What is pornography addiction?
When I was growing up and as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints anyone who views pornography is essentially labeled as a pornography addict.
I’ve talked about my experience with the Addiction Recovery Program or ARP that I attended in both Wisconsin and California. I have talked about why I don’t believe in the idea that most people are pornography addicts. In episode 54 I covered in-depth how believing you’re an addict is basically a self-fulfilling prophesy that creates more harm than good.
But I want to take a moment and talk about what I believe we mean when we say that we are addicted to porn and how changing the narrative around this pervasive idea will do more good for those who engage in viewing pornography than continuing with the current narrative that they are porn addicts.
As members of the Church, we often talk about pornography in absolute terms. Either you’re addicted or you’re sober.
Based on the way that I have observed others discuss the issue, being a pornography addict means that you are experiencing arousal while using graphic media. This media depicts the bodies of men or women in any state of dress. They could be fully clothed, wearing bathing suits or standard underwear, all the way up to and including the most graphic sexual imagery.
This is my observation, so, I could be wrong or misperceiving the intent of others as they speak about this. But, I think, after having spoken openly about pornography for so many years now, I’ve gathered some sense of the issues.
This definition is problematic, for a few reasons. First being, this definition is so broad and encompasses so much that it would be hard for anyone who wanted to purchase a nice bathing suit for their spouse not to identify as a pornography addict because they found the swimsuit models attractive.
This definition pathologizes into addiction the sexual arousal of a teen boy (or grown man for that matter) merely noticing the beauty of another person depicted in media.
It makes us bad, simply for seeing something that we might find attractive on some level for some reason.
The problem with that is, as humans, we all experience the reality of noticing the beauty of another person at some point. I think that most people have even experienced a sense that they might want to have an intimate relationship with someone because of that noticed beauty.
Unfortunately, when we define sexual addiction or pornography addiction in this way, it loads so much meaning onto our shoulders that it becomes nearly impossible to carry in a healthy or meaningful way.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I want to be clear, I am not advocating for us to swing all the way to the other side and stop using judgment to determine what appropriate media we want to view in our lives.
But, if we can redefine pornography addiction, in some small way to lighten that burden, I believe that would be the most valuable thing we could do to decrease pornography viewing in the lives of those who struggle.
When we speak about pornography addiction, I think that we are actually talking about experiential avoidance. I use the term buffering as well, but Experiential avoidance is the term that I think best describes what is really happening.
I’ve worked with thousands of men and women, individually and in the membership, each of whom started to realize one thing when they dropped the idea that they were addicted to pornography. What they realized is, that they were avoiding something and pornography was the thing that was helping them do it.
Simple questions like, “what were you feeling in the 5 to 10 minutes before you choose to view pornography?” provide the insight that I needed and that my clients need to dial in on their mental state and understand why they chose pornography.
The answers are unique to each individual and their specific situation, but a clear pattern emerges over time for each person.
For me, my pattern was that I did not like feeling alone or lonely. As a result, my brain would lead me down a path that would help me avoid the discomfort of loneliness.
Think about your own pattern. Does it happen in the late hours of the evening as you try to avoid feeling drowsy or tired? Do you choose pornography rather than deal with the discomfort of studying? Is your brain offering you arousal to help ease the discomfort of feeling overweight?
When pornography is contrary to our moral values and we still choose it, the most likely reason is that we are using it to avoid an unpleasant, difficult, or anxious feeling.
There is some really great research to back up this idea. But, this new way of looking at pornography addiction probably resonates with you in a way that is more meaningful than anything an article in the journal Science could tell you.
I know it is easier to say that someone is addicted to pornography, than it is to say, “my husband is engaging in experiential avoidance because when he feels stressed he hasn’t learned how to properly or effectively engage with his emotions.”
This narrative change is, however, the kind of change that helps people change the narrative in their own minds.
If the culture and people around you believe something, you are more likely to believe that thing, regardless of its objective truthfulness.
So, let’s dissect that for a moment. If people around me believe that pornography is everything from the JCP catalog to videos of people actually engaging in sex acts, then I’m more likely to believe it. If people around me believe that viewing those materials means a person is addicted to them, regardless of how often they are viewed or for what purpose, then I’m more likely to believe it.
If the people around me believe that being an addict means that I’m broken, irredeemable, or unworthy and that I will always have this addiction, no matter how long ago it was that I last chose to engage with it, then I’m more likely to believe it.
And if I believe that I am always going to be an addict and that the rest of my life will be one of constant vigilance against an ever-present reality of beautiful people in print, social media, television, and movies then what do you guys think that everyone believes about my chances to actually eliminate pornography addiction from my life?
I would think that most people would see that as hopeless…
I certainly would.
This, my friends, is why I push back so much when people think that a habit of viewing pornography in order to avoid feeling discomfort, anxiety, or loneliness is a pornography addiction.
Because it is hopeless. It feels hopeless. It is insurmountable because bodies are not going to get more clothing, they are going to get less. Magazines are not going to get less provocative, they are going to push for more. Social media is not going to make its algorithms send things that aren’t interesting, they are going to send the things that we click on, that we watch more and that we seek out.
So, if you believe that you are addicted to pornography, my question to you is, what value, what good, what hope is that bringing into your life?
Because addiction is outside our control, there is little we can do to prevail against it.
But, when I learn that I buffer or avoid the experience of feeling my feelings because I’ve never learned how to properly engage with them, then I have a direction, a place to go, a hope of learning a skill that other people know. I can practice a skill. I don’t have to be endlessly vigilant, I have to get a new habit of how to deal with my discomfort.
That, may not be as simple as saying, my wife’s addicted to porn. Or my husband’s a porn addict. But it is more true. It feels more hopeful. And it is pointing in a direction that you can travel, rather than sitting you in a place of stuck victimhood.
So, if you are listening to this and you can, try taking the words porn addict out of your vocabulary.
If you hear someone say, pornography addiction, as kindly as you can, help them understand that isn’t a helpful idea. Have them listen to this podcast if you can.
We can change the narrative. You can start the change from where you are.