Pornography: Is it a problem or an addiction?

with Joshua Grubbs, Ph.D.

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Pornography is not an addiction; it is a way to escape from other issues in your life. In a recent Smart Sex, Smart Love podcast, Joshua Grubbs, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the clinical psychology PhD program at Bowling Green State University, talks about addictions and how to gain a better understanding of them.

He notes that research is exploding when it comes to understanding sex addiction … and whether it truly is an addiction. β€œThe more we know about it, the more we need to know,” he finds. Not every problem we face is an addiction, he reports. Your problem is real, but it may not be an addiction, he has learned through extensive research.

To find out more about the research of this internationally recognized expert on behavioral addictions, listen to this Smart Sex, Smart Love podcast hosted by Dr. Joe Kort.

JOE KORT 0:05
Welcome to Smart sex smart love we’re talking about sex goes beyond the taboo and talking about love goes beyond the honeymoon. Today the podcast title is sex, shame and sin. My guest today is Dr. Josh Grubbs, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the clinical psychology PhD program at Bowling Green State University, where he directs the Sparta research lab. Dr. Grubbs is an internationally recognized expert on behavioral addictions and a leading scientific voice in discussions about pornography use and its effects. To date, Dr. Grubbs has published over 100 peer reviewed articles on topics related to pornography use, sexuality, behavioral addictions, religion and morality, and has received over $1 million dollars in funding for his scientific works. Welcome, Josh. I’m so happy to have you.

Joshua Grubbs 0:58
Glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

JOE KORT 1:00
I’m a huge fan. So it’s huge that you’re sitting across me. I’ve never really, you know, had an interaction with you. But I read all your stuff. And I refer to your work all the time, and pretty much everything I do. So I’m glad to have you here and to inform the public about what what we could talk about today.

Joshua Grubbs 1:16
Yeah, definitely looking forward to sharing. All right,

JOE KORT 1:19
well, let’s get started. Um, what do we know about the current state of research about the so called sex addiction? Arena?

Joshua Grubbs 1:28
Yeah, so this is, you know, a hot topic. I’m obviously very interested in it. But the research domain around what we might be called sex addiction, and I want to clarify sex addiction is not necessarily a diagnosis in any manual. There’s not a psychiatrist or psychologist that’s, you know, paying attention to the research that would say that sex addiction is a diagnosis but, but research around some things that we might consider close to sex addiction has been exploding recently. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of articles in the past couple of years alone, lots of research studies. But importantly, most of it is pointing towards this very nuanced understanding of it of sex and sex addiction. So not just at all you know, sex addiction is x y&z It’s more of? Well, we think that there’s a disorder possibly called compulsive sexual behavior disorder, it may be an addiction, but it’s probably not. And it matters in some cases. But there’s all these other complicated things going on. So we know a lot. But we also the more we know, the more we realize, we don’t know, as much as we need to know.

JOE KORT 2:33
Yeah, and that’s the thing and people don’t understand that the actual name sex addiction is culturally made. It was not, it’s never been in any manuals or anything statistically

Joshua Grubbs 2:42
valid. That’s correct. Yeah, that we don’t, that’s not recognized. Right now, if someone came to seek treatment for out of control sexual behaviors, there are diagnosis we could try to apply. But sex addiction wouldn’t be one of them. And at the end of the day, conceptualizing their behavior and treating it just like an addiction, the same way I might treat opioids, or alcoholism or something like that. It’s it just doesn’t work. The frameworks don’t really work that nicely together.

JOE KORT 3:09
It really seemed to work though. So I’ve been I don’t know if you know, this, I was a sex addiction therapist for a long time, I even identified as one. And it was the 80s. And so AIDS was rampant at the time. We didn’t know if this was like COVID. Back then, in the sense that we didn’t know what was going on how you got it. And it was a ganseys was a whole thing they called the gay disease. So I remember though, that sex, the popularity of a ditch analogy was really popular at the time with chemicals and eating disorders, and sex, just rode that right wave and everyone just went, Okay, this is anecdotal, but it makes sense. But now today, I love when you say there’s all this research being done, because the more research I did, and more training, I got more than anything, was the fact that sex addiction doesn’t is that informed around sexual health or sex therapy. So it doesn’t know what it really is. Sometimes I just want to say it doesn’t know what it’s talking about. It’s like a church talking about sex. They don’t know.

Joshua Grubbs 4:01
Yeah, there and that. I mean, I think that’s fair. This notion. I mean, I think for generations, and generations, literally millennia, we’ve acknowledged sometimes some people get out of control in their sexual behavior. There are some people that do not seem to have any semblance of control over what’s going on sexually, whether that’s with partners, or in more recent years as pornography has developed more that they can’t seem to regulate what’s going on. But, you know, it’s important to realize that not every problem with self control not every problem with regulation, not every problem that we face is an addiction. So an example I often use is, you know, many mornings, I tell myself, I need to be out of bed at x point in time. And I find myself pressing snooze. I don’t want to press snooze. I know that pressing snooze is going to make my life more stressful. I know that pressing snooze is going to get in the way. And yet every morning not every morning, almost every morning I end up pressing snooze more than I should. Am I addicted to my snooze button. And most intellectually honest people are gonna say that You know, you’re not addicted to your snooze button, you’ve got other stuff going on that’s leading you to that behavior, the behavior is not addictive, you’re tired, you’re, you’re just struggle, you’re not a morning person, or in my case, I have small children that leave me exhausted, it probably got me up twice before at some point before that time. So like that kind of experience in that analogy, it’s not a perfect one. But it demonstrates that just because you’re doing the behavior more than you want it, just because you’re engaging with the behavior in a way that’s causing problems. It doesn’t have to be an addiction, it can be other things. And it can still be a real problem. I mean, this is one of the huge things I’m always trying to tell people. I’m not saying your problems aren’t real. I’m just saying addictions, not going to get you to the help that you need.

JOE KORT 5:40
Right. That’s what I like to say, because people do say that to me, too, then they think that I’m dismissing that this isn’t an issue. I’m like, No, it’s just what you could. And then you know, some people even in the sex addiction community, they’ll say, it doesn’t matter what you call it. That’s like going to your doctor and he’s like, Ah, we’re not gonna try to name what you have whatever, we’ll throw whatever we can maybe radiation, maybe chemo, maybe we’ll even take out your kidney. I don’t know. But we’ll just see, we know name. That’s ridiculous. You need to have a name so you know how to treat it.

Joshua Grubbs 6:06
Right. Right. Well, certainly, I mean, I think names matter a lot. And it also when you think about how much the word addiction carries, often identity markers with it, and for good or for bad. societally, we stigmatize mental illness, which is for bad, but we also tend to place a lot of identity around people that deal with addiction. And what I mean by that is, you know, think about 12 Step programs, when you you go to and a meeting you say hi, I’m such a such an I’m an alcoholic, like it’s literally part of your identity is this addiction. And, again, if you’re mislabeling yourself as having an addiction that doesn’t exist. And then also mislabeling, the cause of the behaviors you’re dealing with, you’re taking on a stigmatizing identity or stigmatized identity that you may not need to, that is not pushing you towards the treatments that you might need to recover. Because if if you are dealing, and we probably will talk a little bit about this in a minute. But oftentimes, if you try to treat an addiction, that’s not actually an addiction, you might make the behavior worse, because you end up exacerbating the anxiety around the behavior.

JOE KORT 7:10
I love that. Oh my god, that’s so good. You want to say more about that? Well,

Joshua Grubbs 7:14
so this is something I often see again, we’ll probably talk a little bit more about this is someone will come in typically a young man who will say, I feel like I’m addicted to pornography, and you find out they’re viewing pornography very rarely, but there’s a lot of guilt about it typically coming from religious kind of shamed and scruples most, most monotheistic religions have pretty strong prohibitions against pornography use, especially in the USA, it’s the guy, this will say he’s an evangelical Christian in his 20s. He is addicted to porn, I’m viewing it once a week, it’s ruining my life, I’m addicted, will focusing on an addiction framework where I say, All right, so we’re going to structure your entire life about avoiding relapse support means that he’s spending all this time thinking about porn, and how not to use it, which paradoxically means that he’s always thinking about the one behavior that he’s wanting to reduce. Now, you know, there’s multiple treatment avenues you can take with something like this part of it is reducing shame and stigma. But if his values say, I don’t want to do porn, what I’m not going to do is tell him alright, here’s how you build safeguards against porn. What I’m going to tell him to do is like, alright, well, let’s talk about what your actual values are, what what lifestyle you want to live? And how can we do that in a healthy way, so that you’re filling your mind and your time with things instead of just structuring your entire life about avoiding this one behavior. Because, again, hyper focusing on that one avoidance behavior is going to lead you right back to that behavior, or two major mental health problems in your efforts to avoid it.

JOE KORT 8:41
I really like that. But what if they say, because I say this to my office all the time? Well, the healthy lifestyle I want for my recovery, or for my religion, or for my relationship is not to Viewport at all, but I can’t so.

Joshua Grubbs 8:52
And then that’s, you know, that’s the type of thing that we have to talk about, you know, so like, it’s this balance between respecting the client, this is the hard part about being therapists, sometimes you have to respect a client’s values, while also thinking about what is realistic, and also what’s healthy. And so the big things in those situations that we focus on, are identifying, not what you don’t want to be, but more what you do want to be. So when you’re saying you don’t want to view fornicate, that’s fine. I want to know what you do want to be doing, who you do want to be. And then if there are times that you do view pornography, how do we take that time and not say, oh, yeah, go run willy nilly with it. Have fun, just scrap your faith and move on. But how do you take it and look at it and say, Okay, that was not consistent with how I think I want to live. Alright, I’m gonna, I’m going to learn from this moment. I’m going to accept this moment, but I’m not going to feel ashamed of it. I’m not going to feel guilty about it. I’m just going to move on. And so there’s this balance. And it’s tricky. I mean, because again, oftentimes I see clients who, whose sexual value set is substantially more conservative than my own. And how I might want to treat them and how I feel like I can only ethically treat them can sometimes be a little bit intention, intention. Because you know, again, I don’t think it’s right to tell someone change your religion. But I also don’t think it’s right to say, we’ll get into all those unhealthy things about your religion, too. So it’s this balancing act, if you will. Yep. Thank

JOE KORT 10:17
you. And let me ask you directly, do you think porn can be an addiction?

Joshua Grubbs 10:22
And addiction? No. Do I think that it can be out of control that someone could be using porn excessively in ways that harm their life that they could have consequences? Because they use porn too much? Yes. Do I think it’s an addiction? Now? I mean, I think it’s most likely if someone is using porn in such a way that it’s dysregulated. And it’s kind of ruining their life, it’s probably a symptom of something else going on. It’s a nice way to escape from other negative emotions. So maybe PTSD that’s untreated, maybe extreme anxiety that’s untreated, maybe social anxiety around relationships that’s untreated. But an addiction. I just I don’t I have not seen evidence that convinces me of that yet. Now, if that evidence were to emerge, I would accept it, but I have not seen it yet.

JOE KORT 11:05
I love that. And that’s what I like about you. You’re very good at looking at both sides. And I agree with you, I feel the same way. What are the best arguments? Or the best thing to talk about is just moral incongruence. Can you talk about that? And how that applies to sex or porn addiction?

Joshua Grubbs 11:18
Yeah, so this is one of my big research areas. This is one of the things that I’ve really developed over the years is this idea that perhaps one of the reasons so many people think they have problems with pornography use is related to this phenomenon we call moral incongruence. And moral influence is a fancy psychology $10 word that we use to just say, when you’re viewing porn, but you think it’s morally wrong, right? So it’s just, I think this is bad. This violates my beliefs, my values, my religion, whatever it is, I think porn is bad, but yet I’m viewing it, that experience together is moral incongruence. And so what we find in a lot of studies, is that moral incongruence, viewing pornography, while disapproving of it, is the most powerful predictor of whether or not you think you’re addicted, hmm. And that says something, right, so I would not expect, you know, if I went to someone who was, you know, dealing with an opioid addiction, I would not expect, how much they morally disapprove of heroin to predict how addicted they are to heroin, like they’re those don’t actually make a lot of sense together. But for some reason, you know, pornography, sexual behavior more broadly, in fact, seems to be really tied in to morals and values in a way that if you’re violating your values, by engaging in the behavior, you’re more likely to think there’s something wrong with you. And addiction is a good framework for that. For a lot of people. They’re like, Oh, yeah, something’s wrong with me, I do this thing that I feel bad about. I must have an addiction.

JOE KORT 12:44
Mm hmm. Yeah, a lot of people do that. And you remind me of the quote out there that and I use it all the time. When you go to war with your sexuality, you will lose and cause more chaos in your life than when you started. I love what you’re saying. Yeah,

Joshua Grubbs 12:57
undoubtedly. I mean, and that’s the, I mean, this is one of the things that we in therapeutic settings. And when I give talks on this is understanding, you know, when you’re calling this an addiction, you’re basically saying, person, your natural inborn sexual drive, which is literally part of how we evolved as a species is an addiction. Like, that’s what you’re telling people. And that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Like if we all got rid of our sex drive. I mean, I guess technically, we have the technology now, we could continue the race, but in general, humanity would be right. And so labeling sex drive is an addiction, which is ultimately what a lot of this argument boils down to sex drive equals addiction, I think is just problematic. In when we understand how humans are supposed to behave and act in general.

JOE KORT 13:42
What do you think about and I hope I get our name, right. This celebrity Billy Elias, the

Joshua Grubbs 13:46
Billy Eilish. Yeah, let’s right, yes. destroyed

JOE KORT 13:49
her brain, adult movies important. Destroy your brain? What

Joshua Grubbs 13:52
do you say? You know, I don’t doubt that she has experienced some psychological difficulties around her pornography use and I don’t want to discount her personal experiences or anything like that. Having said that, that doesn’t seem like it could possibly be empirically true for a couple of reasons. One, we just don’t have much evidence at all. I mean, any evidence at all that pornography damages the brain? To I find it hard that one of the most popular, famous successful musical stars today has a destroyed brain that doesn’t compute either. I kind of think that, you know, she, she’s doing pretty well for herself. And I mean, having said that, yes, starting viewing pornography at a young age without any sex education that tells you what you’re looking at it and how it matters and what matters and what to make of it. And talking about consent and things like that. Yeah, that’s not great for kids. I totally agree with that. But the framing of it destroyed my brain is a bit hyperbolic.

JOE KORT 14:50
Yeah, I needed you to say that and wanted people to hear that. And that, you know, I’ve tried to say on social medias, myself that celebrities, mental health experts, so she just Talking about her own experience. Right? She has such a big voice a name that people say, well, then that’s true. Right, right.

Joshua Grubbs 15:06
Well, I mean, we’ve seen this over the years, Russell Brand has talked about having a porn addiction. I think Terry Crews who’s another actress talked about it before. So yeah, celebrities do this quite frequently. And I’m sure they have their own reasons, motivations and personal issues that they’re dealing with. I just, I think it’s, you know, celebrities. They’re not mental health experts there, I will never have the musical talent of Billy Eilish, that’s just not possible. She is a foot I’m actually quite familiar with work. She’s a phenomenal vocalist and songwriter, along with her brother helps write a lot of her songs. And I respect that. And also she does not know the science of porn addiction or porn use or anything like that, so to speak.

JOE KORT 15:48
So, um, what would you say is do you think the field of sex research and addiction research need to do to improve our understanding of how to control sexual behaviors?

Joshua Grubbs 15:57
Well, I think you know, we need better research. So we wrote a paper last year where we reviewed over 400 studies of so called sex addiction or hypersexuality, all these other fancy terms we use for it. And what we found was that most of the research is quite bad. That it’s a lot of very poorly designed studies in college students or online survey takers. And very little of it is looking at things internationally, and adolescence over time, and sexual and gender minorities, in women. And so essentially, most of the research on sex addiction over the years has been among young white men in the US. And so one of the big things we need is more international, bigger, longitudinal work that really examines how to sexuality book throughout the lifespan, but also how does you know, feelings of being out of control? How does that fluctuate over time? And my bet is that a lot of times people feel a little out of control at one point in time, but that it decreases over time. So that’s part of it. I mean, big part is just we need better, longer term, diverse research.

JOE KORT 17:02
I like this. And what I like about our conversation is we’re not actually going into good porn, bad porn. You know, I used to be involved in those conversations online sex addiction, and people would say how bad Porn was and and how it’s not using I’m like, Well, wait a minute, gay and lesbian couples don’t have fight over porn. And actually, no woman is harmed in you know, there’s a lot of women that are harmed in porn, but no woman is harmed in gay male porn. You know what I mean? Right? Yeah, blanket statements about porn.

Joshua Grubbs 17:29
No, and you certainly can’t. And so this is the thing like, is there porn out there that definitely promotes non consensual, violent sexual acts? Absolutely. That porn exists. Is there porn out there that promotes loving, consensual, gentle, caring? sexuality? Yes, there is. Is there porn out there that promotes consensual BDSM? Absolutely. Like so it’s the whole spectrum. And so saying good porn, bad porn. It doesn’t categorically make sense it the content that’s there. And the values associated with that, I think matter quite a lot. So yeah, I mean, I do appreciate a nuanced conversation that doesn’t try to label which parts good, which parts bad or things like that. Do you plan? I

JOE KORT 18:10
know you’ve written a lot of articles. What about a book like a book for the layman? Do you plan on doing that?

Joshua Grubbs 18:14
I do. I do. I have a proposal that I’m working through now that I’m I’ve been behind on because the grant related stuff. But we’re we’re hoping to write a book in the next couple of years on promiscuous addiction. And so that won’t be the title, but essentially, how the addiction terminology in particular has gotten very flippant in recent years and how that actually stigmatizes behaviors that don’t need to be stigmatized like porn and sex, but also D legitimize his real addictions, heroin and alcoholism. And so it will deal with a lot of these topics, but mainly from the addiction side of things. I

JOE KORT 18:49
love it. I can’t wait for that book. Because I think you’re a great talking head about this, your researcher smart. And, you know, I get so many clients that come into my office, particularly couples, mostly mixed sex heterosexual couples that are upset and it’s usually the woman that’s upset with what a man is looking at. And, and it’s, it’s really what it’s bringing up for both of them. And so I had my work cut out for me when they come in, but they really prefer particularly the distressed partner that they call it sex addiction. It’s the low hanging fruit, let’s just call it that what it is, it’s his problem. He needs to be fixed, and then we can move on. And that’s just not how it works. Yeah, I

Joshua Grubbs 19:23
mean, I’ve had that experience for the ones that don’t do a lot of couples work, but I’ve seen many, many often men and heterosexual relationships in and therapy and then that’s what it is they’re trying to get to treat an addiction that’s not actually an addiction. And when the real problem is is based in the couples work, I’ve so many of them have ended up having to refer like, there needs to be couples therapy here, guys, because this is this I can’t fix. I can’t fix you when there’s nothing to fix. Right? Like, like, even if there was that’s not going to actually address the problem that’s bringing you here.

JOE KORT 19:55
I like what you said it’s couples therapy, period. That’s what it is. What else We come to an end. We didn’t get to that you wanted to make sure you know when I get on this podcast I want to make sure we talk about.

Joshua Grubbs 20:05
Well, no one big thing. So I mentioned we need more international research. So I think I’ve given you guys a link there is an international SEC survey. It’s an international study in 45 countries being led by some researchers that are good friends of mine really delving into these topics. So if you’re a listener, and you want to contribute to the science of understanding sexuality, and pornography use and things like that, this that that link to the international sex survey is a great place to start. Yeah. And other than that, you know, I’m happy to be here you guys can always find me on the internet. My website is www. Joshua groves, PhD COMM And you can find me on Twitter at Joshua Grubbs phc as well.

JOE KORT 20:42
Please, please, please go to his stuff. I read it every day. I love it. I learned from it I retweet it as much as I can, or I’m always quoting you, I just so happy to have you here. Thank you, Josh. Definitely,

Joshua Grubbs 20:51
if anyone wants copies of my works, I know academic articles can be hard to get your hands on you can always look up my information like I just said and send me a message I will email you a copy for free and gladly. Okay.

JOE KORT 21:03
Very nice of you because you have to be a millionaire to afford those articles.

Joshua Grubbs 21:07
academic publishing man, I will get you a free copy if you want.

JOE KORT 21:12
Thank you so much. And I want to thank all my listeners for joining us on smart sex smart love. And you can find us on smart sex smart love calm. And also follow me on Twitter, tick tock, Instagram, Facebook, and my my handle is at Dr. Joe court, Dr. Joe E k o r t. And you can also find me at my website Joe court.com. Thank you everyone. Stay safe, stay healthy, and see you next time.