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Saturday 10 October 2009

Can you really get 'addicted' to porn?

Posted in: Safe Sex
By Craig Young - 16th July 2009

In a recent self-selected poll on, over 20% of our readers answered 'Yes' to the question 'Do you think you are addicted to porn?'

So can porn really become a destructive influence on your life? Or is it just harmless fun? When is an 'addiction' not an addiction?

First, how does addiction occur? Behaviourally, when a powerful stimulus affects a person, she or he experiences a pleasurable rush of neurohormones called endorphins, which predispositions one to repeat the powerful stimulus over and over again. It only becomes problematic when the stimulus takes over someone's life.

For example, by itself, shopping is relatively benign. It becomes less so when one maxes out one's credit cards, doesn't pay rent, neglects food and drink and loses one's job or home under the influence of those bags full of goodies. I've used shopping as an imaginary example, because there is no such thing as "shopping addiction".

However, substance abuse and problem gambling can produce those effects. I'm not talking about someone who takes a spliff very occassionally, or buys a lotto ticket once a year, or has wine when he takes his boyfriend out to dinner. It can become a problem if exposure to that pleasurable stimulus overrides everything else in one's life. Moreover, these recognised addictions are recorded in the prestigious American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV, so they are accorded bona fide status.

Is there such a thing as "addiction" toward erotic entertainment media? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV, no. While some social conservative social scientists do believe in the 'existence' of such 'addiction,' and while the Christian Right continually cites the case of Ted Bundy, an executed serial killer who preyed on numerous hapless young women, who 'confessed' to Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the whole story isn't that simple. For example, Bundy was the child of an incestuous relationship and his grandfather was a highly dysfunctional and violent individual, according tobiographical accounts of his life. Isn't it logical that early and repeated exposure to dysfunctional family influences related to gender and sexuality facilitated his attacks on those poor young women?

Why can't smut be an overwhelming influence on one's life? For one thing, media effects scholarship suggests not. If that were the case, then repeated exposure to just one safe sex scene in gay erotic media storylines would permanently hardwire gay men not to take risks with their sexual health and avoid exposure to HIV/AIDS. Instead, HIV prevention theory suggests that there are a variety of behavioural and attitude factors that lead one to adopt, maintain (or ignore, relinquish and abandon) safe sex within one's life, and these background factors change with social attitudes toward homosexuality, degrees of stigmatisation or openness, increased or decreased social opportunities, and so on.

It is thus entirely possible that erotic entertainment media plays quite different roles in the lives of different generations of gay men. Indeed, it might be the case that younger generations of gay men have grown up with greater ranges of positive depictions of male homosexuality, and don't relate the same way as their older counterparts.

As for the theoretical frameworks behind 'smut addiction' theories, they are often crudely behaviouralist, and assume blithely that there is nothing to stop an overwhelming stimulus which then warps and distorts someone's consequent social behaviour. Granted, not all of these social conservative social scientists are completely without praiseworthy attributes. In Utah, Victor Cline has done excellent work preventing violence against women in abusive polygamous relationships, for example.

However, is the erotic entertainment genre really that powerful? Or is antisocial behaviour explained by a range of stimuli? Indeed, what about family violence, which we know is prevalent, only barely reported and high in actual incidence and frequency? Remember, latest data suggests that straight and gay male erotic entertainment industries have been badly hit by the recession. As for antiviolence feminists, I might also point out that if family violence is a logically greater influence in terms of fostering the 'acceptability' of violence against women, then their own noble work in its prevention takes on added significance.

Let's face facts. Smut is a relatively simplistic media genre. By itself, it can't produce positive or negative social results. Unfortunately, life, oppression or liberation aren't that simple.

Craig Young - 16th July 2009

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