-willed man has a persistent porn habit that he wants to stop but can’t, he often feels a sense of shame. It’s like the porn has a hold on him. The language people use to talk about a porn habit is often similar to the language used to discuss addiction: hooked, can’t shake, it’s all I can think about, self-loathing, and so on.

Many people will say that persistent porn use is an addiction, pointing to the effects that an addiction can have on relationships, work, self-esteem, and more.

Some women express relief at the idea that their husbands have an addiction. It helps us identity the problem as being on the men, as opposed to thinking that there is something wrong with us, that leads our husbands to seek sexual arousal elsewhere.

More frequently, though, I hear from women who hate the idea that porn is an addiction because it sounds like a justification of behavior that is so hurtful.

The addiction paradigm

The jury is still out as to whether or not porn use is an addiction.

People debate it, referring to scientific studies and measuring whether porn meets various criteria, such as dependence, compulsion, and other criteria for addiction. They point to what happens in the brain after viewing porn, comparing it in various ways to drug addiction and what we see in the brain after drug use.

The research I’ve seen points toward it not being an addiction.

However, I’d like to suggest that an addiction paradigm has something to offer us anyway:

  1. When we look only at the brain in considering addiction, we are missing something important.
  1. Thinking of porn as an addiction offers wives a very specific way to support their husbands’ efforts to conquer a porn habit

I don’t have a husband who’s had a damaging porn habit.

I do, however, have a loved one with a substance abuse problem.

I’ve had to learn a great deal about addiction. My reading has included research on the ways that addiction affects lives and relationships. Story upon story has shone a light on the pain that is often the foundation on which addiction is built. I’ve also read numerous accounts of people who have claimed victory over addiction.

Addiction is far more complicated than it is often portrayed.

Is it possible to have a porn addiction? I don’t know—but here’s the thing:

I don’t think it matters.

The addiction paradigm—even if it isn’t scientifically accurate—can suggest ways to support those who are trying to quit porn.

If you have a husband who can’t shake a porn habit, what does an addiction paradigm offer you in figuring out how to move forward to support and encourage your husband in claiming victory over his problem?

The heart of addiction

Addiction case studies often point to emotional pain that is tangled up with many instances of addiction.

People first try addictive substances for a variety of reasons—curiosity, peer pressure, the belief that they won’t get hooked or that it is not damaging, and more. They try a substance for what may be a benign reason—but then they experience the effects. They like the way they feel after using.

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 am part of a large support organization for people with loved ones who are addicted. Just about everyone I’ve encountered there has shared that their loved one has experienced depression or another mental health struggle, trauma, or another experience that has been too painful to face—both before the addiction and as a result of the addiction.

Although there is often a physical component to a substance addiction, there is often an emotional component as well.

This is where I think an addition paradigm can help us in thinking about a porn habit.

When men say their persistent porn use is about meeting an emotional need rather than a physical one, it doesn’t really sound too different from saying there is often an emotional component to drug addiction.

We often look at science to determine whether a substance or habit is addictive. After all, science shows us what happens in the brain.

Brain science shows us only part of the problem of addiction. What if we were to look instead at the heart?

It is in the heart where I believe we can make a difference.

Connection matters

Much of my reading on addiction points to the critical role of connection and relationship in successfully recovering from an addiction.

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think makes a stark and memorable observation: “So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

What does this suggest about how to address porn?

If we think of porn use as an addiction that grows from a heart problem, then perhaps connection is part of the solution.

Consider this as well: porn use is a sin. The opposite of sin is a connection with Christ—and that also begins with the heart.

Healing the heart

If you have recently discovered your husband’s porn habit, you may well want to withdraw from him—and I get it. You are hurting in an area where you are especially vulnerable.

The thought of connecting with your husband may be too much to bear right now.

Encourage your husband to connect with others—male mentors at church, family members, or a Celebrate Recovery group. Encourage him to spend time with God. Pray for his Christian walk. Pray for his heart to feel whole and for him to accept God’s forgiveness.

Actively pursue your own healing (see First Steps in Battling Pornography at Bonny’s OysterBed7); then , reach out to your husband. Show that you value him and your relationship with him. Strengthen the connection between the two of you, and strengthen your shared connection with God.

If he has a porn habit that seems like an addiction and that is connected to emotional hurt in his heart, responding to it as if it is an addiction—with connection and relationship—may be just the medicine he needs to be motivated to seek recovery.

If a persistent habit is grounded in emotional hurt, then healing that hurt is an important step in claiming victory over the habit—and over the sin—whether or not it is an addiction.

Strengthening your connection with your husband just may help you begin to heal from the heartache of your husband’s porn habit, too.

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Psalm 51:10

Image courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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25 Thoughts on “Is Porn Use an Addiction (and Does It Even Matter)?

  1. Whether porn use is an addiction or not, it has become an epidemic in the Western world.

  2. I have a lot of loved ones that struggle with alcohol addiction. I think there are aspects of their personalities that perhaps make them more vulnerable to alcohol, but for another person it could be porn. Regardless of whether porn is an addiction or not each person wakes up in the morning and has some small element of choice of whether to pursue a healthy life or not.
    I think each type of addiction brings its own sort of consequences that can make it harmful. WIth alcoholism there can be trouble with the law and significant health consequences. In many forms of addiction the addict is incredibly deceitful towards those they love. The porn addict may lie about how much time they spend looking at it when they should be doing other things.
    Once upon a time, if you are old enough, you’ll remember that porn wasn’t quite as accessible, Now that one can access porn at any time, things have really changed.
    I think one of the costs of porn as that some men are beginning to view the porn star as the norm, and not see women as individuals.
    The porn star is available all of the time. She apparently never gets sore. She doesn’t show pain. She always says yes no matter how degrading or hurtful the activity is. She has no expectation of being treated with love or dignity. She is not allowed to have boundaries. She is expected to have sex with men that are actively hostile toward her.
    For a man who has been fed a significant diet of the porn star he can no longer distinguish what is reality and what is not. If a man sees something in porn, then he sees no reason why his wife can’t do it. If she says she doesn’t care for anal sex, the man is unable to consider his wife’s feelings because the porn star is reality.
    If a wife doesn’t want to engage in role play she feels uncomfortable with, it doesn’t matter. Recently I have seen the topic of age play being hinted at in some Christian blogs. No way in heck would I ever dress up or act like someone underaged in the marriage bed. I read some “christian” marriage writers and I can’t help but feel they are also influenced by the porn star in what they write rather than the reality of the average woman.
    Just as my loved ones lose touch with reality through their alcoholism, I feel this also happens to those who are big consumers of porn.
    I think women partly fear porn because they want the marriage bed to be a safe place,not a place where anything is on the menu, no matter how they feel about it. They want their own feelings respected about not doing things that are degrading or physically painful or even harmful.
    Addiction certainly comes from a place of hurt, sometimes very old hurt. When dealing with one particular alcoholic family member, it is hard to have connection when the person isn’t in healthy place. I’m not sure what that would look like for porn addiciton, but the wife has to stay healthy herself.
    Anything I said in this post could also be applied to a woman with a porn problem.

  3. Mike S. on March 2, 2017 at 12:53 pm said:

    I don’t believe my porn use was an addiction, more a habit or response. And when it was revolved to my wife of many years I am eternally grateful that she did not react like many wives apparently do – by shutting the husband out emotionally and physically. This would have destroyed me and made my problem infinitely worse. Instead, she drew me closer in every way. She allowed me to be close. It saved me.It made me absolutely determined to figure it all out and root the causes out of my life. Now I can turn to her when the “triggers” appear, instead of feeling I must turn away. Our very good marriage is now off-the-charts better than ever. Together we are free, because though it was mostly me, it was partly her. I am so grateful for her wisdom and love.

  4. Rebecca on March 3, 2017 at 2:02 pm said:

    Hi Chris — I’ve followed your posts for a very long time but this is my very first time commenting (love your column by the way).

    I’m starting to see a newly emerging consensus on Christian marriage blogs that pornography use is not an “addiction” but a behavioral impulse. This is occurring after years of it being characterized by we Evangelicals as an addiction similar to drugs and alcohol. This paradigm has shifted after substantative analysis by the psychiatric and psychology communities found the label to be grossly inaccurate, misleading and lacking in scientific substantiation.

    Be that as it may, I think that a deeper question needs to be asked before the addiction vs. compulsion debate is engaged any further:

    What specifically is porn?

    Don’t you think that defining and knowing what porn actually is — is a very important question to consider?

    • Don’t you think that defining and knowing what porn actually is — is a very important question to consider?

      Yes, and no. If we are doing research, then, yes, I think we absolutely need to be able to define what porn is. If it matters whether it is a behavioral impulse or a physical addiction, then we have to know what it is that we are studying.

      However, one of the problems with porn as we typically define it is that it can create unrealistic and unfair expectations of sexuality and relationships. The same thing can be said for romance novels and sitcoms, too. Even without a specific definition, we can recognize various ways something affects us in our marriage. (See J’s What’s Your Porn? for a great discussion of this.) If something is a problem in our marriages and if a particular way of viewing it gives us an idea of how to address the problem, I think it’s worth a try–even if we don’t know specifically if something could be defined as porn or an addiction.

      • Rebecca on March 4, 2017 at 12:37 pm said:

        Thanks for that clarification Chris.

        My main point is that how can you or I personally restrict or prevent access to material for myself that you or I cannot specifically define for ourselves?

        I may consider a particular medium “porn” but you may not agree with my assessment at all that it is porn — so, who’s right? Is porn totally in the eyes of the beholder? And if porn is in the eyes of the beholder, is the “addiction” to it in the eyes of the beholder as well?

        For instance, I utilize an educational website called OMGYes that is specifically designed for women curious about learning more ways to make a sex more pleasurable and satisfactory with a decidely female-centric focus. Typically, many of the users have struggled with low desire and sexual refusal issues which has propelled them to seek help.

        [edited to remove link]

        Women obtain a paid membership to use this site to explore more ways to touch themselves and guide their partners, while men and their female partners utilize it to add new, research-based tools to their toolbox. Separate videos show explicit (literally hands-on) demonstrations of how those techniques work in practice for women. Everything about the treatment, tone, and look of these videos is extremely tasteful and sophisticated.

        Would you classify material like this as pornography and if so, would use of this educational medium be a prelude to pornography addiction (or compulsion)?

        • I don’t know that it is a simple thing to define the boundaries as a one-size-fits-all notion. What is depicted is one piece of it, but intention matters, too. I don’t view a nude painting as porn–but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a problem for someone else to see.

          Some people most certainly would define the site you describe as pornography. Others would say it isn’t porn but would be best to avoid it because it creates sexual arousal and invites thoughts of someone other than their spouse. Some people might be able to view this for educational purposes with no negative effects. Because I think many of my readers might find the site to be problematic, I’ve edited out the direct link in your comment.

          If I were trying to create laws or guidelines for others to follow, or if I were doing scientific research, I would spend a good deal of time establishing a working definition of porn. That isn’t what I’m trying to do in this post. What I’ve written could apply to any activity that a spouse can’t seem to control even though she or he wants to.

  5. Smoking and alcohol use is possible to be addicted to, but using it isn’t proof that you are addicted. Porn use can be an addiction or not. Some men are dealing with unfulfilled emotional needs, and they stumble into porn from time to time. Some are dealing with lifelong deficits of love and affection and do not feel there is any place they can find relief. They self-medicate in a way to overcome their fear, shame, or other problems. This isn’t a justification; I’m just saying that it isn’t possible to say that porn is always an addiction any more than you can say that it never is.

    I am certain that there are other reasons that people use porn that have nothing to do with trying to cover an emotional need. Some people are just put in the way of temptation, and they fall. Some people seek out the satisfaction of their sinful desires. Even in these cases, I doubt anyone can say whether each user of porn is addicted or not. Doing so really would require being able to read the person’s mind, IMHO.

  6. Rebecca,
    I would classify it as porn because viewing other’s sexual behavior and naked bodies causes arousal. That’s been shown in scientific studies, (MRI or PET scanning, I can’t remember which). In my book the fact that it’s intended to educate or enhance one’s sex life doesn’t justify it. If you can’t understand what’s being described in writing then you can just experiment on your body with what feels good.

    I think this is a cleverly described way to introduce others to our marriage beds by the enemy of holy sex.

    I hope Chris will go back and edit your post further to remove the name so that other’s don’t innocently or not so innocently seek it out.

    What are your intentions in bringing this up here and on Paul’s blog? Are you looking for permission, justification or what? You seemed to have some agenda over on Paul’s blog and it makes me question your motives here.

    • That was supposed to be cleverly disguised, not cleverly described, though perhaps that’s true as well.

    • Rebecca on March 5, 2017 at 3:17 pm said:

      Thanks for the response Sandi:

      So, what you are saying is that if some medium portraying other’s sexual behavior or naked bodies causes arousal, then it’s “pornography”. However, if it doesn’t cause arousal, then it’s “not pornography”.

      Am I understanding you correctly?

      Have you watched the award winning movie classic “Schindler’s List” which has one extended scene involving full frontal female nudity? (Jewish women being marched around in a concentration camp).

      Would that movie “not” be defined as pornography because the nudity depicted (emaciated Nazi concentration camp prisoners) does not cause sexual arousal?

      • The specific lines we draw that say “this over here is pornography and this over here is not” might help us begin to get a general idea about some things. However, if something in the “this is not pornography” area tempts me to stray from my Christian walk in some way, it is a problem even if it is something that no one would consider to be pornography.

        Rebecca, how do you think having a specific definition of pornography helps us live better lives? You have been asking others where they draw the lines. It might be more fruitful for you to ask yourself where you draw the lines that define pornography and how you can use that to walk more closely with Christ.

        • Rebecca on March 5, 2017 at 10:54 pm said:

          Thanks again Chris for replying.

          The identification problem that you referring to amply illustrates the fact that there is no objective standard for the word “pornography”. Since it means 1000 different things to a 1000 different people, then why use such the word “pornography” in the first place when speaking or writing since your audience doesn’t really know what you are referring to? Confusion leads to condemnation. You could be discussing about the perceived eroticism of the Miss Universe pageant and some in your audience might think that you are really talking about a “Debbie Does Dallas” illicit sex movie or an episode of their favorite rom-com movie.

          Let’s say that I want to avoid alcohol, for example. I can definitely learn the differences between beer, wine, whiskey, gin, bourbon and everclear. Or I can definitely learn the differences between heroin, marijuana, cocaine and extra strength tylenol. But we can’t do the same with pornography, can we? We can’t learn the differences in pornography because it’s all touchy-feely, “what-looks-like-porn-in-my-own-mind” definitions. You call it one thing, I call it another and we all think that we are touching the same part of the elephant while blindfolded.

          Why do you think that using a word that lacks coherence and definition is useful in helping us to live better lives? Incidentally, what is a better life? As for me, the word “pornography” is a defunct, brain-dead, intellectually dishonest term. I have no practical definition for it (and neither do you) so I do not use it. The term has no relevance to my life.

          Can we first agree to stop using the word “porn”? Then we can move beyond the confusion and angst and rationally discuss what constitutes responsible sexual media versus that which is irresponsible.

          You know, continuing to use a word that defies description or objectivity brings one thing and one thing only: legalism. And legalism brings condemnation. And there is no more condemnation in Christ Jesus.

          By the way, my walk with Christ is as close as it’s ever going to be — because, after, all, He lives inside of me. And it’s the same for you: If you are in Christ, you are always clean and close to Him. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can get any closer to Him than what Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice brought. All we can grow in is being more aware of our identity in Him.

        • I’d like to respond to a few of your points–but then I am done with discussing the specific boundaries of what counts as porn. This post does not hinge on a specific definition of pornography, so while I think it is interesting to consider and discuss, I don’t want to detract from the message here about the importance of connection in dealing with a sinful habit that a husband wants to quit.

          • I think the majority of my audience does know what pornography means–and even if their definition is different than mine, it doesn’t change the message of this post.
          • Condemnation? I am not offering condemnation here; rather, I am encouraging compassion. Confusion can lead to condemnation, I suppose, but that has nothing to do with this post. Besides, I don’t think most of my readers are confused about what I mean by pornography.
          • If you really want a definition, try this one from dictionary.com:

            sexually explicit videos, photographs, writings, or the like, whose purpose is to elicit sexual arousal.

          • If the term “pornography” had no relevance to your life, you wouldn’t be reading blog posts about pornography and insisting that others give you a definition.
          • The word “porn” is useful. Most people have an idea what it means. Even with very clear definitions, language is fluid. We all perceive words through the lenses of our own learning and experiences. If we used only words upon which everyone could agree completely, I would be silent. So would you. What, for instance, does “rational” mean?
          • “Sexually responsible media” is an interesting phrasing. It puts the focus on the producers of sexual content rather than the consumers, and it isn’t something I’ve given much thought to. Thank you for giving something new to mull over for a while.
          • Legalism? Condemnation? Just because I am using a word without giving a clear definition (because I don’t think one is necessary here)? I am not judging anyone here, nor am I challenging anyone’s salvation or expecting anyone to strictly adhere to specific laws.
          • How I experience my closeness with Christ has much to do with my heart and my perception of sin in my life. Walking close to Christ has much to do with my own journey in life. My walk may not actually bring me closer to Him, but it matters to me that I choose to walk close to Christ, letting my identity in Him guide me on my life’s journey.

          Comments that try to elicit a specific definition of pornography or that give examples of media that may or may not be porn are finished here. It is a worthy discussion and is certainly something we should have in our own marriages–but not here, please.

          I welcome more comments about how we can support our husbands who want to quite using whatever they perceive to be pornography.

      • Rebecca,
        I would not consider Schindler’s list pornography as it’s an isolated scene in a movie who’s context has nothing to do with sex. Very few people are likely to become aroused from this short scene in an otherwise distressing movie.

        I would consider anything that’s main topic is sexuality, depicting naked bodies and sexual activity by people the watcher isn’t married to as being pornographic. Isn’t it fair to say the point of using video rather than drawing or computer graphics is to produce arousal which will keep purchasers returning in much the same way porn does. The fact that the site labels itself as educational has nothing to do with it. There are videos about how to make drugs and other illegal things and that doesn’t make them worthy of watching.

        I do believe the intention is to titillate as evidenced by the gal smiling and stating “Welcome to my vagina”. Although the intro video is blurred and not fully shown, it would appear it’s showing her external genitalia as she says this and we know that the external genitalia isn’t her vagina.

        I really question how rubbing a touch screen, that has a flat surface and needs to be held in front of you to see what you’re doing, will help when that in no way resembles the way one would touch themselves because the angle is all wrong. If there actually is some perceived benefit to practicing rubbing a computer screen it could be done with a drawing just as easily. Even if a Christian woman could somehow justify in her mind that this is an acceptable teaching tool, I can’t see how you could justify for Christian men. They are to restrict their sexuality to their wives and such a site would make the virtually impossible. Do you disagree that men should restrict their sexuality to their wife only?

        What is your stake in this? You clearly have an agenda, so how about being upfront with us and sharing it?

  7. tjcox53 on March 5, 2017 at 6:49 am said:

    On the issue of what is porn, I can only speak for myself. For me it is any type of media visual,written or even implied that causes any sort of discontent within my MB. I think this can vary as to the person. My personal rule of thumb- if you have to ask the question, that alone is a good reason to avoid it.

    • Rebecca on March 5, 2017 at 3:30 pm said:

      That’s an interesting definition of porn tjcox53. However, it is far from being a universal, workable definition for everyone else, including we as Christian believers. Frankly, it smacks a little bit of moral relativism. But if that is your reality, then I respect it.

      Conversely, if some medium doesn’t cause discontent in the marital bed of others, you would agree then that it is not “porn” for them, correct?

  8. Rather than engage further on the debate of what porn is or is not, I would like to say that the larger point about human connection is absolutely true in my experience. For the larger part of my marriage (40+years) my wife an I have been largely like passing ships in the night. When I look back at the few times our schedules were fairly close to one another’s the desire for porn was greatly diminished. When we we both saw ourselves in these times as honoring God in our lives it was non-existent. In the last few months my desire has been low to non-existent, I think in no small part to my wife and I after many years, both actively growing in Christ, and actually working roughly the same schedule.

  9. Been there. on March 6, 2017 at 9:10 am said:

    Port addiction yes or no? After going through this with my hubby I would have to say for some YES it is. When you stop it cold turkey and have actual physical withdrawal symptoms…shakes, nausea, headaches, dull/foggy thought process, low grade fever…then yeah I would say it classifies. Not sure the frequency….at least a few times a week for 30+ years. And mostly “soft”. Now the question begs…which came first the “inappropriate visual images” ( I struggle to label some (most) of his weaknees PORN) or the emotional connection issues. Chicken/egg anyone? Now here is the kicker…I am the most sexual person I know. Frequency, adventure, enjoyment etc. etc.etc. Anytime, anywhere, anyway. That didn’t matter…his own words…..”sex with you takes mental energy I sometimes don’t have” . In other words with me he had to be engaged…with the computer not so much. As of now he has broken these bonds BUT he is EXTREMELY protective of his viewing habits.

    For other struggling wives…as long as he is showing signs of repentance or that he hates it and is struggling Don’t push him away. Draw him closer and LOVE him. My hubby said that made the biggest difference in his will to fight through it especially when it gor hard. He felt no judgement from me…just hope and faith in him. (And God).

    Now if he’s rude, dismissive and/or abusive that’s a whole different thing.

    • Thank you for sharing about how the lack of judgement from you made such a difference in supporting your husband’s efforts to quit. That is truly a lovely thing to hear.

  10. Dear Chris

    Nice post! Nice discussion in the comments too (though I only skimmed).

    I like your point that the addiction paradigm can be useful (whether it’s “true” or not). I agree completely: if it’s a helpful way to approach the problem (i.e., helps break the habit) then good. For me, I don’t like the medical language so I think in terms of habit, association, etc. The point is healing, and the language/approach is just a means to that end.

    On “What is porn?” (in some of the comments). I think it is in the eye of the beholder. Anything can be used as porn. The only person who really knows is the person with the “problem” and if they start getting legalistic it’s because they want to cheat. When I was a kid my “porn” was the ladies underwear section of the family catalogue.

    That all sounds a bit grumpy now I’ve written it. I am trying to keep away from porn of all kinds. Past my bedtime.

    David

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