THAT well-known bastion of academic integrity, Cosmopolitan, has come up with some sex research. No, not the sort you’re probably thinking of (hilariously sent up by The Onion).
Rather they’ve been dipping their pedicured toe into somewhat more serious waters, putting questions to 68 "sex and relationship experts” (therapists, mainly. . . . at least they don’t call them "sexperts”) about the effects of porn on relationships. According to Cosmo, 86% of the therapists questioned believe porn has had a negative effect on relationships – on what basis is unclear – while 90% claimed an increase in relationship problems due to porn in recent years.
The problem with surveys like this – I hesitate to call it research, though no doubt the figures will find their way to a government consultation document in the not so distant future, as has often happened with other sex-related issues – is that it tells us very little. Questioning therapists on their interpretation of their patients’ experiences, a vital degree away from the actual patients, is problematic from a scientific perspective. So too are the questions themselves, which do not account for degrees of change. Where are the comparative data sets?
Questioning any group about current data and past occurrences without numbers about the past to hand is always going to introduce significant bias. Many people think hula hoops are smaller than they used to be: are those valid data points and do they quantify level of change? Hint: no.
This is particularly evident in the Cosmo press release. Consider the statement that "Almost all of the therapists surveyed [94%] have seen an increase in porn addiction.” Dr Marty Klein, writing in Psychology Today, says he’s been seeing an increase as well. Only, the increase isn’t what we think it is – more accurate diagnoses.
Rather it’s more couples coming in having pre-diagnosed themselves, ironically thanks to the internet.
Porn addiction, let’s recall, was not included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, widely considered the bible of mental health diagnosis. This is because the evidence for its existence is poor and the diagnostic criteria are extremely broad. Compulsive behaviour needs to have a significant physiological effect to be a real addiction and porn use generally does not satisfy this criterion. Yet, the "increase” may yet appear to the clinician, only not in the way we assume.
Klein says: "In a different world, Mr Porn Consumer would turn to Outraged Wife/Girlfriend and say ‘Wow, I can see you’re really upset about what I’m watching. Let’s talk, and see what we can do.’ In the real world, however, most men are so loaded down with shame about their sexuality that the second their partner attacks them for watching porn, they collapse and allow their partner to seize control of the relationship.”
But Cosmo knows its audience well: women who are concerned about relationships. Things not working out with your man? Take this handy quiz and find out how to fix it! That’s fine for a bit of fun or to pass the time on a train journey, but as a model for serious relationship therapy, a very poor show indeed.
The hype about "online porn addiction” is a voguish (though not Vogue-ish) trend that makes about as much sense as deeming "Razzle addiction” or "Babestation addiction” actual mental health concerns. Any scepticism is swept under the rug because loads of people are blogging about it and selling self-help books about it, so it must be true, right?
The apochrypha that comprise our cultural, media-led knowledge on sex and porn can’t even agree on the precise way in which porn is meant to be damaging. On the one hand you have Cosmo saying it’s the death of intimacy, then you have Naomi Wolf wading into the fray to say it’s delaying ejaculation. Hang on a minute, wasn’t that supposed to be the holy grail of what women wanted in the bedroom once upon a time?
I don’t doubt the couples concerned are experiencing a crisis in their relationships. I very much doubt pornography use is ever the primary cause, and that rather it is a symptom. And while treating the symptoms may be attractive, in practice, it is never an effective long-term solution for what ails you.