In November 2004, a panel of experts testified before a Senate subcommittee
that a product which millions of Americans consume is dangerously addictive.
They were talking about pornography.
The effects of porn on the brain were called "toxic" and compared to
cocaine. One psychologist claimed "prolonged exposure to pornography stimulates
a preference for depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual
contact with animals."
Sitting in high school biology, listening to the teacher drone on about
genetics, I snapped to attention when she used male pattern baldness as an
example of a dominant trait. My heart started pounding with fear - with bald
men on both sides of my mother's family as far as the eye could see, I was
doomed to have a chrome dome.
I remained anguished about the prospect of being bald for the next 20 years
as my hairline retreated and my hair steadily thinned. Bald men seemed
disfigured to me....
It used to be that if you wanted to see pornography, you had to go out and
buy a magazine or rent a video. Store hours and available space under the
mattress placed some limits on people's porn habits.
Now there are an estimated 420 million adult web pages online. "For the
person who has difficulty stopping, more is only one click away," says sex
therapist Louanne Cole Weston, PhD.
There's no doubt that some people's porn consumption gets them in trouble --
in the form of maxed-out credit cards, lost sleep, neglected responsibilities,
or neglected loved ones. But Weston is one who takes issue with calling problem
behavior involving porn an addiction. "'Compulsive' is more appropriate," she
Compulsion or Addiction
The difference between describing the behavior as a compulsion or an
addiction is subtle, but important.
Erick Janssen, PhD, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute, criticizes the use
of the term addiction when talking about porn because he says it merely
describes certain people's behavior as being addiction-like, but treating them
as addicts may not help them.
Many people may diagnose themselves as porn addicts after reading popular
books on the subject, he says. But mental health professionals have no standard
criteria to diagnose porn addiction.
Mary Anne Layden, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was
one of the witnesses at the Senate hearing on pornography addiction. She says
the same criteria used to diagnose problems like pathological gambling and
substance abuse can be applied to problematic porn use.
"The therapists who treat pornography addicts say they behave just like any
other addicts," she tells WebMD.
One of the key features of addiction, she says, is the development of a
tolerance to the addictive substance. In the way that drug addicts need
increasingly larger doses to get high, she thinks porn addicts need to see more
and more extreme material to feel the same level of excitement they first
"Most of the addicts will say, well, here's the stuff I would never look at,
it's so disgusting I would never look at it, whatever that is -- sex with kids,
sex with animals, sex involving feces," she says. "At some point they often
Janssen disputes that people who look at porn typically progress in such a
way. "There is absolutely no evidence to support that," he tells WebMD.