In today’s increasingly digital world, pornography is ubiquitous. And every time the affordability, accessibility, and variety of online porn increases, therapists who specialize in sexual disorders, such as myself, see a corresponding increase in the number of people seeking help with out-of-control usage. That said, there are several categories of people who struggle with porn. Many of these individuals are porn-addicted, though certainly not all, and even those who qualify as addicted may fall into different groups.
Are You Addicted to Porn?
To qualify as an addiction, porn use must meet the following three criteria:
- Preoccupation to the point of obsession with pornography
- Loss of control over usage, most often evidenced by failed attempts to quit or cut back
- Negative consequences related to porn use — ruined relationships, trouble at work or in school, depression, anxiety, isolation, loss of interest in non-sexual activities, financial issues, legal issues, loss of social standing, sexual dysfunction, etc.
Individuals who do not meet the above criteria are not porn addicted. They might still be troubled by their use of pornography, but usually this is based more on social shame than anything else.
Sometimes socially shamed porn users will self-identify as porn addicted even though they’re not, using addiction as a way to explain their unwanted sexual attractions and/or activities. For instance, a 19-year-old male may feel shame about his use of gay porn, which he looks at several times per week for 15 or 20 minutes (long enough to masturbate). Although his day-to-day functioning is unaffected by his porn use, he might be depressed and anxious. In therapy, this client should not be treated for porn addiction. Instead, he should be treated for the ego-dystonia he feels surrounding his sexual orientation. In short, a good therapist would focus on helping this young man overcome the shame he feels about being gay (or possibly bisexual) rather than on stopping his (relatively minimal) porn usage.
Other individuals who are not addicted to porn might be told they are by angry family members, moralistic therapists, and/or misinformed religious counsellors. For instance, a married 35-year-old man with a strict religious belief system may look at porn once or twice per week for half an hour with no ill effects other than his wife knows about it and doesn’t like it. However, when he goes to his pastor for advice, he might be labelled as porn addicted because why else would he engage in such sinful behavior. In reality, this man is not a porn addict, and an informed therapist would not treat him as such. Instead, a good therapist would help him reconcile his sexual life with his personal values, family circumstances, and religious beliefs.
Whether a porn user’s shame is internally or externally motivated, these individuals come to therapy worried about pornography, often to the point where they are clinically depressed and/or anxious. Generally, they are unhappy about their sexual fantasies and the ways in which they’re living them out. Plus, they’re keeping secrets, telling lies, and living a double life. But, once again, this does not automatically mean these people are porn addicted. Certainly they could be porn addicted, but only if their behaviour meets the criteria listed above.
Of course, the majority of people who enter treatment for porn-related issues do qualify as addicted. Typically they’re looking at porn compulsively for multiple hours per day, they’ve tried and failed to quit or cut back (usually many times), and their lives are falling apart as a result. In short, they look a lot like alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, and other addicts. The only real difference is their “drug of choice.”
Classic vs. Contemporary Porn Addicts
Until the last few years, that was the entirety of the porn addicted population. People were going online and getting hooked on an ever increasing and constantly changing supply of intensely stimulating sexual imagery, using it to numb out and to escape emotional discomfort. (This ongoing desire for numbness and emotional escape is also why alcoholics drink, drug addicts use, compulsive gamblers place bets, etc. In other words, addictions are not about feeling good, they’re about feeling less.) Lately, however, therapists have identified a secondary population of porn addicts, mostly young males, who are using porn compulsively not to escape stress, anxiety, depression, and other forms of emotional discomfort but because they’ve become “conditioned” to the sexual intensity and variety that only pornography can provide. Thus, sex addiction treatment specialists are now seeing “classic” porn addicts and “contemporary” porn addicts.
Classic porn addicts, like most other addicts, generally present in treatment with extensive early-life trauma histories (abuse, neglect, addiction in the home, inconsistent parenting, and numerous other forms of family dysfunction). When these men and women are motivated to heal, standard sexual addiction treatment is generally effective, though establishing and maintaining sexual sobriety tends to be a significant struggle with two steps forward, one and a half steps back, just as we see with other forms of addiction.
A typical classic porn addict is a 28-year-old male who has been looking at porn 10, 20, or maybe even 30 hours per week, ongoing for many months or even years. Thanks to porn, his life is falling apart. He’s been reprimanded for using company equipment to look at porn, he can’t manage a relationship, he’s socially isolated from his family and friends, and he’s very depressed. And whatever he tries, he can’t seem to stop using porn. He quits for a day or two, but then he feels stressed out, and suddenly he’s right back at it. He tells himself he’ll only go online for a few minutes, but four hours later he’s still glued to his screen.
Contemporary porn addicts tend to be less stress and trauma driven. These individuals generally start using porn early on, sometimes even pre-adolescence, simply because it’s available and it seems like a fun thing to do. As adolescence progresses and they become more sexually interested, they continue with porn, using it more often over time. Because “getting their needs met” online is easier (less stressful and less emotionally demanding) than engaging in real world forms of adolescent romantic and sexual development, they continually turn to porn, sexting, and the like rather than more traditional forms of exploration. Then they wake up in their late teens or their twenties, hooked on pornography, with no clue how to have an actual relationship because they never learned the basics.
A typical contemporary porn addict is a 20-year-old male who started looking at porn when he was 12, just as puberty was kicking in. By age 14 he is using porn nightly. By age 15 he’s quit sports and clubs, preferring to spend his time alone, looking at and masturbating to pornography. His once-good grades are terrible, he’s lost contact with his friends, and he’s never dated. Now, at 20, he’s depressed, anxious, and ashamed about his life. He wants to do better in school and he wants to have friends and a normal romantic relationship, but he doesn’t know how to make any of that happen. So he sticks with what he knows: the endless intensity of online pornography.
Interestingly, both types of porn addiction require the basics of sex addiction treatment — most often a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, ongoing accountability, social learning, and external support groups (especially 12-step groups like Sex Addicts Anonymous). The primary difference between the two cohorts is that contemporary porn addicts, because they typically lack the early-life trauma history of classic addicts, seem to find it easier to walk away from porn. (This is because they’re not constantly trying to escape the unresolved trauma of their childhood.) Moreover, when contemporary porn addicts do walk away, many of their porn-related problems dissipate rather quickly, particularly if/when they replace their porn use with healthy socialization and recreation. So once a contemporary porn addict has put the porn away, therapists will work to rectify aspects of delayed social development rather than on resolving early-life trauma issues.
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