Over-Simulated

Staying human in a post-human world

A Clinical Portrait of Excessive Online Porn Use (Part 8)

The end begins, Paul finds life in a therapeutic war.

This installment (the second to last post in the series) of "Paul and His Girls" starts off really rocky and ends with some even more difficult questions, questions that troubled the therapist more than they did Paul.

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" 

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

Part 7: Going Deep Into Being Flat

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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War and (then) peace

Our work together became a war. Session by session I fought to stay emotionally in the room with him. Not easy. And while enduring Paul's incessant attacks was difficult, winning this war of attrition ended up being easier than securing the eventual peace.

He assailed me with rage, disappointment, pinpoint accurate (and therefore destablizing!) criticisms of my character, and his foundational belief that life was flat and empty. I parried with a therapist's curiosity and empathy: what else did I have? Things got so hostile with him I felt it was not enough just to hold to theory and technique, rather I felt I had to lash myself to theory and technique if I were to survive. I had to keep reminding myself over and over that naked hostility like his has understandable, and treatable, developmental roots; that putting hatred and hostility to words heals; that a meaningful "good life" was still possible for him; and that he was suffering more fighting through his "false self" than I suffered fighting with it. In short, I was a therapist under siege struggling to remain a therapist.

The tide of battle started to turn when I found myself anticipating sessions with a dread similar to how he felt having to "just wait till your father got home." Like the crack of the belt, the bell would ring when he arrived at my door. He was coming to sessions to punish me, to squash my individuality and destroy what was creative and unique about me, just as he had been treated as a child.

As a technical aside, I want to note that a war such as this one is expected when treating adults who were traumatized as children, although not every patient is either as fierce or as adept a fighter as Paul was. Periods when such patients do to their therapist that which was done to them are built into these psychotherapies. This makes sense: children not only learn how to react and adapt to traumatizing relationships, they also take in the message that hurting others is what it means to be in a relationship. Dishing out trauma becomes a taken for granted part of being close to someone. That is how those who were abused become abusers, unless the cycle gets broken by something like psychotherapy.

It stayed attack and parry. Him: "You don't know shit;" "you think ‘understanding' means something;" "if you could succeed in the real world you wouldn't spend your time in this crappy office." Me: "How does it feel to be so angry at me?" "You're doing to me what your Dad did to you;" "I'm still here, and I still want to help, even though you are so enraged."

No single battle nor insight signaled new awareness or facilitated behavior change; after all, he and I were fighting a war of attrition. But eventually his cynicism about life began to wear down. Paul began to make some changes. He even acknowledged, grudgingly at first, that "I've been pretty hostile" and that "It is kinda like my Dad."

As things were thawing he came in one day to tell me he had realized something: "Not sure how I feel about it, both good and bad, but I don't think I'll ever find anyone. Not anyone who'll put up with me when I get mad and who'll meet my standards."

"Maybe, if you want to be with someone," I replied, "It's time to question those standards."

"Nah. I got all this family shit to carry around." And he continued by unfurling a white flag, he had punched himself out but we had survived, "Lately I've been thinking, why bother, why not just enjoy things? Life my way, not theirs..."

I raised my eyebrows and as if on cue, but not really on cue since this was coming from a genuine inside place of having lived through an experience together, he said "...or yours."

He started dating again, but casually and just to have fun. He stopped trying to meet "the one." Paradoxically, this only increased the amount of female attention he received. But he also would say he still enjoyed playing with his porn collection more than spending time with most of the women he saw.

He also talked about starting to enjoy his job. It was not just success he was getting, the experience was really, really interesting. For example, he talked about various management moves and his countermoves with genuine vitality, delighting in how he was able to use his charm and social skills to negotiate tricky corporate political intrigue.

The oppressive power of joyless achievement was loosening its grip, life was starting to feel like it actually was his own. And he was doing new things in a new way. For example, he took a few adventure trips with a new friend who was a few years older and equally successful. After spending 10 days on a rather challenging whitewater kayak expedition he returned saying, "I loved it, never had more fun in my life. I was in a zone the whole time and never worried about anything other than the next curve in the river."

But I was having trouble with the peace we had found. As painful as it was during the hostilities, I know how to work with aggression. That's familiar well-trod therapeutic territory. But now that his false self had cracked and genuine Paul was emerging into a vital, enthusiastic life, the "true self" that was emerging was a guy who really liked online porn, actually preferred it. Paul was implicitly asking me to accept that for him online porn and the occasional date was a good-enough love life.

I was dispirited. Had I let him down? By education and inclination I am pretty accepting across the full rainbow of human sexuality. But could online porn actually be enough for this talented man? Was this a variant of normal or even abnormal—whatever that is—sexuality I should accept? And what if I felt I couldn't genuinely accept the choices he was now making? Was I about to enter a phase of work with Paul in which I attempted a kind of cyber-reparative therapy, like those dangerous charlatans trying to "treat" homosexuality with "reparative therapy" in the so-called ex-gay movement? Should I try to convert him from a sexuality he currently enjoyed just because I thought he should have something different in his life, something that fit my definition of more, my definition of better? Should I change from a caring therapist into the hetero-normative police? And if I did, wouldn't shame be the only result just as it is with reparative therapy?

I couldn't just throw up my hands and say, "So what, big deal, he likes online porn, not actual women." But a sexual conversion therapy, of any form, was repugnant and not something I could ever see myself doing. The experiential possibilities of online porn created a series of questions for which there were not yet any answers, and this is just a shadow of what therapists will have to address down the road when things like fully-functional sex-bots become available and affordable. Plus I really (REALLY!) wanted to do right by this person with whom I had already been through so much.

See, I told you the peace was more difficult than the war.

I decided that part of the solution was helping him see that engaging the fleshy actuality of a specific woman was different than engaging his porn collection. Not necessarily better; I wanted to be careful not to say that one was normal and healthy and the other not. But I did want Paul to understand that each had very different experiential potentials and consequences. Without being judgmental, I would ask how he experienced the simulations porn provides, how he experienced the actualities of a fleshy other, and then help him put the experiences side-by-side.

But I also needed to find a way to genuinely respect his choice when he decided to spend leisure time alone in front of his monitor rather than trying to negotiate a relationship with any of the young, attractive, and available women he ended up not wanting to be with. In other words, I needed to see that his preference for a sexual relationship with online porn was neither addiction nor perversion. It did not interfere with anything other than his having the life I wanted for him and that he thought he wanted for himself when treatment began. But he seemed to like how things were turning out.

In a sense, he had "come out of the closet" during treatment as a guy who liked online porn and the occasional sexual adventure more than he liked searching for an enduring monogamous relationship geared towards sharing a life and starting a family. He'd say maybe later but not now. Now he had money to make, friends to enjoy, sports to play, and trips to take. Plus, he had "his girls." Family could wait, monogamy could wait, even flesh could wait.

I really did not want to undermine his choice with my notion of normative sexuality, an arrogance that has been tempting therapists for generations. Because a choice was indeed what it had become, a choice among several options for how he wanted to spend his time. I may not like his decision, it may not be what I would want for him, and I may rail against a society that uses its remarkable technological prowess for the purpose of creating and selling ever easier access to increasingly sophisticated simulated pleasures, but ultimately deciding to live an over-simulated life was his decision to make.

[End of Part 8 ... the end is near ... to be continued]

 

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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