Will treating porn like a drug addiction help?

Last week CTV’s W5 aired a two-part series on internet porn. Part one focused on the way in which ever-younger children were becoming consumed with violent pornography, causing them to become “addicted” to it. It is truly frightening that kids are growing up with this kind of imagery and that their first exposure to any kind of sex “education” teaches them that degrading and abusing women equals sex. I have to admit, though, that approaching porn solely from an “addiction” angle concerns me.

I do believe that many men exhibit “addictive” behaviour with regard to pornography. Just as people can have addictive relationships with things like shopping, gambling, food, or playing video games, men can use porn in a way that feels compulsive — they keep using it despite “negative consequences.” A the same time, I’m troubled by the way in which this documentary series compartmentalized and medicalized porn use.

W5: Generation XXX

In the first part of the series, host, Victor Malarek, interviewed a young boy named Joseph about his self-defined porn addiction, interviewing the boy’s parents as well. It was clear that Joseph felt he was doing something “bad” but couldn’t stop, similar to if he were, say, smoking, but I found the way Joseph talked about his “addiction,” (which began at about nine years old) as though he was a recovering heroin addict, strange. He seemed too young, at just 12 years old, to really have a grasp on this addiction/recovery model, yet came across as an expert.

Next in the feature was a man named Gabe Deem who began watching porn at the age of 12 but quit at 23, turning to advocacy instead, educating others about the dangers of porn use. Both Joseph and Deen explained that they moved from watching “vanilla” porn to consuming more hard core stuff, after becoming desensitized to the less extreme videos. (This telling seemed intentionally reminiscent of the way kids are warned that their casual weed-smoking will eventually lead them to crack.)

Deen says his experience wasn’t abnormal, “When I was a kid [porn use] was very normal. I couldn’t tell you a guy that wasn’t watching it.” Malarek asks him if their parents knew, and Deem explains that “most of their parents had no clue — we were very good at hiding it.” I found myself wondering whether or these kids’ fathers were also hiding their porn use from these boys’ mothers…

One of the issues with internet porn, in particular, as the host points out, is that “in the old days, if you wanted to see naked women, you had to steal your dad’s or your older brother’s Playboy and risk getting caught.” Academic and anti-porn activist, Gail Dines, says that not only are we all “just a click away,” but we’re a click away from far more “hardcore porn,” she says, than was ever readily available in the past.

“I’d be playing a video game on the internet and all of a sudden a pop up comes on the side,” Joseph explained, demonstrating the way porn is pushed on kids without them even having to seek it out.

And it’s true. It’s harder to avoid porn online than not. You don’t even have to look for it. It shows up in non-porn related Google searches and in sidebars on various websites. It is far more graphic and violent than those clandestine ’70s Playboys. But to me there is a continuum that’s not being addressed in the kids/internet pornography/addiction conversation…

Kids are clearly being impacted in frightening and dangerous ways and it’s shaping their lives and their worldview in a way that will continue to impact the way they see and treat women as adults in the future. But while we’re worrying about these kids, the obvious question is, what are their fathers doing? Are they not porn consumers just like their kids? And is it really fair to be shocked that young boys are doing the same thing their fathers are doing? And that they are doing something that is widely accepted as “normal” “sexual” behaviour for men? Forty years ago, boys stole pornography from their older brothers and fathers because their older brothers and fathers were masturbating to porn. Now kids are finding the same porn their older brothers and fathers are likely using online. We know that adult men abuse prostituted women and look at violent pornography online — even men who didn’t grow up in the internet age. Surely that continuum is relevant…

Dines points out that these boys are watching pornography but have likely never had sex with a female, and therefore there’s no context for what they’re seeing on their computer screens. Once they actually do begin having sexual experiences with young women, imagine how that will play out, after having watched women be brutalized or choked or degraded online for years prior. In fact, you don’t even have to imagine — there is a documented rise in sexual assaults being perpetrated by boys. They are looking to act out what they’ve been watching privately at home.

In part two, Deem says that his generation was told porn was “sex positive,” but that it turned out to be “sex negative” because his addiction to porn prevented him from enjoying sex with actual human women. He’s right about that. It’s clear that our so-called “sexually liberated” culture, wherein we are told that anything labelled “sexual” must be accepted lest we be accused of some version of “shaming,” is less liberating than it is oppressive. But oppressive to whom?

While I believe that men can be addicted to porn and that this impacts their actual sex lives in negative ways, what I’m not clear about is how talking about porn solely as an addiction will fix the problem of objectification and sexualized violence, which is what porn normalizes and teaches its audience. Porn is bad for men and boys, but when we know that the porn they’re watching serves to uphold a universal idea of women as less-than, the addiction model can feel a little insulting (nevermind flawed).

Are women meant to view their partners’ porn use as a disease or mental illness that simply requires treatment? If our partners continue to use porn after we’ve expressed our opposition to the industry and imagery, are we to simply consider it a “relapse?” I’d prefer my partner not use porn because he understood that it contributed to my subordination and to the widespread problem of violence against women. I’d prefer he see it as ethically and politically flawed and as a sign of disrespect, not just to me, but to women everywhere. If we teach individual men that porn use is a compulsion, isolated from larger social contexts, how will this address the issue of objectification?

Deem, now in his late 20s, says he’s been porn free for four years and that his life is “better than ever.” He runs Reboot Nation, “a free online community for anyone who is addicted to porn or recovering from a porn-induced sexual dysfunction.” He talks about the way in which porn impedes men’s ability to have intimate, genuine connections with real women. I think he, like everyone else featured in this documentary, has good intentions. I think they genuinely care about people and society and want a better world. I think Joseph’s parents were justifiably distressed about their child’s porn and wanted a solution. I’m very glad they found one that worked. But I don’t think that this approach will “work” on a larger scale.

What about porn users who don’t see themselves as addicts? What about adult porn users? What about those fathers who stashed Playboys in closets only for their sons to find? Are we to understand all this as harmless because it doesn’t fit the addiction model or because it isn’t overtly and extremely violent? How will individual, male-centered, medicalized solutions combat a multi-billion dollar industry that treats women as disposable?

I think porn hurts kids and I think it’s bad for men and I think it definitely isn’t healthy for relationships. But I also think that men fearing addiction to porn isn’t going to stop them from harming women, which is my real concern. I also worry that “addiction” will be used as an excuse by men who claim they “can’t stop” masturbating to pornography. I think that parents fearing their kids will suddenly go from “sweet, innocent boys” to horrible monsters, because they’ve become “hooked on porn” won’t successfully address the problem if those boys’ fathers, for example, frequent strip clubs or pay for sex or watch porn themselves.

Beyond that, I’m troubled by efforts to compare porn to drugs. My concern, with regard to porn, is rooted in a concern for humanity and a desire for respect and equality. What does kicking a heroin addiction have to do with respecting women?

To be fair, Joseph’s parents talked to him about the real women and girls on the other side of the screen, humanizing his habit. But the documentary treated this as an aside. The message we were left with was, “porn almost killed my son;” a message I, admittedly, can’t get my head around and that felt like an unsubstantiable scare tactic, like those employed by tabloidy American “news” channels. There are so many ideologically- and factually-sound reasons to fight the porn industry, why resort to sensationalism? I was particularly bothered to be left with this message, knowing that sexualizing domination and subordination and promoting violence against women as “sexy” really does result in the deaths of women and girls…

I don’t believe that this conversation needs to be a binary one: addiction or ethics. We can talk about both things. But this documentary failed to do that, instead taking an individualist approach, completely divorced from a feminist or anti-capitalist analysis. Individualizing porn use in a way that suggests users simply need therapy or 12 step programs creates a binary conversation that erases politics and women from the conversation. In essence, it’s a liberal band-aid “solution” that will never succeed in preventing men from using and abusing women. Porn culture, a term defined extensively and effectively by Dines herself, is harmful whether or not one is addicted.

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Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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