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Why Do Religious People Report Higher Rates of Porn Addiction?

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Pornography addiction is a hot debate (no pun intended!) because it gets at two themes that tend to stir up a lot of moralistic opinions: sex and the growing role of technology in our daily lives.

In the media, there has been a rise in the idea that people commonly become addicted to porn in the same way they become addicted to drugs.

One NPR article cast naughty images as “a drug so powerful it can destroy a family simply by distorting a man’s perception of his wife.” Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford prison experiment fame, gave a TED talk in which he blamed porn and video games for nothing less than “the demise of guys.”

Among psychology researchers, the idea of “pornography addiction” is controversial. Some believe that porn usage is a classic case of compulsive behavior while others argue the idea of widespread porn addiction is a moral judgment masquerading as a scientific claim.

One piece of evidence suggesting a moralistic dimension to the idea of porn addiction is the fact that more religious people report higher rates of porn addiction. For example, a recent study asked people to report their own levels of porn addiction by evaluating how much they agreed with the following statements:

  • I have put off things I needed to do in order to view pornography
  • I am addicted to pornography
  • I feel depressed after viewing pornography

It turned out that people who reported being more religious also agreed more strongly with all three statements. A hint for why this might be the case comes from another statement the researchers asked participants to evaluate:

  • I believe that pornography use is morally wrong

People’s responses to this question correlated with their reported levels of porn addiction, even more so than their religious inclinations did. Specifically, people who thought of porn usage as immoral were more likely to see themselves as being “addicted” to porn.

In fact, when the researchers put all the data together, they found that people’s perceptions of porn as immoral predicted people’s self-reported levels of porn addiction more strongly than the amount of time those people spent watching porn did. To put it another way: whether people report being addicted to porn tells you something about how often they watch porn, but it tells you even more about whether they view porn as being morally “wrong.”

This finding adds weight to the idea that describing a porn habit as an “addiction” is partly a moralistic evaluation. It’s also not the only study to turn up a result along these lines.

Consider a longitudinal study in which researchers tracked participants for a year, studying which characteristics at the beginning of the study predicted pornography addiction a year later. In this case, people’s moral disapproval of pornography strongly predicted their subsequent levels of self-reported porn addiction.

Meanwhile, the researchers found “inconclusive evidence” for a link between porn addiction and actual amount of time viewing porn. They concluded that “perceived addiction to internet pornography appears to be related strongly to moral scruples around pornography use, both concurrently and over time, rather than with the amount of daily pornography use itself.”

Of course, these findings don’t definitively disprove the suggestion that there can be a compulsive element to porn usage. But they do indicate that when people report being “addicted” to porn, there’s often an underlying moral judgment about pornography – and that it’s going to be hard for mental health professionals to help these people change their relationship with porn without acknowledging the moral dissonance at play.

As one meta-analysis of research on this topic published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior put it, “feelings of addiction to pornography” might be “in many cases, better construed as functions of discrepancies … between pornography-related beliefs and pornography-related behaviors.” Ultimately, there is a massive amount of cultural, religious and moralistic baggage around the way we think about porn, and ignoring that social framing behind the conversation over “porn addiction” isn’t going to improve the mental health support we offer to people who are conflicted about their own porn usage habits.

Image: Flickr/Roy Blumenthal

Why Do Religious People Report Higher Rates of Porn Addiction?


2 thoughts on “Why Do Religious People Report Higher Rates of Porn Addiction?

  • January 17, 2019 at 3:16 pm
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    I think this article, while interesting theory, has no basis in research. We have reems of data today on the neuroscience of super-stimuli like porn use. We know that some people are vulnerable to returning to such stimuli to facilitate self-regulation, self-soothing and trauma. We also have endless data on the fact of when religious or cultural extremes force people to shame/doubt/question their own healthy sexual desires, there is more pathology around sex.

    Increased porn addiction among more conservative people doesn’t define “porn addiction” as there are many, many people who struggle with this who have no such religious history.
    Why not say that early trauma related to healthy sexual desire and arousal (like hellfire and damnation taught from ages 5-6 on) can lead to sexual problems in adolescent and adult life. One of which can be an addictive relationship to porn?

    That conclusion -not yours in this article – can be rooted in solid research. What about this idea? Not so much

    w/respect
    Robert Weiss PhD MSW
    Author/Sexologist/Educator

    Reply
    • January 17, 2019 at 4:15 pm
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      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This article is basically a summary of three peer-reviewed studies on the relationship between moral incongruence and perceived pornography addiction. Each of the research papers linked in the article cites dozens of other relevant papers, and one of them is actually a meta-analysis/systematic review of research in this area. So the ideas talked about here are, of course, fair game for debate, but you’re going to have to get a little more nuanced than saying they have “no basis in research.”

      Also worth noting is the finding that moral incongruence generally, not religiosity specifically, was more closely related to perceived porn addiction than actual frequency of porn use. In other words, it’s quite possible that someone who’s not religious could still see their pornography use as “wrong” or shameful, which might make them more likely to view it as an “addiction.”

      As far as the points about other research angles on this topic, if you have any specific studies in mind, I’m more than happy to look at those for another post on this topic!

      Reply

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