Therapy in Mind

Exploring ways to improve your life through practical behavioral therapy.

Porn Habit – Indulgence or Addiction?

Porn usage can damage relationships as well as your mental health.

Given the prevalence and easy access to pornographic material these days, use of porn has become an issue that impacts more people now than ever before. The widespread problem of overuse of porn is taking a serious toll on relationships, and the pain that it causes often outweighs the fleeting pleasure that users experience. Many professionals view usage of porn in similar terms and perspectives as drug addiction. The process and symptoms are quite similar.

In any addiction, there is a desire and effort on the part of the user to achieve some gratification or escape. There is an interest in altering one’s mood or arousal state. It serves as a coping strategy to distract from uncomfortable feelings, such as disconnection, rejection, loneliness, sadness, frustration, anger or anxiety. Both porn and drug usage provides a temporary soothing to these emotions, and when relied upon, the habit can build insidiously.

Alarmingly, children and teens are now being exposed to porn, and often without intention; 2 out of 3 exposures are unwanted or accidental. The average age of first exposure is 11. The amount of porn and sexual images available online is so abundant that it at times cannot be avoided – misdirected searches, stealth sites, pop-ups, spam, texts, etc. lead to porn sites or images with sexual content.

Adult searches for porn, especially amongst young single men, is common. Of the top 10 search terms, sex and porn rank number 4 and 6, respectively. Porn sites get more visitors than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined. Every second, over $3000 is being used to purchase porn online, and every year, billions of dollars of business productivity in the US alone is lost due to porn consumption. But the worst loss is the cost to society and the negative impact on families.

While millions of people use porn to some extent, not everyone develops a significant problem with it. However, a substantial minority of people do suffer ill effects, in one or more ways, and to varying degrees. Clearly, hard core and aggressive/degrading images can promote distorted and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors in relationships. More commonly, even non-aggressive porn can lead to a lack of involvement, intimacy, enjoyment and appreciation in real relationships. Regular exposure to distorted sexual content can have similar effects as addiction in this manner (distance and disconnection, and perhaps disregard and disrespect).

Not much research has been done yet in the area of porn addiction. Statistics on the problem are variable, and there is not a lot of funding that is available for relevant studies. One recent study was conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and the published a study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that a moderate exposure to pornography (i.e., not more than 4 hours per week) was associated with differences in gray matter volume in a particular region of the brain (see http://www.iflscience.com/brain/researchers-find-association-between-porn-viewing-and-less-grey-matter-brain). One possible effect is a decrease in the function of a part of the brain known to process motivation. Another very recent study (the Voon study at Cambridge University, published in PLOS ONE on July 11, 2014) found that compulsive porn users react similarly to porn cues as drug addicts react to drug cues. They also found that male porn consumers (average age 25) had significant trouble (over 50%) achieving erections with real partners yet could achieve them with porn. This reconditioning effect leads to high rates of erectile dysfunction in young males. The head researcher, Valerie Voon, concluded that the brain sensitization observed in compulsive porn users amount to “clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy volunteers. These differences mirror those of drug addicts” (see http://yourbrainonporn.com/cambridge-university-brain-scans-find-porn-addiction). The body of research in this area is still thin and developing, and thus conflicting opinions do exist.

Nevertheless, what is important in the real lives of real people is whether there is a functional difference being experienced. Clearly, parents need to take extra precautions to safeguard and educate children. Limiting access and monitoring is necessary when it comes to children being online, whether it be texting or surfing the net. For those who use porn, an honest assessment of how the activity is impacting one’s quality of life is needed – is this activity decreasing my emotional connection with my partner, is it consuming more time than is reasonable, is it leading me to feel differently about others, is it causing me problems in the bedroom with a real person, is it distracting me from my work/family/friends, am I lying or being sneaky in order to indulge in this activity, am I feeling more isolated or depressed since using porn, do I feel compelled to use it even when I don’t really want to, is it costing me too much money, do I feel a loss of control…answering these and other questions can help you determine if you (or someone you care about) have a problem. They are the same questions one would ask regarding drug usage.

As with any addiction or compulsion, help is available. Currently, research and programs related to porn addiction are not as well developed or prevalent as those for drug and alcohol addiction. Controversy exists around which treatment models are effective, and the current status of sexual and porn addiction treatment is somewhat experimental at this time. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been suggested as a most promising treatment model due to the success people have had with overcoming more general Internet addiction (excessive reading, playing games and watching videos that interferes with daily life). As with any problem, a healthy dose of common sense and logic should be used to identify and address difficulties in the area of compulsive sexual behavior and porn use. If you think you have a problem, you probably do, and if a treatment seems to be helping you, it probably is. More research, treatment and awareness/understanding of this area should develop over time to help support those who struggle with compulsive porn usage.

Allison Conner, Psy.D., is the founder of Cognitive Therapy Associates.

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