David Ley's Blog Post "We Must Rely on Good Science in Porn Debate" (March 2, 2016)

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Disagreeing with one’s heroes is always an interesting growth experience. As young psychologists, we learn about the revolutionary work of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and the way in which his research and insights have changed our understandings of human behavior and morality. As a psychologist, and a person, I owe Dr. Zimbardo a debt of gratitude. That’s why I find it so difficult now, to say that he is simply, flatly, dangerously wrong in his recent post about pornography.

Dr. Zimbardo cites the Your Brain on Porn and Reddit NoFap websites as evidence for the addictive, dangerous nature of pornography use. It’s unfortunate that he does so, with no recognition or caveats regarding the danger of using self-selected anecdotes, subject to peer pressure and conformity theory, as evidence. I learned about those tenets of psychological theories in the same undergraduate psychology classes where I also learned about Dr. Zimbardo’s research. Unfortunately, the plural of anecdote, is not data, and the many stories on these sites reveal much more about the social psychology at work, as opposed to the dangers of porn which Dr. Zimbardo cites.

Dr. Zimbardo goes on to cite several studies and articles which have alleged that pornography has a neurological effect. Unfortunately, there’s the problem of causation versus correlation, again, something I learned about in basic research classes. These correlative studies which suggest a link between porn consumption and neurological effects, unfortunately cannot identify the impact and role of predisposing variables such as libido, and sensation seeking. Numerous studies have now demonstrated that high porn-users tend to be people with higher libido, and a greater tendency towards sensation-seeking. It is most likely that these dispositions correlate with neurological characteristics, which these studies are finding. In other words, these neurological characteristics are in fact the cause, not the effect.

Dr. Valerie Voon, who conducted the Cambridge brain porn study cited by Dr. Zimbardo, as well as many others, has recently published a paper where she and her co-authors actually state that at this point, there is not a scientific consensus that porn or sex actually is an addiction, nor that this language is appropriate. Her paper indicates that literature on such issues is overly biased towards heterosexual males, and that the absence of data on other populations greatly hinders the applicability or generalizability of their findings.  In her words (link is external), “Insufficient data are available regarding what clusters of symptoms may best constitute CSB (Compulsive Sexual Behavior) or what threshold may be most appropriate for defining CSB. Such insufficient data complicate classification, prevention and treatment efforts. While neuroimaging data suggest similarities between substance addictions and CSB, data are limited by small sample sizes, solely male heterosexual samples, and cross-sectional design.” It's unfortunate that Dr. Zimbardo has not exercised the same caution in interpreting this insufficient evidence.

Numerous research studies in the past year from authors such as Joshua Grubbs of Case Western  and Alexander Stulhofer of Croatia, have consistently confirmed the role of morality and religiosity in the backgrounds of those who identify as sex or porn addicts. Further, those researchers have empirically demonstrated in multiple, replicated studies, that the identity of sex/porn addict is not predicted by sexual frequency. In other words, both of these researchers have demonstrated that sex/porn addicts are not in fact watching more porn or having more sex than anyone else - they just feel worse and more conflicted about the sex they are having.

Grubbs also found recently that the identity of “porn addict” is an iatrogenic concept, which creates harm and distress, by telling an individual to hate and fear their own sexuality. Sadly, and surprisingly, Dr. Zimbardo is perpetuating this harm, by encouraging men to hate and fear their own sexual response to pornography, and to embrace the identity of porn addict. Given Dr. Zimbardo's own body of research, about the impact of identity and expectation on behavior and feelings, I'm surprised that he does not see the impact that his views may have upon those who are struggling with porn-related behaviors, driving them into these identities Dr. Zimbardo endorses.

Finally, Dr. Zimbardo cites recent claims of Porn Induced Erectile Dysfunction as evidence of the indisputable effects of pornography. Dr. Zimbardo points to the changes in rates of erectile dusfunction reported by males, between Kinsey’s studies in 1948 and recent studies showing higher rates of ED reported by young men. However, Dr. Zimbardo fails to acknowledge or consider the tremendous social changes which occurred with the invention of erectile performance medications, and which dramatically increased willingness to disclose erectile dysfunction, by reducing the shame associated with it. Further, Dr. Zimbardo fails to mention that in every study exploring ED in young men, these effects are linked to issues of anxiety, drug use, obesity, medication and sexual experience. There has not been a single peer-reviewed paper published which demonstrate any evidence that ED related to porn use is a real phenomenon. Indeed, multiple peer-reviewed articles have now been published which found no evidence for PIED, but instead, found the opposite effect, that porn use and concomitant masturbation, is likely to result in delayed orgasm.

I agree with Dr. Zimbardo’s conclusions – we DO need to be having more open dialogue about the role that porn plays in our sexuality, and in the sexual education of our youth. Sadly, Dr. Zimbardo and I disagree strongly about what qualifies as scientific evidence in that discussion. I believe that such a social dialogue must be guided by clear, empirically-based thinking. Elsewise, morality-based fears can easily lead us to replicate the mistakes of the past, when the American Psychological Association condoned torture, when the American mental health industry supported the false ideas of recovered memory syndrome of Satanic child abuse, or when women who liked sex as much as men were called nymphomaniacs and subjected to horrific treatments on the basis of gender bias. In each of these cases, anecdotes and clinician confidence such as Dr. Zimbardo musters in support of his theories, were used to support unethical, and scientifically invalid clinical approaches. Science today is better than that, in part because of the contributions of Dr. Zimbardo, in helping us to understand how context and social biases can affect our thoughts and feelings regarding complex social behaviors. Our job at this point is to help people struggling with issues of porn, to deal with these issues in effective ways which do not mistake effects for causes.