Josh Duggar is going to rehab for porn addiction. Is that a real thing?

“Porn Addiction” Is Often Just an Attempt to Medicalize Religious Dogma

“Porn Addiction” Is Often Just an Attempt to Medicalize Religious Dogma

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What Women Really Think
Aug. 27 2015 7:00 AM

No, Porn Addiction Is Not Really a Thing

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If this were in any sharper focus, you'd be a porn addict right now.

Photo by nikitabuida/Shutterstock

Josh Duggar has reached the "checked into rehab" station of the celebrity-scandal cross. What does Josh need to recover from? It's unclear from his family's statement, but Josh's claim that he has "been viewing pornography on the Internet and this became a secret addiction" gives us a hint.

Amanda Marcotte Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is writer for Salon.

Is porn addiction really a thing? Or, at least in this particular case, is it an attempt to medicalize religious dogma that forbids normal and healthy interest in sexual fantasies? 

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Certainly, the idea that men (and women) who look at porn are addicts is incredibly popular in Christian-right circles. Focus on the Family's site has an authoritative-looking article from 1996 claiming to lay out "The Stages of Pornography Addiction," with psych-jargon like "escalation" and "desensitization" in the listed stages.

But a closer reading should induce some concern they're just making this all up. "Not everyone who sees porn will become addicted to it," authors Gene McConnell and Keith Campbell write. "Some will just come away with toxic ideas about women, sex, marriage and children." 

They don't offer any statistical or research-based evidence for this claim, but they do share an alarming story:

When I personally got to the "acting out phase," I started fantasizing about what it would be like to actually rape a woman. I finally tried it one night when I saw a woman who "fit" the scenario that porn had taught me to look for. I was lucky. Very lucky. I didn't go through with it. After being reported, arrested and spending some time in jail, I finally was able to begin the process of weeding out the lies in my life that porn had put there.
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It's not clear from this page which author did time, but an Internet search shows that it was McConnell, for aggravated assault. While it's not a surprise that someone who did such a thing might be tempted to blame porn for their behavior, it's worth remembering that real-world research suggests that there is no link between porn use and rape.

"Erotic and highly emotional experiences ... are powerful," the authors write in their conclusion, "too powerful, it seems, for the human soul to regularly absorb, very much like radiation, which also possessed a mysterious capacity to heal and curse." Passages like these make it clearer that when Christian conservatives talk about "porn addiction," it's less a real psychological problem than another way for Christian conservatives to shame people for being sexual. 

In this piece in Christianity Today, for instance, Shaun Groves claims that "most of my friends" are addicted to porn; the "addiction" he describes consists of subscribing to Playboy and buying a few videos. Pastor Justin Davis's apparent rock-bottom moment was when his wife caught him watching some titillating TV. On the website Every Man's Battle, addiction is defined as having private thoughts about women in skimpy clothes. Winning the war for purity seems to slap the label "addict" on you if you masturbate. 

It is true, as Todd VanDerWerff explains at Vox, that conservative Christians classify all "lust" for people not your spouse as sinful and even adulterous. The medicalizing language turns a sin into a disease; it forces "addicts" to live their lives in a state of minute-to-minute dread of their bodily urges and become dependent on the church to get them through this basically impossible journey. 

There are certainly men out there who use porn so much it interferes with the rest of their life, which means they need help. But these Christian "porn addicts" mostly seem like perfectly normal men who, like most people, need a bit of a private fantasy life. Instead, there's all this drama about rehab and redemption. That puts way more strain on people's marriages than simply letting people have some alone time once in awhile.