There is a national discussion raging around the topic of “addiction,” be it “porn addiction,” “opioid addiction,” or “addiction to Game of Thrones.” But, what, exactly, does the word “addiction” mean? To ask the question is to confront a thicket of conflicting and confusing answers. Today, we thought it would be useful to pick up our proverbial machete and start bushwhacking through the definitional undergrowth in hopes of finding some clarity.
In this blog post, we tackle the common, everyday (which is to say, non-clinical) usage of the word “addiction.” This seems like a worthwhile place to start, considering how frequently people claim to be “addicted” to something-or-other these days. The casually expansive use of the word “addiction” in everyday speech leads us to ask: are we all using the word “addiction” the same way, or is “addiction” losing its meaning even as it surges as a topic of national conversation?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or resources here at PornHelp to conduct a broad survey of the usage of “addiction” in everyday English. So, as a shorthand proxy for that kind of study, we’ve decided to examine the definition of “addiction” published by Miriam Webster, the vaunted dictionary company. If we are going to find a reasonably reliable “everyday” definition of addiction, we figure, Merriam Webster should be as good a place as any to suss it out.
Merriam Webster offers two definitions of “addiction”, one “simple” and one “full”,” and they’re revealing. The “simple” definition of “addiction” reads:
In contrast, the “full” definition of addiction offers these alternative meanings:
(1) “the quality or state of being addicted;”
(2) “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”
Got that? No? Good, because neither do we. What’s going on here? Merriam Webster's “simple” and “full” definitions of “addiction” seem at odds with one another.
On one hand, the “simple” definition of “addiction” covers a swath of behavior that’s so broad as to be almost meaningless. Defined as it is, an “addiction” may or may not cause psychological distress, may or may not require therapeutic intervention, and may or may not destroy lives. The “simple” definition reduces the word “addiction” to a subjective statement about the quantity or enjoyment of a behavior, so that a sentence like “I am addicted to playing slot machines” becomes utterly ambiguous. It’s this usage of the word "addiction" that inspires oft-seen newspaper headlines to ask things like “Can You Really Be Addicted to [name your substance/behavior]?,” falsely implying that the word “really” supplies definitional clarity.
On the other hand, Merriam Webster’s “full” definition whittles the meaning of “addiction” down to the precision of a dirty needle point. To paraphrase that formulation, “addiction” means the state of being hooked on drugs or alcohol, characterized by physical tolerance, withdrawal, and (perhaps) a recognition by the user that the “substance” in question is harmful. This definition, in other words, reduces “addiction” to a wholly negative and necessarily physical status. Only drunks and junkies occupy the realm of “addiction” under this definition. It suggests a need for medical care, and that the condition may be a moral failing. But, despite its seeming clarity, this definition also makes the statement “I’m addicted to playing slot machines” impossible, which in turn conflicts with the accepted recognition of problem gambling as an addictive disorder.
So, there you have it. According to Merriam Webster, the everyday English meaning of “addiction” is either entirely subjective and potentially meaningless, or rigorously objective and fatally restrictive. In other words, parsing the dictionary definition of “addiction’ doesn’t get us very far in clarifying what people mean when they say the word “addiction” in non-clinical settings.
But, the exercise wasn't for naught. By illustrating just how ambiguous our everyday use of the word “addiction” has become, we're reminded that we should try to take care in how we deploy the word “addiction” so that confusion doesn’t creep in. And, we can appreciate the dry irony of the fact that in everyday speech, at least, the word “addiction” seemingly defies overuse and abuse.
It seems so clear in retrospect. Life got difficult. Job stress. Marital strain. Loneliness. Things just didn’t feel right. During those moments, a switch flipped in our heads. We wanted those negative feelings to go away. We wanted the world to leave us alone. And there it was, the place where we could find some respite: the porn cave. Dark, inviting, enveloping. A place many of us had first discovered as awkward adolescents stumbling through the social pain of middle and high school. A place that had only grown deeper and darker and more enticing as we (and the internet) aged.
Again, and again, and again, we returned to the porn cave to escape from our lives. Sometimes we told ourselves we’d just duck in for a minute or two, but we almost always ended up staying for hours. Often, stopping by the porn cave became an automatic ritual at the end of a long day. Over time, our resistance to the sudden urge to escape to the porn cave weakened to a hair-trigger. We even found ourselves heading for the porn cave when we felt happy about something. The porn cave was our refuge. When we disappeared inside, the chaos of life didn’t feel so overwhelming. In its darkness, stress and tension and sadness and anger seemed to disappear.
But outside the cave, those feelings kept roaring back. It didn’t help that long nights in the porn cave left us feeling physically and mentally spent, unable to give our all to our work, families, and lives. We made things worse by breaking repeated promises to ourselves that we’d stop going into the porn cave, hating our inability to keep those commitments. To soothe our anger with ourselves, where would we go? Back to the porn cave, of course. Where else?
New research, described in this Psychology Today post, confirms something that many of us already know from long and ugly experience. “[W]ith porn there is a clear link between repeated attempts at mood regulation and problematic usage.” Translation: many problem porn users head for the porn cave to avoid bad feelings, only to create a destructive feedback loop; escaping from life’s problems into the porn cave causes negative consequences, which in turn strengthens the desire to take refuge in the porn cave.
Yes, it all seems so obvious now. The porn cave was a dive bar by another name. A drug den. A raid on the refrigerator. An all-night blackjack game. Many of us were too young or caught up in our busy lives to recognize our growing dependence on the cave’s destructive isolation. We finally woke up to the reality. Hiding in the cave, flooding our brains with dopamine, had become the only way we knew to quiet our minds, but our dependence on the cave was only making our problems worse. It took confronting the painful emotions we had suppressed with porn and, with help from others, developing new ways to cope with them, to keep ourselves out of the cave for good.
Here at PornHelp, we like our exercise. Last Sunday, we planned to meet some friends for a run on a popular local running trail. We got there first and soon noticed something amiss. Clustered in groups of two or three were young-ish looking men and women scurrying this way and that on the running path, their phones held at eye level. Many were making excited, clipped comments to each other and grinning. But their eyes never left their phones, even when they nearly collided with joggers and bikers.
What the hell? Were these giggling zombies on some kind of scavenger hunt? Had we stumbled into an obtuse flash mob? Well, almost, as it turns out. This was our first experience with Pokemon GO, the gaming app that is apparently so popular that it is rumored to have overtaken “porn” as the top Google search (temporarily, no doubt).
Yesterday we read this Psychology Today post, which explains what Pokemon GO is, and discusses its potential merits and harms. In the merits category: therapeutic benefits, including help with social anxiety, mood enhancement and physical activity. In the harms camp (aside from blocking running paths): addiction. Another post, which appeared today, also raises the specter of addiction. And then there’s this story about two men who fell off of a cliff while playing Pokemon GO.
Now, we’re not saying the Pokemon GO zombies we encountered were necessarily addicted to the game. We’re hopeless optimists, and as such believe that most people can keep their tech use under control. Most Pokemon GO players will avoid hurting themselves chasing virtual monsters, just as most people will ignore their GPS when it tells them to drive into a lake. That being said, the speed with which experts started warning about addiction, and the fact that some players have already, dramatically, put their safety at risk while playing, are perhaps signs that problematic Pokemon use is something new to monitor. At the least, the Pokemon GO craze might serve as a reminder of the powerful influence digital images can exert over people, particularly those susceptible to obsessive or compulsive behavior.
For our part, however, we are grateful for the Pokemon GO players we (almost) ran into, because their frenetic wandering recalled, for us, our experience of what it was like to live with an internet porn addiction. Here, pacing our running path, were people relying on digital images to “augment” reality while losing awareness of, well, actual reality. Their apparent need to see something occur in a virtual world supplanted the instinct to take care of themselves in the physical one. They were, quite literally, walking in circles chasing ephemeral rewards despite the potentially negative consequences.
Face to face with this uncanny enactment of addiction behavior, we knew what we had to do. We found our friends and, basking in the beautiful weather, we ran.
The Republican Party has approved a platform plank declaring pornography a “public health crisis”. This mirrors the passage earlier this year of a non-binding declaration by the Utah legislature to the same effect. The “is porn a public health crisis or isn’t it” question has been widely debated in the media, so we’ll avoid rehashing it here. But we do think it’s worth reflecting on what the insertion of pornography policy into a major party political platform could mean for those of us hoping for growth in research into pornography’s physical, behavioral, spiritual, and societal effects, and into effective methods of treatment. In short, it’s not good.
There is no secret that we are living in one of the most polarized political climates in decades. The absurdly low favorability ratings of both parties’ presumptive presidential nominees all but assure that come next January we will have a President who roughly fifty percent of the country despises, and with whom Congress may have even a harder time working than it has with President Obama.
The prospect of continued gridlock in Washington amplifies the risks and consequences of either party adopting a platform relative to pornography, because it channels the ongoing discussion about porn into the stifling confines of right versus left politics, with all of the vitriol and idiocy that follows from that myopic perspective. If we are not careful, soon we will see accusations flying that Republicans are “anti-porn” and Democrats are “pro-porn”. That Republicans hate sexual freedom, and Democrats love sexual exploitation. The race will be on to see who can be faster to accuse so-and-so of being a hypocrite, a deviant, or both.
Lost in that tumult will be the fact that people who struggle with problem porn use cannot be conveniently lumped into simple categories. While some research supports the notion that the more religious a person is, the more likely he is to perceive himself as addicted to pornography, there is no data (at least, none we are aware of) that supports the idea that problem pornography use only affects people of one political persuasion. Indeed, in our personal experience, people who struggle to rid their lives of porn have widely divergent political views, and want to quit porn for a variety of reasons, most having nothing to do with politics.
And, of course, questions about porn - which is, if anything, a multi-faceted topic - do not just touch upon over-consumption. Arguments have been advanced that porn promotes sex trafficking, misogyny, and violence against women, among other social ills. A person’s political leanings should not determine whether he or she supports research into these claims, and appropriate policy action if they are accurate.
We hope (naively perhaps, but sincerely nonetheless) that both major political parties will take care against politicizing the complicated question of pornography’s role in our lives and culture, and instead focus on funding quality research into porn’s effects, addressing any soundly demonstrated problems porn causes, and finding effective means of treatment for those for whom porn has become a debilitating problem. It would be a loss to everyone interested in tackling issues related to pornography if the discussion were to fall victim to the dysfunction of our current political climate.
Last night, we followed with interest an exchange on Twitter between the founder of NoFap.com, Alexander Rhodes, and two scholars who - among those who pay attention to such things - are known as oft-quoted skeptics of the “existence” of sex and porn addiction. The discussion started when one of those academics, the psychologist David Ley, Ph.D., re-tweeted a recent New York Times interview with Rhodes along with a comment suggesting that Rhodes had started NoFap.com as a “joke”. Nicole R. Prause, Ph.D., the other scholar and a neuroscientist, chimed in with a meme likening Rhodes to a “neckbeard on the internet”. Then Rhodes, never a shrinking violet, tweeted a response suggesting that the two doctors stick to doing their “science” (his quotation marks) instead of trying to tear down someone trying to help others. The whole discussion can be found by clicking around the links above.
Then things took an unexpected turn. Ley persisted in needling Rhodes for a few tweets, but ultimately the two reached a detente by agreeing they shared the same desire to help people, albeit in distinct ways. Prause took a different tack. When Rhodes asked (in earnest, so far as we can tell) why Prause seemed to reject the validity of a body of published neuroscience research that is collected and reviewed on the website www.yourbrainonporn.com, Prause issued a broadside against the administrator of that site, Gary Wilson, referring to him as an “unemployed blogger who has a police report threatening my lab and no-contact order for harassment.” Rhodes responded that he didn’t know anything about that, but in any event that wasn’t a response to the actual research posted on Wilson’s site. Prause responded by posting a link to a chapter she co-authored in a 2015 book called “New Views on Pornography,” describing it as “documented” proof of her claim about Wilson. Prause then instructed Rhodes, twice, not to contact her again (which seemed odd since it was Prause who had joined the discussion mocking Rhodes in the first place, but whatever). And then, to top it all off, Wilson tweeted that Prause's claims were false and linked to a page on YBoP that recites detailed allegations of harassment by Prause and others against Wilson.
We’ve read the book chapter Prause sent Rhodes, which is titled “The Science and Politics of Sex Addiction Research.” It consists mostly of a discussion of the appropriate “model” for understanding compulsive pornography use, arguing that the addiction "construct” is not supported by the authors’ research. The article then concludes with an account of what Prause and her co-author describe as a pattern of harassment by “proaddiction, antipornography groups,” including “religious groups, treatment clinics, and bloggers,” in response to the publication of their research. Elements of these groups, according to the authors, spread lies about the research, sent repeated unsolicited emails to one of the authors (resulting, apparently, in a police complaint being filed) and engaged in the sort of internet-based aggression and misogyny often deployed by anonymous trolls against female celebrities.
The book chapter does not specify which of these actions Prause attributes to Wilson - neither he nor his website appear by name in the text or footnotes. Prause’s tweets to Rhodes, however, implied that Wilson was the person about whom a police report had been filed relating to unsolicited emails, and, possibly, that Wilson was the “blogger” who, according to the chapter, stole “personal photographs” of Prause and posted them on “Web blogs with sexist diatribes against her person.” If accurate, these allegations are no laughing matter. Then again, nor are the allegations about the harassment Wilson says Prause and her allies perpetrated against him.
We do not know Gary Wilson or Nicole Prause personally, and cannot comment on what appears to be a longstanding and acrimonious dispute between them. Nor do we wish to rehash or (God forbid) reanimate that dispute here (which is a warning to anyone thinking of using the comments section to do so - you will be deleted). But we do think it's important to highlight the apparent tension in their statements as an illustration of the secular context in which a lot of discussion around sex and porn addiction seems to be happening. It reminds us, sadly, of the South Park episode where religion is replaced by science, only to result in science becoming a religion. Different vocabulary, same passions.
Speaking from our perspective as spectators (albeit with an admittedly vested interest in helping people deal with porn problems), we can say that we’ve come to rely on Wilson’s site, www.yourbrainonporn.com, as an invaluable and uniquely comprehensive collection of research on compulsive porn use and its collateral effects. YBoP undeniably takes firm positions on the scientific implications of the research posted there, and does not mince words in criticizing Prause’s and Ley’s methods and conclusions. But, the site also links to the full-text of most of the research it discusses (including that of Prause and Ley), enabling readers to delve into the minutiae and reach their own conclusions. It is a refreshing source of primary material in an often barren internet landscape, particularly in this age when much important research is hidden behind academic journal paywalls. Which is to say, wherever the truth lies in the Prause-Wilson dustup, we are grateful to Gary Wilson for his diligence in making so much important scientific research available to the public.
The same cannot be said, at the moment, of our views of Prause and Ley. In their Twitter discussion with Rhodes, the two scientists exhibited a regrettable tendency to mock non-academics who offer opinions about the use and abuse of pornography. We would be inclined to dismiss their mindset as an understandable, if somewhat crass, pride in one’s own scholarly achievement were it not for Prause and Ley’s equally regrettable tendency to give quotes to decidedly non-academic publications that write uncritical and reductive articles questioning whether sexual addiction is "real” without so much as acknowledging the complexity of that question. Whether purposefully or not, through their statements, Ley and Prause leave the public with the impression that they’re perfectly willing to tell non-credentialed ignoramuses what to think about the science of compulsive sexual behavior, so long as we don’t ask any questions.
And here, we think, is where the tension highlighted in last night’s Twitter discussion might take root. To us, Ley and Prause come off as blithely dismissive of the very real, painful experiences of those struggling with the sort of problem porn use documented on the discussion boards of sites like NoFap.com and YBoP. We ground our perspective in the shared experience of those for whom compulsive porn use has exacted an enormous toll on life, relationships, and physical and mental health. People struggling with porn live in a waking nightmare of behavior that they return to over and over, despite the negative consequences and repeated, failed attempts to stop. For many, porn use has escalated over time to the point where they crave porn at all hours of the day, have an unceasing, overwhelming obsession with finding a “perfect,” but ever-elusive, picture or video, “lose time” over the course of night-long binge sessions, and experience physical and psychological torment when they try to stop.
These people call their condition an "addiction” because that is the only word in the popular lexicon that describes the agony they are living. And when those poor souls read articles in trashy magazines quoting Prause and Ley in support of the claim that their suffering isn't "real," or that they’re just repressed because of their (often non-existent) religious beliefs, or that viewing porn has actually been good for them…well, not only does that seem maddeningly obtuse, it also just plain hurts.
Of course, being hurt by words is no excuse for harassment. Commentary about scientific research should stick to facts and methods, and never devolve into ad hominem attacks or worse. But, discussions - particularly those in the realm of the human sexual experience - should also welcome critical questions from all corners, whether or not those questions come from someone with a Ph.D. after his or her name. Ph.D.'s are not the exclusive purveyors of insight about sexuality or anything else, nor should they fail to recognize the inherent limitations they face when exploring real world problems in artificial research settings. In some way or another, all of us are limited in our ability to tackle the very complex question of why some people compulsively use porn despite destructive consequences, but that doesn't warrant any of us being shushed.
We hope, for the sake of fostering open and important discussion, that Wilson will continue to update YBoP, and that Ley and Prause will try to ensure that their public comments reflect the empathy and compassion they no doubt share for anyone whose porn use is causing severe distress. Because, the thing is, we need Prause and Ley to participate in this discussion. Their research and theories point to factors other than the content of pornographic images as the source of porn users' distress, and that certainly merits analysis. Sure, we strongly disagree with Ley’s theory that normative societal pressures are the predominant source of psychological upset over porn use, and with Prause’s challenge to the “addiction model” (such as it is) as a framework of analysis of compulsive porn use, but that's not a reason to ignore them. Research may indeed conclude that porn (however one defines it) is not inherently harmful like, say, methamphetamine is, and that certain societal norms make suffering more acute. But, perhaps reasonable minds will also conclude that it is better to address porn like alcohol - harmless (even beneficial) for some people, at some ages, in some forms, in some quantities, and in some contexts - but also a vector for debilitating overuse in a way that can - and does - destroy health, relationships, families, careers, and lives in the same manner as so many other tragic addictions.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.