Episode 88: Research on Addiction with Ryan Hewitt

Uncategorized Sep 19, 2022

This week’s episode is an incredibly special one. Ryan Hewitt is a researcher who is currently doing his dissertation on addiction and pornography, specifically in Christians. He reached out to me because there has been a lot of emerging research around porn that supports my process, and he’s here to share that with us over the next few weeks. 

Ryan and I decided to do a three-part series of interviews, and in this first episode, we’re diving into the research on addiction and porn use. You might not be surprised to hear that in the context we discuss, there’s a decreased likelihood of talking about questions, concerns, and issues regarding the realm of sexuality, and this compelled Ryan to dig into one of the most obvious and glaring arenas: pornography.

Join us in this episode as Ryan shares his fascinating research on addiction and porn. You’ll discover how, in many cases, perceived addiction around porn is rooted in an internal battle rather than an actual addiction, and why we have to be cautious about labeling our impulses as an addiction.

If you are a male between the ages of 18 and 29 and identify as Christian, click here to help Ryan out with his research. He currently needs 100 more participants, and this is a great way to give back if you’ve received help and hope on your journey and want to use your struggles to support future generations. 

If you’re ready to do this work and start practicing unconditional commitment toward quitting your porn habit, sign up to work with me! 


What You'll Learn from this Episode:

  • What drew Ryan to doing the work and research around addiction and pornography. 
  • The intersection of faith, pornography, psychology, and moral conviction. 
  • Why the language used around addiction can be so harmful. 
  • How, in many instances, distress and perceived addiction are rooted in moral tension, rather than actual addictive patterns. 
  • The dangers of labeling your impulses as an addiction. 


Listen to the Full Episode:

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Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Overcome Pornography for Good podcast, episode 88, Research on Addiction with Ryan Hewitt.

Welcome to the Overcome Pornography for Good podcast, the show that will teach you how to stop viewing pornography and never go back to it. If you want to learn how to train your brain out of a pornography habit, completely shame-free, then this is the show for you. I’m your host Sara Brewer, a certified life and faith-based coach.

Hey, you guys, welcome to the podcast this week. I'm so excited to share this interview with Ryan Hewitt. Ryan Hewitt is a researcher and is currently doing his dissertation around pornography and pornography, specifically in Christians. He reached out to me because there has been a lot of emerging research around porn that really supports my process. And so he wanted to share that with me. He wanted to share all this emerging research, and we decided to do a three part series of interviews with him.

So we're going to talk about the research on addiction and porn use, you are going to find it fascinating, the research on moral incongruence, and the research on shame. So today, specifically, we're talking about addiction and all of the fascinating research around addiction and pornography that is emerging. So I hope that you enjoy this conversation.

One thing I will say, if you want to help him with his own studies and his own dissertation, he is looking for survey participants. If you are a male between the ages of 18 and 29 and you identify as a Christian, those are the three criteria, you can go to outofthefog.faith to help him with his research.

This is a great way to give back. If you've received help and hope and you want to use the struggles that you have had to help and support future generations, participating in this research is such a beautiful way to do that. So I really hope that you consider doing that.

He needs 100 more responses, and I told him we can get that easy. We can get that easy. With all the listeners that we have listening this podcast we can get that. So please, please go and help him with his research. So please listen and enjoy this interview, you're going to find it so, so helpful and so fascinating.

Sara: Hey, you guys, welcome to the podcast episode this week. I have an awesome guest today, his name is Ryan Hewitt. I'll let you introduce yourself and tell us who you are, what you do, et cetera.

Ryan: Yeah, thanks for having me on. I’m honestly really excited to get on here and just dialogue with you. I kind of have a weird background, I live in Colorado Springs now, I’m originally from Tennessee. I’ve got five kids, three biological, two adopted from China in the past few years, which has been a cool story that we've got to be a part of.

But yeah, kind of a weird background. I actually originally had my degrees in engineering, did that for about a year. Went in the mission field for just a short time in Sierra Leone and really sparked a love for education and working with young people. And so I came back, became a high school math teacher, eventually became a vice principal and principal in a small school.

But during that time, it was about 10 years, I started to see these growing trends, you know, because that's in a relatively short amount of time. But I started to see things that were really amplified, kind of exponentially it seemed. One was just all of the questions and concerns and issues that were stemming amongst the young people regarding broadly the realm of sexuality, you know, there's a whole lot of different threads there.

But my specific school was a small faith-based school. And in addition to seeing that trend, I was seeing in these Christian circles and in these faith-based circles it seemed like we were less likely to talk about it. It was almost like the secular world was having more conversations about this than we were, which seemed odd to me. It was like, why are we not talking about these things?

And then the third thing is I specifically did a lot of work with young men. And I just began on a personal level seeing these young men that were really stuck in these cycles, they just weren't seeing victory. And I started to put all this together. And again, this was beyond just pornography. And I just started to really wrestle with like, okay, I have a heart for education, but I think my bigger heart is for young men to really come into fullness, and into maturity, and into growth.

So, from that it compelled me to really dig into this whole realm of sexuality, how it's affecting young men. And then from that, one of the most obvious and glaring arenas was the realm of pornography. Which again just wasn't, the conversation wasn't going on very much in the context I was in.

So all that to say I began doing a doctoral research program trying to get my PhD in ministry leadership, specifically looking at really the arena of sexuality in young men, and more specifically pornography.

Sara: Very cool. So it started with you just doing maybe some volunteer work in your church, working with these young men, seeing this, seeing how wasn’t being talked about, seeing all the things. And that inspired you enough, that made you want to go get a PhD in, remind me, sorry, in what? In ministry?

Ryan: It’s just ministry leadership, it’s kind of the real broad umbrella term, but really like young adult ministry.

Sara: Very cool, specifically looking at pornography.

Ryan: Yeah, yeah. Which is kind of an interesting arena, again, because again, the whole thing, it's just not talked about very much. But that was really what compelled me, is I would have so many one on one conversations and you would just hear the same narrative over and over.

And every single one of them would think, well, I really must be the only one. And I'm like, No, you're not. And why are we hearing this over and over but not talking about it. So that was just like an obvious like, what are we missing here?

Sara: I'm the only one, and it's probably like 90%.

Ryan: Exactly. Totally.

Sara: Yeah. No, so Ryan, he reached out to me via email, and I don't remember exactly what your email said but it basically said, hey, there's all this research that I'd be interested in talking to you about. We got on a call because I'm like, yes, I want to hear the research and see if there's anything new.

And we had a really great discussion on how the new research that's coming out is very, very supportive of the things you'll hear on the podcast. And so I said, I would love for you to come on my podcast, and let's talk about the specific research that is happening around pornography, how that's different than research we've seen in the past.

We're going to talk specifically about addiction. We're going to talk about moral incongruence. And we're going to talk about shame and the research behind all of those with pornography. And you might be surprised at how it is different than maybe you were taught.

If you've listened to my podcast, you won't be surprised. But this is fun because it's a bunch of research to back up the things. I was telling Ryan, I said, I am super practical and so I just look at how it affects people and then we base it off of how it's affecting people. So it's really fun to have a lot of research based evidence that supports all that too.

Ryan: Yeah. And the reason I reached out, I think sometimes academia, you know, people in the academic world, especially PhDs in the research world, you think you're kind of like on the cutting edge of all these amazing things and that your research is then going to change the world.

But then you actually peel back the layers, and you step outside and there are people usually in these arenas that have actually at a very practical level figured it out and are already kind of moving the ball forward. And then the research actually catches up to what people are doing.

And that's actually, Sara, your work, I was like, hey, this is someone who's actually applying what now the research is coming behind and supporting. Which I think is always a cool way even though, again, researchers often think it's the other way around.

Sara: Yeah, so cool. Well, I think you are on the cutting edge of some stuff, and I hope it becomes more and more. I hope that what we talk about isn't so like, “What? That's such an amazing way to think about it.” I hope that it gets less like that, and it becomes more like, “Yeah, of course.”

Ryan: Of course, for sure.

Sara: Of course shame isn't helping us. Of course the moral incongruence is playing a part.

Ryan: Yeah.

Sara: So let's dive in.

Ryan: Yeah. So yeah, the specific topic that I'm looking at, I kind of describe it this way, it's what is the intersection of pornography, this phenomenon of pornography with faith, the psychology, what's going on internally, and moral conviction, so kind of this morality. So there's kind of this weird convergence, and we'll get into it.

But I think I had noted part of what drew me to the research was I was hearing this common narrative. And in faith-based contexts the common narrative you hear when it comes to pornography, at least one on one, again, maybe not in the group context as much, but is this addictive terminology. It’s this addictive language.

So when I speak to small groups, so I do both large groups, but also a lot of small groups. When I'm in a more intimate group and people are more willing to be honest, I'll ask them, “How many would say at some point, you've been addicted?” And almost every hand goes up almost every time.

And again, maybe it's now or in the past, but whatever. The point is, they classify themselves as addicted. And that addiction language, the research is showing, has been growing. And again, a lot of my research is looking at faith-based contexts.

And so that addiction language has been growing. But what's interesting is there's still this wide contention in the academic clinical fields of like, wait a second, is pornography and broader kind of sexual activity, are those truly addictive or not?

Sara: Yeah. Right, like I've heard sides like porn is as addictive as meth. And then on the other side, like no, porn is not addictive at all. It's very, very different.

Ryan: Right.

Sara: So, so different.

Ryan: Right. Right. And kind of where I land, you know, I do think there are studies that show that pornography is triggering something in the brain that would mirror, you know, whether drug use or whatever. But I always say, and I think you've used the example of sugar, so does sugar. So do other things. But just because you enjoy some sugar like, and oh, man, I'd really like that, I'm craving that, it doesn't mean I'm addicted.

But because there's something similar, we throw on the addiction terminology and it's become really normalized to use that word, addiction. And I think as you've pointed out, there's actually a lot of dangers to that. And so what they've actually done in the academic field is now they're starting to clarify and starting to delineate truly what would be classified as a diagnosed addiction versus, in faith-based context, what's more common is what they call a perceived addiction.

So it's kind of like whether we can diagnose it or not, someone perceives themselves as addicted and that's a telltale sign of some deeper things going on. And so that, perceived addiction, has really been on the rise in recent decades. And what they started to find was it's really on the rise with those who have a strong moral belief or kind of a moral foundation that says, I think this is wrong and yet I'm still doing it.

And so that was kind of what began to stir up that moral, what we'll talk about eventually, moral incongruence, is people are feeling and believing they're addicted. But here's what's interesting, they would run studies and find that if people maybe had a religious background or a strong moral conviction, they're way more likely to consider themselves as addicted, even at lesser rates of usage than someone who had less moral conviction.

Sara: You know, I was just talking to someone this last weekend, I went to this event and there was a group of therapists that I donate to their organization quite a bit. So I was talking to them, anyways we were talking about pornography, and she said, “I mean, I have one client who maybe views twice a year, and just calls himself addicted.”

Ryan: Right.

Sara: And she's like, “I don't feel like it's my place to be like, stop, that's ridiculous, right? I have to help him through that.” But yeah, some people, they view twice a year, and they call themselves addicted. And that's not uncommon.

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely, you're right on it. So they're starting to dig in a little bit. And this was one of the things we discussed last time that I think is really fascinating. So you kind of scale way out, the World Health Organization, you know, we understand that’s kind of like a major player in understanding all the diagnoses and health issues around the world.

So they have what's called the International Classification of Diseases, it's kind of the go-to seminal work textbook for all diagnoses. So they just released their 11th edition this year in January.

And so a couple big, in this arena a couple of the big advancements was for the first time ever they adopted what they called compulsive sexual behavior disorder, so it's kind of CSBD. Compulsive sexual behavior disorder. So a couple of important things, they included it not as an addictive disorder.

So there's a whole list, you go in there it's crazy, all the types of addictions. Crazy things, like I was looking at like bath salts, you can actually be clinically diagnosed as addicted to bath salts.

Sara: Like the TV show My Strange Addiction.

Ryan: Oh yeah, I guess so. And you're like, wait, a second. So there's a whole addiction section. And they said, no, we aren't going to actually include sexual addiction, sexual behavior disorder as an addictive disorder. Instead, it's going to be, it fits better in the criteria for an impulse control disorder.

Sara: Okay.

Ryan: You're like, oh, that's quite different. So what they're saying is we don't have enough research to say that this actually fits the classification for addiction. So that was number one that I thought was pretty fascinating.

Sara: And I'm just going to say something really quick, because a lot of people, they have read some of the research that says it is super addictive and here's how we know. And I just want to remind you that there is good research and there's kind of bad search. And you can probably talk more about that. But let's be careful to really, the one thing I learned from my statistics class in college is to not just trust statistics.

Ryan: Yeah.

Sara: You can’t just trust what you read. And so even though you may have read studies in the past that maybe say yes, it totally is as addictive as heroin or whatever. It's also important to look at this other side, which this is the World Health Organization, they're saying we don't quite have enough research to say that. There's good research and there's research that is really shame based and kind of has an agenda.

Ryan: Yeah, very good point. I didn't even bring this up last time, but similarly there's the APA version, which is called the DSM five. And I can't even actually remember, the diagnostic something.

Sara: Yeah, I studied that one quite a bit.

Ryan: Okay, so you know that one. So that one, they haven't included it at all. So even the ICD has moved further, and they cited the lack of empirical evidence to say that we can actually include this.

And I think that's the problem, is there are, kind of going back to what we originally said, you know, does it trigger things in the brain that could mirror or does mirror similar mechanisms that a drug or sugar and those things would? Yeah, okay. So it's a dopamine, right? Like there's all the neurological things. But there's a far leap between saying because of that, therefore it's at the same addictive level as these other things.

Sara: Yeah.

Ryan: And so that's the big jump in logic and it's kind of that they're saying there's not enough there. Yes, there's some initial stuff, but we can't make that far jump.

Sara: Yeah. And that doesn't mean, like what you're saying, that doesn't mean it's not compulsive. It definitely feels compulsive. That doesn't mean you might not feel out of control sometimes. But the reason that you feel that way is not because it's like you're broken now, and your brain is just addicted and there's nothing you can do because you're stuck in an addiction.

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. That's part of that addictive language. What's so harmful is that it really begins to be an identity. I mean, it really is like, I'm powerless against this, I'm addicted, it's beyond me. And that's the danger that I think your work is very good at pointing out.

And so the second thing, so for one that's important, it's an impulse control disorder. That's officially the name of it, and you're like, oh, wow, I have trouble controlling my impulses, okay. Now, the other part that I found really fascinating, so you can actually look this up online.

If you just type in ICD11 compulsive sexual behavior disorder, you can find the full definition, the official one. At the very end they give the entire definition. Now, they don't specifically list like pornography, but it's understood there's this umbrella of compulsive sexual behaviors, and pornography fits under that.

They give the whole definition. The very last line in this official definition, says this, and I'll read it, “Distress that is entirely related to moral judgments and disapproval about sexual impulses, urges, or behaviors is not sufficient to meet this requirement.”

And you're like, wait a second, I don't know if I've ever read an official diagnosis that has a disclaimer that says, oh yeah, you're experiencing all of these things, but if it's actually because of something else, then you can't call it this. I know that seemed really fascinating to me that they are actually putting-

Sara: Yeah, read that again so that they can, so that if we missed it. Read it again.

Ryan: Yeah, distress that is entirely related to moral judgments and disapproval about sexual impulses, urges, or behaviors is not sufficient to meet this requirement.

Sara: That is fascinating, and it shows how prevalent it is that they would put a disclaimer there.

Ryan: Exactly. Yeah, for them to say there is at least a very significant number of individuals that are experiencing distress or perceived addiction from the porn use, but it's rooted in that moral tension, I disapprove of this, I'm stuck in this, rather than actual addictive patterns, it really was incredibly fascinating to me that they would actually include it.

Sara: Yeah, so what they're saying here basically is, like we were saying earlier, there might be some people who are so distressed about viewing porn twice a year. And that distress about those impulses, urges, behaviors, that distress does not meet the requirement of it being a compulsive sexual behavior disorder.

Ryan: Exactly. Yep.

Sara: So you can experience that distress, and that doesn't mean that you would be labeled under this compulsive sexual behavior disorder.

Ryan: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. And it kind of fits, just because you're experiencing it doesn't mean you're “addicted” as many would just kind of throw out there, or that you actually fit this official diagnosis. So they're recognizing that for a large majority there's a distress that's just tied to this internal battle, this internal struggle, rather than these external kind of out of control factors.

Sara: Yeah, okay. So in summary, and chime in here. But in summary, the ICD11 definition from this year is not classifying porn use as an addiction. It’s classifying it under compulsive sexual behavior disorder.

Ryan: Yeah.

Sara: Which means that we don't have enough research to say it's an addiction. And let me just say, I've had clients too when I talk to them about this, in their mind they're like, “Oh my gosh, this actually makes sense because my sister is actually really addicted to drugs. She's really addicted to drugs, and my life is so different than her life. But I've been calling this an addiction almost as if it's the same as hers, and maybe it's not.”

Ryan: Mm-hmm, yeah. Yeah, I think you're on it. And in a weird way, I mean, yeah it's almost diminishing of people that, because there are true addictions. Again, what we’re not saying is, oh, all addiction is not a real thing. It's like, no, we just have to be cautious of because we feel an impulse for something that we label it as an addiction. That's a very far leap.

And the research is saying, no, there's a lot of people that are going on that road. And there's dangers down that road, so let's slow down, let's stop, let's look at the data and recognize that not every impulse means an addiction.

Sara: Yeah. And of course there is compulsive use, and it can be really damaging to your life, and it can really hurt things. And maybe we don't have to be addicted.

Ryan: Yeah.

Sara: Really, the main message here is, well, my main message that I try to tell people is just like use what helps you, use the labels that help you. And for most people, addiction is not helping them when it comes to this. And it's just very cool that the research here really backs that up.

Ryan: Yeah, and I think, you know, I think we're going to talk about it in a couple further episodes, is that as a foundational starting point then begins to help you uncover the root, which then helps you diagnose the actual issue and get to solutions.

And that's kind of where our research is now going, is this is kind of the starting point. Wait a second, maybe all of this talk about addiction, which heavily focuses on behavior and how can we help break this cycle of the behavioral addiction, well, what if we misdiagnosed the problem? And maybe that's why we're not seeing breakthrough, is because we've actually misdiagnosed the root of the issue.

Sara: Yes. Yes. Well, and I mentioned this to when we chatted a few weeks ago, but in my sphere, like my religious upbringing sphere, they have addiction recovery groups. And so many people who struggle with porn have been sent to these addiction recovery groups, but they don't ever help. And I've heard that over and over and over and over and over again from clients.

Even clients who have had experiences with their father, you know, their father saying to them, I've gone for it, it just doesn't really work. Addiction recovery doesn't really work for this.

And then I was talking to a buddy too, who is a therapist, and they said, it's almost like trying to treat, and I don't know if this is a great example, but this is just what they said. It's almost like trying to treat the flu with chemo, you know, it's just not going to work because that's not, like we're addressing the wrong thing. Which is what I'm hearing you say.

And maybe that's wrong, maybe that's not helpful for some of my listeners to think of it as a cold instead of chemo, whatever. Whatever the thing is, maybe we're just using the wrong tools, because it's not actually addiction.

Ryan: Right, right. Exactly. Yeah, just at the root of it we've kind of misdiagnosed or we've assumed it's a certain root, whereas the research now is saying, hey, actually, for a vast majority there might be a different root. So let's understand it so that we can help people.

Sara: Yeah, very cool. Okay. And in the next episode, we're going to talk a little bit more, you said this line, it says distress that is entirely related to moral judgments and disapproval about sexual impulses, urges, or behavior is not sufficient to meet this requirement. We're going to talk about that a little bit more, which you call moral incongruence. Is that correct?

Ryan: It is, yeah. Not my term, it's an academic term. I'll give credit there to them, but that's what I'm studying.

Sara: Okay, so we're going to talk about the research around moral incongruence in the next episode, it's going to be awesome.

I want to invite you to come and listen to my free class, How To Overcome Pornography For Good Without Using Willpower. We talk about how to stop giving into urges without pure willpower or relying on phone filters so that you can actually stop wanting pornography.

We talk about how to stop giving up after a few weeks or months. And spoiler alert, the answer isn't have more willpower. And then lastly, we talk about how to make a life without porn easily sustainable and permanent.

If you're trying to quit porn, this class is a game changer. So you can go and sign up at Sarabrewer.com/masterclass and it is totally free.

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