Response to Testimony before the United States Senate,
Subcommittee on Science, technology, and Space
Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
The Science Behind Pornography Addiction
My name is Daniel Linz. I received my Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I share a joint appointment in the Department of Communication and the Law and Society program at the University of California – Santa Barbara. My research for the last 25 years has involved scientifically testing the social psychological assumptions made by the law and legal actors in the area of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. This work spans the topics of media violence, pornography and other sex-oriented entertainment. My work on pornography and its effects on human behavior has been relied on extensively by the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonprofit society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research and appears in their recent publication, “Youth, Pornography and the Internet.”
It has come to my attention that The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on “The Science Behind Pornography Addiction” on November 18, 2004. My understanding is that the Committee has allowed a two-week response period. I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the testimony of the several witnesses who testified before the committee. It is my opinion that that a one-sided view of the “science” behind the notion of pornography exposure as addictive has been presented to the Committee. I would like to take the opportunity to present what I feel is a more objective overview of the state of scientific research than that expressed by the witnesses who appeared before the Committee.
The Testimony of Dr. Judith Reisman
Dr. Reisman makes the claim that: “Thanks to the latest advances in neuroscience, we now know that pornographic visual images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an instant, involuntary, but lasting, biochemical memory trail, arguably, subverting the First Amendment by overriding the cognitive speech process. This is true of so-called ‘soft-core’ and ‘hard-core’ pornography. And once new neurochemical pathways are established they are difficult or impossible to delete.” Later she asserts: “These media erotic fantasies become deeply embedded … addicting many of those exposed.”
It is indeed a psychological fact that many powerful messages and ideas leave strong memory traces. This is in no way unique to pornographic images. Dr. Reisman fails to distinguish the nature of strong memory traces resulting from other experiences from pornography in her work. She appears to believe that once the viewer is exposed to enough pornography he or she loses the capacity to reason or make intelligent judgments about the messages being conveyed in pornographic material and that other memory traces from equally or more profound experiences are overwhelmed by exposure and subsequent “addiction” to pornography. There is no scientifically credible evidence for her ideas.
In fact, the notions of “sexual addiction” generally, including “pornography addiction” as well as the recent concern with “on-line sex addiction” are highly questionable to most scientists. Four findings seem to emerge from an unbiased examination of the psychological literature on sex addiction: 1) So-called sexual addiction may be nothing more than learned behavior that can be unlearned; 2) labels such as “sex addict” may tell us more about society’s prejudices and the therapist doing the labeling than the client; 3) most research on pornography use, for example, through venues such as the Internet, is methodologically flawed; and, 4) scientists who have undertaken scientifically rigorous studies of exposure to sex materials report that despite high levels of exposure to pornography in venues such as the Internet, few negative effects are observed.
An addiction is commonly described as an experience of powerlessness, an unmanagable drive, and a basic out-of-control sexual behavior. “Sexual addiction” may be nothing more than a learned sexual behavior expressed in violation of prevailing societal norms and expectations. In our society today it appears to be in vogue to attribute numerous popular behaviors to biological and psychological origins. It is an explanation of convenience for something threatening and unpopular. Levine, Troiden (1988) in their article “The Myth of Sexual Compulsivity” say that sex is not an addiction; it is an experience rather than a substance. “By definition, sex is not a state of physiological dependence and it does not lead to distress upon abrupt withdrawal,” say Levine et al.
In the official bulletin for the American Psychological Association, Monitor on Psychology, Volume 31, No. 4, April 2000, Tori DeAngelis reports that many other psychologists doubt that “addiction” is the right term to describe what happens to people when they spend too much time with sex materials on the Internet. "It seems misleading to characterize behaviors as ‘addictions’ on the basis that people say they do too much of them," says Sara Kiesler, PhD, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of one of the only controlled studies on Internet usage, published in the September 1998 American Psychologist. No research has yet established that there is a disorder of Internet sex addiction that is separable from problems such as loneliness or problem gambling, or that a passion for using the Internet is long-lasting.
Labels such as “sex addict” or “pornography addict” may tell us more about our society and gender roles than shed light on any new syndrome. According to the American Psychological Association: Those diagnosed as “sex addicts” are disproportionately men, leading some researchers to hypothesize that the process of socialization along traditional “masculinity ideology” with respect to sex results in men expressing their masculinity through excessive sexual behavior. Labeling someone a sex addict may also be more a function of the therapist’s values than an objective clinical evaluation. Hecker, Wetchler and Fontaine (1995) investigated the influence of therapist values, religiousity and gender in the initial assessment of sexual addiction by family therapists. They found that male family therapists tended to pathologize client vignettes more than female therapists, and highly religious male therapists saw clients as more sexually addicted than did other therapists.
In her American Psychological Association article, DeAngelis reports that despite the topic’s prominence, peer-reviewed, published studies on Internet addiction to sex materials are in fact scarce. She notes that most are surveys, marred by self-selecting samples and no control groups. The rest are theoretical papers that speculate on the philosophical aspects of Internet addiction but provide no data.
Other researchers report that despite high levels of exposure to pornography few negative effects are observed. In a study in the May 1998 issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Alvin Cooper, PhD, who is training coordinator at Stanford University’s counseling and psychological services center, Cowell Student Health Center found that about 82 percent of Internet users spent less than an hour doing so, "with very few negative repercussions."
The Testimony of Dr. Jeffrey Satinover
Dr. Satinover hypothesizes that: “Initial hesitations to enjoy the material are rapidly lost with repeated exposure and give way to unadulterated reactions of enjoyment.” Dr. Satinover’s remarks include claims that: “Prolonged exposure to pornography stimulates a preference for depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual contact with animals,” and “trivializes nonviolent forms of the sexual abuse of children.” However, while claiming that: “Prolonged exposure to pornography trivializes rape as a criminal offense,” he admits that: “Psychotic men are strongly affected, whereas men with minimal psychotic inclination are not.”
This last point is critical. Indeed, there is an enormous amount of research concerning the effects of experimentally induced exposure to sexually explicit materials (see Davis & Bauserman, 1993; Donnerstein, Linz, & Penrod, 1987; Fisher & Barak, 1991; Fisher & Grenier, 1994; Malamuth et al., 2001; Malamuth & Donnerstein, 1984; Zillmann & Bryant, 1989, for reviews of this literature). What does this research say?
If we know anything about pornography exposure and antisocial behaviors such as violence against women we know two things: 1) for the average person the message of violence as pleasureable to the woman must be present for negative effects to occur; and 2) for other forms of pornography the effects are an interaction between personality characteristics and exposure.
For example, Linz, Donnerstein and Penrod in a study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1988, found that exposure to violent films depicting violence against women desensitized men who viewed them and rendered the men less sympathetic towards a victim of sexual assault they were later asked to evaluate for injuries. This same effect was not observed for nonviolent pornography.
Once we move from the laboratory to investigations involving men who report viewing pornography, the effects of sexually explicit materials are almost certainly a joint function of the personality characteristics of the individual who seeks out such materials and of exposure to such materials per se (Bogaert, 1993; Check & Guloien, 1989; Fisher & Barak, 1991; Malamuth et al., 2001; Padgett et al., 1989; Reis, 1986).
Malamuth et al. (2001) examined factors such as family violence, delinquency, attitudes supporting violence, sexual promiscuity, hostile masculinity, and pornography use — defined as amount of exposure to sexually explicit magazines — as correlates of sexual aggression against women, in a national sample of men enrolled in postsecondary education. The authors report that men who were highest in hostile masculinity, sexual promiscuity, and pornography use as defined in this research were most likely to report a history of sexual aggression against women. At the same time, however, the researchers note that: "… we cannot conclude on the basis of these analyses that pornography use is a cause or an outcome of sexual aggressive tendencies …" (Malamuth et al., 2001, p. 79).
Indeed, even with this caveat many of these findings may be difficult to replicate. Contrary to Malmuth’s findings, Barak et al. (1999), found that the amount of self-directed exposure to Internet sexually explicit sites had no significant effects on post-exposure measures of university men’s rape myth acceptance, attitudes toward women, acceptance of women as managers, or on a measure of likelihood of sexual harassment.
The Testimony of Dr. Layden
Dr. Layden puts forth the notion that: “For the viewer, pornography increases the likelihood of sexual addiction and they respond in ways similar to other addicts. Sexual addicts develop tolerance and will need more and harder kinds of pornographic material. They have escalating compulsive sexual behavior becoming more out of control and also experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop the use of the sexual material.”
In fact, contrary to Dr. Layden’s speculations the psychological and psychiatric community does not recognize “sexual addiction” and the related notion of “pornography addiction” as a distinct psychological disorder. The descriptive terms “sexual addiction” and “pornography addiction” do not appear in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). According to Richard Irons, M. D. and Jennifer P. Schneider, M.D., Ph.D addiction professionals who encounter both compulsive and impulsive sexual acting-out behaviors in their patients have experienced too many conceptual and communication difficulties with mental health professionals and managed care organizations who utilize DSM terminology and diagnostic criteria. This difficulty in communication has fueled so much skepticism among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals regarding the case for including sex addiction as a mental disorder that they have not recognized such a classification.
The Testimony of Dr. James B. Weaver III
Dr. Weaver correctly notes that: “Unfortunately, research directly assessing pornography addiction on families and communities is limited.” The lack of scientific research on pornography addiction does not prevent Dr. Weaver from speculating that in this age of “cybersex” compulsive and/or obsessive use of pornography could have social repercussions. In other words, Dr. Weaver actually has no data on pornography addiction from his studies. In fact, his data do not speak to the notion of addiction at all, but rather to what he alleges are changes in attitudes and beliefs following forced exposure to pornography by college students.
Based on his observations with compulsive sexual behavior as well as on the similarities between pathological gambling and addictive use of a substance, Goodman (1990) suggested a list of criteria for an addictive disorder. This list includes a recurrent failure to resist impulses to engage in a specified behavior; increasing sense of tension immediately prior to initiating the behavior; frequent engaging in the behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic or social obligations; and important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced because of the behavior. We have no evidence from psychological studies of pornography that any of this occurs. Certainly Dr. Weaver has no information that any of these effects occur from his studies.
But, here is the rub. According to Goodman any behavior that is used to produce gratification and to escape internal discomfort can be engaged in compulsively and can constitute an addictive disorder. This would presumably mean that those who engage in obsessive Saturday afternoon college football viewing, Sunday afternoon professional football exposure, playing computer games, playing basketball to work up endorphins, as well as obsessive workaholics are all experiencing addictive disorders by this definition.
Finally, there is a real-life observation that is difficult to dispute. As an admittedly crude estimate of consequences of exposure to sexually explicit Internet materials on individuals who seek contact with such content, Dr. William Fisher in an article entitled “Internet pornography: a social psychological perspective on internet sexuality in the Journal of Sex Research (2001) made an informative observation. He plotted rates of reported forcible rape in the United States from 1995 to 1999 (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2001). This time interval is by all accounts a period of exponential growth in the availability and use of all forms of Internet sexually explicit materials (Cheney, 2000; Elmer-Dewitt, 1995; Freeman-Longo, 2000; Harmon & Boeringer, 1996). Although open to a variety of interpretations, he noted that the rate of reported forcible rape in the U.S. fell consistently and significantly throughout this time period of spectacular increase in access to and use of Internet sexually explicit materials of all kinds.
In summary, before rushing to the judgment that pornography is addicting, we must take note of the following: So-called sexual addiction may be nothing more than learned behavior that can be unlearned; labels such as “sex addict” may tell us more about society’s prejudices and the therapist doing the labeling than the client; scientists who have undertaken scientifically rigorous studies of exposure to sex materials report that despite high levels of exposure to pornography in venues such as the Internet, few negative effects are observed. For the average person the message of violence against women must be present for negative effects to occur. For other forms of pornography the effects are an interaction between personality and exposure to pornography. Professionals who encounter both compulsive and impulsive sexual acting-out behaviors in their patients have experienced too many conceptual problems with the notion of sex addiction to be able to separate their preconceived ideas from whatever pathology they may observe in their patients. This difficulty in communication has fueled so much skepticism among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals regarding the case for including sex addiction as a mental disorder that they have not recognized such a classification.
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