(Author's note: Pornography and avuncular billionaire investors don't usually seem to have much in common. Just the same, in this post we explain why we think Warren Buffet's 1992 dissection of a complicated business topic has much to teach about how to cut through the noise of today's debates over porn addiction. Happy reading!)
Fans of good writing and clear thinking treasure Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. Combining folksy wisdom with razor-sharp analysis, Buffett’s letters deliver a master class in distilling sense from an often chaotic and contradictory modern (business) culture. We count ourselves among Buffett’s devotees.
Twenty five years ago, the “Sage of Omaha” dedicated a significant portion of his annual missive to the not-so-exciting-sounding subject of stock option accounting. The issue back then (and possibly still today - we’re not experts), was whether to account for options as an expense to the company that granted them. Buffett lamented that somehow business leaders had convinced their accountants that options shouldn't be treated as an expense item by arguing that options values could be difficult to quantify. It didn’t hurt that by excluding options from expense, companies could compensate those same executives richly without affecting the bottom line by even a penny.
Buffett thought all of this was hogwash. He called the effort to label options as something other than an expense “[t]he most egregious case of let’s-not-face-up-to-reality behavior” in the business world. Just because options didn’t represent “dollars out of a company’s coffers,” they were still items of value the company used to pay for services. No doubt with his trademark impish grin, Buffett offered to sell insurance from Berkshire (then its core business) to any executive who subscribed to this “no cash no cost” theory, and to accept payment in long term stock options in the executive’s company.
Buffett also pressed a trenchant point about the complexities of modern (business) life. “[I]t is both silly and cynical”, he wrote, “to say that an important item of cost should not be recognized simply because it can't be quantified with pinpoint precision.” Buffet's point was that just because imprecision and variability abound in the modern world doesn’t mean reasonable people can’t make reasonable judgments. Their estimates might be off at the margins, conceded Buffett, but no more so than as with other routine estimates of value, such as fixing the cost of a depreciating asset.
Buffett made his closing argument on the topic of option accounting in two remarkable paragraphs. We quote them here in full because, well, they're just great:
"It seems to me that the realities of stock options can be summarized quite simply: If options aren't a form of compensation, what are they? If compensation isn't an expense, what is it? And, if expenses shouldn't go into the calculation of earnings, where in the world should they go?
The accounting profession and the SEC should be shamed by the fact that they have long let themselves be muscled by business executives on the option-accounting issue. Additionally, the lobbying that executives engage in may have an unfortunate by-product: In my opinion, the business elite risks losing its credibility on issues of significance to society - about which it may have much of value to say - when it advocates the incredible on issues of significance to itself."
Ok. Ok. Now that you’ve indulged our rhapsodizing on Warren Buffett’s wisdom, we’ll explain why we think this matters. As observers of the pornography and porn-related treatment landscape, we’re frequently amazed at how often commentators use the complexity of the topic to elide some basic realities about porn. How many times have we read critiques that conclude that we can’t yet categorize porn as a vector for addiction because it's hard to define precisely what constitutes porn, or because porn affects different people in different ways, or because porn occupies an culturally controversial position at the confluence of empiricism and moral suasion? Some pundits argue that we can’t treat porn as potentially addictive because then that would mean that anything pleasurable - like looking at pictures of cute bunny rabbits - could also be addictive. Others insist that since withdrawing from porn can’t kill you, it can’t be addictive.
And yet, isn't that all a version of the hogwash Buffett so ably exposed in 1992? Let's cut through the noise, Buffett-style. Reasonable people can agree, more or less, what constitutes media created and intended to be pornography. The vast majority of people who consume that porn do so to get sexually aroused. Porn producers design their product to serve that purpose. The most successful porn induces the most consistent and intense sexual arousal. Sexual arousal is a powerful, primordial, frequently overwhelming state of excitement and pleasure.
In short, to borrow from Warren Buffett, if modern (internet) porn isn’t a highly potent stimulant, then what is it? If highly potent stimulants aren’t vectors of addiction, then what are? If porn can’t be counted among the highly potent stimulants around which addictions arise, then where can it be categorized?
We revere Buffett’s observations about options accounting because they model clear thinking in an age of “silly and cynical” grandstanding. Obfuscation and opportunism cloud the porn debate today as much as they did the stock options controversy in 1992. Now, as then, we need more people to step up and point out the obvious: that modern (internet) porn is a product offered for consumption, that porn is expressly designed to pack a stimulative wallop that keeps consumers coming back for more, and that, because of these traits, addictive behaviors grow around consuming porn. Commenters who ignore these basic realities “risk losing [their] credibility” by “advocat[ing] the incredible on issues of significance” not just to themselves, but to every man, woman and child on the planet.
Last year, Utah adopted a resolution declaring pornography a “public health crisis.” So did the Republican Party in last year's platform. Recently, similar resolutions have cleared legislative hurdles in four more state legislatures - Virginia, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Arkansas. “Porn as a public health crisis” has all the makings of a political movement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effort to label porn a “public health crisis” has fostered controversy. Look around the internet and you’ll find articles in favor of and opposed to treating porn as a public health issue. Beyond the usual (puzzling) disconnect between the “pro” and “con” camps over the growing scientific evidence regarding porn’s ill effects, the debate seems at least in part driven by the fact that “public health crisis” has no uniform definition. But, despite our well-established linguistic inclinations, we’re not going to wade into that morass here.
Instead, today we want to focus on the political side of the ledger. So far as we can tell, all of the state lawmakers who have thus far introduced measures on “porn as a public health crisis” have been Republicans. Republicans also hold the majority the lawmaking bodies in all five states that have taken up these measures. Some Democrats have voted in favor of the resolutions in the states where they’ve come to a vote, and have served as undercard sponsors of the measures. But, we are not aware of a single Democrat (or Independent) who has been the principal champion of a “porn as a public health crisis” measure to date.
That's unfortunate. As we’ve written in the past, pornography ignores political affiliation. Problematic porn use (call it addiction, compulsivity, hypersexuality, etc.) is widespread, and it lays waste to the lives of people across the political spectrum. The widely-reported effects of porn’s production, distribution, and consumption, such as human trafficking, sexual violence, and sexual disfunction, have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. These are deeply human issues that demand the attention and action of every citizen.
So, why are Republicans occupying the field when it comes to introducing measures addressing porn’s effects? One simple reason could be that Republicans dominate a large majority of state legislatures nationwide. The “porn as a public health crisis” measures that have passed so far are not “law” in the sense of dictating executive policy or action. They are statements of factual findings and broad principles, and rarely face significant opposition - the sort of measures that tend to sail through legislatures dominated by one party. Also, the base of the “anti-pornography” movement has historically lived on the political right. So, it might not be surprising if the impetus for the “porn as a public health crisis” initiative comes from conservative quarters.
Still, that doesn’t quite explain why a Democrat hasn’t yet stepped up to champion one of these measures, not even in a legislature where Democrats are in the majority. After all, fears about the effects of porn are no longer predominately the domain of right-leaning conservatives. The internet has transformed the landscape. What was once a relatively inaccessible, taboo product is now available for free, in unlimited quantities, twenty-four hours per day, on any screen, to anyone, anywhere. Porn demand, production and consumption have exploded and are evolving at a furious pace. With that explosion, the reasons for concern over porn’s effects continue to grow. There’s cause for alarm for everyone, no matter their politics, gender, faith, or sexual orientation.
We think the explanation for the political left's relative absence from the "porn as a public health crisis" movement (from which we're excluding the subject of "revenge porn", which is not porn so much as a form of assault and invasion of privacy) instead lies in some unfortunate and longstanding habits of American political culture. Though porn is a universal issue, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the text of the resolutions that have passed statehouses so far. Somewhere along the line, partisan buzzwords crept into these measures, all but ensuring that they would be perceived by a weary and cynical public as extensions of our polarized - and paralyzed - politics. Democrats, we suspect, have followed suit.
Here’s what we mean. The measures that have passed cover the gamut of concerns posed by modern porn, and employ the reassuringly secular terminology of “public health." That's all good. But, they also employ language distinctive of the conservative side of the “culture wars” that have dominated U.S. politics for generations. For example, the measures focus disproportionately on pornography’s effects on heterosexuals, and warn that porn leads to “deviant sexual arousal,” which many left-leaning readers will interpret as antagonism toward homosexuality and other sexual minorities. The measures place asymmetric emphases on how porn may affect one gender or the other, which, likewise, will be seen as patriarchal and an invasion of the privacy of our bedrooms. And, though they rightly decry that porn has become a de facto form of sex education, the measures risk being seen as hypocritical in failing to acknowledge how inadequate public health education may drive porn demand.
Please don’t get us wrong. We’re not necessarily endorsing these critiques. If Democrats were pushing “porn as a public health crisis” measures in statehouses using their own historical culture war vocabulary (often received as an affront to conservatives’ religious beliefs and commitment to family values), that, too, would be unhelpful. Our commentary here is on the tendency of political partisans of all stripes to shoot themselves in the foot when an issue evolves beyond its historical sphere of focus and requires broader political attention.
We do not doubt not that the authors of “porn as a public health crisis” measures choose their words carefully, nor do we question whether they hold their views genuinely and in good faith. They do. But it’s time for a little realpolitik. We live in a highly toxic political era. Once we occupy a political camp, the language we employ to express our views risks alienating the other half of the country. So it is with Republican-sponsored "porn as a public health crisis” measures. By salting their well-intended legislation with culture war tropes, legislators are playing directly into the inaccurate and demeaning (to all involved) perception that the only people paying attention to the negative effects of porn are religious conservatives in the throes of a full-fledged “moral panic.”
That’s not a good thing. If “porn as a public health crisis” and similar measures continue to be seen as a uniquely Republican venture, the issue will fall victim to political paralysis and we will all be the worse for wear. We encourage Democrats and Republicans and Independents to sponsor measures raising awareness about porn’s effects that use non-polarizing language that emphasizes universal themes everyone’s constituents can agree on.
The stakes are too high to be playing politics over porn any longer.
It’s been reported that religious people are more likely to experience distress about their porn use than non-religious people who use porn. Why? One common answer is that religion teaches that porn use is wrong and to be avoided, and so religious people feel distress over their transgression of those teachings. But is that answer sufficiently nuanced to account for the entire difference between religious and non-religious porn users? Let’s dig deeper.
(The normal caveat applies - this is a huge topic and our perspective is limited by our learning and experience. Polite, thoughtful comments are encouraged.)
Research has established that non-religious porn users also experience distress over their porn use. (For a comprehensive review of porn use statistics, see Barna Group’s “The Porn Phenomenon”, available here.) Let’s assume that this baseline group of porn users will experience distress over porn use for reasons that are completely independent of their religiosity. (This is just an assumption, of course. It’s possible that there’s no overlap between the reasons non-religious porn users in the baseline group feel distress and the reasons religious porn users in the baseline group feel distress. But, we doubt it.) Let’s also assume that religious and non-religious people use porn in basically the same ways and for the same reasons. (Barna's statistics largely bear this out.)
Given these assumptions, our focus is on the extra, religiously-observant porn users who reportedly feel distress compared to non-religious porn users, even though they’re all using porn the same way. Why is that extra distress happening?
To answer that question, we think it’s useful to identify three variables at play in people’s reaction to their own porn use: recognition of a behavioral norm (recognizing that certain porn use is wrong), awareness of transgression of a behavioral norm (knowing you’ve done wrong by certain porn use), and degree of distress about that transgression (how bad you feel about having done wrong by certain porn use). Further, we propose that the difference in feelings of distress between religious and non-religious porn users could have something to do with each of these variables.
The easy answer to why religious people feel more distress over their porn use relies heavily on the first of these variables. The argument goes, in short, that religions impose rules on their adherents that do not apply to non-believers. (Think, for example, of dietary restrictions that bar consumption of certain foods.) The reasoning is that since religion imposes norms relating to porn use that aren’t recognized universally, then the simple fact that religious people have more rules to break regarding porn than non-religious people leads to higher distress rates. That’s certainly a facile explanation. But is it sufficiently correct?
Maybe, but we doubt it. We think instead that other, more universal, norms come into play when religious people report distress over their porn use.
Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that religious doctrine added nothing to the body of universal norms that influence our perceptions of porn use. That is, imagine everybody in the world shared exactly the same views on when and why certain porn use is wrong. Which group - religious or non-religious - would you expect to be more aware that their own porn use transgressed a universal norm? We think it would be religious people. Why? Because, among other things, religious practice serves an educational function in society. People go to church and listen to lessons. Religious institutions engage in social commentary. Religious people, in other words, are more likely than non-religious people to be exposed to commentary and discussion about norms of behavior.
We think this is especially true when it comes to porn. In the public debates over porn use, religious organizations account for a sizable portion of the publicity of negative impacts of pornography, such as links between pornography and sexual violence, human trafficking, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. Whatever the religious motive of those institutions in disseminating this information, if you are religious you are more likely to be exposed to it. And to be exposed to information about how certain porn use transgresses universal, social norms is to be aware of having potentially transgressed those norms yourself when you use porn. So, some distress by porn users who are religious likely results from their heightened awareness of how certain porn use transgresses not just religious norms, but also universally accepted societal norms.
So, let’s ask a final question: which do you think a religious person is more likely to feel a higher degree of distress over - breaking a rule that only members of that religion share (“certain porn use offends our God”), or breaking a rule that is universal (“certain porn use harms you and others”)? We don’t have a clear answer to this one. But we do have a few observations. In our experience, the large religions provide not only a system of rules to follow, but also a promise of redemption. Everybody sins and the Divine forgives. People find comfort in this cycle of transgression and forgiveness - it’s what draws many to religion in the first place. Because of these beliefs, religious people have a basis for feeling less distressed than their non-religious peers about transgressing norms of behavior. After all, the certainty of Divine forgiveness takes some of the edge off of messing up.
However, transgressing a universal norm of behavior may result more than just spiritual consequences. Certain porn use can result in relationship difficulties and job loss, not to mention the previously-mentioned societal harms like violence and trafficking. It seems reasonable to surmise that a religious person might be inclined to feel greater distress over a behavior that has both spiritual and tangible impacts, as compared one that is constrained by religious doctrine alone.
Our two cents here is that religious people probably feel more distress about their porn use than non-religious people because they’re much more attuned than non-religious people to all of the potential harms of their porn use. Some of those perceived harms may be unique to their religious beliefs, and that may lead to additive distress. But we suspect that to a greater extent, religious people are simply more aware of information supporting the view that certain porn use is universally harmful, so that when they use porn, they are more likely to feel the full weight of its impact.
PornHelp.org turns one year old today. It’s not a huge milestone in the grand scheme of things, but for us it feels nonetheless like a good moment to reflect briefly on what we’ve achieved, lessons we’ve learned, and our goals for PornHelp’s next year(s).
We started PornHelp with a simple mission: to clear, current, create a comprehensive reference for people looking for help quitting porn. That mission was grounded in real and painful experience. Several years ago, we went looking for help quitting porn. But, back then, online resources were scattered, vague and beyond our cultural, geographic, and economic circumstances. Nothing we found collected and explained our options for finding help quitting porn in a clear, neutral, non-judgmental way.
We failed to find the help we needed back then, and as a result our compulsive porn use continued to consume our lives. Our actions caused pain and loss, and hurt everyone we loved. We didn’t want others who were lonely, scared, and desperate to quit porn to encounter the trouble finding help that we did. So, we founded PornHelp in hopes of preventing others from following in our footsteps.
One year on, there’s reason to conclude our mission is on the right track. If our web host’s analytics are accurate, in our first year over 14,000 “unique visitors” accessed PornHelp. Even if only a tiny fraction of those visitors came to the site seeking help for their or someone else’s porn use issues, we count that as a success. (If you’re one of those people, please let us know - we love feedback!) Concurrently, our visibility on the web has grown. We continue to rise in Google results for searches related with quitting porn, helped along by fellow members and organizations in the porn recovery community who have generously linked our site to theirs. We have also grown a healthy following for our Twitter account (@PornHelpdotorg), which tweets current news and issues relevant to our mission. And, we regularly respond to requests for help sent directly to us and via online forums.
There have been growing pains, too. We have found, to our surprise, that there is a vocal minority of mental health professionals who mock the existence of pornography addiction and doubt the legitimacy of people's struggles with porn. This has been disheartening, not just because the evidence of compulsive, destructive porn use is overwhelming and heartbreaking, but also because when examined, these critics’ objections to the “addiction model” tend to be far more nuanced and esoteric than their attention-grabbing proclamations would suggest. We’ve written about the “controversy” these critics have stirred up in some of the blog posts below.
In the year ahead, PornHelp will continue to focus on its primary mission of helping people find the resources they need to address their problem porn use. Our hope remains to someday establish an around-the-clock toll-free hotline or chat feature on our site, so that people struggling can make an instant, anonymous, judgment- free connection with another human being who understands their pain. For now, though, we here at PornHelp remain committed to providing the most helpful resource we can to pornography users who have reached the end of their rope and need reassurance that they are not alone.
Thanks to all who have supported PornHelp’s mission so far. To our second year and beyond!
Today we hope to open a discussion about porn and religion. (PornHelp neither endorses nor opposes any religious doctrine - see our statement here). This is a huge topic. Many of its facets exceed the scope of our learning and insight. So, we’re going to throw some thoughts out there and ask our readers to weigh in. Hopefully, you all will.
We resolved to try and tackle this topic after tweeting an opinion piece from a Minneapolis newspaper which makes impassioned and overtly religious arguments about the dangers of pornography use. We shared the piece because it appeared in a large-circulation publication in a major American metro area, and because the author spoke about his firsthand experience counseling young men struggling with problematic pornography use. Whether or not our readers shared the author’s religious sensibilities, we thought his piece made a worthwhile contribution to the public discussion.
Soon after we tweeted the piece, we became aware of criticism of that same article by skeptics of pornography addiction. What struck us about these criticisms was that they pointed, among other things, to the author’s religious bona fides as evidence of his lack of credibility. We’ve seen this before. Some critics dismiss concerns about porn’s impact on individuals and society at large as “moral panic”. They tend to discount individuals’ reports of problem porn use as largely driven by religion-induced shame. And, they count the pornography counseling efforts of faith leaders like the author in the piece we shared as misguided, and potentially harmful to their parishioners insofar as religious beliefs may lead them to diagnose porn use problems where none exist.
These objections raise some issues we find interesting, including the role religion does play, and ought to play, in the public discussion of pornography, how religion influences pornography use and feelings about its use, and the considerations in addressing problem pornography use through a religion-inspired lens.
Like we said, all really huge topics. So, we’re going to try to tackle this in bite-sized chunks.
Today, we start by offering up some basic statistics. These figures show (perhaps unsurprisingly) that religion and pornography both play a large role in American public and private life. (For the time being, we limit our discussion to pornography use and religion in America, because most research on the topic has studied U.S. porn users). They also lead to some baseline conclusions that we invite others to discuss and expand upon in the comments section.
Some statistics about religion in American life
According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, approximately 77% of the U.S. population identified itself as religiously affiliated, with the vast majority (70.6% of the total U.S. population) identifying as Christian (including Catholic), and the remainder consisting of small minorities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and various other religions.
Among the 23% of non-religiously affiliated Americans, the bulk (15.8% of the U.S. population) were noncommittal about identifying with an organized religions (though roughly half of those considered themselves religious, but merely unaffiliated), while the remainder were evenly split between self-identified agnostics and atheists.
Religion occupies a “very important” place in the life of just over half of all Americans. A large majority of Americans considers religion at least “somewhat important” in their lives.
Some statistics about pornography use in America
Pornography, defined broadly as material designed and used to stimulate sexual arousal and aid masturbation (which we equate to Potter Stewart’s “know it when I see it” standard for obscenity), is a fixture of American life, too.
According to an exhaustive survey of American pornography viewing habits and attitudes released last year by the private polling firm Barna Group (available here), 33% of all Americans, male and female, seek out porn at least monthly, 20% of all Americans seek it out at least weekly, and 6% of all Americans seek it out daily. Men comprise the greater portion of porn users. 11% of Americans males 13 and over (that’s roughly 12 million male teens and adults) use porn daily. Over half (roughly 60 million) use it at least monthly. 1% of American females 13 and over (roughly 1.4 million female teens and adults) use porn daily, and 7% (roughly 10 million) use it weekly. The vast majority of users consume porn via the internet. Personal sexual arousal is the most often cited reason for using pornography (accounting for 2/3 of men, and over 1/2 of women).
According to Barna, pornography use is higher among non-Christians than Christians, though the degree of difference in porn use habits between those groups may be difficult to pin down, given the potential for underreporting of porn use among Christians. Indeed, many of the numbers cited above, though collected by reputable organizations with long track records, risk some softness around the edges. What it means for religion to be “very important” will vary across survey participants, for example. That said, they’re the best numbers we could find thus far. If others want to cite different statistics, please do so in the comments.
Looking at these raw numbers leads us to a few conclusions. First, given the prevalence of religious faith and pornography use in America, it seems logical that Americans should demand that their religious leaders weigh in on the topic of pornography use. Porn use is just too common of a human activity in this day and age to expect otherwise. Second, given the central role that American religious institutions stand to play in the public discussion of pornography, it seems important that they be well-informed and disseminate accurate and useful information and guidance. We would expect that guidance to encompass practical and spiritual considerations, and that it should therefore be grounded in both scientific fact and religious doctrine. (The turbulent confluence of these veins of guidance, we suspect, is the crux of the issue for many critics of religious counseling about porn.) Third, given the first two conclusions, it seems to us both illogical and counterproductive to use a person’s standing in the religious community, alone, as a basis for criticizing his expression of views about pornography. We should fully expect, and encourage, institutions that play an “important” role in the majority of Americans’ lives to participate in the public discussion of pornography. After all, if the numbers show anything, it’s that neither religion nor pornography is going away anytime soon.
This is a topic that begs for discussion. Thoughtful comments welcome.
We tweeted out two articles today, here and here, that are worth reading. One focuses on the stories of two men in Oregon who struggle with porn use, and how they’ve begun to tackle their problem. The other discusses pornography addiction from the point of view of mental health counselors in California. We like these stories because they reach a similar, and important, conclusion about the importance of connecting with other people as a first step to addressing problematic porn use.
People who struggle with porn use have a hard time asking for help. It’s embarrassing to admit that porn has taken control. Often, it feels like the only people trusted enough to keep a porn use problem secret are also the ones who would be most hurt by the revelation. And, for many, porn is a crutch, a shield against negative emotions that feel impossible to face.
We know that struggle firsthand. We lived the delusion of problem porn use. We made attempts to find help for years, only to give up again and again when it seemed too risky to reveal ourselves in an online forum, too painful to reveal our problem to loved ones, too impossible to get away from our lives to a treatment center or faraway therapist, too alien to talk to a faith leader outside of our background. It didn’t occur to us that “sex addiction” groups could help us, or that 12-step groups for people dealing with other addictions would welcome us. We didn’t realize that even if there weren’t any resources nearby, we could connect with people around the world by Skype, or conference call, who share our difficulties. We allowed ourselves to believe we were alone in our struggle, that telling someone about our problem would be unbearably humiliating and destructive, that if we couldn’t help ourselves, no one could.
That delusion nearly destroyed our lives.
We founded PornHelp to prevent you from wandering alone through the dark hell of compulsive porn use like we did. If you are struggling with porn use, the resources listed here exist to help you make a connection with another person who understands. It doesn’t matter which person you choose - a member of a 12-step group, a faith leader, a therapist, or a fellow problem porn user. It doesn’t even matter, for now, how you connect - in person, by phone, by Skype. The only thing that matters is that you make the connection. Now. Right. Now.
Still doubt there's help for you? Then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re here for you. We care about you. We will help you find someone to talk to. You are not alone.
Here at PornHelp, we spend a lot of time thinking about a seemingly simple question: what is porn? As with any question of that ilk, its minimalist construction belies its deep complexity. Answering it entails not just identifying porn’s characteristics, but also (among other things) its origin, its purpose, and its impact. There are scholars who spend careers studying porn, and for good reason. In thinking about what porn is, we can’t just begin and end with Potter Stewart’s famous observation that we know porn when we see it. Recognizing and labeling porn as “porn” is just the tip of the iceberg.
Today, we thought we’d engage in a little thought experiment by putting ourselves in the shoes of a pornographer. If we made porn, what kind of porn would we create? What would we want it to do? How would we define success? By exploring these questions, we hope to gain insight about why some people develop porn use problems.
Let’s get some basics out of the way. We wouldn’t create porn for the fun of it. Sure, everybody wants to do what they love and love what they do, but for most working stiffs, the job is about a paycheck. If we were pornographers, we suspect it wouldn’t be any different. We’d make porn to make money. Simple as that.
With profit as our basic motive, we’d approach porn as a product, no different from toasters or vacation deals or gym memberships. Our goal would be for people to consume our product in a manner that turns us a profit. And, we’d probably - at least at first - aim to develop a product that appeals to the largest market segment: young and middle-aged straight men.
We’d ask ourselves: how can we make money from porn? As we’ve written here, we’d learn that we’re not going to turn a profit by getting our customers to pay for it. That business model is dead. Instead, our money would be made mostly in ad-clicks and user data. Our revenue would depend on getting our customers to click links that result in payments to us from other sites, and on keeping them on our site long enough to reveal things about themselves that make it easier for us to predict what other links they’ll click in the future, so that we can show them ads they’ll click, or sell their data to others.
Our business, in other words, would be intensely focused on understanding and influencing customer behavior. Our success would depend on keeping customers on our site, clicking, for as long as possible now, and getting them to come back later. How would our product play into that equation? By responding to what brings customers to us in the first place: helping them masturbate. Our porn would be designed to create and sustain our customers’ sexual arousal. We’d pay close attention to variables such as the age, race and body type of performers, and the sex acts that are shown, in order to get the perfect, most reliable, mix to keep our target demographic aroused and on our site.
But, here's a hitch. Masturbation tends to culminate in orgasm, and also with our customer leaving our site. But when a customer left the site, we would lose the chance to make money from that customer’s visit. So, we’d need to strike a balance between making our porn respond to our customer’s desire for sexual arousal while also not, shall we say, pushing him over the edge too quickly. It would be like a casino - the longer the customer stayed the more money we would make, so we wouldn’t want to make him blow his wad (sorry, had to) right out of the gate. Instead, we would want our customer to have a good enough time with us to keep coming back, but not so good that we lose the opportunity to make money on this visit.
To achieve that balance, we would invest heavily in real-time customer data mining technology to track every customer’s behavior on our site. We’d measure how much time customers hovered over links, the sequence in which they viewed areas on the site, and the characteristics of the porn they seemed to prefer. This information would, in turn, help us tailor each customer’s experience to keep him on our site now, and to get him to come back later.
Ultimately, our goal for each customer would be to maximize the number and duration of that customer’s visits to our site, limited only by three variables: (1) that customer’s time constraints (which we would aim to innovate around by offering new and more convenient means of access to our product), (2) that customer’s ability to control his urge to become sexually aroused and masturbate (which we would aim to reduce by delivering satisfying - but not too satisfying - product, by tailoring ads to him, and by selling his data to others who would do the same); and (3) by that customer’s physical capacity to sustain and repeat sexual arousal (which we would aim to increase by delivering well designed porn to get and keep him aroused).
So, let’s recap. We’d be in porn to make money. Our money would come from our customers' ad-clicks and site-use data. Since our customer behavior would be our profit center, we’d invest heavily in understanding how to influence it. Our principal means of influencing customer behavior would be by developing and delivering porn that kept customers clicking and visiting now, and inspired them to return later. Our porn’s core attribute would be its ability to create and sustain sexual arousal reliably, but not so effectively as to short circuit the duration of a customer visit. We would monitor our customers’ behavior to gather data that would allow us to refine our product offering to maximize the number and duration of visits for each customer.
Sound Machiavellian? Maybe. But it’s hardly uncommon. There are plenty of comparisons. Vacation resorts, online retailers, travel aggregators, digital media companies - all of them invest in analytics to help them influence customer behavior. Why would porn be any different? Answer: it wouldn’t. Or more precisely, it isn’t. People don’t produce porn for the fun of it. They do it because there is money to be made influencing your behavior through the power of your sexual response.
What a difference a week makes. As recently as last weekend, the internet was awash with another tiresome round of sensationalized stories proclaiming that sex and porn addiction aren’t “real”. This latest flare up owed in large part to the release of a “Position on Sex Addiction” by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (“AASECT”) disputing the foundations of longstanding sex addiction therapy methods. The content of these stories wasn’t anything new. But the response to them sure was.
Spurred on by some surprisingly candid revelations by one of the AASECT statement’s architects, a chorus of sex addiction therapists, advocacy organizations, and commentators (including yours truly) responded with pointed criticism of the AASECT statement and the stories it had generated in the popular press. We pointed out the questionable motives for the statement, the logical fallacies it contained, and the dumbed-down reception it received. We questioned its seeming ignorance of a body of scientific research on sex addiction. And, most of all, we decried the shame and confusion the statement sowed among the very people AASECT claimed to want to help - those suffering from compulsive, addictive behavior involving sex and porn.
On December 14, one of the most notable responses to AASECT’s statement appeared on the web site of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (“IITAP”). IITAP is the organization principally responsible for developing sex addiction therapy methods and training sex addiction therapists. We described IITAP (accurately, we think) in our most recent blog post as AASECT’s rival in the sexuality practitioner certification marketplace.
In its response, IITAP struck a remarkably conciliatory tone. It praised AASECT for advancing sexual rights, particularly among LGBTQ, kink and polyamory populations. It acknowledged AASECT’s criticisms of IITAP’s historic deficiencies in training therapists on issues of sexual diversity. It also noted that AASECT’s “Position on Sex Addiction” constitutes a softening of AASECT’s historic stance on sex addiction, reflecting AASECT’s own acknowledgement of deficiencies in its curriculum. For instance, IITP observed that AASECT has recently introduced training for AASECT members in treating out-of-control sexual behaviors.
Most significantly (in our view), IITAP lamented the “unnecessary intellectual rock throwing” that has emerged over time between IITAP and AASECT members, resulting in “fractionalization” that prevents “integration of knowledge between groups that could easily learn from each other”. Echoing the criticism others had leveled at AASECT’s statement, IITAP noted that this needless “rock throwing” contributed to sensationalized stories in the press that do nothing but confuse and stigmatize people suffering from out-of-control sexual behaviors. In a full-throated call for a ceasefire, IITAP urged “the various sexual health organizations to come together in the best interest of [their] clients—working to legitimize and de-stigmatize this issue, so the people suffering will know there is hope and help.”
We are thrilled by IITAP’s statement. Then again, in PornHelp IITAP is preaching to the proverbial choir. What matters more is whether folks on AASECT’s side of the fence heard our collective criticism and IITAP’s call for “cross fertilization of theory and knowledge”.
Happily, it seems that at least one prominent AASECT member did. The same day IITAP’s position appeared, AASECT Board Member Dr. Ian Kerner penned this article for CNN. Though the article avoided any mention of AASECT or Dr. Kerner’s leadership position, it read like a point-by-point acknowledgment of many of the biggest criticisms IITAP and others leveled at AASECT’s “Position on Sex Addiction.” Among other things, Dr. Kerner acknowledged that many people suffer from compulsive, addiction-like sexual behaviors, that therapists from both the IITAP and AASECT camps provide valuable and valid help for those people, that IITAP rejects harmful “reparative” therapy, and that scientific evidence exists of links between out-of-control sexual behaviors and addiction.
Of course, the article wasn’t perfect. Its title, “Is sex addiction real? Depends on whom you ask” had an unhelpfully reductive ring to it. And, Dr. Kerner devoted column space to some questionable tropes (“sex addiction is about avoiding responsibility”) and suspect voices (including Dr. Michael Aaron, whose column crowing about how he used “guerrilla tactics” to push AASECT to issue its “Position on Sex Addiction” is a shining example of “unnecessary…rock throwing”). But, on the whole, we find Dr. Kerner’s recognition that many of his clients experience compulsive sexual behaviors as addictions, and his resolve to help them despite his personal doubts about the “addiction model,” refreshing. This, to us, feels like the sort of “coming together” that IITAP’s statement encouraged.
So, what’s next? We’ve seen a week of attention (finally) being paid to helping, instead of belittling, people who struggle with sex and porn addiction. Will this nascent detente between the IITAP and AASECT camps endure? We hope so. But, even if the cessation of hostilities proves short-lived, let’s hope it serves as a lasting reminder of how calm and reasoned voices of criticism and conciliation, when they speak frequently and widely enough to be heard, can lower the temperature of a heated conflict. For all of us who share the mission of helping people with out-of-control behaviors involving sex and porn, (re)learning that lesson is a victory in itself.
We have written about the public “debate” over sex and pornography addiction, and have been especially critical of news stories that attempt to reduce complex issues into simplistic headlines. Intentionally or not, news articles blaring “Porn/Sex Addiction Isn’t Real” perpetuate the stigma of problematic sexual behavior. By dumbing down highly complicated and emotional issues, they confuse people in pain who want - need - to find help.
Late last month, an announcement by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (“AASECT” for short) kicked up the dust storm yet again. In what was billed as a “historic position statement”, AASECT rejected addiction-centered treatment methods for problematic sexual behaviors. Specifically, as of today “it is the position of AASECT that linking problems related to sexual urges, thoughts or behaviors to a porn/sexual addiction process cannot be advanced by AASECT as a standard of practice for sexuality education delivery, counseling or therapy.”
Predictably, media outlets translated this as confirmation by “experts” that sex and porn addiction aren’t “real," or worse, that they're a "hoax." Absent from these stories was much (if any) analysis of the nuance in AASECT’s announcement. For instance, AASECT acknowledges that people do suffer from out-of-control behaviors involving sex and porn, and that those people do need help. But, AASECT believes there is insufficient empirical evidence to establish these behaviors as addiction-type “mental health disorders”, and therefore believes it’s inappropriate to use addiction-focused therapies to treat them. Finally, and perhaps tellingly, AASECT claims that therapists who do follow the “addiction model" lack “accurate human sexuality knowledge”.
Journalists also failed to point out an important omission from AASECT’s statement. Lost in the attention-grabbing hoopla over whether sex and porn addiction are “real” was AASECT’s tacit admission that it has no clear recommendation for how therapists should counsel people with problematic sexual behaviors. Instead, stealing a page from the official Paul Ryan “Repeal and Delay” Playbook™, after trashing the longstanding “sex addiction model” of treatment, AASECT offered only its support for a “collaborative movement to establish standards of care supported by science, public health consensus and the rigorous protection of sexual rights.” That sounds to us like AASECT kicking the can down the road.
So what are we to make of this? And, by “we,” we mean the people struggling with problematic porn use who are the consumers of the therapy services AASECT’s announcement covers. Should we use it as guidance in choosing a therapist? If so, what good is a therapist if he’s waiting for a “collaborative movement” to tell him how to go about helping us? Some background might help us answer those questions.
AASECT is a certifying body for sexual health practitioners, most notably for the “Certified Sex Therapist” (“CST”) certification. AASECT competes for prominence in the sexuality practitioner certification marketplace with the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (“IITAP”). IITAP was founded by Patrick Carnes, the godfather of “sex addiction” treatment methodology, and a founder of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (“SASH”). IITAP is the certifying body for the Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (“CSAT”) certification.
In other words, AASECT and IITAP are rivals. The "sex addiction model" AASECT has rejected is the method of therapy promoted and taught by IITAP. When AASECT took a poke at addiction-centered therapists who purportedly lack “accurate human sexuality knowledge”, it was undoubtedly referring to IITAP-certified practitioners. Seen in this light, AASECT’s announcement looks a lot like a shot fired in a (highly niche) turf war between competing professional certification bodies.
An article published on the website Psychology Today by one of the practitioners behind the AASECT announcement, Dr. Michael Aaron, gives credence to that view. Dr. Aaron holds a Ph.D. from the American Academy of Certified Sexologists, and has been certified by AASECT as a CST for “over three years.” In his Psychology Today article, he describes how he led an effort to combat “hypocrisy” within AASECT surrounding sex addiction treatment. Dr. Aaron believes the “sex addiction model” of therapy is “extremely destructive to clients” in that it purportedly addresses “sexuality concerns from a moralistic and judgmental perspective.” For this reason, he sees “the sex addiction model as directly at odds with the sex-positive messaging that AASECT ... [is] trying to project.”
Finding AASECT's tolerance of the "sex addiction model" to be "deeply hypocritical", in 2014 Dr. Aaron set out to eradicate support for the concept of “sex addiction” from AASECT’s ranks. To accomplish his goal, Dr. Aaron claims to have deliberately sowed controversy among AASECT members in order to expose those with viewpoints that disagreed with his own, and then to have explicitly silenced those viewpoints while steering the organization toward its rejection of the “sex addiction model.” Dr. Aaron justified using these “renegade, guerilla [sic] tactics” by reasoning that he was up against a “lucrative industry” of adherents to the “sex addiction model” whose financial incentives would prevent him from bringing them over to his side with logic and reason. Instead, to effect a “quick change” in AASECT’s “messaging,” he sought to ensure that pro-sex addiction voices were not materially included in the discussion of AASECT’s course change.
Dr. Aaron’s boast comes across as a little unseemly. People rarely take pride in, much less publicize, suppressing academic and scientific debate. And it seems odd that Dr. Aaron spent the time and money to become CST certified by an organization he deemed “deeply hypocritical" barely a year after joining it (if not before). If anything, it is Dr. Aaron who appears hypocritical when he criticizes pro-“sex addiction” therapists for having a financial investment in the "sex addiction model", when, quite obviously, he has a similar investment in promoting his opposing viewpoint .
And that, to us, is the key to understanding the real significance of the AASECT announcement. Dr. Aaron’s pride in suppressing debate and driving AASECT to reject the “sex addiction model” of therapy makes sense if we think of his efforts as an exercise in brand differentiation. Commercial motive is a common denominator for all professional therapists to some degree. AASECT-certified therapists trade on their CST certifications the same way IITAP-certified therapists trade on their CSAT credentials. But for would-be consumers of therapy services, it’s hard to distinguish between the two certifications. Both require adherence to strict sets of ethical guidelines, including non-discrimination and acceptance of sexual diversity. Both also stress the importance of promoting client sexual health. Heck, the abbreviations for the certifications are even confusingly similar.
Could it be that Dr. Aaron recognized this, too? Without a clear distinction between his CST certification and his competitors’ CSAT certifications, Dr. Aaron may have recognized that he was trading on a poorly-defined brand that could easily be confused with a viewpoint with which he disagreed. That could explain why he joined up with AASECT (“deeply hypocritical” though it was), and promptly undertook an unpopular and controversial effort to drive a wedge between AASECT and IITAP over the headline-grabbing issue of “sex and porn addiction”. Seizing on the stigma attached to the word “addiction”, Dr. Aaron pushed AASECT to discredit the longstanding methods of its competitor, IITAP. It was a clever stroke of political and marketing insight: no one wants to be labeled an “addict,” so why not define AASECT-certified therapists as people who will treat your out-of-control sexual behaviors without calling you one?
All of which would be fine and dandy if AASECT managed the rest of its message a little better. But, by endorsing the reductive message that “sex and porn addiction aren’t real”, AASECT allowed its statement to be communicated as a categorical rejection of the fact that people actually do suffer from problematic, compulsive sexual behaviors that feel, to them, like addictions. AASECT also compounded its error by punting on the most important question: how AASECT-certified therapy would be different from addiction-centric therapy. And then there's the baffling refusal of the folks on the AASECT side of the turf to so much as acknowledge the body of scientific evidence that supports an addiction-based approach to out-of-control sexual behaviors. In short, in making a big deal of its rejection of the “sex addiction model,” AASECT (inadvertently, we hope) sowed still more confusion and shame for the people it purports to want to help.
For what it's worth, those of us who have consulted therapists trained in the “sex addiction model” (CSATs certified by IITAP, mostly), have found that they are not moralizing or judgmental in the main. Our collective experience has been that CSATs do not use shame to address our behaviors. They show a great deal of empathy, in fact. CSAT therapy, in our experience, aims at helping us understand how and why our behaviors are unwanted, and at coming to terms with those behaviors that have been most destructive to things we care about. In that respect, we suspect we’d find a similar approach used in AASECT-certified therapy (and we invite anyone with experience in that regard to comment below). Yes, IITAP-certified therapists may use a vocabulary of addiction to address our issues. But frankly, by the time most of us seek help, we don’t really care about labels all that much. We just want help controlling a personally destructive cycle of behavior, guilt and shame that has taken over our lives. Many of us have even found comfort in giving our problem a name - even if the name is "addiction".
Bottom line: AASECT’s announcement may be “historic” for AASECT-certified practitioners, but to those of us who may consume their services, it doesn’t feel particularly enlightening. If AASECT really wants to make a meaningful difference in the therapy marketplace, it should advertise exactly how its therapists are trained to approach treatment of out-of-control sex and porn use issues. Instead of telling us how “bad” the “sex addiction model” treatment we’ve been receiving is (contrary to the experiences of the vast majority of us), it should tell us how its alternative treatment model will be better. And, instead of completely ignoring the body of scientific research that appears to run contrary to its position on the links between out-of-control sexual behavior and addiction, AASECT should explain why it disagrees with that research.
Until then, we're going to be wary of buying whatever it is AASECT is selling.
It’s hard to feel charitably toward Anthony Weiner these days. Anyone who has seen Weiner, the stunning documentary film chronicling the New York politician’s fall, rise, and fall again can’t help but shake their heads at the personal tragedy of his actions. More recently, it has been reported that Weiner is under investigation for allegedly sexting with a minor. Emails seized during that investigation set off a firestorm of controversy in the closing days of the Presidential election.
On the heels of the latest revelations about Weiner’s problematic sexting, he reportedly checked into a rehab specializing in sexual addictions. The press has had a field day with the news that Weiner’s rehab employs equine therapy, which involves learning to ride and care for horses as a means of contextualizing addiction and recovery. A few days ago, papers broadcast a photo of the man who has become the poster child for public self-immolation perched awkwardly on the back of a horse. In the picture, Weiner - wearing “dad jeans”, his running shoes poking through the stirrups - looks reduced, maybe even a little foolish. It might be understandable for people who see the photo to say “Gimme a break. All he needed to do was stop sending texts of his junk. People don’t need horses for that.”
Maybe not. But let’s stop and think about what we know of Anthony Weiner. He had a promising political career. Though his style was abrasive, he fought passionately for what he believed. He worked for health care reform and on behalf of 9/11 firefighters. He enjoyed a wealth of political connections. He lived in a dog-eat-dog world and had everything to lose.
And yet, again and again his problematic sexting humiliated him and his family, and destroyed his career. We heard repeated promises from him that his behavior would change. But it didn’t. In fact, if the allegations are true, his behavior worsened.
Now, maybe Anthony Weiner is just a liar, or something worse. Maybe he didn’t want to stop sexting random women. Maybe he was just putting on a show of saying he would quit. Maybe he didn’t care if he hurt his wife and his children. Maybe he wanted to trash his career. Maybe he thought he could hide from the watchful eye of the press. Maybe he rationally calculated that the humiliation he was bound to suffer in the public sphere was worth the fleeting thrill of sending explicit text messages to strangers.
But, we don’t think that sounds plausible. We’re willing to bet Anthony Weiner did want to stop sexting with those women, and that he really did try to stop. We bet he knew that his actions were destroying his life, inflicting pain and loss on everyone he cared about. We bet his behavior and failed attempts to quit caused him intense guilt and shame and confusion and self-doubt. We bet Anthony Weiner felt terribly alone.
Why do we think these things about Weiner? Because repeatedly engaging in an isolating, destructive behavior, despite repeated attempts to stop and overwhelmingly negative consequences, is the shared experience of addiction, be it to sex, porn, pills, food, gambling, booze, or anything else. Those who have experienced addiction know the searing shame of not being able to stop a cycle that destroys a person from the inside out. They remember the black loneliness of feeling like a fraud in their own lives. They have shared in the bitter irony that the more they had to lose, the further they sank into the hopeless battle of trying to quit on their own and in secret, paralyzed by the belief that revealing their problem to others meant risking everything they loved and took pride in. They have felt the crushing fear of people looking at them and saying with disgust, as one interviewer did to Weiner, “What is wrong with you?”.
So, sure, it’s easy to dismiss Anthony Weiner as just another celebrity trying to avoid "responsibility" for his actions by checking into a high priced rehab where he gets to ride a horse. And yes, it’s a little amusing to see him timidly balanced in the saddle. But remember this: despite the infamy that Anthony Weiner carries with him, and the pain he has inflicted on himself and others, the horse he rides won’t mock his terrible horsemanship. The horse won’t write scathing headlines about his repeated failures at climbing into the saddle. The horse won’t call him “sick” or “perverse” for falling off, or take pleasure in his pain when he hits the ground. The horse just wants him to get better.
As Anthony Weiner’s fellow human beings, so should we.