The Medicalisation of Pornography


Today an article appeared on Hacker News (a den of masturbators if ever there was one) concerning one confused man's alleged addiction to pornography. The article leads to a fascinating corner of the internet in which largely self diagnosed pornography addicts conduct surveys and experiments on themselves. Also linked from the article is a website called Your Brain on Porn, the title of which is a self-conscious reference anti-drug commercials that everyone loved to mock in the 1980s.

Your Brain on Porn also features the remarkable tag line: "Evolution has not prepared your brain for today's Internet porn." While factually correct, it would also be accurate to say that evolution hasn't prepared my brain for most of modern life, from global capitalism to catching the number 36 bus. In fact, evolution didn't prepare our brains adequately for ancient life either (in this regard evolution is a far more modest theory than people like to believe). We know, for example, that the ancient Romans had pornography of sorts in the form of erotic frescoes in their villas, as well as on their pots and pans (to say nothing of Byzantine erotica). Granted, this wasn't high-speed Internet porn, but everything happened at a slower pace back then. I am reminded here of an argument from a particularly right-wing economics professor which went like this: The poor today are the equals of the wealthy during the 19th century, because the poor have access to aluminium eating utensils which were available only to the highest elites, like Napoleon. By the same token can we not say that even the poorest today are in some sense the equals of the wealthiest Roman prefects on account of the abundant pornography to which they can avail themselves?

Clearly, when it comes to the concept of pornography addiction, what we are dealing with is a case of medicalisation - the vast expansion of medical power into new domains. The result:

Medicine is becoming a major institution of social control, nudging aside, if not incorporating, the more traditional institutions of religion and law. It is becoming the new repository of truth, the place where absolute and often final judgements are made by supposeldy morally neutral and objective experts. And these judgements are made, not in the name of virtue or legitimacy, but in the name of health." (Zola 1978:256)

We see medicalisation spreading the ambit of health into ever larger regions of our daily lives. Zola points out that vices like drug addiction and alcoholism were once human failings rather than medical issues, just as ageing and pregnancy were once considered to be normal and natural processes (Zola 1978:257). Zola would not be surprised to discover that pornography is increasingly a medical issue.

What I think is surprising is that in this instance medicalisation seems to be largely driven by the deviants themselves, rather than the medical or psychiatric professions (although certainly some of them are capitalising on this development). A group of people seem to have decided that they would rather be addicts than perverts.

Medicine allows this process to occur. It is a case of what Paul Rabinow refers to as "biosociality":

If sociobiology is culture constructed on the basis of a metaphor of nature, then in biosociality, nature will be modelled on culture understood as practice. (Rabinow 1999:55)

Pornography is a cultural object, and its consumption is a cultural practice. The notion of a brain "on porn" is one that embeds a model of nature that relies on this cultural practice. In this model, while you look at pornography, your brain is doing something else (releasing dopamine or whatever). It is as though the brain is not fully participating in the practice of looking at pornography. The addict asks us to feel sorry for him, saddled with a brain that chemically and stupidly reinforces his addiction. The brain asks us to feel sorry for him that he has been saddled with a pervert.

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