I recently read The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry which is a good read and brings up many important questions. The authors found that while 12-Step Programs are hugely popular, scientific studies have shown them to only have a 5-10% success rate. This should raise a huge red flag because if, for example, 90% of programs for addiction are 12-Step programs and they are only helping 5-10% of members, who’s helping the rest of the addicts? The point is not to put down 12-Step programs or AA as surely they have worked wonders for many people and have been a force for positive change in some. The point is, are they the best solution for addiction?
Another area of concern is the connection between 12-Step programs and religion. Addiction affects both religious and non-religious people so solutions should be appropriate for both parties. One example is that the 12-Step approach views the porn addict’s behavior as sin. This makes sense in a religious context but can actually add shame and guilt to the addict which doesn't help their self-esteem. Also, the 12-Step approach is based on giving up your addiction to God or a “higher power” and not about finding the power within yourself to overcome your addiction. Do you really need to rely on God to overcome an addiction when addiction exists in the brain? The 12-Step program is religious or “spiritual” but addiction is not a spiritual problem, it is a problem of the mind. Addiction involves real processes and chemical reactions that occur in the human brain.
Another critique is that the 12-Step program states if an individual fails the program then the individual is at fault for not following the program. This boils down to stating that the program is flawless and when individuals fail they are completely at fault. This can make an individual feel even deeper shame when they fail and shame is already a big problem when it comes to addiction, especially porn addiction. To overcome an addiction you have to be able to get past the shame and so increasing the shame is counter-productive.
The Sober Truth also has a great section on the myths of AA. Two of my favorites involve insanity and denial. AA has a saying that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results”. This is not the real definition of insanity and addicts are not insane. Addiction is actually quite logical when you get to the root of understanding it. The other saying is “denial isn't a river in Egypt” which is used to label people or call them out on denying they have an addiction. This saying suggests that denial is a defect allowing addicts to continue their addictive behavior. In actuality, denial can be a natural response to addiction due to not understanding how addiction works or as a result of shame. Shame can make accepting an addiction challenging and we can deny the addiction to protect ourselves. So instead of accusing people of denial, it would probably be more effective to help them understand how the addiction works and let them come to their own conclusions.
Understanding addiction is a critical piece to overcoming it. The addict needs to understand how the addiction works, why they repeat the same behavior, what causes them to turn to it, and what the side effects are. This understanding can then be applied to setting positive goals and overcoming the addiction. However, 12-Step programs don’t focus on understanding the addiction but instead focus simply on giving it up to God or a higher power. Figuring out your addiction and giving it up to a higher power are two very different ideas. Let’s elaborate on how understanding your addiction can help you overcome it.
In one example it is common for addicts to feel empowered when they perpetuate the addiction. So looking at porn and masturbating might make the addict feel good because it is something they feel control over or that they are empowered to do. However, if addiction makes you feel empowered then you are lacking feeling empowered in other aspects of your life. You can solve this by becoming aware of when you feel powerless and doing something more positive that makes you feel empowered such as working on a dream, a goal, exercising, or addressing the thing that makes you feel powerless. For example, if your job is generating this feeling of powerlessness then make a plan for getting one you will love and break it down into small pieces. To elaborate, one piece could be to call one of your contacts and ask if they have any openings, and another piece could be to update your resume. Each day you accomplish one of those small pieces you will feel empowered and great about yourself. These are just some examples, but you get the idea. If you understand how your addiction works you can counter it effectively.
After reading this post, you might be thinking, “Hold up man, you recommended 12-Step programs in your other blog posts and now you’re critiquing them”. This is true, you caught me. It was my intention to provide every available resource to porn addicts seeking help so that one could see all of the available options for overcoming addiction. However, I did not use a 12-Step program to overcome my porn addiction and I wouldn't recommend one either for all of the reasons discussed in this post. I’m not putting down 12-Step programs as I actually know many great successes of AA. The program does amazing things for some people, but the question is what about the majority of addicts that 12-Step programs are failing. The addiction exists in your mind so the key is to understand how the addiction works and then go from there.
For more information about the book here is an audio interview of one of the authors of The Sober Truth, Lance Dodes, on National Public Radio (NPR).