Accepting the reasons behind porn addiction can help move past it. Image: Flickr/macrophile

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis(39) of the American Psychological Association. Darren Haber, MFT, psychotherapist in Los Angeles, submits this post.

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First of all, yes the headline is a little tongue in cheek. However there is always an all-too-human motive for any addictive behavior, no matter how “dirty” or shameful, and very often an addiction serves a function in the larger relational system, however problematic it may be in other ways. Additionally, feeling shame over a behavior may make it harder to stop. Such behaviors are painful to acknowledge, and thus evade the kind of sustained attention and commitment required for change. Only when a person accepts that the price of sustaining said behavior is too high does the moment of change arrive.

Let us examine the most common form of sexually compulsive behavior: viewing pornography. Habitually viewing porn is, I have found, parallel to smoking marijuana; both appear relatively “harmless” in contrast to more serious behaviors – such as hiring prostitutes or shooting heroin. Plus, “everyone does it,” especially if you’re a guy, and brazen sexual imagery is just about everywhere these days.

But what might drive a behavior past the point of “fun” into something more corrosive?

For starters, what determines a behavior being compulsive or addictive? As you may already know, there is a lot of controversy in the mental health field over whether habitual use of porn, corrosive or otherwise, can ever truly be an addiction. My own answer is most definitely yes. My definition here is: a repetitive behavior that deters a person’s psychological and emotional growth, that destructively impacts one’s work, romantic or social relationships, and which results in some spectrum of loneliness, despair, depression and/or low self-esteem—and that the person genuinely accepts said definition, rather than complying or accommodating someone else.

It’s easy to mock or brush aside the topic, but this form of “entertainment” is a ten billion-dollar business in our country—bigger than the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball combined. As the kids say, “what’s up with that?”

After working for many years with clients who compulsively use pornography for a variety of purposes, I have developed the hypothesis that porn, when habitualized, provides an outlet for primal feelings and desires that are not acknowledged or even permitted in their real-life relationships or psyche in general.

Permitted in what way? And what feelings are we talking about?

People who struggle with porn have often experienced some kind of early relational trauma: sexual abuse, neglect, physical, verbal or emotional abuse; or some unfortunate combination therein. The essence of this type of trauma is that the abuse is minimized, ignored, not acknowledged; thus some essential part of the child’s experience is denied, refused articulation, preserving severe pain in amber and tucking it out of sight—much like the hidden motives for the addiction itself later on.

When the pain of abuse or neglect are not acknowledged by the child’s surround, healing is forestalled. In fact, a child in this position often feels that desire or need for safety and connection are “wrong,” that in fact some essential part of themselves is not worth the trouble. (This happens overtly or covertly, and can be subtle.)

Thus selfhood is fragmented, divvied up for the sake of “keeping the pace”: a slow-motion tragedy, where dissociation (and developmental stagnation) become the norm. “Reality” becomes warped, dissonant; very often my clients ask me if they’re “crazy” for feeling circumstantially-appropriate pain or if their abuse was “really that bad.” (The answer is no and yes, usually.) With traumatic pain and its non-acknowledgment, the suppression or amputation of experiential truth causes long term damage (severe depression and/or anxiety, for starters) and lead to denial when compulsive and harmful behaviors begin to flourish. It’s terrifying to disavow that one activity or substance that makes you feel whole, and soothes trauma feelings, however fleetingly.

By trauma-feelings I mean states of anxiety, terror, worthlessness, panic, hopelessness, anger and/or dread – with a terrible sense that “it has always been and will always be like this.” All this together with a paralyzing conviction that to discuss the problem is too risky, that making oneself so vulnerable will provoke annihilation or an attack for “rocking the boat.”

Children with unacknowledged trauma often feel they are the cause. Self-loathing wrestles with a desire for love and emotional safety. However, given that these desires and feelings may “destabilize” the system, they are exiled into the unconscious. Sometimes they merge with other unconsciously-rooted desires, erotic or sexual, so that an outlet is finally found. A person is especially susceptible to the eroticization of developmental needs if family boundaries around sex were too rigid, too loose, or confusingly inconsistent. Often the person has been the victim of sexual abuse, overt or covert, or made into a surrogate partner for an absent or detached spouse.

The images of a client’s sexual fantasy often tells me a story about his or her thwarted developmental needs. For instance, someone who obsesses over big-breasted women may be craving nurturing and love from an abundant maternal figure. The other day I was playing with my infant daughter, amused when she started sucking my big toe. Then I thought of certain clients who have squirmed with shame over a sexual fondness for feet, a so-called “foot fetish”. I speculate that in this case, a need to feel young again, playfully protected by a stronger “other” has become sexualized.

Ironic, I think, that using pornography is less shameful than the buried need for nurturing.

Often such traumatized people will, later on, partner with those who mesh with their own relational patterns: folks who cannot acknowledge their own trauma, and will participate in the continued closeting of unbearable vulnerability. In this case, though, blame and loathing are aimed outward. The addicted person thinks “I am the problem,” and partners with someone who agrees, co-creating an environment which again confirms the worst about himself but which feels familiar. (If you grow up next to an airport, you get used to the noise.)

Sadly, relationally traumatized clients are so used to neglect and mistreatment that people who are “too giving” (like a therapist, for instance) are not easily trusted. But those emotional needs don’t go quietly.

Any notable conflict, inevitable in close relationships, feeds into this dysfunctional dance. One partner withdraws to satiate himself with porn, the other pursues with criticism and a desperation to stay connected. The addicted person “takes on” blame to maintain homeostasis (the “identified patient”). This is why, when a client starts to grow and expand, the partner becomes even more hypercritical, anxious or angry. Healthy growth de-stabilizes a system stabilized by enmeshment and blame. Such a system is prone to sabotage progress, which is unfamiliar and frightening.

Addiction is a disease of distraction, as is said in 12-step circles. Compulsive use of porn keeps things stable, by providing an outlet for the addicted person while protecting the partner from looking within. In each case, something or someone “out there” is the magic bullet. One day pornography will be under control, and one day he (or she) will finally start “doing it right.”

This is why I think it crucial that, when it comes time to seek help, the partner gets counseling as well; also, that use of porn is understood with compassion and in an overall relational context, in addition to the more practical “nitty-gritty” work of changing thoughts and behaviors.

Staying stuck in the entrenched patterns is the worst option, because it continues to closet and compromise and keep hidden the person’s basic human need for tenderness and unconditional love. And without those, to paraphrase the poet Adrienne Rich, we are in hell.

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Facebook: DIVISION 39

About the Author

Kristi Pikiewicz

Kristi Pikiewicz, Ph.D., is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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