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[ Science and Tech ]

Internet Pornography: Rising Addiction or Cultural Fear?

By Gary Najjarian

In our culture, pornography is a subject that’s often swept under the rug, if not deep within our hard drives. Our perception of pornography varies depending on gender and cultural background, as well as one’s sexuality and sense of privacy. At-home viewing of adult entertainment is an assumed though under-discussed topic between friends and relatives, though porn can also be a topic of interest in certain social circles.

With the way that sexuality and the expression of sexuality varies from person to person, discussing porn in our modern culture can sometimes act as a ritual that reaches at deeper levels of relation between each other. Porn can either be an interesting topic or an outright hilarious one, based on the sheer informality of the subject matter. It is also a huge reason why internet terminology like “Safe for Work” and “Not Safe for Work” exist in formal settings. 

However, with the rise of the internet and the accessibility of adult entertainment, pornography and its consumption has evolved way beyond stashing your dirty magazines in secret hiding places. Now, pornography comprises a significant portion of how we use the internet, and also a gateway to help analyze online habits and normative sexuality.

The Statistics

According to a study conducted in 2010, pornography accounts for 12 percent of websites on the internet (which equals roughly 24,644,172 websites as of 2010), with about 40 million Americans qualifying as “regular visitors”. This country alone accounts for about half to the worldwide adult entertainment industry, which is worth around $5 billion. 

The cliché about porn consumption is that teenage boys are the sole demographic. That rings mostly true, since that demographic is about 70 percent on a typical month of traffic, though one in three porn viewers are also women. 25 percent of search engine requests are pornography related, and about 35 percent of downloads are, you guessed it, also pornographic. 

It’s safe to say with these numbers that porn is a rather vibrant aspect of our internet use, along with shedding light on our digital habits, but it has yet to be fully proven as something you can be addicted to. While an analysis of pornography can shed light on the cultural backdrop of its popularity and consumption, on a scientific level, porn addiction and hypersexuality have been found to work in the opposite way of any other addiction.

A recent study suggests that porn addiction does not function like other addictions. In fact, it works in the opposite way. 

Pornography As An Addiction?

Addiction to substances like cocaine and heroin have similar brain responses to each respective stimuli, and the substances also heighten brain activity. Those involved in the study were shown pornographic pictures along with pictures depicting non-sexual activity. Those subjected to pornographic media during the study showed a decrease in brain response to the stimuli.

An increase in late-positive potential, or LPP, in the brain can be an indication of addiction.

Late-positive potential, or LPP, is a measure that neurologists use to gauge brain activity, and is larger for emotional stimuli compared to neutral ones. To compare addictions would require each respective stimuli to increase LPP, though the subjects’ brains did not respond to the pornographic images like they could with drug use. While this does not ultimately rule out hypersexuality as an affliction, it places it in a precarious spot, at least in terms of diagnosis and treatment. Because the trajectory of this kind of brain activity also works opposite to traditional therapy methods used for other addictions, it leaves the medical assessment of porn addiction in a quandary.

With the difference in how the affliction works compared to others, there is a misstep in how certain organizations and programs approach helping those who say they are addicted to pornography. Catholic organization Integrity Restored even puts forth the idea that, using “brain science”, porn addiction works exactly the same as substance abuse. Furthermore, the Church of Latter Day Saints approaches porn addiction with a conventional 12-Step-based program. 

With the exact neurological effects held in contradicting lights, porn addiction is truly an anomaly in terms of treatment, with officials scrutinizing what may be a rising but duplicitous porn addiction treatment industry. Yet without conclusive evidence and no foundation of study to move forward, the APA rejected “hypersexual disorder” for inclusion in the DSM-V.

A Difference in Perception

What of those who say that they find porn to be debilitating? New Zealand Olympian Nick Willis, for instance, took to Facebook to say that he’d been abstinent from pornography for two and half years, since it became a hindrance to him as a husband and a father. He attributed the beginning of his addiction to being “a lonely teenager”, and was something he struggled with for a number of years. Nick’s plight also doesn’t sound too far off from that of “Mike”, the subject of a recent Vice article exploring pornography addiction. 

“Mike”, while being explicitly unsure whether he believed in pornography addiction himself, attributed his problematic consumption to having sex later in life. The similarity between the famous athlete Nick Willis and “Mike” shows implications of personal conflict, and a failure to meet the expectations of cultural norms. This suggests that their problems with adult entertainment are rooted in preexisting psychological conditions, like an anxiety of success or loneliness.

Pornography seems to be conflated with addiction especially for those with strong religious beliefs. The few studies that have been conducted on religious people seem to conclude that the amount of viewing didn’t seem to propel the fear of addiction so much as the strength of faith of the “addict”. The signifying factor was that the stronger a person’s faith, the greater they perceived their consumption as an addiction. Pair that with spiritually-based initiatives of rehabilitation, and the evidence begins stacking up for cultural and religious notions playing a big part in one’s perception of porn addiction.

Critical Assessment

All in all, the context for porn addiction seems to place it in a very problematic place. The scientific community is clearly suspicious to move research forward without a legitimate basis. Neurological evidence finds this behavior beyond the scope of treatment and rehabilitation methods that are used for other addictions, which puts a stopper on further research. With a scientific community confounded and unable to give a framework for helping those who think they need it, all other avenues of rehabilitation are then left largely to spiritual or religious organizations, many of whom don’t use methods that don’t truly assess the anomaly that porn addiction is. 

With experiences as well as cultural and religious beliefs varying widely between individuals, porn addiction has yet to be understood in a conclusive manner. The most one can do in this context, if they fear they may have an addiction to pornography, is to critically assess how much of a problem it is and how badly it is tampering with their life, whether it’s in the workplace or in their personal relationships. The scientific community currently have their hands tied, and certain religious communities are offering their own kind of one-size-fits-all treatment services. With the exact criteria and severity of addiction yet to be determined, the porn enthusiast, or perhaps porn “addict”, is on their own with this one.