Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Social Forces 99:3 (March 2021), pp 1334–1362.



Copyright © 2020 Kelsy Burke & Alice MillerMacPhee. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Used by permission


In order to describe pornography’s harms in the twenty-first century, an age of unprecedented access to Internet technology, some advocates—including activists, religious leaders, politicians, and scientists—use a medical/scientific framework to claim that pornography is biologically addictive. This article examines public discourse on “pornography addiction” to extend theories of sociology of science and sociology of sexualities about scientific knowledge and the biomedicalization of sex and sexuality. Using content analysis of over 600 documents, including scientific studies, newspaper articles, and state government resolutions, we show how references to pornography as addictive emerged in the twenty-first century and grew most substantially in the last decade. We find that scientific studies largely offer inconclusive results, yet media and political discourses use biomedical scientific language to describe how pornography directly harms the physical and mental health of individual consumers, presumed to be men, and indirectly harms broader society. These include harms to heterosexual marriages and relationships, lawful society, and normal sexual desires. Thus, we find that pornography addiction serves as an illustration of how political actors and journalists are interpreters and claims-makers of scientific knowledge about sexuality in the public sphere. Scientific language, rooted in neurobiology, allows claims-makers to construct pornography addiction as a seemingly objective public threat that legitimizes stereotypes about binary gender and normative (hetero)sexuality.