Pornography: An Academic Appraisal

Note: This material contains graphic detail. Reader discretion is advised. Note: Academic writing of this caliper attempts to be scientific in nature and tends to take a wholistic view of a subject and to be non-opinionated, and non-biased. In reading such materials it is best practice to recognize and suspend value judgments.


Pornography is one of the most prevalent activities while still being one of the least discussed topics in everyday life. Pornography site visits have been increasing in number over the years. Back in 2001, a study reported that porn sites received up to 50 million hits a year (Worden, 2001). More recently, the popular streaming site, Pornhub boasted 42 billion visits in 2019. This meant an average of 115 million visits per day (2019). Even in its popularity as a source of entertainment, outside of the mainstream culture, the larger body of research and questions generally seek to shed light on the negative impacts of pornography. In this paper, pornography will be examined through the lens of psychology, neurobiology and the Church. In conclusion, there will be a discussion on current trends in treatment.

Psychology and Objectification of Women in Pornography

Findings indicate that pornography has the potential to uphold or instill scripts and behaviors which can lead to the objectification of women. Objectification can be defined as when “a woman's body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her” (Fredrickson & Roberts, p. 175). There is a correlation between when women are being objectified and anxiety, shame, disruptions to cognitive flow, and a decrease in awareness of internal feelings and emotions (Fritz, & Paul, 2017).

Bandura’s (1986, 2001) social cognitive theory (SCT) has been utilized in describing how objectification impacts pornography users. SCT postulates that individuals learn behavior and scripts by observing the consequences and rewards of the behavior of others. Bandura (2001) notes that media as an important outlet for this type of learning. In this instance media could include pornography. SCT was then implemented concerning sexual scripts (Wright, 2011). Findings indicated that women were more accepting of objectifying gestures when exposed to objectifying pornography (Wright, 2011). One study found that this theory describes the relationship between pornography and the objectification and ill-treatment of women and other populations (Fritz, & Paul, 2017; Hald, Malamuth, & Yuen, 2010). Interestingly, according to Pornhub statistics, the genres “gangbang”, “rough sex”, and “bondage” were mostly viewed by women and the LGBTQ+ community (2019).

Inversely, Pornhub also reports that violent genres of pornography were not so popular with men in 2019 (2019). But this does not mean that violence is not prevalent in other genres. Slapping, spanking hair pulling, choking, and other actions, are all considered objectifying behaviors found across mainstream genres (Bridges, Wosnitzer, Scharrer, Sun, & Liberman, 2010). One analysis found that 90% of the scenes analyzed contained one of these gestures, and they were toward women 94% of the time (Bridges, et al., 2010).

Normal Pornography Use, Motivations and Concerns

Researchers currently make the distinction between normal pornography use, and problematic online pornography use (POPU)(Alarcón, Iglesia, Casado, & Montejo, 2019). In of itself, pornography is not necessarily pathological (Keane, 2016). A survey conducted back in 2002 revealed common reasoning for why individuals use pornography. The top 5 reasons were, “to masturbate/for physical release,” “to sexually arouse myself and/or others,” “out of curiosity,” “because I can fantasize about things I would not necessarily want in real life,” and “to distract myself” (PBS, 2002). The last reason, involving distraction is most notable in the current coronavirus pandemic. Since people are self-isolating in their homes, there is a greater need for entertainment. Within the last month, since February 24th, Pornhub has seen an increase in porn consumption by 18.5% (2020). These statistics likely align with the use of pornography to avoid negative emotions (Borgogna, Duncan, & McDermott, 2018).

Researchers have questioned the time between when individuals first consume porn and have their first sexual experience (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Particularly there is curiosity around how this could have a negative impact on sexual development—researchers have noticed that pornography may be the cause of low sexual desire and a massive spike of erectile dysfunction in young adult males (Zimbardo, Wilson, & Coulombe, 2016; Pizzol, Bertoldo, & Foresta, 2016; Prins, Blanker, Bohnen, Thomas, & Bosch, 2002). But even separate from these issues, researchers are also studying the addictive aspects of pornography.

Problematic Online Pornography Use

POPU is generally thought of like an addiction (Alarcón, et al., 2019). The two types of addictions relate to substance and behavior (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Substance addictions are typified by the impact made on the brain. Current understandings indicate that these addictions bypass the specific regions of the brain responsible for inhibition, linking directly to the reward system (Schultz, 2016; Alarcón, et al., 2019). However, the reward system is not implicated as much as it was first speculated (Schultz, 2016). Drugs of abuse increase dopamine stimulation but while still under the influence, dopamine stimulation returns to baseline (Schultz, 2016). There is a strong indication that dopamine is not the pleasure chemical once hypothesized, but rather the learning chemical that records steps for motivation for more or less of a stimulus (Schultz, 2016).

POPU is specifically considered a behavioral addiction. Behavioral addictions involve criteria for problematic behavior (Alarcón, et al., 2019). It is particularly technology and more specifically, the internet that has opened up individuals to behavioral addictions (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Problematic behaviors include a demonstration of impaired control wherein individuals have narrowed interests, neglect of other areas of life, continued use despite awareness of potential harm and escape from other mental health issues (Alarcón, et al., 2019; Borgogna, et al., 2018). Activities include but are not limited to shopping, betting, gaming, and pornography (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Only one behavioral addiction has made it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a “Non-Substance-Related Disorder”—Gambling Disorder (APA, 2013).

Behavioral addictions are associated with “triple-A” factors—accessibility, affordability, and anonymity (Cooper, Scherer, Boies, & Gordon, 1999). Triple-A factors have thus increased enticement for individuals to engage in problematic behavior and have also made it more difficult to study those behaviors (Cooper, et al., 1999). Problematic behaviors include a demonstration of impaired control wherein individuals have narrowed interests, neglect of other areas of life, continued use despite awareness of potential harm and escape from other mental health issues (Alarcón, et al., 2019; Borgogna, et al., 2018).

As it relates specifically to POPU, up till more recently, it has been difficult to asses the overall impact it has on individuals (Alarcón, et al., 2019). One reason is that the pathological side of sexuality can be represented in behaviors ranging from fantasy to violence (Keane, 2016). Such a wide range of behavior has made it difficult to even define dysfunction and it seems that what may be pathological for some may be healthy for others (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Other barriers include the cultural stigma and taboo nature of the subject, the various assessment tools researchers have implemented and the disparity in opinion over what constitutes pathological use of pornography (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Moreover, very few participants from studies feel that pornography use is addictive, and of those that do, few see the potential for negative consequences (Alarcón, et al., 2019).

Cultural barriers aside, POPU and other behavioral addictions have been traditionally studied from the standpoint of clinical manifestations (Alarcón, et al., 2019). It is understood and documented that POPU can lead to legal, relational, financial, occupational or personal problems, erectile dysfunction (ED) and comorbidity (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Relational dissatisfaction includes sexual dysfunction, dissatisfaction with one's own or their partner’s body, performance pressure, having more sexual partners and engaging in prostitution (Alarcón, et al., 2019). One study found that 60% of participants struggling with ED and orgasm with their partner had no issues with pornography (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Comorbidity includes anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and mood disorders (Alarcón, et al., 2019). POPU is also associated with drinking, smoking, substance abuse and problematic video-game use (Alarcón, et al., 2019).

What seems to currently separate behavioral and substance addictions the most is that in comparison, the physical effects of withdrawal and tolerance of behavioral addictions are more debatable (Alarcón, et al., 2019). However, there is still a strong link between both substance and behavioral addictions in terms of neurobiology. Recently researchers have found indicators that POPU has a lot more in common with substance addictions than what was originally theorized (Gola, Wordecha, Sescousse, Lew-Starowicz, Kossowski, Wypych, & Marchewka, 2017).

Of the small number of studies recently conducted, POPU is found to be partially comprised of supranormal stimuli (Hilton, 2013). The theory of supranormal stimuli speculates that activities such as the internet cause responses in the dopamagenic reward system at higher levels than what would be considered “natural” (Hilton, 2013). The theory of supranormal stimuli offers behavioral addiction neurobiological marks that share commonalities with substance addictions (Love, Laier, Brand, Hatch, & Hajela, 2015). This theory has been supported by recent studies that associated similar patterns of brain activity evident in drug addiction with pornography users (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Moreover, another study found that pornography users were more likely to strongly desire pornography than generalized sexual experiences based on brain activity (Alarcón, et al., 2019).

Another recent study on hypersexual individuals found evidence of down-regulated reward circuitry (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Down-regulation is likely mediated by the dorsal cingulate which is involved in anticipating rewards (Kühn, & Gallinat, 2014). Such a link suggests the development of habituation which would indicate an enhanced desire for sexual stimuli (Kühn, & Gallinat, 2014). Reward prediction error theory would then predicate that over time, individuals need more or new pornographic or sexual experiences to stimulate reward circuitry (Alarcón, et al., 2019; Schultz, 2016).

Causes for Pornography in the Church

Christians have been strong advocates for pornography addiction for decades (Thomas, 2016). While some have argued that stress places individuals at a higher risk for addictive behavior, others have noticed the potential religion has to act as a protective measure against addiction (Borgogna, et al., 2018). One study indicated that Christians look at pornography at much lower rates than the general population (Baltazar, Helm, McBride, Hopkins, & Stevens, 2010). For this reason, religion may have both protective and risk-inducing dimensions (Borgogna, et al., 2018).

Research indicates that Christians using pornography are at an increased risk for psychological distress due to the perception of pornography addiction (Bradley, Grubbs, Uzdavines, Exline, & Pargament, 2016). Even as far back as the 80’s the popular evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, was declaring that alarming rates of Christians were addicted to pornography (Thomas, 2016).

Two major explanations have been given for why Christians perceive they are addicted to pornography. Some have argued that Christians actually are addicted to pornography. In this theory, rigid family structures and an emphasis on sexual purity create a fearful or ignorant environment. Such an environment can create a propensity for shame which when ignited by pornography may start an addiction cycle—much like the Focus on the Family article suggests (Huerta, 2019).

The other explanation—which seems to be the more accepted argument—is that Christians are more prone to perceiving they are addicted to pornography even if there is nothing seemingly “problematic” about their behavior (Alarcón, et al., 2019). Christians wager that the cognitive dissonance experienced in pornography use is an argument for addiction. But the cognitive dissonance is just as likely to be linked to religiosity and conservatism and how certain beliefs do not mesh with modern-day culture and technology (Thomas, 2016).

A more recent explanation that combines elements of both explanations relates to scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is a psychological disorder described as a pathological obsession or guilt associated with moral or religious convictions (Miller, & Hedges, 2008). Behavior includes compulsivity in religious observance (Miller, & Hedges, 2008). In this perspective, pornography use is identified as a “religious scruple” (Borgogna, et al., 2018). A study done on the relationship between scrupulosity and perceived pornography use indicated that the higher individuals tested for scrupulosity, the higher they also tested for problematic pornography viewership (Borgogna, et al., 2018).

Treatment and Biblical Perspectives

On the systemic level, sex education programs do little aside from informing individuals of anatomy (Zimbardo, & Coulombe, 2016). It is argued that if individuals are educated on these issues they may make different decisions about their consumption (Wilson, 2017). One article argued that sex education programs should include education about pornography. Education should not be so much aimed at abstinence, but education about issues about the viewership of pornography, its potential negative impacts (Štulhofer, Buško, & Landripet, 2010). To this effect, material may include discussion on the objectification of women, a discussion on real intimacy and sexuality typically expressed in relationships and issues around addiction.

As a counselor, it is important to recognize that no two clients are alike and that few blanket statements properly apply to this topic. As is always the case, it is important to remain receptive towards clients, being slow to judgment, and shame. On one hand, some clients will not even give their pornography use—no matter how little or much—a second thought. While most will seek help for symptoms associated with pornography and POPU, clients will seldom bring up the cause (Gola, Lewczuk, & Skorko, 2016). On the other hand, others, such as those that show symptoms for scrupulosity, may put too much of themselves into their behavior, assuming that even the occasional pornography use could lead to serious consequences. Though it is important to observe and respect the religious values of clients it can also seem that religious values can be a source or inflammatory of client issues. In any case, both the religious and non-religious may experience issues with ED, depression and anxiety, relational issues, job performance and religious concerns (Thomas, 2016).

Research seems to be scarce on the impact of CBT and mindfulness approaches on Pornography use (Brand, et al., 2019). The aim of such therapies in conjunction with acceptance and commitment therapy may be aimed at increasing quality of life and decreasing pornography use (Brand, et al., 2019). As therapists step into these issues with clients they could consider that the Bible really can be perceived as a double-edged sword. Bible verses and Christian culture that support the argument for the general sinful aspect of pornography can make for a relatively air-tight case condemning the client to issues revolving around shame, low self-esteem and self-worth. Paradoxically, such a condemning and judgmental emphasis does not seem to be the mind of Christ. Rather, it is important to remain receptive towards clients, avoiding condemnation, judgment, and shame, especially where clients have sometimes received a great deal of it already (Nagoski, E. 2015). Therapy should remain focused on client’s goals and desires (Brand, Blycker, & Potenza, 2019).

Relating back to the neurological connection between substance, and behavioral addictions, dopamine-targeting drugs seem to show promise (Brand, et al., 2019). A recent studies found that medications such as paroxetine and naltrexone—drugs proven effective in substance use disorders—were useful in reducing problematic behavior in POPU (Gola, et al., 2017). It should be noted that if medications were to prove the most affective measure of treatment, there would be tension with insurance companies and the American Psychiatric Association due to the lack of representation of this disorder in the DSM (5th ed.) (APA, 2013). However, the next version of the ICD will include “compulsive sexual behavior disorder” (CSBD) in the “impulse control disorders” chapter (Navarro-Cremades, Simonelli, & Montejo, 2017). While CSBD cannot be used as a mental health disorder, it can still be useful for treatment-seeking clients and those suffering from guilt (Alarcón, et al., 2019).

Considering again how education may change the way consumers interact with pornography, may be an excellent way of relating current understandings of pornography and how it can be harmful. There are two books in particular—Man, Interrupted: Why Young Men Are Struggling & What We Can Do About It (Zimbardo, & Coulombe, 2016) and Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction (Wilson, 2017)—that when read together give a comprehensive and non-judgmental understanding. Individuals have claimed that reading these books gave them the understanding and confidence they needed to stop looking at pornography. However, it should be noted that these books are specifically aimed at mens issues on the topic.

There is still much to be learned about pornography and its impact on individuals. Pornography has potential for instilling scripts and behaviors in individuals that support the objectification of women. While the Church may have cases of addiction, they are perhaps not as prevalent as cases of scrupulosity. Moreover it seems that addictive characteristics found in POPU share commonalities with substance addictions. While such information points to the need to generate awareness in popular culture, there is also a need for therapies that make a difference and are accessible to clients.


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