Over-Simulated

Staying human in a post-human world

A Clinical Portrait of Excessive Online Porn Use (Part 10)

Three years post-termination Paul contacts his therapist. The story ends.

Here's the final installment in the story of "Paul and His Girls." After 7 weeks and 10 installments Paul and his therapist have their final contact.

Table of Contents (to date:)

Part 1: Getting started: Anything too good to be true, is

Part 2: "50 Way to Leave Your ... Therapist"

Part 3: A Rock and a Hard Place

Part 4: The Medium is the ... Sex Act

Part 5: Getting to know what it takes to be "one of my girls" 

Part 6: From confusion to addiction to metaphor to ‘Scaffolding' 

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Part 7: Going Deep Into Being Flat

Part 8: War and (then) peace

Part 9: The missing celebration

Clinical confidentiality has been strictly protected. The story told in this series is a constructed clinical portrait of actual events, a common practice in both the professional literature and in popular books. To protect patients (past, current, and future), families, and friends all identifying information has been thoroughly disguised and the tale told crosses several specific histories.

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Three years later

He called. Three had years passed since our last contact.

But before telling you about this call I want to step back—can't resist going "meta"—and point out two features of the "clinical portrait" genre within which we've been writing and reading.

First, "post-termination contacts" are not just opportunities for narrative closure. They also give a writer the chance to end the tale with whatever specific message he or she would like to emphasize. And I do have such a message because my clinical work has taught me some very specific lessons about excessive online porn use. No surprise here, however enjoyable it has been to write this series—and I hope also to read it!—I probably would not have taken the time to write it if I did not have something I wanted to say.

Here it is, my "lesson": While I think labeling excessive-use as a "porn addiction" or an "internet addiction" is a very useful metaphor—doing so conveys a vital truth about the dangerous out-of-control quality the experience can have—it is not that useful as an actual diagnosis on which one can base a treatment plan. I've come to respect the situation as being far more complex. In fact, I've come to believe the addiction metaphor misses much of the human complexity even when it captures the dangerous quality.

I've learned that excessive online porn-use is a multiply determined, extraordinarily complex psychological mix. In part it requires understanding the experiences afforded by emerging genres of online sexual technologies. We do live in increasingly strange times when, for example, it is possible to imagine sex with fully-functional sex-bots replacing sex with people. But there's more to understanding. We also need to understand someone's highly individual and specific sexual and developmental histories, current relationships, sexual and relationship preferences and needs, and how someone experiences and copes with their unique day-to-day problems in living. And I believe the kind of psychoanalytic therapy I practice, even considering how time-consuming and expensive it can be, is a journey well worth taking for people who struggle with those problems.

The second point about the genre is that the endings of clinical stories tend to cluster into recognizable types.

There's the ending in which the writer reports that after several years the patient is now married with two children and a successful career: treatment validated, life is good. Freud famously said "love and work are the cornerstones" so this is not a surprising way to end the story of a successful treatment. And maybe that's Paul's ending, maybe the more he engaged life as replete with 3-D possibility instead of flat, repetitive experiences his preferences shifted from online porn to actual relationships, or maybe he just found the "right girl" who shared his tastes and let him have it all. Maybe both.

Or maybe neither. Another kind of ending, often employed by iconoclastic writers, illustrates that character is destiny; despite all the gains, the patient's life continued pretty much as it always had except that post-therapy life was now filled with enhanced enjoyment and deeper gratifications. Maybe that's Paul's ending, maybe he was thoroughly enjoying life as an international corporate superstar while dating around and enjoying porn.

Another ending, preferred by those who want to highlight the pathological power of this or that cultural practice (be it porn use, drinking, pot smoking, a secular life, a religious life, Internet "addiction," eating issues, monogamy, polygamy, or whatever), dramatizes the inevitable decline and degradation that comes from the purportedly pathological practice. Maybe Paul lost his job-and lots more-because his porn use spiraled dangerously out of control, like those SEC employees who watched porn all day long while the financial system collapsed.

And, of course, his call might have shared news that did not fit into any such category. After all life is really, really complex and frighteningly contingent. Maybe Paul won the Lotto and retired, or tragically contracted a soap-opera disease. You just never know, except to know the control we think we have over the direction our lives will take is often illusory, a necessary illusion but an illusion nonetheless.

So, enough of this meta-talk, what happened to Paul? How does his story end?

Well, it may be narratively a little anti-climactic, but that's the way things often go; Paul and I had all our drama during the treatment. He called with a simple request for the name of a couples therapist where he lived. His affable, warm voice, after initial pleasantries, told me he was engaged to a "great gal." But, he went on, she had some "issues" just like he said he had. So, they decided to work on things together and thought I might know some good people they could see where they lived.

I told him I was really glad he was reaching out for help he felt he needed and that I'd make some calls and get some names. Asking after further details was neither clinically necessary nor appropriate. I would have just been prying. So, I told him I would do my best to help. A few days later I left him a voice mail with the two names and phone numbers of respected colleagues. And, well, that was that.

But the end of Paul's story does not have to be the end of the series you have been dutifully—or not—reading for almost two months. You actually deserve better than the uncertainty built into clinical work. If we were just to end right here with you aware that Paul had grown into a flawed person like everyone else doing his best to build a life would make me feel a little like I was letting you down.

I feel you have a right to your own ending, however mundane or dramatic you may imagine it to be. You may have your own thoughts about whether or not his growth curve continued as it did, or possibly even accelerated so that by the time of this follow-up call he was firmly ensconced in a satisfying life. Perhaps you imagine he was so damaged that he would never experience an intimate connection with an actual, fleshy other. You may or may not think online porn can ever be sufficiently transitional so as to enable him to trade an over-simulated life for one of fleshy intimacy. You may even think his taste for porn would inevitably bring him down so that he returned after three years a broken man. Or something altogether different.

So, let's end not with a bang or a ping, but a question: what do you think happened in Paul's life during the intervening three years, how do you think the story ends?

 

Todd Essig, Ph.D., is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute with a clinical practice treating individuals and couples.

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