Academic journal article The Psychological Record

The Role of Experiential Avoidance in Problematic Pornography Viewing

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

The Role of Experiential Avoidance in Problematic Pornography Viewing

Article excerpt

Internet pornography use is a relatively recent but prevalent phenomenon (Kraus et al. 2016; Sabina et al. 2008; Wright et al. 2013). Research indicates the effects of pornography use are contextual, having positive and negative effects. For some, pornography use is associated with a range of problems, including poor sexual functioning, increased negative emotions, isolation, relationship dissatisfaction, spiritual concerns, disregarding responsibilities, and financial consequences (e.g., Baltazar et al. 2010; Doring 2009; Harper and Hodgins 2016; Young 2008). Conversely, for others, pornography use is associated with beneficial effects, including improved sexual functioning, sex life, attitudes towards sex, and quality of life (e.g., Albright 2008; Poulsen et al. 2013; Twohig et al. 2009). For example, a study of college-aged men and women found that the majority of participants self-reported positive effects on their personal and intimate lives related to their pornography consumption (Hald and Malamuth 2008).

These mixed results raise obvious questions about the use of pornography. Why might viewing be problematic for some but not for others, and what psychological processes contribute to viewing being problematic? To begin addressing this, attempts have been made to classify problematic pornography use in relation to diagnostic concepts such as addiction (Duffy et al. 2016), compulsions (Cooper et al. 1999), or hypersexual behavior (Stein et al. 2001). However, it is still unclear why some individuals struggle with compulsive, addictive, and/or otherwise harmful viewing patterns.

One approach to identifying mechanisms that contribute to problematic viewing is to consider the function (why people view), rather than just the topography (the form and frequency) of viewing. Research indicates that individuals vary on their motivators (also labeled establishing operations) for viewing pornography (Reid et al. 2011). Focusing on the function of viewing, compared to the form, is important for helping determine who is suitable for treatment. Classifying viewing as problematic based on the amount of viewing is bound to wrongly label those for whom viewing has no negative consequences or has a positive impact on their lives. Instead, classification is better served by a functional definition of problematic viewing related to unwanted consequences of the viewing behavior (e.g., What is being avoided? How does it impact quality of life?). This method of conceptualization is consistent with other psychological diagnoses and behavioral conceptualizations of problematic behaviors.

Of the possible variables that might help identify the function for viewing pornography, experiential avoidance may be particularly relevant. Experiential avoidance refers broadly to rigid patterns of behavior that attempt to reduce, change, or otherwise control unwanted inner experiences (e.g., thoughts, emotions, urges) despite the negative consequences that may arise from doing so (Hayes et al. 1996). A large body of research indicates that experiential avoidance contributes to a wide range of psychological problems (Hooper and Larsson 2015), including other addictive/compulsive behaviors such as alcohol use (Levin et al. 2012b), hair pulling (Begotka et al. 2004), skin picking (Twohig et al. 2006), self-harm (Chapman et al. 2006), and binge eating (Lillis et al. 2011). Part of why experiential avoidance is so problematic is that individuals rigidly engage in patterns narrowly focused on escaping aversive states, despite the negative consequences over time and in other areas of life. Furthermore, these avoidant behaviors often elicit more negative thoughts and feelings, which leads to more experiential avoidance, and thus creating an ongoing cycle (Chowla and Ostafin 2007; Hayes et al. 1996). This process might likewise lead to frequent, rigid patterns of pornography viewing, irrespective of negative consequences in other areas of life such as relationships, work, or religion. …

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