Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pathologizing Porn

Yesterday Frum Satire posted a link to an Aish article titled “X-Rated” which decries the evils of porn and gives advice for avoiding temptation. Unlike most such articles these days, it doesn’t immediately launch into a tirade against the internet. The article starts with the author looking through porn magazines at a local store as a kid, and only towards the middle of the article does the internet come up. What it does do is something that I’ve been seeing more and more of over the past few years. It claims that looking at porn – and by implication, masturbation in general – is pathological.

The article treats porn as an addiction, and the comments on the article take it even further. Commenters talk about porn and masturbation in the same terms as substance abuse, discussing how long they’ve been “clean” and groups and therapies they’ve used. I have two issues with the characterization of masturbation as a pathology.

The first is simply that it isn’t true. Sex addiction as a disorder is itself controversial within the mental health community. It has never been included in the DSM, the official manual of disorders published by the American Psychological Association. While there is a sizable contingent of mental health professionals who think that sex addiction is a real pathology, looking at porn and masturbating do not by themselves mean that someone has an addiction. Frequent repetition of a pleasurable activity does not constitute an addiction, especially one for which there is an innate biological drive. Are we all addicted to food? After all, most of us eat three meals a day plus between-meal snacks.

The use of the word “addiction” in the Aish article and other similar articles is a common, frustrating phenomenon where people attach their own definition to a word, then use that word to make their point. “Addiction” has a real meaning. The following is a proposed diagnostic criteria for sexual addiction:

A maladaptive pattern of behavior, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by three (or more) of the following, occurring at any time in the same 12-month period:

1. tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
          1. a need for markedly increased amount or intensity of the behavior to achieve the desired effect
          2. markedly diminished effect with continued involvement in the behavior at the same level or intensity 2. withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
          1. characteristic psycho-physiological withdrawal syndrome of physiologically described changes and/or psychologically described changes upon discontinuation of the behavior
          2. the same (or a closely related) behavior is engaged in to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
3. the behavior is often engaged in over a longer period, in greater quantity, or at a higher intensity than was intended
4. there is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the behavior
5. a great deal of time spent in activities necessary to prepare for the behavior, to engage in the behavior, or to recover from its effects
6. important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of the behavior
7. the behavior continues despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the behavior.

Of these, the only ones that are applicable to the writer of the article (based on what he relates in the article) are 4 and 7. He therefore doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for sexual addiction. Other proposed criteria I’ve seen are substantively the same as the above, and he would similarly fail to meet the criteria for diagnosis.

Regarding 4,, I think that, given that sex is a biological drive like eating and not a superfluous activity like drug use or gambling, that trying to cut sexual gratification down to near-zero as the article author does is unrealistic. Much like someone attempting to fast indefinitely will very quickly succumb to hunger, so too someone who is trying to so severely limit his sexual satisfaction will inevitably succumb to temptation. This will then be interpreted as a failure to control the behavior, even though he may have been successful had he set more realistic goals.

Regarding 7, there is no doubt that viewing porn and masturbation causes psychological distress to people who think these things are evil. And engaging in behaviors that cause distress is maladaptive. BUT there are two ways to alleviate the distress. The first is to change the behavior. The second is to change the thought patterns that cause one to see the behavior as a source of distress. The behavior as described by the article author is harmless. The greatest harm was the reaction its revelation provoked from his wife. The very fact that she was blindsided shows that he was not spending an inordinate amount of time on the activity, nor was it interfering with his other activities and responsibilities. If the author and his wife were convinced that masturbation is not evil, then the psychological distress would disappear.

The second issue I have with the depiction of masturbation as a pathology is, I think, more interesting than the mischaracterization of what is and isn’t an addiction. I was wondering, why is porn and masturbation being described as a disorder? Isn’t it enough that it’s an aveirah? After all, we don’t find anyone writing articles pathologizing chillul Shabbos. And I had a startling realization: no, it’s not enough! Pathologizing porn does all sorts of useful things.

It gives people a concrete reason to invest time, money, and effort into refraining from masturbation. There are many things that are aveiros, and which people work on. Lashon hara, for example, has become a popular thing to work at avoiding. But we don’t see the same level of investment from individuals to keep themselves from speaking lashion hara. Were someone to popularize gossip as a pathology, I bet we would see people agonizing over it, buying software, attending therapy groups, etc.

It also gives people a way to feel better about themselves. One commenter on the article writes,

“Addiction is a disease. Would anyone be embarrassed because they have high blood pressure or diabetes? It is not a weakness of character and will power has nothing to do with it.”

Viewing porn and masturbating are now not sins and moral failings, but a disorder to be treated.

In the same vein, one can be a good upstanding member of the frum community despite viewing porn because, as an addiction, he can’t help it. He isn’t a rasha, like the person who is deliberately mechalel Shabbos. He’s a victim of a pathology, someone to be pitied and helped, not someone to be vilified and cast out. This may be the most important thing that pathologizing porn does. As the joke goes, pollsters went around asking men if they viewed porn. The results of the poll showed that 80% of men admit to watching porn, and 20% of men are liars. If everyone who watched porn was vilified as a rasha and kicked out of Orthodoxy, there’d be no one left.