Why We Need To Stop Calling It Porn Addiction

February 17, 2020 6 min read

“I’m addicted to youuuu, hooked on your looove, like a pooowerful drug”... remember how we all loved roaring these lyrics? It’s just a song, sure. But it’s indicative of two things: one, that we have somehow managed to culturally frame dependency as romantic; and two, that our use of the term addiction is rather inflationary. 

Reviews praise books as “an addictive read,” we “binge”-watch Netflix, call ourselves “shopaholics” or “workaholics,” and say things like “I’m hooked on sports” or “salted caramel is my crack cocaine.” We usually laugh about it, don’t actually consider it flaws, don’t seek help. So is it harmless to call something we can’t seem to get enough of an “addiction”? Most of the times: yes. But not when it comes to pornography. 

Of course, people can form an unhealthy relationship with porn. Like you can with any medium. It can serve as a means of escapism, as displacement activity, as ego boost, can be ritualized and functionalized in various ways that may ultimately cause a feeling of being controlled by the medium rather than controlling it. 

I’m not denying the existence of problematic porn consumption behavior (although I doubt it is nearly as common as the media makes us believe). The expression porn addiction, however, which is becoming a buzz word in public discourse, is not just a phrase or a joke. It is a whole narrative! One I consider dangerous. Here’s why: 

1. It is pseudo-scientific. 
Porn addiction is not a medically recognized diagnosis. Contrary to frequent claims, the science is NOT there. It is contested, contradictory, and complicated. Don’t be fooled by the brain scans, the medical language, and expressions such as “rewired brains.” They serve to present porn addiction as a matter of nothing but biological and chemical facts and thereby conceal the fact that even scientific research does not happen outside of ideology. May I remind you that homosexuality was officially considered a mental disorder until 1987?! 

2. It diverts attention away from mental health issues. 
A bleak comparison: when someone cuts themselves, we would never consider them addicted to razor blades. But would much rather consider these a tool – not a cause – of self-destructive behavior. Framing something as addiction implies that the addict would be fine, if only this toxic substance was not part of their life. Which is why porn addiction, like alcoholism, is usually treated with abstinence. This means to overlook the deeper roots such as anxieties or depression that an unhealthy porn consumption may be a symptom of.

3. It trivializes actual addictions. 
Calling someone’s biweekly masturbation habit an addiction is deeply disrespectful of anyone struggling with a bonafide addiction. 

4. It is misused as an apology (for shitty male behavior). 
Remember the Anthony Weiner scandal? When his lying and cheating couldn’t be denied any longer, he came up with a simple explanation: I’m an addict! Apparently, he just could not NOT keep sexting that minor. Poor thing. He went to a rehab center. Good for him. This is by no means an isolated case. It seems celebrities love coming out as porn addicts, as if that meant a free pass for all kinds of morally questionable behavior. What can they do? They are addicted. 

5. It reinforces gender stereotypes. 
If you have never come across a female porn addict in any of the stories you read, that’s no coincidence. The porn addiction narrative is conspicuously gendered. Women usually only appear as jealous wives or co-dependents. Grossed out by porn and their partner’s indulgence in it. Men, on the other hand, are powerless in the face of their intense sex drive and need help. Especially now that they have been “left behind” by feminism and are facing a “crisis of masculinity,” to echo masculinist voices. 

6. It is essentially anti-masturbation. 
While the word includes the term porn, the sexual practice that it pathologizes is that of masturbation. That’s nothing new in the West. We have a century-long history of doing so. Something like NoFap is basically a 21st-century remake of the age-old “you’ll go blind”-myth. At the centre of this anxiety is still the idea that sex threatens social control, that it should serve reproduction or at least intimacy, and that men could be such productive members of society, if they did not fap away their days. 

7. It is a form of disease mongering.  
There is a discernible trend among young to middle-aged men to self-diagnose as porn addict. Naturally, the more often you come across the word and headlines such as “Porn Epidemic is rolling across the country,” the more often you ask yourself: am I addicted, too? Many online tests or advertisings literally suggest you are. And men prove highly receptive to it as many of them have developed shame around their porn watching habits. It can be comforting then to consider yourself an addict. An ever-growing self-help industry is financially profiting from their sexual shame.

8. It fuels media panic
Just like any new medium was accompanied by cultural anxieties, so is the internet. The digital age has arrived too quickly, it seems, for everyone to keep up. Horror visions of children playing Minecraft instead of football are everywhere. The idea of smartphones full of addictive smut fits all too perfectly into this intergenerational nightmare. 

9. It has a missionary agenda.  
“Jesus saved me from pornography,” says the shirt of an ex- addict you’ll find on YouTube. And also Kanye has recently publicly proclaimed that God healed his porn addiction. Hallelujah! The idea is to find satisfaction in Christ instead of porn. And the parallels to “pray away the gay” are too obvious to even explain them. 

10. It is instrumentalized by anti-porn groups
Through all these aspects, the porn addiction narrative is a useful way to frame pornography as an evil medium that we need to get rid of. Declaring it a public health hazard (as many US states have already officially done) is just a new, pseudo-factual way of presenting old moral concerns. It reinforces conservative values and intensifies the social stigma around porn.

As you can see, language matters and can have very real consequences. So, for the love of porn: STOP CALLING IT PORN ADDICTION! 

And if you feel any level of discomfort around your own porn-watching habits, try sharing it with someone you trust. You’ll most likely find that you’re perfectly normal and that your distress comes from centuries of sexual repression that are hard to unlearn for all of us. 

Madita Oeming
« Madita is a porn scholar from Germany where she teaches porn studies classes, is working on her PhD on porn addiction, and gives talks on all things porn. She wants to fight stigma with education. » All posts →