Porn is becoming a widespread and increasingly serious problem. An estimated 20-30 million Americans (okay mostly men) are viewing porn daily. The saturation with porn is causing a host of young adults (yes, men again) to need Viagra to deal with erectile dysfunction because of changes in their brain chemistry. Even more disturbing is the impact on children (some as young as 10) who are watching porn and creating major changes in their brains because of their age and because the porn comes before they have any reality-based relationships with another person.
Finally there are the porn addictions that are disrupting not only the sexual side of couple relationships but obviously the emotional side as well. And like alcohol or drugs, there is a fineline here between dependence and addiction.
Dependence is a pull, the craving – the checking out the liquor cabinet to make sure you’re not going to run out by Thursday or the looking forward at 4 pm for the evening cocktail. With addiction the drug is the boss of you. You build around it, you can’t control it, skipping is not an option, even the thought of doing without creates a panic.
Porn is particularly powerful thanks to the internet. Just as the heroin addict or alcoholic’s tolerance increases, so does it for those drawn to porn. Fortuanately or unfortunately there is an endless variety of types and sites, ready to fill whatever new level you desire – you literally never run out.
And finally we have oxytocin. This is what clinches the addiction for guys. Oxytocin is the chemical that helps new parents bond to their babies, causes couples who fall in love to bond to each other. On any given day a woman’s oxytocin level can be as much as 10 times higher than that of a man. With that it doesn’t take much (he unexpectedly washes the dishes, brings her flowers) for her to literally feel connected. What increases oxytocin for men? You guessed it – sex, specifically orgasm. As men watch porn they usually have orgasms (thanks to mirror neurons and the interactive nature of porn sites) which increases their oxytocin and they then bond to the porn. (For a good summary of porn and the brain check out Oct '12 Men's Health)
While all this chemistry and physiology is going on, there is also the psychological component. Like other problems, porn is a bad solution to other problems. What are those problems? Some likely suspects:
Stress. When stress overflows its banks, it’s easy to move into more forbidden territories that we would ignore in saner, daytime hours. With stress goes our natural defenses. For some it is about porn, for others another drink or joint, or shopping online for shoes. Pick your poison.
Boredom. Boredom often comes from 2 sources – a filling of your life with a lot of “shoulds” rather than wants, and a lack of stimulation. By shoulds I mean doing what you are supposed to do rather than the want that captures your soul and passion. If you are going through the motion of frying hamburgers at McD’s it’s probably a should – a job, not your passion – and you can quickly get bored. You might be less bored if there is stimulation – a coworker to talk to about his weekend or the activity of those around you at lunch rush. Take away to coworker or lunch rush and you’d get bored. Porn provides lots of stim when you are feeling unstatisfied and unstimmed.
Resentment. Resentment mixes well with shoulds. If you are doing what you should a lot because someone (or that critical voice in your head) says so, it’s easy for resentment to eventually build up. When it gets big enough, the tendency is to act out because you deserve it. So you sneak online on your job at 4 pm because you are physicially tired and emotionally tired of what you have done all day. You sneak online at 11 pm because you feel your wife has been nagging you since you got home, and feel you deserve it, because it is, in some weird way, getting back at her (even if this is all in your mind and she has no idea what you’re thinking).
Sex. Or lack of. You would think this is ought to be at the top of the list, but often it’s not. But obviously it’s there. If you feel sexually deprived, disconnected, sexually bored, internet porn seems like a great solution – as close to reality as you can get without reality.
The problem again is any of these can be a trigger and once you become dependent on the porn to deal with them, you get hooked, brain chemistry takes over, and you’re on the road to potential addiction.
The way out? Like most potentially addictive behaviors you need to address the 2 elements simultaneously. Behaviorally you need to break the pattern. What is recommended to the those developing ED is not more Viagra but cold turkey – abstinence – no porn, no masturbating (because you easily recreate the internet fantasies while masturbating) for 6 months or longer (you can find websites where folks are willing to talk about this) to help break the cycle and re-regulate your brain.
The other is to fix the underlying problem. If it is about doing what you should but not what you want, find ways of increasing your wants into your life. If about stimulation, find other outlets to offset that 4 pm drag and walk away from your computer. If stress, ditto. If resentment at others – your boss, your partner -- try figuring out what you want them to change and then speak up – need more challenging assignments, need some time to decompress when you come home. If it's about sex, do the same – figure out what you want and speak up.
You don't have to do it right, just do it different. Baby steps count, just start. If you keep doing the same thing you'll keep feeling the same way.
Finally, I realize this is all easy to say, but often hard to do. So get support – from partner, friend, professional. Get help to change what you do so you can change what you do.
Maybe it's time to pull the plug.