The Revealing Backstory to the AASECT Position Statement on Sex/Porn Addiction

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The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) has released what they themselves are hailing as a “historic position statement” on porn and sex addiction. At the center of the statement is an assertion that the organization “does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder” – this, alongside a general critique of any and all available “sexual addiction training and treatment methods and educational pedagogies” as not “adequately informed by accurate human sexuality knowledge.” (Link to full article)

For a statement of such scope, weight and authority, you would think a careful, impartial and collaborative review of the scientific evidence had taken place.

You would be disappointed.

In a remarkably candid and public admission by the man who initiated the process behind this statement, entitled “How the AASECT Sex Addiction Statement Was Created,” Michael Aaron offers a detailed window into the process behind the entire statement – a history that we think largely speaks for itself.  

In lieu of a careful review of the evidence by a diverse team, this statement by Aaron’s own admission arose from “online advocacy efforts” by himself and a small set of “fellow listserv agitators.” On the AASECT listserv, this small group intentionally turned to what Aaron called “renegade, guerrilla tactics” that he admitted were deliberately “aggressive” and with an aim of provoking regular, intense controversy among those within the organization.  In his own words:

  • “To me, every opportunity for controversy was an opportunity.”
  • “I set up alerts on my phone every time there was a post on the listserv about sex addiction and deliberately sought to create provocative language that would generate as many replies as possible.”
  • “The more of a circus atmosphere [the better].”

All of this, according to Aaron, was necessary in order to “make quick change.”  

Some might wonder, of course, why Aaron and his team opted to not pursue change through a more civil and generous process allowing authentic space for diverse voices to find a consensus?  Addressing this very possibility, Aaron insisted that this kind of dialogue or deliberation with people those who disagreed with his proposal was a waste of time, since these people were inescapably biased by financial incentive.  

Similar rationale likely went into the AASECT summer institute featuring only speakers who are avowed activists against anything-addiction – David Ley, Joe Kort and Nicole Prause.

Is this also why AASECT is overlooking or minimizing a large group of relevant research studies in this area?

As we have mentioned elsewhere, there are 27 neurological studies and 10 reviews of the literature — all of which confirm the addictive potential of pornography. At least 17 studies link pornography to a wide-range of sexual issues, with an additional 34 studies linking porn to decreased relationship and sexual satisfaction.

Are all 98 of these studies mere “pseudo-science”?  Are these the research studies AASECT insist are not “sufficient” to confirm the existence of a serious problem?  

Bottom line: it’s hard to deny a real problem exists, without somehow writing off a remarkably large amount of (consistent) empirical evidence.   

This is not the same thing, of course, as trying to “unduly pathologize consensual sexual problems” as stated by AASECT – something most addiction services are careful to avoid as well. Indeed, whether or not pornography addiction is “real” is a different question than whether it’s a mental disorder. [2]

Both distinctions, however, are overlooked in a statement that insists on portraying any addiction-oriented approach as inherently pathologizing.  

In the absence of high-quality deliberation, it’s unsurprising that these distinctions would be overlooked.  As illustrated earlier, the authors of the AASECT report very explicitly pursued another kind of conversation that would better meet their aims.

This was true in how they approached the final refinement of the statement as well.   

As acknowledged in Aaron’s write up, a previous AASECT consensus statement had drifted away from their preferred position due to the involvement of too many diverse voices. [3] Aaron and his colleagues were determined not to make the same mistake again.  So this time, they set up a carefully controlled process for feedback that didn’t disrupt their preferences: “I advised our group to send the statement to only a small group of handpicked individuals, three per person, and to carefully define the parameters of involvement.”

And there you have it! A “consensus” statement is born.

To their credit, Aaron and other participants acknowledged the existence of a vibrant debate still ongoing. Aaron wrote “sex addiction is a very controversial topic, and is a subject of heated debate in both the sexological and sex addiction communities.” Another author, Ian Kerner, thanked those “strong, voices who had the conviction to express their opposition to such a statement.”

Without Aaron’s own “aggressive” and “guerrilla” tactics used to override opposition, push aside heated debate, dismiss a growing body of research contradicting his conclusions and project an appearance of indubitable consensus, those other voices might have even been acknowledged in the resulting statement!  

Indeed, one has to wonder how nuanced and helpful the AASECT statement might have become had the richness of all voices and perspectives been allowed equal play.


[1] Specifically, Michael Aaron said, “The sex addiction field is a lucrative industry, complete with ultra-expensive inpatient centers and so on – does anyone honestly think that a sex addiction proponent is incentivized to undermine that model?” He continued, “Collaborative language is unproductive with a group that is existentially threatened by your objectives.” Translation: Therapists helping people with sex addiction are too hopelessly biased by their salaries that it’s really useless trying to engage civilly and work collaboratively!

If that is true, wouldn’t other financial incentives lead to the same disqualification? By his own admission, there is a lot of money involved in preparation to be a sex therapist as well:  “As a CST I went through a rigorous training process that cost a small fortune and I pay numerous dues to AASECT on a yearly basis to keep my certification.”  Does reimbursement for their services mean sex therapists also cannot be trusted as conversation partners due to their treatment services?

The larger issue is how this attention to the so-called “lucrative” sex addiction field distracts from what is undeniably the larger influence on our public conversation: the multi-billion dollar pornography industry and its multi-level influence over how Americans think and talk about sex.  

[2] Perhaps due to the ambiguity on that point within the AASECT statement, the difference between those two is not showing up at all in public discussion about the statement. In one single television news report on the statement, this is how they summarized it:
·“There is no such thing as an addiction to sex or pornography.”
·“Can you be addicted to porn or sex?
·
“It is not a public health crisis. It’s not addicting.”
From the general public’s perspective, then, denying pornography addiction is a “mental disorder” is denying its existence.

[3] As Michael Aaron described it, the previous effort faced “chaos due to an influx of a multitude of disparate opinions seeking to shape the statement, and without any organizing process in place to keep the team on track.”