Internet Porn and Sexual Addiction; A Thorny Problem, but There is Hope

Now that the excitement of the new age of the Internet has calmed, we all get to see dark side of this tool, including its tremendous addictive potential. The reasons for Internet addiction are many, including how it slices up our attention and undermines task completion, provides the illusion that we are connecting with other people without having to make any real effort and provides a comfortable distraction from the challenges of life. The Internet trains us into being passive recipients of stimulation, and many people become addicted to this combination of passivity and stimulation seeking.

Of particular concern are people who become addicted to pornography on the Internet. The availability of pornographic material on the Internet is virtually unlimited. Sufferers of this problem habituate themselves to ever-increasing levels of stimulation. Much like addiction to a substance, the porn user requires increases in the “dose” (intensity of stimulation) to have the desired reaction. The dose can be increased by lengthening the time of viewing, seeking out more graphic images or seeking more shocking material. Then other behaviors may be sought out, including video chats to have real-time encounters or using the wide variety of “hook-up” sites that are available today. What may start as mild exploration, can quickly explode into an all-encompassing preoccupation, eclipsing responsibilities, relationships, learning, communal involvement, etc.

It is difficult to get hard numbers on the magnitude of this problem, but international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50 percent to 99 percept among men and 30 to 68 percent among women. There does not appear to be good data on actual porn addiction, but with this magnitude of use, my sense is that porn addiction is a significant and growing problem.

Internet porn addiction is an intractable problem for many reasons. First of all, the desire for a physical relationship is one of the most powerful drives. Now, if we take this drive and add a device which provides huge availability for stimulation of that drive, it becomes a “perfect storm”, which can easily consume ones whole life. Porn binges and acting out behaviors are followed by disgust with self, depression and exhaustion. These feeling undermine the sufferer’s ability to develop the self-discipline to resist this activity in the future. He may make pledges and promises to himself to refrain, only to find, to his consternation, that he quickly breaks them. Unfortunately, the secrecy and shame in which this behavior is pursued makes it difficult to find help, advice or support, in addressing this problem.

One of the reasons people turn to porn is that real relationships take work, and the porn user might not feel up to that challenge, for a number of reasons. He settles for a fantasy of a real relationship, which becomes a symbol of the love, acceptance and self-affirmation that he seeks. Married men can be drawn into pornography, even if things seem to be okay in the bedroom, because of their insecurities or normal marital friction or simply because the fantasy relationships are “easier”. Unfortunately, in avoiding the work of relationships, these people also miss out on the benefits. Deep down, the porn user knows that his habit only yields fantasy love from someone who does not even know him. The user knows that his pursuit is empty, but does not know how to stop.

One of the reasons I emphasize the addictive potential of porn use and related acting-out behaviors is for people to see that these are serious problems, which often require therapeutic intervention. Individual psychotherapy is a very important tool for such people, in order to challenge them to directly experience and express their emotions. The porn user is often very used to suppressing and ignoring his emotions, which he then channels into the addictive behavior, without ever coming to an understanding of himself. Powerful anxiety, depression and anger fuel the behaviors, and it is vital for the user to start a relationship with himself, so he can actually hear what is troubling him and take healthy steps to address it. Many users can think of no other way to calm themselves except through their addiction, and they need to be explicitly taught self-calming exercises or other strategies to calm their nervous systems. They also must learn ways to communicate their feelings to their significant others, in order to reach out to them, rather than withdrawing and hiding. Psychotherapy is a powerful tool to help the user develop these skills.

A common factor amongst many porn users is isolation. Therapeutic approaches that incorporate a social element are extremely helpful in influencing the user to change. Twelve step groups like Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) incorporate social support through group meetings and an assigned “sponsor,” who is available during crises to assist the user in maintaining abstinence. Programs like this provide specific behavioral goals (the 12 steps) to help participants focus on the emotional and relationship growth which is necessary to develop healthier behaviors and coping strategies.

For anyone who is suffering from this problem, what I want to tell you is that you are not alone. Take your pain and channel it into looking for help. Many people have admitted to themselves that they have this problem and have taken appropriate steps and turned their lives around. You have help, hope and power waiting for you, if your reach out to others and let them help you. I have seen it in my work—taking lives from the brink of destruction to new hope, commitment and real love. That is something to look forward to. All you have to do is seek help and try.

Michael Milgraum, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Kensington, MD. He treats a range of mental health problems including sexual addictions. He can be reached at (301) 980 3997.

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