Pornography | The silent addiction
Recent studies have concluded that between 20-30 percent of males are addicted to pornography (Wilson, 2017). Unlike other addictions it has no visible side effects like needle marks, hang overs or empty bank accounts. It is as easy to find as a quiet moment on a cell phone. It costs little money, it is easy to hide, it is powerful, and it is everywhere. The gambler has to go to a casino, the alcoholic to a liquor store or bar but porn is as close as your pocket.
In the world of therapy the idea of pornography addiction is not without controversy. There is no official diagnosis called pornography addiction in the big manual that therapists use. Some experts do not want to label something that is part of normal human function, like sexuality, a disorder. For many therapists, this seems hard to understand as pornography addiction looks much like any other recognized addiction.
Obsessive or compulsive use of pornography is increasingly being reported by those in distress. It has the same elements as any addiction. People are obsessed with the activity, they do not have control over it and it has tangible negative impact on their life.
Some men are reporting erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation or the inability to ejaculate with a partner. Others report sleeplessness, feelings of worthlessness, despair and shame.
Some therapists regard the core problem as the shame surrounding the activity. The problem is not the activity but the beliefs around the activity. If the activity can be reframed as not shameful, then their client would feel better. There is truth to this. Shame is toxic, and feeling terrible about yourself for doing something usually does not help you stop doing said thing.
However, for many the use of pornography goes against their convictions. Those might be religious convictions. Others see many expressions of pornography as objectifying and degrading women. Pornography can cause problems in relationships. Partners of those who compulsively use pornography can feel shame. They might wonder what is so wrong with them that their partners need this outlet. Some see it as an act of infidelity.
If the use of pornography is hidden in a relationship where its use is considered immoral, it can cause severe emotional damage. For some, discovering that their partner is addicted to pornography is a severe betrayal. So much that some partners are traumatized when they find out how long they have been lied too, especially if the addicted partner continually denied their addiction or made their partner feel as they were wrong to be suspicious. This traumatization can make people feel hyper-vigilant, anxious and make it more difficult to trust.
Like many others, I find Gabor Mate’s take on addiction just as applicable to pornography as it would be to drugs or alcohol. Porn can be used as a way to cope with emotional pain and trauma. People get stuck in a difficult pattern. They feel hurt or discomfort, they find an activity that relieves that discomfort, and then they feel shame about it. Unfortunately, the shame over the activity does not help people stop. Shame just makes people feel worse about themselves which creates more fuel for the activity they want to stop.
While many activities can become a compulsive way to cope with distress, some have unique qualities. Pornography can be compelling for those who feel lonely, or feel uneasy about vulnerability and intimacy. There is no possibility for judgement, no performance anxiety, and no worries about rejection when you are connected to an image on a screen.
Stopping is challenging to do, especially without help. Software accountability programs can help. Johann Hari profoundly reminds us that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection. Life-affirming connections help ease the shame and feelings of worthlessness. Twelve steps groups are a helpful path to navigate addiction and find connection. Therapy can help is by helping heal the wounds that fuel the addiction. Tackling an addictive activity that is so accessible is no easy task and requires effort at several levels.
An excellent resource for understanding pornography addiction is Gary Wilson’s “Your Brian on Porn.”