Transgression as addiction: religiosity and moral disapproval as predictors of perceived addiction to pornography (2015)
Arch Sex Behav. 2015 Jan;44(1):125-36. doi: 10.1007/s10508-013-0257-z. Epub 2014 Feb 12.
Perceived addiction to Internet pornography is increasingly a focus of empirical attention. The present study examined the role that religious belief and moral disapproval of pornography use play in the experience of perceived addiction to Internet pornography. Results from two studies in undergraduate samples (Study 1, N = 331; Study 2, N = 97) indicated that there was a robust positive relationship between religiosity and perceived addiction to pornography and that this relationship was mediated by moral disapproval of pornography use. These results persisted even when actual use of pornography was controlled. Furthermore, although religiosity was negatively predictive of acknowledging any pornography use, among pornography users, religiosity was unrelated to actual levels of use. A structural equation model from a web-based sample of adults (Study 3, N = 208) revealed similar results. Specifically, religiosity was robustly predictive of perceived addiction, even when relevant covariates (e.g., trait self-control, socially desirable responding, neuroticism, use of pornography) were held constant. In sum, the present study indicated that religiosity and moral disapproval of pornography use were robust predictors of perceived addiction to Internet pornography while being unrelated to actual levels of use among pornography consumers.
The following critique supercedes everything written below - Is Grubbs pulling the wool over our eyes with his "percieved porn addiction" research? (2016)
Comments by YBOP:
First, implying that someone can't be addicted who uses infrequently is not correct in the case of internet addictions (in any case, Grubbs's subjects showed a correlation with hours of use anyway). Research has already shown that internet disorders (both porn and gaming) do not necessarily correlate with hours of use, but rather with factors such as degree of arousal and number of applications opened in the case of porn, and passion for play and motivations for play in the case of gaming disorder.
Next, religious people use less porn than secular folk. However, among religious folk who use, it may be that, to some degree, it's not "perceived addiction," but actual addiction that is related, in some users, to religiosity. It appears that the common thread that makes an activity more arousing is amount of dopamine released (and then stronger gluatamate pathways over time).
It's not just sexual feelings that raise dopamine. Anxiety also raises dopamine. These citations show that anxiety increases sexual arousal:
Obviously, if you think watching porn will make your creator condemn you, then it is going to cause anxiety...which can easily cause you to perceive the activity as especially sexually arousing. In effect, you misattribute your body's heightened response to anxiety (cortisol, norepinephrine in the brain) as sexual arousal. The activation's trigger can register as something "rewarding" and worth repeating. That may cause future conflict, and more anxiety, and make engaging in the "forbidden" material even more arousing and compelling.
But here's the thing: Any sexual practice that increases arousal+anxiety can potentially cause the same problem - independently of religion. For example, in a nonreligious person, viewing minor porn, or porn that the person believes is inconsistent with his underlying sexual orientation, or abusive porn, or femdom porn, might also heighten arousal if it produces anxiety - regardless of frequency of use and the other factors Grubbs controlled for. Sadly, today's internet porn users, religious or not, often escalate to anxiety-producing material in search of a buzz because they are responding less powerfully to everyday sexual stimuli.
In short, even if we could do away with religion, shame and guilt entirely tomorrow, some porn users would continue to develop severe problems. Intense arousal (enhanced by things like extreme material and endless novelty) will simply be too much stimulation for some brains even without a fear of hell. Some porn users may use infrequently and still be anxious about what they are watching, and therefore find their internet porn use unduly arousing, compelling and addictive - whether or not they perceive themselves as addicts.
Certainly, non-religious users who get hooked on anxiety-producing material are not protected against porn-related problems. The recovery forums are full of such guys. In fact non-religious users may develop even more severe symptoms than religious users before trying to quit because they've had no warning that internet porn use has risks.
By not elucidating the underlying brain mechanism that makes religiosity a risk, Grubbs et al. may be creating a misleading picture that "religion," rather than "heightened arousal" is the culprit. And by implication (in the hands of his interpreters), that as long as you're nonreligious, internet porn use is perfectly safe.
Sadly, research like this feeds the myth is that "it's only religious people who have a problem with porn." But, in fact, many non-religious people end up with especially severe porn problems in part because no one warns them, and they miss (or misattribute) their growing symptoms. They're "blissfully ignorant" for longer, and would never report "perceived addictions," if asked, even after they're thoroughly addicted by clinical standards. In fact, even after discovering that their severe problems (such as morphing sexual tastes, inability to control their use, ED/inability to orgasm with a partner) could be porn-related, many non-religious porn users still don't believe it's the porn - until after they quit and their sexual performance problems and other severe symptoms abate. (Indeed, some of those with porn-related sexual dysfunctions may be able to use infrequently because they are not addicts, even though they developed severe sexual difficulties via internet porn use.)
Might Grubbs et al's results be explained, in part, by the fact that religious people are generally better informed (or, in some cases overly informed) about the risks of internet porn use, so they "connect the dots" more quickly and in higher percentages in when asked about perceived addiction? Religious people are probably also more inclined to try stopping, and therefore more likely to experience nasty withdrawal symptoms or recognize their inability to control their, (even perhaps) infrequent, use (which are anxiety-producing in themselves). In contrast, the nonreligious simply don't think to experiment with stopping porn so they may not experience severe cravings and withdrawal symptoms unless they slam into a wall o' hurt and try quitting.
If religion were the key factor in a "belief in porn addiction," one would expect the majority of those on the recovery forums to be religious. That is not what we see. The most popular English-speaking porn-recovery forum we know of, r/nofap, polled their members (back in 2012). 60+% of their members were non-religious (23% Christian).
Shortly after that poll, a "Christian nofap" was founded, which means that the percentage of religious on r/nofap is even lower now. In a later member survey, only 11% were quitting for religious reasons. Since that first poll, the number of members on r/nofap has exploded. It's 160K+ members now, and overwhelming non-religious.