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Addiction is about social exclusion not moral failing


Cocaine addict

In comparison with a decade ago, counsellors are reporting a significantly higher number of clients with internet pornography concerns. There’s a slew of studies providing evidence associating increased porn exposure with unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships, body image and in some instances sexual violence.

While more prevalent among the young, increased exposure to porn is no respecter of economic, social or religious status, and is generally a male phenomenon.

For clients whose behaviour is more compulsive, pornography is regarded as an addiction. Addictions were previously viewed as a moral failing best addressed by social disapprobation and, for more extreme cases, social exclusion.

However with increased social acceptance and ease of access – the idea that you can view explicit real life porn electronically in the privacy of your bedroom – this approach no longer works. Increasingly various addictions – including pornography, drugs, alcohol and gambling – are viewed as illness that pathologically activates the neurophysiological reward centres.

Cambridge University research assessed the brain activity of 19 addictive pornography users against a control group of people who said they were not compulsive users. MRI scans of test subjects who admitted to compulsive pornography use showed that the reward centres of the brain reacted to seeing explicit material in the same way as a person with alcoholism might on seeing an advertisement for alcohol.

Here the treatments for addiction ‘illness’ sit on a continuum between harm minimisation and total abstinence. For alcoholism, for instance, harm minimisation comes under the rubric of ‘the responsible use of alcohol’, and ‘total abstinence’ is the stance of Alcoholics Anonymous.

However British writer Johann Hari invites us to view, and consequently treat, addictions very differently. He argues that the most influential cause of addiction is not the pathological activation of an individual's reward centres but society’s absence of social connectedness and bonding.

One of the many studies he cites comes from Portugal, where Greens leader Richard Di Natale is now studying first hand the handling of drug addiction without recourse to the criminal justice system. Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe with one per cent of the population addicted to heroin.

While the Portuguese Government waged a war on drugs, the problem kept getting worse. So they resolved to decriminalise all drugs and transfer the money used for containing and isolating drug addicts to reconnecting them to themselves, to each other and the wider society.

The most crucial step was to get them secure housing and subsidised jobs so they had a purpose in life and something to feel responsible for and to. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology on the Portuguese experiment found that since total decriminalisation and the emphasis on connection and bonding, addiction has fallen and injecting drug use is down by 50 per cent. This policy has been such a success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old policy.

Johann Hari also makes the common sense observation that most of us who have been hospitalised and treated with high doses of morphine/heroin for pain management don’t go onto develop drug addiction.

Why? Our social bonds and connections are still intact. We are social beings and have a deep need to bond and form connections. ‘If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel, in a bottle or the prick of a syringe’.

Hari is advocating human connection and genuine community as the antidote for addictions. With the advent of Social Media some commentators maintain that we are more socially connected now than ever before and dismiss Hari’s thesis.

However, the study ‘Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades,’ found a significant reduction in Americans’ perception of social connectedness. It examined Americans’ core network of confidants (those people in our lives considered close enough to trust with personal information and to be relied on as a sounding board) and found that in 1985, 10 per cent of Americans said that they had no confidants in their lives; but by 2004, 25 per cent of Americans stated they had no confidants in their lives.

This study confirmed the continuation of trends that came to public attention in sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone and occurs against the backdrop of the rise in Social Media. Common sense dictates that if tragedy befalls, it won’t be the hundreds of friends on your Facebook or Twitter accounts but your closest confidants – members of your family and your deep and abiding friendships – who offer soulful support.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not minimising the negative impact of addictive behaviours nor advocating for harm minimisation responses such as safe injecting rooms and drug decriminalisation in the case of heroin addiction. I’m agnostic here.

My simple take home message is that social marginalisation and/or exclusion combined with social disapprobation will not address addictions. I’m advocating that love and social connection with understanding and, where appropriate, disapprobation is the key. It’s a call back or forward to genuine community.

So if your teenager or partner is struggling with, say, a pornography addiction don’t accept the behaviour or place yourself in danger but attempt understanding and accept and LOVE them. Seek further professional assistance where necessary. Without the recovery of genuine community my bet is that addictions and associated social problems will rise.

Paul JensenPaul Jensen is the Wagga Wagga based CEO of Centacare South West NSW.

Addiction image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Paul Jensen, pornography, drugs, addiction, Richard de Natale, crime, therapy



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Existing comments

From David Malouf's "The Brothers: Morphine & Death": "The likeness so close between them: both/ youthful, both manly fair; only one/ is paler - more strict I'd say, more aloof,/ more lordly. When the first drew near, how sweet/ his smile, his gaze how gentle." Paul Jensen's article reinforces key elements of David's poem. And the article's solutions to addiction are thoughtful. Social connection, love and acceptance, and light bulb moments for the one suffering the addiction are all important for recovery. Social disapprobation is crushing, for both the person addicted and their loved ones. It's an illness and needs to be understood, and treated, as such.

Pam | 20 July 2015  

Addiction of any sort is a serious matter. In some cases it can be life destroying. Whilst experts differ - as they always will - I think you are right in attributing much of the problem to a massive interpersonal breakdown in modern society. Other much less technically advanced societies - and I include Western society in times past here - were much more cohesive and supportive. We have lost the ties which bind us together. When I look at my middle class street in Brisbane I can see that so clearly. Changing things is a massive task. There are no easy, quick solutions. I think many of us need to do a considerable amount of work on ourselves. I am reminded of St Augustine's words "Conquer yourself and the world lies at your feet." In conquering ourselves we need to reach out to others. God knows how much destructive behaviour we could prevent if we did. Thank you for drawing our attention to the matter Paul. It is deadly serious.

Edward Fido | 20 July 2015  

Addictions are a moral issue insofar as objectively harm is done to the addicted, physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. The objective harm is a given. Subjective moral guilt is lessened by loss of freedom in addiction. The pre-addiction initiating personal decision re porn, etc. can have grave moral implications. None of the above moral nuances before/during/after addition excludes the addicted of course, from love; communal acceptance of an individual; tested professional help;or healing Sacrament of Confession, assisted by prayer and grace]. The holistic approach is pivotal.

Father John George | 20 July 2015  

Excellent article. The need for feeling love and connected is vital.

PornStinks | 21 July 2015  

I think that love and understanding can be an important part of recovery for a porn viewer. But I don't think it's sufficient. Sometimes, pornography use can become so embedded in a person's life that they need more extensive help. 12-step programs help but have high relapse rates. I recommend some of the new cognitive-behavior based programs, like the one in the book Power Over Pornography.

Goodwins | 21 July 2015  

Various addictions can be viewed as illnesses that pathologically activate the neuro-physiological nerve centres of the brain. What amazing progress has been made in the past century in our understanding of how the human body works. I remember years ago (1970s) attending a middle-management course where a clinical psychologist gave a talk on 'anti-social behaviour'. She warned us as managers against jumping to 'psychological' explanations as to why a staff member might be behaving badly. She said it could be something as simple as the person has not been eating properly or had chronic arthritis. She warned us against stereotyping, psycho-analysing and moralising. Re- Alcoholics Anonymous: AA sees itself as one way to deal with alcoholism. AA requires those following its particular path to have a desire to stop drinking. That desire AA cannot give. It must come from within the alcoholics themselves. AA nurtures this desire by providing the alcoholic with a program of living that requires rigorous honesty. It sees alcoholism as a threefold disease of body, mind and spirit. It has borrowed freely from medicine, religion, psychology and psychiatry and the personal witness of sober members in its program of recovery.

Uncle Pat | 21 July 2015  

I was very affected by the film "AMY', currently in cinemas. It emphasises that "love", at least in a fairly superficial and selfish "modern" sense, is not enough, especially if the lovers, whether family or partners, are as weak and damaged as you are. Ultimately. someone needs to be able to say "NO" and back it up with strong actions.Even so, I am very sympathetic to the main jist of this article; we do need better ways of addressing these issues, but there still need to be "tough love"!.

Eugenew | 21 July 2015  

Paul Jensen's article is excellent but there is one vital issue he hasn't addressed. Without adequate, appropriate support it is simply impossible for a parent/partner of a person suffering from an addiction to feel/be loving at all times. Without such support, a person can burn out, become resentful, suffer guilt, etc., at being required always to have infinite patience and the expectation that they are not entitled to any life of their own. Carers are human, not saints, no matter how much they love a person with an addictgion.

Anna | 22 July 2015  

It's very difficult to effectively support someone with an addiction all by yourself, whatever it may be. Fortunately, the 12-step programs Al-Anon, Gam-Anon, Nar-Anon etc offer a place where the friends and family of people with addictions can share their experience, strength and hope, and offer support to one another. These programs make it easy to connect because of the promise of anonymity. Changed my life. Thanks for writing on this - it's all too easy to stigmatise people when you've been hurt by their behaviour and socially addiction is still treated as a moral failing by the media. A lot of people prefer to remain unconscious of addiction (often so they can keep drinking themselves to self-medicate the way we live), and stigmatising addicts is one way to put the problem outside ourselves.

Madeline Oliver | 24 July 2015  

Excellent article Paul. Thank you. So it comes back to education. The bonds we start with in life, that are later reenacted in adult relationships permeate every aspect of living. And our government that is hell-bent on exclusion as the moral imperative, promotes separation and us vs them. i also see in my counselling practice that addiction starts with lack of secure bonds and exclusion on broader levels.

Margie Ulbrick | 25 July 2015  

Whether addiction's a moral, social or psychological issue (or a mixture of all three). the fact seems to be ignored that the most recognised and accepted solution or treatment method - AA - only has a success rate of between 5 and 10%. If a doctor recommended a treatment for cancer that had this low success rate, would we take the doctor's word for it? (Unless it was the ONLY solution largely to incurable condition) But is that the case? Or is the success rate of AA irrelevant - but rather it's community building functions the main focus rather than the obvious divide between desire and reality?

AURELIUS | 27 July 2015  

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