In this short book Michael Leahy recounts his own experience of using pornography, his marriage, affair and divorce, his realization that he was addicted to pornography, and his recovery through a variety of different groups. He recommends his own perspective to other people with similar problems, and he suggests that millions of Americans use pornography to the extent that it causes serious problems in the rest of their lives and they have difficulty ending their self-defeating behavior.
Leahy first saw erotic pictures of nude women when he was a boy of 11, when he was able to get approval from other boys by expressing his like of the pictures. Soon he discovered masturbation, which offered him an escape from the pressures of school and family. His father was a drinker and would sometimes exact harsh treatment on his son with kicking and yelling, and the family had recently moved from sunny southern California to overcast Washington. He started sexual experimentation with girls in junior high and was popular with girls in high school and college. He didn't settle down with any girlfriends but instead played the field, while at the same time frequently using pornography. Once out of college he went into the computing industry which made him one of the first group to have access to pornography via the Internet. He met a woman he really liked and pretended to be as religious as she was in order to win her favor. They eventually got married and had two boys. But Leahy's porn use continued and he also started an affair. He says that he treated the new woman as a sexual fantasy from pornography rather than someone who he loved. Eventually it all unraveled and he got divorced. With the loss of his family, he identified his fundamental problem as pornography, and he looked for a solution. He came to see his use of porn as an addiction, and he turned to Christianity to help him. He has told his story many times, and speaks on the college lecture circuit, sometimes in debates with defenders of the porn industry such as Ron Jeremy.
The book makes many claims about the addictive nature of porn, even suggesting that it can affect one's brain chemistry. It also has a number of footnotes apparently to support the claims, but it turns out they are mostly references to newspaper and magazine articles, with USA Today featuring prominently. One of the chapters, "Am I a Sex Addict," makes many references to the website sexhelp.com. So there's nothing scholarly about Leahy's claims, and he provides nothing like scientific evidence for them. He does refer to a few more reputable sources, but he does not build an argument from them.
Leahy's position is an unusual one. He says that porn and sex addiction are real conditions, but at the same time he thinks that porn and sex addicts are still accountable for their addiction-related actions. He laments the fact that the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize the reality of porn addiction, yet he does not give an argument for classifying the addiction as a medical condition. His main argument is psychological, based on his own experience: people learn to use porn as an escape from reality, but it leads them to create a separate world which they hide from other people. Rather than deal with their problems in a healthy way, using porn as a way to make themselves feel better will lead people to view their sexual partners in dehumanizing ways, and this will hurt their relationships.
In order to clarify his views, he proposes a new term, sexual compulsivity syndrome, which can apply to either individuals, groups, or even an entire society. He defines it as "a pathological state we enter when our capacity for sexual pleasure and intimacy develops decreases as our exposure to intense sexual stimuli (like Internet pornography) increases" (p. 135). It's an interesting idea, but he does not supply any evidence that exposure to pornography does indeed decrease our capacity for sexual pleasure and intimacy. I don't know much about what psychological experts in sexuality have discovered about this, but I very much doubt that there is any simple relationship. It seems just as likely that exposure to pornography could increase a person's capacity for sexual pleasure, at least in certain contexts. Terms would have to be carefully defined and experiments or surveys done with great thoroughness in order to establish any clear links between pornography and the intimacy of relationships. I would expect that what evidence exists in the experimental literature is complex and defies any simplistic generalizations.
Aside from the issue of science, there is the question of pragmatics and culture. Leahy thinks it is helpful to introduce the term "Sex Syndrome" because then people will take the problem more seriously. He is certainly right that it helps to bring some media attention to the issue, and the book jacket flap says that Oprah Winfrey has referred to sex addiction as America's top addiction. However, media attention does not necessary translate into ordinary people taking the idea more seriously -- and most students I talk to are skeptical about proposed addictions to sex, love, or shopping. Of course, most have encountered some people who spend much too much time playing computer games, watching porn, or shopping, and who have trouble controlling themselves. If all we mean by addiction is a problem in self-control, then it might be a convenient label. But to use the medical-sounding label "sexual compulsivity syndrome" is deceptive. People have a perfectly good understanding of what it is like to engage in an activity like computer games or shopping as a way to distract oneself from one's real problems and how that can just make things worse, and often drives the person to avoid the real problems by doing more of the thing that caused the problems in the first place -- more computer games or shopping. The same will be true of pornography use. Calling this a "syndrome" doesn't shed any new light on it.
At various points in the book, Leahy appeals to ideas from Alcoholics Anonymous and applies them to sex addiction -- for example, the idea that addicts need to hit bottom before they are ready to recover. It's all very problematic, since these ideas haven't been shown to be right even in the case of alcohol abuse, and there's absolutely no reason to think they are applicable to sexual addiction.
Then there's the religion in the book. Obviously Christian approaches won't be suitable for non-Christians and non-believers. But even for Christians, it is doubtful how much sense Leahy's approach makes. He quotes John 8: 31-37, which includes the phrases "the truth will set you free" and "everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin." Leahy's interpretation focuses on the difficulty of self-control, and then talks about God's forgiveness and being reconciled to God. What is left completely unexplained if one is a slave to sin is how adopting a religious belief will break the cycle. The idea of slavery is such a pessimistic one when describing self-defeating behavior. It is better to describe people in ways that allow room for their ability to determine what they do.
Furthermore, Leahy takes a very selective view of Christianity. Jesus himself said almost nothing related to sexuality, but Saint Paul wrote copiously on the topic, and Saint Augustine's Confessions and other works have also been extremely influential on Christian teaching. Christianity has traditionally taken a conservative approach to sexuality, and both Paul and Augustine have viewed all sexuality as taking one away from God. On the other hand, there are more progressive strands in Christianity that allow for a more diverse understanding of healthy sexuality. So even from a Christian standpoint, Leahy does little to justify his own take on sexual addiction, and there is plenty of room within Christianity for alternative approaches.
There continues to be controversy about whether sexual addiction really exists, and whether addicts should be blamed for their actions. Leahy's book adds to the debate with his setting out of his own story, but Porn Nation makes no real contribution to the discussion of which side of the controversy is right, nor does it give any reason to think that its proposed solutions to the problem of porn use will be of any help.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.