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Is porn a real addiction? Professionals disagree

Published: Monday, Sept. 20 2010 8:44 a.m. MDT

Whether regular, ongoing use of progressively more graphic pornography is actually an addiction like alcoholism or a hypersexual disorder more akin to compulsive gambling, its impact on the spouses of those who use it can be lost in a focus on the behavior itself.

An ongoing debate about whether porn is addictive the way drugs or alcohol are has included U.S. Senate hearings, and professionals who treat compulsive porn users in Utah remain divided on the "a" word.

But spouses — to date, mostly women — who wonder why the glare of a computer screen has stolen the hearts of their partners don't worry much about the semantics debate when the pain of personal betrayal won't go away.

To them, it feels like it must be an "addiction" because their spouses simply can't stay away from it and consequently, the relationship suffers. Often they debate whether to seek help or stay silent, particularly in Utah, where the "religious culture makes it a little taboo to talk about this," according to Rory Reid, a research psychologist at UCLA and director of the Provo Counseling Center.

"It's OK to stand up in a church meeting and say, 'I'd like to bear my testimony, I'm a recovering alcoholic and I'm so grateful for the atonement of Jesus Christ.' That's fine and everyone applauds you for it. But just try doing that with pornography," said Reid, who regularly counsels clients with damaged relationships.

Keeping quiet to avoid embarrassment means that if spouses seek help at all, it is often from those closest to them — trusted friends or church leaders who have no formal training in how to help.

That's one venue where the debate over whether pornography is "addictive" has its roots. As with other political battles that involve semantics, money and reputations are at stake inside a growing treatment industry that caters to compulsive porn users and their spouses.

Reid, whose current research includes assessing motivations for pornography use among hypersexual men, said that while substance abuse often becomes addictive, the use of porn can't be compared to drugs, alcohol or cigarettes because "you're not taking anything physical into your body."

Some argue that the use of pornography creates permanent changes in brain chemistry, but "there is no evidence whatsoever" for that assertion, he said. "We have the best MRI scanners in the world (at UCLA) and I can promise you if we scan (a pornography user's) brain, we won't see any structural differences."

Neurotransmission inside the brain is impacted, "but you do that by eating chocolate or watching a football game or a horror movie," he said. "Anyone who says otherwise is grossly overstating it."

By lumping excessive use of pornography together with substance abuse, "what you're really saying is that everyone who walks in the door is struggling with the same thing, and we use the same model to treat them," Reid said.

Using the term addiction "assumes the underlying problem is the same for everyone. Our data say some people do it for this or that reason, this or that issue."

Yet many professionals do label it an addiction.

Donald L. Hilton, a medical doctor specializing in neurological surgery, said that pornography is as addictive as any drug.

"Whereas we know that alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, methamphetamines and other drugs can cause physical changes in the brain, we really haven't thought in the past that natural addictions, to use that word, can do the same thing," he said. "In other words, cocaine and methamphetamine can cause changes in the way the brain functions, in the way the brain behaves, works. But what about pathologic gambling, what about overeating, what about sexual addictions? Can those behaviors also cause actual changes in brain chemistry, in brain function, in the size of the brain itself? The answer is overwhelmingly yes."

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