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“Dear Jesse, I’m an atheistic porn addict.”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Dear Jesse,

I have a pretty serious porn/Internet addiction. Yeah, yeah, every other guy says they’re addicted, but for me it has impeded school, sleep, eating, and socializing. I’ve failed classes because of it and lost friends. Last semester, I probably spent more time online than I did sleeping. Often, I would go multiple days staying in my room “porning,” not going to classes, not going to the cafeteria, and eating granola bars for meals. I identify as a straight male and get easily aroused by women. However, I enjoy anal stimulation and I am sometimes able to suck myself (yes, you read that right). I also enjoy MTF transgender porn. I am very comfortable with my sexuality; it’s just that the compulsion has effectively ruined much of my life. I’ve had my family and friends password protect computers and smart phones, started seeing a sexologist in addition to my psychiatrist, as well as begun attending Sex Addict Anonymous meetings. I’m still trying to get the hang of SAA, especially as an atheist. Although I’ve tried looking to the group as my “higher power,” it’s still challenging. How can an atheistic porn addict use a 12-step program?

—Atheistic Porn Addict

Dear Atheistic Porn Addict,

When he penned that famous opening line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” Charles Dickens couldn’t possibly have known that one faraway day, the average person, in whatever corner of the globe he or she happened to be in, could in milliseconds, and with all the cunning and labor of a fingertip’s slight pressure on a button, summon a nearly infinite supply of people displaying their genitals. Yet for those of us who happen to be aroused by other attractive human beings (with perhaps a handful of exceptions, that means everyone reading this) the current age of the digital libido is arguably one of the best of times to be alive in the history of our species’ sexuality. As you’ve experienced firsthand, however, it’s also one of the worst of times, and for very much the same reasons.

First, let’s address your conundrum as being an atheist surrounded by spiritual people who are similarly struggling with sex addiction. The faith-based component of 12-step programs has been criticized before as potentially discriminatory against nonbelievers who are just as in need of support as are their believing peers. Still, this nondenominational, “spiritual-but-not-religious” emphasis on God as being the key to fixing people’s addictions strikes me as particularly bizarre when it comes to sexuality. Asking God to change something that, in evolutionary terms, is exquisitely designed to fit our ancestral environment reveals a profound discontent with our animal nature. Like many others, your expressed sexual adaptations have admittedly gone a bit haywire in the face of unanticipated cultural innovations that so assiduously exploit them. But as the psychologist Gad Saad of Concordia University explains in his recent book, The Consuming Instinct, “in the same way that a juicy burger caters to our evolved penchant for fatty foods, the visual imagery inherent to hardcore pornography ultimately appeals to men’s sexuality.”

I was surprised to see the SAA has modified the traditional 12 steps of the Alcoholic Anonymous pledges to suit its own domain of carnal overindulgence. This means that half of these steps inform sex addicts that, before they can ever hope to reel in their hyperactive lust, they must first explicitly petition for God’s intervention or that of some ineffable “Power.” This isn’t to say that there isn’t pragmatic value in such beliefs for many—even most—people. After all, the functional utility of a spiritual worldview is completely separate from its truth-value. For a scientific atheist who has done his or her homework, however, adopting such a worldview is about as easy as slipping into a new ethnicity or switching to a different sexual orientation. This leaves you at a distinct disadvantage in a 12-step program.

I suppose if it offers communal support and you aren’t strongly pressured to subscribe to the spiritual message (perhaps it’s more tangential to your specific group’s practices), it could be beneficial, sort of like an indifferent atheist attending church every Sunday just to remain strategically entrenched in a pleasant community. But meanwhile, let me offer a few research-informed observations about your predicament that you’re unlikely to hear at any SAA meetings. None of these, you’ll be relieved to know, involves God at any step of the way.

Let’s first set the stage with some empirical data about today’s pornography racket. One of the best accounts of the factors driving this juggernaut of an industry is a review article by the Italian economist Fabio D’Orlando. The author offers some mind-blowing statistics about the money being generated by the business of flesh. It’s probably even more substantial today (six years later), but in 2006 global porn revenues were estimated at some 97 billion dollars. D’Orlando quotes an account by Jill Manning, who testified the previous year to a Senate subcommittee on the effects of pornography on society that “[p]ornography revenue is now greater than the combined revenues of all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises and is almost twice the combined revenues of ABC, CBS, and NBC.” Or, to keep comparisons in the same e-vein, the industry has larger revenues than the combined earnings of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix.

The advent of the Internet created the perfect storm for ravenous consumption, what scholars refer to as the “Triple A Engine” effect (affordability, access, and anonymity). The rapid cultural normalization of porn, generated by this Triple A Engine, is something that those of us past the age of, say, 35 witnessed firsthand. “In my day”—as old-timers like me tend to say—the closest I could get to naked men as a teenager was tilting my head like a confused dog at the infuriatingly scrambled lines of the Playboy Channel on cable TV, convincing my mother to purchase Men’s Fitness magazines at the grocery store (I’m still amazed she didn’t catch on with that one), creeping downstairs during the rare Cinemax free-view weekends to watch soft-core porn at 3am, and spending a considerable amount of time glued to those cheesy exercise-equipment infomercials featuring tan, equine-toothed, shirtless men doing sit-ups while wearing tight red shorts that promised a big reveal at any moment. I’m 36, so this wasn’t that long ago, really, but I’d guess it’s still a considerably tamer adolescent experience with “salacious” images than yours. That’s not to say that I didn’t fantasize about more explicit scenes. Oh, the things I dreamt up. But like most people in the early 1990s, I wasn’t about to go on a public scavenger hunt for porn. When I was 18, I slid into an independent bookstore and blushingly purchased an expensive Robert Mapplethorpe volume (just slightly more extreme than the soporific stuff I was used to), but that was as far as I was willing to risk attaching my face to my self-consciously sordid desires. Then the Internet happened and, well, let’s just say Men’s Fitness lost a very loyal customer.

Approximately 12 percent of all web pages now are pornographic. In the US alone, during the single month of April 2005, there were 34,376,000 unique visitors to porn sites. This amounts to about a quarter of all Internet users going online that month for sexual purposes, with each person viewing an average of 239 XXX pages. Every day, 68 million Internet search engine requests (25 percent of all search terms entered) are for pornography. Importantly, around three quarters of those visiting hardcore porn websites are male and between the ages of 18 and 45. Whether you’re a fan of porn or see it as a plague on society, these are the naked facts.

The point is that times have changed, and fast. For the most part, science hasn’t kept pace with the cataclysmic shift in pornography’s effects on human sexuality. According to the social historian Lisa Zigel, conservative attitudes continue to thwart serious theoretically motivated, non-moralistic studies on pornography. This is a shame, especially given its obviously important role in the everyday lives of so many people. “Scholars who examine pornography do so at their own risk. Grants, funding, promotions—the bread and butter of academic life—are generally not supportive of the study of pornography. And few other topics are at once so nebulous and heated.”

There are a handful of positive exceptions to this empirical lacuna, most coming from the field of evolutionary psychology. To understand the strong male interest in pornography, we must, as Saad suggests, look to our species’ adaptive past, where men would have sought casual sex with multiple partners without commitment. Here’s another way to think about it. A pregnant woman who has sex with 100 men in one year isn’t likely to increase her genetic fitness; once she’s pregnant, she can have sex with all the men in the world and her fitness would be negligibly effected. Not so for a man who has sex with 100 women.

Starting with the anthropologist Donald Symons in his classic book, The Evolution of Human Sexuality, pornography has been interpreted as a contemporary reflection of men’s evolved sexuality more generally. (And gay men are identical in every way according to this logic, just with an inverted pattern of attraction.) Symons argued that, in contrast to women’s prototypical erotic fantasies, which usually involve romance and multiple sources of stimulation beyond the visual, men fantasize about a place where “sex is sheer lust and physical gratification, devoid of more tender feelings and encumbering relationships, in which women are always aroused, or at least easily arousable, and ultimately are always willing.” My guess is that sounds a lot like the world you’ve been occupying while locked away in your room “porning.”

Pornography has been used to test various evolutionarily based experimental hypotheses. The psychologist Nicholas Pound, for example, found that men strongly prefer to watch multiple men having sex with one woman (e.g., “gang bangs”) than multiple women having their way with one man. This is counterintuitive on the surface—after all, one wouldn’t think that close-ups of other men’s erections would be more arousing to straight men than would numerous nude, lascivious women. But Pound argues that we can understand this interesting titbit through our knowledge of human sperm competition.

They may not be aware of it, but what really turns men on are cues suggesting other males are challenging their reproductive success with highly desirable, fertile females. In the real world, most of us don’t often run into group sex (still, I once saw a half-hearted public orgy during Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, and swingers clubs do exist), but this doesn’t mean that “facultative polyandry” didn’t occur with more frequency in the ancestral past. As Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jatho argued convincingly in Sex at Dawn, such polyamorous practices may have been more common for our ancestors than previously thought. Also, there are plenty of more subtle, indirect cues (men flirting with one’s wife or her having a close male friend, for example) that can trigger a similar response even for men in monogamous marriages. Increased arousal translates to behavior and physiology that gives men a leg-up in their particular sperm war, including more impressive penile tumescence and deeper thrusting in the vaginal tract. Both of these capitalize on the human coronal phallic design that I’ve discussed before, improving one’s ability to displace other men’s competing sperm and supplant it with one’s own. In fact, in a more recent controlled study, the evolutionary biologists Sarah Kilgallon and Leigh Simmons confirmed that men who masturbated to pornographic images depicting sperm competition (two males with one female) produced ejaculate containing more motile, energetic sperm than those pleasuring themselves to three naked women.

Another evolution-minded study on Internet pornography was a 2010 report by the psychologists Patrick and Charlotte Markey. Building their case on prior evidence showing that testosterone levels in males rise after winning social competitions (even something as minor as a coin toss) and noting how this occurs in the wake of vicarious wins (such as one’s favorite team taking home the World Cup), and furthermore that such spikes in testosterone spur various reproductive behaviors, the Markeys reasoned that fluctuating trends in online pornography use might be predicted by ambient political currents. Using Google Trends data, and after controlling for “pornography-seeking behaviors” (e.g., people Googling keywords such as “boobs” and “xtube”) the week before the elections, the Markeys confirmed that citizens living in states voting for the winning political party in the wake of three different major US elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008 were searching the Internet for significantly more porn than were those living in states favoring the losing parties.

The question of pornography addiction is controversial—some scholars feel that the construct of “addiction” should apply only to neurobiologically based chemical dependency. But cases like yours are convincing to me that it’s very real. One thing that stands out to me in your letter is your stated attraction to several deviant forms of stimulation. (And I mean “deviant” only in a purely statistical sense, not a moral one). This is because alongside the evolutionary reasoning, other scholars believe that a central consequence of overexposure to Internet pornography is hedonic adaptation, which means that what was once arousing no longer does the trick, and thereby addicts escalate to increasingly extreme (“harder”) images. “As part of the escalation process,” writes the clinical psychologist Patrick Carnes, “patients become obsessed and preoccupied with new behaviors never even known about. Suddenly Asian women or girls who smoke or uncircumsized men become a sexual focus that is difficult to dislodge from the patient’s thinking.” On a lesser scale, imagine having only a single unchanging pornographic image as a “masturbatory aid” for the rest of your life. No matter how arousing it was the first time you encountered it, hedonic adaptation is inevitable. (Some say this is exactly what monogamy amounts to.)

What I think is relevant about escalation for your situation is that, according to D’Orlando, the porn addict now must spend more and more time searching for material that is sufficiently arousing to satisfy his or her lust. This would suggest that much of your “porning” time is probably spent discarding or sifting through relatively non-arousing material in search of the elusive hit that your brain requires.

Listen to the expert specialists that are trying to help you—they know what they’re doing. Pray to God if you want (it probably won’t help, but it won’t hurt either). But having knowledge of the underlying psychological factors motivating your behaviors is vital. And you never know, one day your experiences may give you unique insight into developing a science of pornography that helps millions of others just like you.

Have a question to pose for the Bering in Mind ‘Ask Me Anything’ feature? Please read the rules here first, then email beringinmind@gmail.com or submit through the “Ask Anything” portal at www.jessebering.com. Questions may be minimally edited for clarity and length.

 

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering, at www.jessebering.com, is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). He began his career as a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas and is the former director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast. Bering now lives in Ithaca, New York with his partner, Juan, along with a very big cat and two pathologically friendly border terriers. In addition to his books, Bering is also a regular contributor to many popular magazines, including Scientific American, Slate, New York Magazine, The Guardian, The New Republic, Discover, and more. Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. DeepSurvivor 5:42 pm 01/23/2012

    Or, he could try raquetball :) it is my latest and longest lasting addiction- got me out of gambling addiction.

    Seriously, once you play this sport for a few weeks, your brain starts to crave it in an unusual way due to the intensity of the workout and the impact on bloodflow in the brain.

    Link to this
  2. 2. gregs19 5:44 pm 01/23/2012

    Yea its definitely a growing problem. Plenty of sites out there offering help though. Here is one http://newlifehabits.com/

    Link to this
  3. 3. daniellewis 9:15 pm 01/23/2012

    http://proactivechange.com/12steps/and/Proactive12steps-Book.pdf

    Link to this
  4. 4. yannisguerra 11:06 pm 01/23/2012

    I wonder if I’ll need popcorn for this one too.
    I feel that the atheist point for the rehab didn’t get much play in the post, which is sad, because it is an interesting bias to analyze

    Link to this
  5. 5. japerro 12:23 pm 06/30/2012

    Thank you, Jesse, for this article. I find it vexing that while porn addiction is exploding, the available empirical data is from 2005 and 2006, and, as you say, conservative attitudes continue to thwart serious studies. Resources seem to be limited to religious and quasi-religious self-help communities and a few subscription-type programs advertised by entrepeneurs and opportunists. I registered with this website just to submit comment here because this is the first sign of non-biased non-religious attention to the subject that I have seen. I would like to see the topic further discussed. Any thoughts out there about DeepSurvivor’s suggestion about displacing porn addiction with a healthy habit like raquetball? I’m a bit pessimistic about it because I don’t like competitive sports, and I think the testosterone activity of competition/conquest may be a key if it is working there. In other words, I rather doubt if something like jogging would do the same trick.

    Link to this

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