Salon.com Asks Me About Porn

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This week I was interviewed by journalist Amanda Marcotte of Salon.com about pornography. You can see the 20-minute video here: https://goo.gl/QlD9O6.

After a bit of small talk, we got down to it: What if you fantasize about sex with kangaroos? Should we bring back the psychiatric diagnosis of Possessed By The Devil? And is there such a thing as porn addiction?

Ah, porn addiction. It really does matter what we call these things. We know it matters if someone is “diagnosed” as a “frigid bitch,” or a “women-hating queer,” or a “nympho.” So of course it matters if something is labelled “porn addiction,” a new “disease” that was invented just a few years ago—not by sex therapists, incidentally, but by the addiction community. Did you know that?

Here are two facts on which everyone agrees:

1. There are lots of people who are over-involved with porn, or involved in ways that undermine their other goals or commitments;

2. There are lots of porn consumers whose mates are upset—about the fact that they watch at all, or how much they watch, or the content of what they watch.

As a therapist and as a public policy analyst, the questions these facts raise include:

* Who gets to decide whether someone has a porn problem?
* Do porn consumers have the right to watch in their own homes? Do their partners have the right to a porn-free home?
* If it’s not “porn addiction,” what is it—and how can we help people in pain?

Every week in my office I see people struggling with porn—and people struggling with their mate’s porn-watching. When people who “treat” porn addiction accuse me of not understand the pain such people are in, I just shake my head. I work with these people every week. I’ve been doing it for decades. Not understand their pain?

Here’s what happens to a real addict—say, someone addicted to heroin or OxyContin—when they stop using the substance to which they’re addicted: they vomit. They hallucinate. They can’t sleep. They chew their lips. They suffer gut pain or migraines. It’s the anguish of the damned.

Here’s what happens to a “porn addict” when they stop using porn: they get crabby. Maybe distracted at work.

Now to be fair, most people who try to quit watching porn also try to quit masturbating (the usual logic-free treatment of “porn addiction”, and of the No-Fap movement). That’s actually more difficult. These people get really crabby, and yes, may get really distracted. Not suicidal, not chronically nauseous, not delusional, just crabby and distracted.

Which is exactly how you would feel if you gave up masturbating for six or twelve months. What almost never happens is people giving up porn and continuing to masturbate regularly. After a few weeks they’d do what humans have been doing for thousands of years—they’d use their imagination when masturbating, and life would go on.

People confuse the effects of giving up porn with the effects of giving up masturbation. And in any case, neither is even remotely on a par with the experience of withdrawal from actual addiction.

“Porn addiction” is, at best, a metaphor. Tens of thousands of people are spending tens of millions of dollars getting their metaphor treated. And if they imagine that they’re “porn addicts,” they’ll spend the rest of their lives “recovering” from their metaphor. Contrast that with therapy, whose goal is to help people make better decisions, sharpen their values, enhance their internal sense of responsibility—and finish treatment.

What America is struggling with is yet another moral panic about sex. True to form throughout our history, Americans today aren’t talking with each other meaningfully about sex–about desire, about choices, about pleasure, about power, about shame, about fear, about intimacy. In various decades, Americans talked about these very real aspects of sexuality by talking about rock ‘n’ roll, sexual violence, wifely duty, contraception, Communism, “the Gay Agenda,” even race.

Today people use the subject of porn to talk about sex. People today speculate about porn causing rape (it doesn’t), destroying marriages (it doesn’t), addicting young people (it doesn’t), or creating perversions (it doesn’t). It’s all easier than talking honestly about real sex with one’s real partner. Or even with one’s self.

So as Salon’s headline asked, is America struggling with a “pandemic” of porn? Well, if that means there’s a lot of porn out there, and a lot of people watching it, and some people regretting how much they watch, the answer is yes. And in that case there’s also a pandemic of Kardashian.

But if “pandemic” means a destructive, wildly multiplying, irrational disease that can’t be understood or even contained—well, no.

The irrational fear of (and anger about) porn is far more damaging than porn itself. No matter what you call that combination of intense fear, anger, blame, and self-righteous betrayal, anyone can see how damaging that is. And I am, in fact, quite sympathetic about it. In a world filled with porn, that sense of powerlessness and despair must be awful.

 

 

 

 

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