Pseudoscience and Problems in National Geographic’s “Sex Addiction” Segment of “Taboo”

by Violet Blue on May 9, 2011

On April 28, my contact at NetGeo emailed me with previews of their channel’s upcoming “Taboo” episodes – and many of them are about sex and fetishes. I was excited, as I’m longtime friends with an Emmy award winning NatGeo director, and I’ve come to expect quality and respect for any topic their teams take on.

I was astonished to see that this was not the case with their “Sex Addiction” episode of the “Taboo” series – airing tonight (May 9).

As I wrote on CBSi’s ZDNet in The Controversy Behind Internet Porn and Criminal Behavior,

National Geographic is preparing to run a sex- and Internet porn addiction scare segment (Taboo: Sex Addiction, May 9). Their choice of experts shines a troubling light on the aging brand’s credibility.

NatGeo relies on the claims of Doug Weiss, a Christian “sex addiction expert.” Weiss runs a big business on sex and Internet porn addiction – despite the fact that he has no curriculum vitae online, nor a single peer reviewed publication to his name.

In the NatGeo Taboo teaser, Doug Weiss frames himself as an expert on neurobiology – while getting his facts wrong about dopamine and sex, in addition to mentioning enkephalins, which have no known role in orgasm.

I have some recommended reading – academics and PHd’s have recently posted the following articles, some expressly out of alarm about what National Geographic is about to tell their viewers about sex- and Internet porn addiction. Because what they’re going to tell people is false.

Especially read the first link, where everything claimed in the NatGeo episode about sex- and porn addiction and science is thoroughly, scientifically debunked.

If you decide to watch more than the trailer for National Geographic’s “Taboo” episode “Sex Addiction” – then make sure you know your facts before getting lulled in by NatGeo’s reputation into believing the con men claiming that porn is like a drug.

One more thing I would point out is that all the books on porn addiction or by and for Christians who are co-opting scientific language to fit into their sense of “The Devil Made Me Do It” when it comes to porn use.” -Jessi Fischer

Porn Is Like Drugs, A Chemical Addiction?

If you don’t have time to read the whole debunking, take a minute to read the excerpt below. Academic Jessi Fischer explains the chemistry of porn addiction in Explaining Porn Watching With Science – in great detail. Excerpt:

(…) The term “sex addiction” is the new darling of sensational media. The narrative of an addict is a compelling one, their struggle with external forces in the world leaves much room for pity. After all, this isn’t their fault but the fault of the pesky stimulus hijacking their tender neurological reward circuitry. Right?

(…) The story is that orgasm and novelty trigger dopamine, we feel rewarded and are then driven for even bigger ‘hits’ of porn. (What does that even mean? You can’t quantify a porn clip for intensity.)

While dopamine is involved in the reward system, it doesn’t work quite like that. Dopamine is a motivator for the reward, not the reward itself.

(…) So the idea posited by the sex addiction set is utterly false: your brain is not rewarding you with dopamine. Your brain uses dopamine to motivate you. And amazingly, humans can release dopamine when the reward is months or ever years away.

One of the other claims made is that porn “burns you out” on sex with other people because it “hijacks” your system by hyperstimulation of your reward system, subsequently burning out the sex part of your brain making sex a pleasure-less activity. The problem is, there is no specific sex part of your brain. Sexual excitement and arousal involve several parts of your brain structure: nucleus accumbens, cingulate cortex, insular cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and the Paraventricular Nucleus of the Hypothalamus (PVN). Nor are there orgasm specific chemicals as any chemical involved in orgasm is involved in some other function.

There is much more in Explaining Porn Watching With Science. Also examined are several recent academic, peer-reviewed studies on internet pornography, Mayo Clinic case studies, potential negative effects of porn use, and the oft-suggested comparison of porn use and heroin.

I’m more than deeply disappointed with NatGeo. I’ve put my personal reputation behind National Geographic, once helping with research for a proposed documentary on transgender life. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.

Photo: Minuit by Miles Aldridge.

Violet Blue

The London Times named Violet Blue "One of the 40 bloggers who really count" and Self Magazine named TinyNibbles one of the “Best Sex Resources for Women.” Blue is an autodidact and pundit on sex and technology, hacking and security, porn for women, privacy and bleeding-edge tech culture. She is a journalist for ZDNet, CBS News, CNET; she's an educator, speaker, crisis counselor, volunteer NGO trainer, and the author and editor of over 40 award-winning books.

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{ 9 comments }

1 Lori May 20, 2011 at 8:02 am

On behalf of Robert Weiss, the Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute, we thank you for your comments and perspective. Rob notes that most sexual addiction treatment/therapy is not religious-based and strives to be non-judgmental. Please visit his website robertweissmsw.com for more information. Thank you!

2 Jessi Fischer May 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Marissa,

The reason I wanted to go over dopamine in that way is because people pushing the sex addiction model frame dopamine as *the* reward we’re getting when an orgasm happens instead of discussing the complexity and gaps in scientific knowledge. And when it comes to sex, dopamine has a very specific role in prepping for body for excitation but I haven’t found anything to suggest that dopamine is released during orgasm itself. (Honestly, we still don’t completely understand why the hell orgasms feel so good. I highly, highly recommend reading “The Science of Orgasm” if you want to get an in-depth look at what we do know.).

In no way am I writing off compulsive behaviors. In fact, I’m arguing that all compulsive behaviors should be grouped together because of the common dopamine involvement, whether or not they involve sex as the object of compulsion. (Relevant Snip: “While I completely disagree with the “sex addiction” concept, I do believe anxiety will cause people to engage in a variety of compulsive behaviors. But it could just as easily be compulsively polishing a rifle as it could be compulsive rest stop blow jobs. The issue is neither the gun nor the cock; the issue is anxiety.”)

I hope this makes sense! I’d also really like to check out your paper if you’re ok with sharing it. You can email me at thesexademic AT gmail

Cheers!

-Jessi

3 Marissa May 11, 2011 at 7:27 am

I am only a humble senior psych undergraduate taking a seminar on Addiction that just wrote a 10 page research paper on so-called sex addiction with a specific focus on porn – and my paper came to the same basic conclusions that you have. And the article you linked to and excerpted from is brilliant in many ways. But the excerpts you chose do seem – to the best of my knowledge – not to make any sense whatsoever. The motivation and the reward are the same thing! Your brain does use dopamine to reward you, and that reward is what motivates you to repeat the behavior! Dopamine is released due to substance abuse and dependence in extremely high amounts, along with other neurotransmitters.

So the release of dopamine certainly can correspond with compulsive behaviors (as the article states) that may be unhealthy to the individual. This is evident in a wide range of behaviors like sex and porn that are usually associated with increased mental health. People may find that they continue to perform these behaviors despite consequences and that it is beyond their control – the hallmark of addictive behaviors. Consequences are usually related to harming important relationships in their life due to such time consuming use, which is rare and not to be confused with just “watching porn because porn is inherently bad.”

But sex and porn are not associated with neurobiological changes in the brain that correspond with the withdrawal that perpetuates use in substance dependent individuals. See, most addicted individuals don’t continue to use to gain pleasure, they do it relieve themselves of the pain they feel due to the changes the drug has made in the brain.

Obviously anyone should and I’m sure will take what I’m saying with a grain of salt, as I clearly don’t have expert science chops. But spending three months learning about addiction has given me a good base of knowledge surrounding these areas. I think that individuals who write off sexually healthy individuals who happen to be very sexually active as sex addicts and mentally unstable are obviously in the wrong. But writing off the potential existence of compulsive behaviors that can cause harm in a person’s life just for the sake of being sex positive isn’t good either, and I see a lot of that on blogs like these. I just want everyone to do all the research with an open mind, because too much of even a wonderfully healthy and natural thing can certainly become a bad thing.

Yikes, holy long comment batman!

4 Rachel Kramer Bussel May 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I just wanted to say I love this image used to accompany this post – I’m focusing on that at the moment because it’s so hot and I can’t deal with the multitudes of porn-blaming right this second, though great post and great debunking. I feel like every time I turn around porn is being blamed for something, as if people have no agency whatsoever.

5 Paul May 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm

A friend of mine is working on this project. It’s a much smaller production team than you think, and I agree with AnthonyA. While I hate the mistake (I was unaware of this aspect of it before), it doesn’t mean that they’re maliciously propagating these lies. The pseudoscience of the “sex addiction” meme (because that’s what it is) is far more prevalent and sells better than the truth. They were probably suckered in and didn’t know there was an issue, hence failed to do proper research due to time constraints. I will also not be boycotting them, but will intead write them a very strongly worded letter that will certainly ruin their breakfast or something.

6 Sarah May 10, 2011 at 9:00 am

Earlier this week before reading this much needed criticism of NatGeo’s new Taboo series, I was horrified by the tone of their upcoming doc on Sexual Identity. I have seen Loren Cameron speak on many occasions about his transsexual identity and I admire and respect his choice to share details about his life as a FTM as a means of demystifying trans issues. The tone of this doc, however, uses an overly dramatic narrator who frames Loren and the other trans men in the film as nothing more than a “freaks” for “normal” viewers to gawk at. I was hoping NatGeo would develop on their assertion that TS/TG identity makes people frightened by having a larger discussion about heteronormative understandings of men and women, but they did not.

I am also “more than deeply disappointed with NatGeo.”

7 AnthonyA May 10, 2011 at 6:42 am

“Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to simple laziness.”

I suspect this is the real cause of errors in NatGeo’s upcoming show. Not properly doing their research. While I will continue to respect the work of the Society so long as they don’t make a habit of this, every organization, as it grows larger, is bound to have some incompetents creep in, as it becomes more difficult to monitor all the activities of all the members.

8 laisa May 9, 2011 at 7:18 pm

This was great, the articles you linked were brilliant! thanks =]

9 maduceone May 9, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I can’t quite understand why networks like NatGeo continue to perpetrate false information about sex during a time when actual research about sex is available. I can only assume that they are pressured by their sponsors/advertisers who, in turn, are afraid of some sort of “Christian” backlash. The anti-porn people mystify me. When there are so many real problems in the world, including poverty, disease and violence, why would someone attack a basically harmless fantasy like porn? I gotta say, however, that the more noise these guys make about how dangerous it is, especially when there’s nothing to back it up, the more it will attract the curious among us. In the case of NatGeo, making false claims will only tend to discredit the rest of their programming. Perhaps, to be “fair and balanced”, NatGeo should offer an alternative view, or are they just plain afraid to do so? Maybe we should consider banning food shows for fear that people who watch them will be driven to overeating and end up being morbidly obese with all those attendant problems.

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