Addicted to Porn

Clinical psychologist David Ley questions common diagnosis


We need to start having open, honest discussions about why the problem of so-called porn addiction actually has less to do with titillating material, and more to do with how people use them.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist and executive director of New Mexico Solutions who also published the book The Myth of Sex Addiction, is on a mission to define that difference.

“When we over-focus on pornography, we externalize the problem,” Ley says. “A person is sitting there watching pornography—it’s the person we are trying to help, and we shouldn’t spend too much energy trying to stop pornography.”

From my own experiences talking to people about porn (I love my job!), people use porn for many reasons, including boredom, curiosity, difference in libido and seeing sexual variety without experiencing and/or breaking relationship agreements.

Obviously, people can have an unhealthy relationship with sex or porn, and seeing a counselor or therapist is a really great way to work on what’s troubling them. But we see some trends in these industries that are pretty interesting.

Porn’s big consumers are still mostly older, rich, white men, the same demographic that’s most likely to be classified as as porn addicts, according to Ley. But, porn and sex addiction are not a diagnosis in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders because there isn’t sufficient research to back up the label. Porn addiction is often classified as “high frequency viewing of sexual images,” according to Ley and his colleagues’ new academic review paper “The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Review of the ‘Pornography Addiction’ Model.”

It’s also common for people who feel they have a problematic relationship with porn to view it in places that are considered inappropriate, such as work. But I think that has more to say about our culture around sex and porn than about porn addiction, and Ley agrees.

“We are applying unfair bias against sexuality, such that we stigmatize and penalize people who are caught using pornography at work than if they are caught using Facebook or fantasy football,” Ley says. “And as an employer, I’ve got more of a problem with people spending time on social media than people watching porn at work.”

Ley says research from those who say porn addiction is a real thing says between 6 and 10 percent of people are addicted to porn, but it’s a bit more complex than that.

“As much as 10 percent of people might report to occasionally worrying about their use of porn, but substantially less than 1 percent (about .5 percent) of people report actually having problems from their difficulty controlling their porn use,” he writes.

Ley says a common theme in his practice is that patients who have a problematic relationship with explicit media often have few coping strategies to manage stress that has nothing to do with their sexual appetite.

“As people reduce down to a single coping strategy, whether it’s alcohol, pornography or collecting model trains, we see that one coping strategy can become a problem in their lives if they’re overusing it,” Ley says.

The media hype around porn addiction, and the lucrative treatment industry, would have us believe that consuming porn causes lasting physical changes in our brain, but Ley says the scientific support for those claims is often very weak.

“Research studies that make those claims never compare the effects of pornography to the effects of television,” Ley says. “There’s also research that illustrates when you show sports fans images of their sports team, their brain reacts in a very strong way that is identical to the way pornography is being described as causing brain changes. Are we then to assume that pro sports and NFL is addictive? No.”

Ley emphasizes that porn is no different from other forms of entertainment and is not intended to be a representation of real-life sex. However, in a culture that skimps on sex education for young adults, he says, they often to turn to porn as teacher. And those lessons aren’t really beneficial.

The psychologist who will teach a new class this semester at Southwestern College was recently featured on Katie Couric’s talk show Katie. Watch a video of the appearance below.

This column was originally published in the Santa Fe Reporter on Sept. 30th 2014.