Op-ed: Who exactly is misrepresenting the science on pornography?

8 neuroscientists fail to cite a single neuroscience study to support their claims

By Clay Olsen, Gail Dines, Mary Anne Layden, Gary Wilson, Jill Manning, Donald Hilton and John Foubert

Charges of misrepresenting science are serious. We write in response to a recent op-ed’s critique of Fight the New Drug’s scientific claims. Rather than mere “activists” as the op-ed authors labeled us, we represent some 130 years of combined professional experience researching or assisting those impacted by pornography.

While the authors of the earlier op-ed acknowledge “some cause for concern” regarding pornography consumption, nearly half their commentary highlights the “positive effects of sex film use,” while minimizing any serious harm. It is this kind of “balanced view,” they argue, FTND has failed to acknowledge in their work in schools.

Citing only one study, their expansive list of purported benefits from pornography range from “enhancing sex,” to greater “happiness and joy” and improved “comfort with one’s own appearance.” On the basis of a single citation we are asked to believe the production of pornography promotes “higher self-esteem” for performers while its consumption “reduc[es] violence and sexual assaults”—this, without mention of either six studies confirming mental and physical health problems of female performers or a full 50 peer-reviewed studies directly linking porn use to sexual violence.

The authors assert that a more accurate scientific analysis confirms only a “tiny percentage of those who viewed sex films” as having any negative effects—quoting “less than 2 percent of men, less than 0.05 percent of women.” They do so without citation, and without mentioning either the 2016 US study in which 28% of porn users scored at (or above) the cutoff for possible hypersexual disorder, or the 2016 Belgian study in which 28% of porn users self-assessed their porn consumption as problematic (alarmingly high rates, given that users of potentially addictive stimuli are typically among the last to recognize they have problems). Despite this, the authors of the op-ed go on to contend that pornography does “not have even primarily negative effects” and instead “mostly positive effects.”

Passed over are 40 peer-reviewed studies—a preponderance of the evidence to date—linking pornography use to lower relationship or sexual satisfaction (yes, most examined positive effects too). Also disregarded are 17 studies linking porn consumption to sexual problems and lower arousal, 11 studies documenting pornography escalation or habituation and a full 10 scientific reviews that establish serious risks with pornography use.

Such research, these authors argue, ought to be dismissed in a more “balanced” assessment. By contrast, those who disagree with their rosy analysis have, in their words, simply “disregarded the scientific method” or failed to conduct sufficiently “rigorous” studies.

Would that apply to the now 29 published neuroscience studies from universities like Cambridge, Yale and Max Planck exploring patterns in the brains of frequent pornography users? Virtually every neuroscience study has found brain changes consistent with addiction, including 18 studies documenting sensitization or cue-reactivity, eight documenting impaired prefrontal circuits and six documenting desensitization.

How eight neuroscientists could overlook these studies is difficult to understand, especially when over sixty neuroscientists have concluded their own brain data supports pornography’s addictive potential. Indeed, the single team interpreting their data from the brains of porn users otherwise is the one led by the lead author of the op-ed. When five outside reviews published re-analyses of these data, they concluded the team was overlooking evidence of the very habituation and desensitization characterizing all addictive patterns. Contrary to claims of the lead author that her team’s anomalous study had singlehandedly “debunked porn addiction,” the evidence in that study just doesn’t stand up.

Despite this, these authors argue that the real public harm comes not from pornography use, but from insisting publicly that it can be harmful!  To share a message about pornography’s potential harms with youth, they insist, is the true danger—imploring school authorities to ensure youth hear a “balanced” view that also acknowledges pornography’s “positive” effects.

Given how sharply out of line the authors’ proposals are with the preponderance of evidence consistently documenting an array of potential harms associated with pornography consumption, we are compelled to ask:  Who are the activists here?  And, whose interest would be served by passing along these authors’ conclusions to our children?

In light of the documented social, emotional, cognitive, sexual and developmental impacts on youth, we propose it is time to develop a robust, evidenced-based public health approach to educating and protecting youth from pornography’s harm. Our children deserve at least that much.

[For responses to the many additional claims made in this op-ed, see below]

Clay Olsen is CEO and co-founder of Fight the New Drug, and the founder, lead developer and artistic director of Fortify, an educational support community for those facing compulsive pornography issues.

Gail Dines, Ph.D. is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, and founding president of Culture Reframed, a public health organization building resilience and resistance in youth to the porn culture.

Mary Anne Layden, Ph D, is the Director of Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program and Center for Cognitive Therapy in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania

Gary Wilson is the creator of YourBrainOnPorn.com and the author of “Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.”

Jill Manning, Ph.D. is a licensed marital and family therapist, researcher and author based in Colorado. She currently serves on the board of directors for Enough is Enough, a non-profit organization dedicated to making the Internet safer for children and families.

Donald Hilton, MD, is an adjunct associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and a fellow of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

John D. Foubert, Ph.D., is an Endowed Professor of College Student Development at Oklahoma State University and is the author of the new book, How Pornography Harms: What Teens, Young Adults, Parents and Pastors Need to Know.

Addendum: Seven more points of response:

1. Philosophy of science. After contending that FTND is “systematically misrepresenting science” and “disregard[ing] the scientific method” the authors spend a long paragraph walking through principles they claim have been violated, namely:

The scientific method requires forming a falsifiable hypothesis, then creating experiments to disprove this hypothesis. Only if data consistently fail to disprove the hypothesis can one conclude that the hypothesis is supported, not proven.

Got it!  And right on.  We’re following you so far…

They continue, “The FTND letter suggests that (a) there has been rigorous testing seeking to disprove the hypothesis that pornography is addictive or harmful

Yep. There has!

(b) this testing has consistently failed to disprove this hypothesis

Yep. It has!

and (c) no contradictory evidence has been found.”

Not a whole lot. Nope!

It’s baffling why eight neuroscientists would overlook the direction this preponderance of evidence is pointing.

2. Study representativeness. The Op-Ed authors say, “Sex film users were not sampled in any representative way, and the studies ended up with biased samples reporting distress regarding their sex film use.”

In fact, our list of 40 studies correlating porn use with sexual or relationship satisfaction has the only studies that sampled this satisfaction issue in a representative way: both cross-sectional and longitudinal.

3. Addiction language and distress. The authors say, “the conceptualization of behavior as ‘addictive’ has documented significant psychological harm.

Yet the study they reference did not assess the psychological harm done to people who felt their behavior was addictive. Their link goes to a study that found that scores on a porn addiction test related to psychological distress. Simply put, higher levels of porn addiction correlated with higher levels of distress, which is to be expected in problematic users. For a full critique of this study click here.

4. Addiction language and sexual dysfunction. The authors say, “the conceptualization of behavior as ‘addictive’…has caused boys to think they have erectile dysfunction when they do not.”

False again. The link goes to a paper with 4 complex case studies of young men who had erectile dysfunction (not “believed” they had ED as the authors claim). There is no mention of porn use or porn addiction in that paper.

5. Pornography and women’s rights. They say, “Sex-film viewing also has been associated with more egalitarian attitudes….

The study referenced by the authors framed ‘egalitarianism’ as support for: Feminist identification, Women holding positions of power, Women working outside home, and Abortion. Secular populations tend to be more liberal, and have significantly higher rates of porn use than religious populations. This reality produces a stronger correlation between porn use and (what this study defines as) “egalitarianism.”

6. Pornography and higher education/religiosity. The authors say, “Sex-film viewing also has been associated with…higher education, more prayer and religiosity at high use, and are commonly used in sex therapy.”

The link the authors supply addresses only the “egalitarianism” correlation reported by a single study – not the authors’ other claims. Moreover, many studies report opposing results, including studies linking porn to sexist attitudes, objectification and less egalitarianism: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

7. Diagnostic Manuals. With respect to the ICD (International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), which the authors mentioned, the important point is that the upcoming ICD-11 proposes a diagnosis for “Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder,” the acknowledged “narrower term” for which is “sex addiction.”

Clearly, the international medical field is moving in the direction of the preponderance of the neuroscience and other evidence. Doubt about the validity of pornography addiction as a risk for some users is rapidly fading despite efforts like the current one to kick dust in the eyes of the public. Incidentally, the World Health Organization’s ICD “outranks” the foot-dragging Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a diagnostic guide. The the ICD is the most widely used classification of mental disorders worldwide, and its diagnostic codes are mandated for use in the US and elsewhere by international treaty as opposed to DSM-5 diagnoses, which enjoy no such mandate. Finally, the assertion that our initial reply referred to descriptive codes in the current diagnostic manuals rather than standalone diagnoses is incorrect, as made clear by DSM veteran psychiatrist Richard Krueger, MD.

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