‘Porn addiction’: an imprecise, misleading and useful label

pbwCounsellor and psychotherapist Duncan E. Stafford has a view on the label ‘porn addiction’ – you can contact him through his site www.relationship-therapy-cambridge.co.uk.

I am not an enthusiast of using the word ‘addiction’ in relation to pornography. While there are undoubtedly people who display addictive symptoms such as a genuine felt inability to control their use of porn, a compulsion to look at porn and continued use of sexually explicit material (even against the background of adverse consequences), there are far greater numbers of people with difficulties around their continued use of pornography and cybersexual services who are not ‘classical addicts’.*

While it might be expected that addicts shy away from (as part of their denial process) using the word ‘addiction’ to describe their behaviour, it is curious that when I asked 20 people involved in a therapeutic dialogue about their issues regarding how they use pornography and cybersex, the vast majority did not think that ‘addiction to porn or cybersex’ was the best descriptor. They more often felt that the label ‘addiction’ is  ‘too convenient’ or that it made their issues look ‘too simplistic’ – as if the answer was the removal of the addiction rather than the need to work through the journey that got them involved in their negative relationship with porn, cybersex or sexually explicit material. It is interesting to note that when asked to self-label their issue, those asked felt that lack of education, skills and/or the ability to talk intimately with a partner(s), and/or depression were the core of the problem.

As a therapist, I find that labels can often be both useful and constricting in equal measures. ‘Porn addiction’ is the phrase now in common usage for people who, in fact, have a wide variety of issues with porn, cybersex and sexually explicit material. The really useful thing about the term is that it makes help for these issues searchable via the Internet – so, ill-defined, wanted, or not, ‘porn addiction’ is a helpful tag in twenty-first-century therapeutic life.

* If you would like to follow some of the professional debate and controversy around the listing of ‘porn addiction’, then search for ‘porn addiction’ in DSM 5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition).

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