Journal

Is porn addiction for real?

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

You can't be "addicted" to porn.1

You can  use it compulsively,2 as a maladaptive way of trying to cope with difficult feelings, just as you can use almost anything.

Like Netflix.

Or half-gallon containers of ice cream.

Or adopting cats.

Or Idris Elba movies.

The difference between addiction and compulsion is a technical one,3 and I guess sometimes people like to use "addiction" as a METAPHOR for their relationship with something like ice cream, cats, or Idris Elba, but it is just a metaphor, and a poor one because it frames the porn, the ice cream, the cats, or The 'Batch as the source of the problem, when it is very literally just a distraction from the problem itself.

The problem itself is the uncomfortable emotions that the person is trying to avoid.

See, difficult feelings are like tunnels, you have to go all the way through them to get to the light at the end. Which is a challenge, because difficult feeling are... well... difficult. They're uncomfortable. So in order to allow those feelings to complete their cycles, you need positive meta-emotions.

Meta-emotions are your feelings about your feelings. Like, if how you feel is anxious, then you might feel accepting and compassionate about the fact that you feel anxious (that's a positive meta-emotion)... or you might feel dread or anger or fear about the fact that you feel anxious (those are negative meta-emotions.)

Which of those meta-emotions, positive or negative, is going to make it easier to allow the anxiety (or sadness or anger or whatever) to run its course?

Positive. Right.

So if you grew up in an emotion-dismissing family/culture of origin, then you probably learned to dread, hate, fear or otherwise reject uncomfortable feelings. To you, they aren't tunnels, they're CAVES. Filled with bats. Where you'll be trapped FOREVER. So when you notice an uncomfortable Feel, you will do ANYTHING not to go into that cave. ANYTHING.

And that's where compulsions come in.

Basically, the progression in your brain is this: You begin to have an uncomfortable feeling (this is your emotion). You dread that uncomfortable feeling (this is your meta-emotion). And so rather than go ahead and feel that uncomfortable feeling, you avoid it, you distract yourself with something that feels good, like ice cream or porn or cats or Thor movies.

Notice that these are all things that can be totally benign pleasures; it's only in the context of using these things INSTEAD OF feeling your Feels that they become problematic.4

So the way you overcome any form of sexual compulsivity is two-fold:

(1) Develop your capacity to feel all the feels, even when they're uncomfortable. This is, of course, a long term project and I've written about it before.

(2) Develop short-term strategies for when you notice your body feeling uncomfortable and wanting to ease that discomfort with porn/ice cream/cats/Idris. A great first step is simply noticing that this dynamic is happening. Gradually, the better you get at noticing it, the more it will seem to slow down, the way baseball players get better and better at watching a ball come all the way in to the plate. And the better you get at noticing it, the more at-choice you'll feel about what to do about it when it arrives - and (unlike with baseball), when you get really good at noticing it, the very act of noticing the discomfort will defuse the discomfort before it ever escalates to a full blown Feel.

One thing porn, which maybe makes it different from ice cream, cats, or Idris Elba, is that you can train your body/brain to respond to a very specific context of looking-at-porn-and-masturbating as THE CONTEXT in which your body goes through the sexual response cycle. Train it consistently in this one context, and you'll find you have to retrain your body/brain to respond sexually in different contexts. Which is not a problem it's just effortful.

You'll save yourself a hassle if you masturbate lots of different ways, in lots of different contexts, with and without porn, with and without your partner in the room, with and without toys. The more diverse your masturbation, the wider the range of contexts in which your body/brain will readily respond to sexual stimulation.

References:

  1. Ley, David & Prause, Nicole & Finn, Peter. (2013). The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Review of the ‘Pornography Addiction’ Model. Current Sexual Health Reports. manuscript in press. 10.1007/s11930-014-0016-8.
  2. Prause, N., Steele, V. R., Staley, C., Sabatinelli, D., & Hajcak, G. (2015). Modulation of late positive potentials by sexual images in problem users and controls inconsistent with “porn addiction”. Biological psychology, 109, 192-199.
  3. Taylor, K. (2019). Pornography addiction: The fabrication of a transient sexual disease. History of the Human Sciences, 0952695119854624.
  4. Taylor, K., & Gavey, N. (2019). Pornography addiction and the perimeters of acceptable pornography viewing. Sexualities, 1363460719861826.

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