4 Approaches to the Use of the Label “Porn Addiction”

October 8, 2014

4 Approaches to the Use of the Label Porn Addiction

More From

Luke Gilkerson

4 Approaches to the Use of the Label Porn Addiction

At Covenant Eyes we hear from hundreds of people every week whose lives have been impacted, at varying degrees, by pornography.

  • I’ve listened to countless men tell me about how porn hooked them at a young age and followed them like a merciless bloodhound into adulthood.
  • I’ve heard the tear-filled stories of women whose husbands continually and stubbornly sought out porn against all admonitions to quit.
  • I’ve cried with parents who just found hardcore material on their child’s iPod and don’t know what to do next.
  • I’ve heard from young women about how they believed they were the only females on the planet who felt compelled to seek out porn—women who hid until their obsessions became unbearable.

It is not uncommon for these people to describe this problem as an “addiction.” In fact, it may be the most common descriptive term I hear.

“Addiction” is a loaded term with many nuances. It is also a fluid term. Colloquially, it is used for nearly anything that human beings relish. “I’m addicted to caramel macchiatos.” “I’m addicted to Pink Floyd music.”

Clinically, it enjoys a long and turbulent history, and today “sex addiction” and “porn addiction” have earned somewhat canonical status among psychologists, despite the DSM’s resistance to it.

For the biblical counselor—indeed, for any counselor—words matter. How we label a problem impacts how we approach it. And since pornography use is at an all-time high—and by some estimations, even in the church—it remains a critical question for biblical counselors today:

Should I encourage others to label their problem an “addiction” and if so, what does that mean?

Four Common Approaches

In my experience, I see four different approaches to this question in the church. For the sake of dialogue, I’ve labeled these approaches: the Redeemers, the Clinicians, the Prophets, and the Contextualists.

1. The Redeemers: Addiction to Self Is the Root of All Sin

There are some in the church who prefer to usurp or redeem the term “addiction” from the culture at-large and from the clinical community. “Addiction,” they say, is a powerful and useful modern term to describe all habitual sin.

The Redeemers want to level playing field in the church, breaking down the us-them mentality: normal sinners vs. those with “real problems.” Addiction to self, they say, is the root of all sin.

Sure, use “porn addiction” in your conversations, but make it clear such people should not be a stigmatized few. We are all sin addicts; driven by a compelling madness to embrace the very things we know will kill us. The term addiction gives people a vivid picture of the seriousness of sin: something enslaving, habitual, and requiring the help of a Power greater than oneself to find freedom.

2. The Clinicians: All Sin Is Serious, but Addiction Is Rare

There are others in the church who take their cues about addiction from the diagnostic literature and the medical community. For the Clinicians, “porn addiction” is a real problem, but is overused in the church.

For the Clinicians, all use of porn is clearly sinful, but not all who use porn should be labeled as addicts. Classic indicators of addiction need to be present: tolerance, withdrawal, compulsion, craving, progression, and unsuccessful attempts to quit.

“Addiction” is a diagnostic word, so use it that way; don’t apply the addict label to anyone who says he or she looks at porn. The term comes with a long history of medical and therapeutic baggage, insinuating the addict has no control over his or her actions and requires specialized help. Clinicians don’t want to see Christians pathologize themselves needlessly and would like to see addiction language used minimally.

3. The Prophets: “Addiction” Is Confusing; Stick to Bible Terms

This approach focuses on returning to biblical categories for describing sin and no longer depending on modern psychiatric terms. Yes, since “addiction” is used in the culture, we need to interact with the term, but it should never be the label we use. Medically, the definition is always in flux, and culturally, it is ambiguous. Calling something an “addiction” is confusing at best, and deceptive at worst.

This approach relies on the Scriptures for the categories and nomenclature. It isn’t “addiction;” it is slavery to sin. Porn users don’t need to “recover;” they need to repent and be restored by spiritual mentors. It isn’t “dependency;” it is idolatry. It isn’t “psychiatric help;” it’s discipleship and biblical counsel.

The Prophets understand the biological, cultural, familial, and spiritual elements that go into slavery to sin—much of which should be unpacked in counseling—but in the end, sinners need to focus on how God labels their problem. One of God’s great means of grace in our sanctification is the renewal of our minds, and biblical categories and terms are some of the primary means God uses to renew the mind. Modern psychiatric terms, at best, only distract us from what is really going on: sin, hardness of heart, and a dire need to surrender to God.

4. The Contextualists: “Addiction” Is Helpful for Some, But Not for Others

“Addiction” can be a loaded term. For some, the term is used casually and simply means enjoying something a lot. For others, the term invokes an image of a dimly lit church basement where men and women, 20-years sober, show up for a meeting and still identify themselves through the lens of their formerly compulsive habit.

Contextualists say we need to recognize addiction means different things to different people. We should feel free to use the term when it is helpful, and refrain from using it when it is harmful.

For some, calling the problem an “addiction” is a relief because it finally gives them a label that makes sense of the madness of their condition; they can finally move on and make progress. For others, it trivializes the problem as something medical and therefore excusable, or it imprisons them in hopelessness, for they believe that once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict.

What Group/Approach Are You In?

The above groups are generalizations, to be sure. In fact, some intentionally blend these approaches into new approaches. There is also considerable overlap among these perspectives.

Assuming a commitment to the authority of Scripture, all of these approaches believe pornography is immoral—not because it is potentially addictive, but because it promotes lust, it rips sexuality from its proper relational context, and it presents human beings as sexual commodities. On this, we can stand together.

Join the Conversation

If you had to choose a group (or groups), which approach would you choose and why?


2 thoughts on “4 Approaches to the Use of the Label “Porn Addiction”

  1. Brad,

    This is a great post. For the sake of my family and those I minister to I will remain anonymous, but if Bob were to read this I’m sure he would know who I am.

    I struggled with sexual compulsion (whatever we call it) for over two decades. I had tried every approach under the sun. From behavioral methods to “exorcism” to reading my Bible and praying every day so I’d grow, grow, grow, to group counseling at a Christian Counseling center. Eight years ago I entered sexaholics anonymous and finally found freedom from my compulsion.

    I find myself in each of these groups to some extent. On the one hand I think the language of addiction is wonderfully powerful for the sake of conveying the power of sin over those who dare trifle with it.

    Yet I hear others speak of how they were addicted to pornography for a few years and then something happened and they quit, or God freed them, whatever the language they didn’t seem to need anyone else and I think “whatever you mean by addiction, it isn’t the same thing I mean.”

    On the one hand I still attend my SA group and identify as an addict there. I have defended the benefit and the compatibility of faithful twelve step groups with Christianity. On the other hand I also attend a chapter of the Samson Society started by Nate Larkin, author of Samson and the Pirate Monks. When we introduce ourselves there I identify as one who in my flesh is a slave to lust. I prefer this language because it is both biblical and simultaneously makes clear that this will always be with me but is not my identity.

    I have brought a number of people into SA and have no problem sending some there, but would never send others. Some are spiritually mature enough to deal with the various weaknesses, others are not. With some I counsel, I would feel free to speak of addiction, with others I would prefer to stick to biblical language, either because of spiritual immaturity or because the language word alienate them.

    Thank you so much for the article and the care with which you have approached the issue.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    You sound somewhat like a “Contextualist” to me.

    I’ve spoken with Nate Larkin many times, and I really appreciate how he is trying to bring the best of what he personally learned in the 12-step universe into the church.

    I’d be interested to know: what were the features of SA that you felt were key to your person freedom that you didn’t find in other settings?

Comments are closed.