Are Sex and Porn Addictive?

We’re pleased to welcome a new blogger. David J. Ley PhD. is an American clinical psychologist who practices in Albuquerque, NM. He is the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, writes a blog for Psychology Today, and is a frequent speaker on radio and television. His website is: http://Drdavidley.com

David J. Ley PhD
David J. Ley PhD

The cry “save kids from addictive porn” has resounded through Britain of late, part of the argument for restricting pornography access. The idea sounds sensible, at least at first. Like drugs or alcohol, porn (and sex in general) can feel really good. So, it seems to make intuitive sense that sex could be addictive in similar ways. Unfortunately, the idea of sex and porn addiction is merely an expression of human fears of sexuality, and is a concept which reflects the manipulative power of pop psychology and moral panics.

The idea of sex addiction first sprang into the American consciousness in the early 1980’s, when Patrick Carnes, a prison psychologist, first published a book where he related sexual behavior problems to the problems of alcoholics. He advocated for the use of 12-step treatments, like what is used in Alcoholics Anonymous. Carnes’ ideas caught fire and spawned an enormous industry in the United States, tapping into tremendous fears of sexuality, particularly aspects of male sexuality.

The idea of sex addiction took root in fertile soil, which had been fertilized by centuries of fear and sexual suppression. The ideas that masturbation itself could be unhealthy can be traced back centuries to European physicians, who argued that masturbation depleted men of crucial energy. We now understand that many of the problems blamed on masturbation and excessive sexuality, from mental health problems or blindness, were actually the result of untreated sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis or gonorrhea. But, for hundreds of years, physicians advocated against the dangers of too much sex or too much masturbation. Kellog’s cornflakes and Graham crackers were originally invented to be bland foods that wouldn’t “stimulate” physical passions or lead to sexual arousal. Throughout history, societies go through periods of changing attitudes towards sex, from more liberal “free love” attitudes towards conservative times when sexual expression is restricted. Fear-based ideas such as sex addiction or nymphomania arise in times and societies that are attempting to suppress or control sexuality. Sadly, the medical field has often been an instrument of this control.

Historically, women suffered the most from these danger moral medical practices, where women diagnosed as nymphomaniacs were institutionalized, lobotomized, or had their clitorises removed, when doctors determined that these women liked sex too much (as much as men for instance). The diagnosis of nymphomania was finally abandoned and rejected as the medical field acknowledged that these diagnoses were based on culturally-determined gender stereotypes, not on medical or scientific data. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey said it best, when he quipped that “a nymphomaniac is anyone who has more sex than their therapist.”

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But today, it’s men’s turn. According to most studies, alleged sex addicts are overwhelmingly male. Between 85-92% of most “sex addicts” are men. There are two main reasons for this: first, the idea of sex addiction came to the fore at the same time that American media and society made a shift in the way that gender was regarded. For centuries, masculinity was seen as the ideal. Medical textbooks focused on male physiology, and females were ignored. Men were seen as smarter, and more valuable. But, beginning in the 1980’s, masculinity became a figure of ridicule. Men were increasingly portrayed as buffoons, subject to the whims of their penises. Penises themselves are most often portrayed as objects of humor, rather than sexual objects comparable to female genitalia. Men today are seen as less moral than women, and male sexual desires are seen as baser, deficient, and dangerous.

Gender differences in sexual desire, attitudes and values are clear. Men masturbate more than women, use pornography more frequently, are more likely to be interested in fetishistic sexual practices, engage in infidelity more, visit prostitutes more, and are more likely to be interested in casual sex. All of these behaviors have been regarded as symptoms of sexual addiction, when they actually reflect sexual differences between men and women. The field of sex addiction has served to attack (and excuse) male sexuality for the past thirty years. Historically, powerful men throughout history have enjoyed sexual privilege that included a “hall pass” from monogamy. But, as social views of masculinity changed, powerful men caught in infidelity needed something to blame. The idea that sex is addictive and a powerful drug became a convenient scapegoat, which actors, politicians and sports figures used to excuse their misbehaviors.

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The second reason why sex addiction is focused on men lies again in the time when sex addiction emerged. The early 1980’s saw the rise of AIDS. With the AIDS crisis, unrestrained male sexuality, and in particular male homosexuality, was seen as not just a moral inconvenience, but a potential life-threatening behavior that endangered men and those around them. Today, studies show that gay and bisexual men are about three times more likely to be labeled as sex addicts, than they are to be diagnosed with mental health or drug and alcohol problems.

But, despite thirty years of public acceptance and media embrace of the idea that sex is addictive, sexual addiction is not a diagnosable illness. Medical and psychiatric industries have consistently rejected this concept, as based on moral and cultural values, with little to no scientific basis. Repeatedly, over the past years, proponents of sex addiction have been chastised for poor science, based on anecdote, rather than defensible empirical scientific research.

And yet, the idea that sex is addictive remains a powerful myth in modern society, because of its usefulness. Media and moral groups use this idea to invoke fear, tapping into normal human sexual anxiety. The idea that porn is addictive was used by religious groups to ban Playboy from the shelves of convenience stores, and is used today to invoke fear that childhood exposure to porn can create uncontrollable and damaging addictions.

Sex and porn, can cause problems in people’s lives, just like any other human behavior or form of entertainment. But, to invoke the idea of “addiction” is unethical, using invalid, scientifically and medically-rejected concepts to invoke fear and feed panic. The history of the idea of sex addiction should be a cautionary tale to modern British society – whenever this ploy is used, its intent is to restrict sexual freedoms, based on conservative social philosophies.

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14 thoughts on “Are Sex and Porn Addictive?”

  1. We really need to stop intellectualising this and apply some common sense; we have sex hormones and do not control their release, our biology and anatomy clearly indicate a body that has evolved to take pleasure in sex, and our closest living relative, the Bonobo, has sex up to 10 times per day. Most people just do not have sex as much as their natural sex drive demands – if they did, porn would be a very niche product.

    Our need to categorise everything to the Nth degree is our own worse enemy; are there such things as “Sex Addicts” or “Porn Addicts”? Sure, just as there are “Workaholics” and “Shopaholics”. However, you won’t often see the latter two demonised in the media as they prop the economy up. I’m confident that one would yield the same results from an “eBay rewires your brain” study as the results of the many “porn rewires your brain” studies.

    By focusing on the outlets of compulsive behaviours – gambling, porn, shopping, sex, work, drugs, social networking, TV, fitness and nutrition, etc – and applying stigmas to some but not others, we will forever find it hard to address the underlying issues. Ironically, it appears that what drives some researchers is the very same behaviour they are studying – did they ever feel guilty for ignoring a loved one while writing their paper? Did they ever feel as though the research was becoming an obsession? If so, they may just have an “addiction”…..

    Anyway, some good points raised by David, particularly in the context of gender.

  2. I agree with GoodNate but I understand it is still necessary to intellectualise reasons in defence of this allegation

    If opinions on sex and porn addiction are left uncontested they can easily become enshrined in the belief they must be true by those who may not understnd or prefer it to be the ideal excuse or weapon for the pro censorship and anti porn lobby to exploit so thanks to David Ley for this intelligent and articulate response on this topic

  3. The concept of sex addiction is nonsense. The vast majority of heterosexual males would behave the same way as the rich and famous men who are said to have it if they had their money and their opportunities. I freely admit I would. Any heterosexual male of normal desires who denies it is a fool or a liar.

  4. On this basis no psychiatric illness is diagnosable. It’s all a matter of opinion.
    I met Patrick Carnes 25 years ago. I was impressed by him then and I still am. Sex and love addiction is an illness of the human spirit, as are all other forms of addictive or compulsive behaviour. They resolve, one day at a time, with treatment of the spirit – giving hope.
    In my experience of treating over 5,000 inpatients suffering from one or another form of addiction, there are as many women as men suffering from sex and love addiction – and they suffer the same catastrophic consequences.

  5. Gary Wilson, in his TED Talk “The Great Porn Experiment” would disagree and, unlike Dr. Ley, offers some data to back up his claims. I suggest anyone interested in the topic look into his research.

  6. The above is mostly a load of rubbish. Yes there are a lot of men and celebs who use sex addiction as an excuse but that’s because people don’t know what it’s really about. Clearly this “psychologist” has never studied what causes sex addiction. For one, my sister has this addiction and she is female which he doesn’t address at all. If he needs a proper education then read this book which explains where it comes from and what can cause it. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0985761806/ref=redir_mdp_mobile/190-2375144-5188041

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