Review: Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn by Noah B. E. Church

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Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn by Noah B. E. Church book cover
Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn (2014) is a guide to current research into porn addiction, and a manual for those seeking to cut down their own habit. Noah B. E. Church goes beyond scientific research, and brings in his own story – painfully honest – of sexual dysfunction as well as testimonials of others whose lives have been affected by porn addiction, and how the recovery process has worked for them. He also offers an opinion on how the addict might heal themselves. In a world where porn use is near ubiquitous amongst a generation who have grown up with the internet (and hence, freely available access to porn), an open discussion of how this is affecting the lives of people is much needed.

After offering a definition of porn addiction using an adapted set of diagnostic criteria for substance addiction (which, worryingly, might rank a very high proportion of the population as addicts), Church discusses various pieces of research and how a porn addict’s life is affected by their habit. Most come down to a similar theme: that the regular porn viewer conditions their brain to overstimulation and the dopamine release that follows the porn-masturbation-orgasm routine. This tricks the brain into believing that there is a vast supply of partners with which the porn addict is mating, and, following evolutionary programming, rewards the addict for pursuing as many partners (or in this case, porn material) as possible (mistakenly equating many ‘partners’ to increased chance of having one’s genes replicated). For the addict, this artificial warping of sexual behaviour makes regular, monogamous relationships very difficult, and many will suffer erectile dysfunction or desensitisation to physical stimuli, their real-world partners unable to compete with the ready supply of on-demand ‘partners’ online.

As the addict becomes more conditioned to pornography as a means of sexual release, the neurochemical reward pathways in the brain can alter, creating a separate pathway to sexual release, which responds to porn rather than physical intimacy in the real world. Interestingly, the effects of watching porn can have consequences beyond the addict’s sexual life. The more porn the addict watches, the lower the dopamine pay-off they receive. As with other addictions, this causes them to seek increasingly extreme or varied forms of stimulation. The higher the level of stimulation needed to produce the dopamine kick the addict craves, the more problematic their behaviour can become. As Church notes, many addicts watch porn as a way of coping with real world anxieties, stresses, and emotions but, by satisfying their need for dopamine via porn, addicts might be conditioning their bodies to produce less dopamine naturally, making them less able to cope in the real world (low dopamine levels have been shown to increase the likelihood of social anxiety, and poor mental and physical health). Where this happens, addicts are apt to fall into a negative feedback loop, where, feeling worse about themselves, they continue in behaviours that limit their dopamine release, which in turn affects their social interactions, personal achievements, health, and so on.

At times, Church’s writing focuses on the extreme end of the effects of porn addiction, but it is important to understand that porn affects all of its users, addicts or not. Not everyone who uses porn will encounter sexual dysfunction of a severe nature, but every user will have their sexual habits and their social lives shaped by pornography. It is inevitable. Church’s solution to this is complete abstinence – as with substance abuse, for addicts, cutting out the stimulus completely is the only way to heal and offers the best chance of avoiding relapse. And Church is clear that there is the potential for healing – the neuroplasticity of the brain makes this possible, as well as the re-conditioning of social aspects of the addiction. The numerous testimonies included in the book – from men and women, old and young – attest to the potential for change and the huge benefits abstention can have.

Perhaps most involving of the testimonies is Church’s own: as a 24-year-old man, his formative years were filled with pornography – it became his sexual education, and shaped his behaviour – and as a consequence his adult life consisted of a string of sexual failures, distress, and internal recriminations. Coupled with the numerous testimonies of others, Church’s honest recounting of his own struggles and recovery will offer both reassurance and hope to any readers who find themselves questioning their own habits. For those who wish to address any issues they themselves might have, Church offers a 13-step plan for recovery. His honesty about the pitfalls and challenges ensures that the reader is armed with the knowledge to change their own lives. There is information for parents too, and general encouragement towards a more open dialogue about sex between parents and children, couples, and friends.

Church is at pains to point out that the medical professions, despite an increasing number of papers on the topic being published, have yet to fully catch up to the crisis that porn addiction amounts to. Therefore, while meticulously referenced throughout, a large bulk of the information in the book is anecdotal or drawn from studies which have yet to stand the rigorous scrutiny of the scientific community. Some conclusions have the ring of truth, others less so, but until a body of data and research has been built and peer-reviewed, one must treat even the scientific findings with a healthy degree of scepticism.

To his credit, Church treats the issue with a scientific approach, and there is little condemnation of porn here – rather Church treats it like any other addictive substance, as a stimulus rather than an intrinsically bad or evil thing. Though not backed up by significant empirical data yet, Wack is such an easy-to-read and competently composed book that it will doubtless prove an incredibly valuable resource to anyone that picks it up. While many of the ideas discussed here are written about online, it’s rare to find information so accessible and well organised. There is a lot of scientific work to be done before the impact of porn on our society is truly understood, just as there are some serious social shifts needed to be able to address the problems before and after they arise. Wack is by no means comprehensive, but it is a clear-eyed snapshot of where we are today. It doesn’t dance around the issue, or wrap it up in overly elaborate recovery plans. It is a simple, straight, and useful resource for anyone outside of the scientific community who wants to engage with this issue now.

This is a really well written introduction to an increasingly important area of psychology. It makes research findings accessible, without over simplifying.


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Reviews of Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn on Amazon (US)

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Interview: Noah B. E. Church
Noah B. E. Church is a wildland firefighter, EMT, tutor, entrepreneur, speaker, and author. At 24 years old, he’s also a recovering porn addict. Having first encountered internet pornography at the age of nine, it wasn’t until very recently that ... [Read More]

1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

I will admit my own bias here, as I find the area really important and interesting. It's one of themes the novel I've just written covers and that pre-existing interest is what prompted me to read this (that and Noah's very kind e-mail inviting me to do so). Nevertheless, I think it's a book worth reading for anyone, particularly the first section that deals with current research and exactly what impact porn is having on people's lives.