Pornography use, moral incongruence and religiosity

Please forgive me for using this blog as an opportunity for a bit of a rant, but there’s something I need to get off my chest. Those of you that follow our blogs will know that we generally use this space to share additional information and advice on recovering from sex addiction and porn addiction and providing support for partners and couples, but there’s some research going around that needs to be challenged because it really doesn’t make sense.  

Those of you who follow the debates around sex and porn addiction may be aware of the growing body of research linking ‘moral incongruence’ and ‘religiosity’ with ‘perceived porn addiction’. This research has spawned a number of media articles claiming this as evidence that porn addiction does not exist but is a symptom of moral judgement and conscience, rather than a real problem. But to me, this is as sensical as 2+2=5!

The research comes to a number of conclusions, but the key findings are twofold. Firstly, religious people generally have more moral objections to pornography than non-religious people; and secondly, people who think pornography is morally wrong feel worse about their pornography use than people who don’t. One researcher in the US also found that people who morally objected to their own pornography use were more likely to use the term ‘porn addiction’ to describe their difficulty, though that conclusion was not replicated by similar research in Poland.

My question is this – am I the only one who thinks these conclusions are blindingly obvious?  Did we need academic researchers to tell us that people who continue to do something they think is morally wrong have a bigger issue with it then people who do something they think is OK? Whilst this research hasn’t been replicated with alcohol, there has been significant research showing Muslim communities are generally opposed to alcohol consumption and have negative attitudes towards its use. It’s just a hunch, but I think if you asked people who drink alcohol, in spite of thinking it’s wrong, how they felt about it – they would probably say they had a bigger issue than those who were not opposed to alcohol. I suspect some of them might also use the language of ‘dependence’ or ‘addiction’ if they’ve tried to stop using alcohol but have repeatedly failed. Just a hunch!! 

Does the research mean porn addiction doesn’t exist?

The short answer is ‘no’. This research does not disprove the existence of porn addiction. Indeed, the key author in this field, Joshua Grubbs an academic in the US, has never claimed porn addiction doesn’t exist, though like many, he’s not confident ‘addiction’ is an accurate term for the problem. And he doesn’t claim that the existence of, what some might call, the ‘worried well’, means that many others aren’t genuinely struggling.  So why are some people skewing and misrepresenting the research?  

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people, especially in the US, who use the research on porn addiction and the stories of those who struggle with the problem and their loved ones, to launch anti-porn campaigns. In particular, they use the growing body of neuroscience around pornography to incite fear and anxiety by claiming its proof that pornography is dangerous and damaging. They often talk as if using pornography will inevitably lead to addiction, and worse still, to sexual crime. Like those on the opposite side of the camp who claim porn addiction doesn’t exist at all, they skew and misrepresent the research. And it’s these two extremes that are causing so much confusion for the rest of us.

Whatever your views of pornography may be, it’s essential that we don’t use measures of morality for diagnosis, in the same that we wouldn’t use our moral views on alcohol to diagnose alcohol dependency. Whatever you feel about pornography, it is a fact that many millions of people use it without feeling any moral objection and without it causing any problems in their lives. Similarly, there are many people who drink alcohol recreationally, perhaps even too much at times, but they are not alcoholics. Prohibition in the US in the 20’s did not resolve alcoholism, and it’s unlikely prohibiting pornography, if indeed we wanted to or it was possible, would resolve porn addiction. 

I expect the controversy of sex addiction and porn addiction will continue, as will the misuse of research on both sides of the debate. All we can do is try to be the voice of reason within the extremes, and most importantly, focus on the needs of those who are seeking help, whatever their moral perspective may be.