Porn Addiction & Treatment
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Pornography has been defined as "printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings" (Oxford, 2010). Also, there was a legal case in the U.S. in 1969 that gave some definitions that are still referred to today. It said that pornography "is preoccupied with and concentrates on sex organs for the purpose of sexual stimulation." This case also points out concerns that mental health professionals have about addiction to pornography—that personalities, human connection, and regard for others are absent in porn (City of Youngstown v. Deloreto, 1969).
Types of Pornography and Legalities
Various types of pornography exist. They include a wide range of media, including photographs, movies, magazines, animated films and illustrations, live "acts," stories, and books. There is also a large range of differently themed pornographic materials such as those presenting specific fetishes, a particular age, body type, or race, or specific sex acts, sexual orientation, image viewpoints, and so on.
Some is illegal throughout the U.S., such as child pornography, and there are laws governing it at every level of government. For example, distribution over the Internet is governed by federal law since it crosses state lines. The laws vary regarding other varieties of porn, however. It is possible for distribution of one form to be legal where it is sold, for example, but to be illegal when owned in another area where laws are different. Also, intentionally exposing minors to any pornographic materials—legal or illegal—is considered child abuse or exploitation. There are cases in which not securing porn from minors who can discover it is considered child nonprotection and neglect (Pile, 2014).
The Availability of Pornography
The Internet, along with electronic personal devices such as cell phones, tablets, and computers, make porn easily accessible. In fact, it's estimated that, online, about 25 million sites have countless pages of porn. In addition, every second, about 28,000 people are estimated to be viewing online porn. Forty million Americans are thought to be regular users of Internet porn, with 70 percent of those users being men (Daily Infographics, 2013). But, of course, those figures don't include offline porn use.
Pornography is widely available in offline forms—in movies for sale, on cable TV and pay-per-view channels, and in photographs and magazines. Often, those who are addicted to porn and getting treatment report that they have frequented peep shows and strip clubs or have used prostitutes—actions that focus on sexual arousal without an emotional connection between the people involved.
Despite the widespread availability of pornography, reliable porn addiction statistics are hard to find. That leads some people to wonder, "Is porn addictive in the same way that many drugs are?"
Porn use affects the brain in similar ways as drug use does.
Porn and the Brain
Some evidence suggests that porn addicts have less gray brain matter. This affects the way in which different parts of the brain connect and, consequently, how the brain functions (Kühn & Gallinat, 2014). So, is porn addiction real? Well, it's not yet known what came first: the abnormal brain or the porn use. However, the use of porn, overall, does significantly impact the brain. Porn use affects the brain in similar ways as drug use does.
In both drug addiction and porn addiction, the pleasure and reward centers of the brain are over-stimulated and altered by use. Dopamine—the feel-good brain chemical—is released in both, but at high frequency and volume. This causes the "high"—the intense pleasure that only the use of drugs or porn can produce for addicts.
Such changes in how the brain experiences pleasure and reward cause the addict to obsess and have an intense urge to use more. For drug users, more frequent use—and, eventually, a higher dose—is craved after a time. A similar process happens with porn use. Porn users seek out new images or more extreme images, trying to satisfy their ever-growing need for pleasure. In both drug addiction and porn addiction, a type of desensitization occurs. Essentially, what used to work for the addict eventually doesn't work anymore. He or she has become less sensitive, or desensitized, to the drugs or porn that was being used.
Brain changes significantly impact the addict's life as porn obsession (i.e., intensely focused thinking) and compulsion (i.e., the strong urge to use porn) grow. Brain changes begin to alter many aspects of life. For example, among many other possible porn addiction symptoms, the ability to have pleasure from intimacy with partners decreases over time. This is caused by the release of oxytocin during orgasm. Oxytocin is a brain chemical that bonds sexual partners when it is released. Because porn users orgasm to porn, they essentially bond sexually with porn instead of people. This profoundly affects the life of the addict and those in relationship to him (Breslow, 2011).
It has been estimated that men are over 500 percent more likely to look at porn than females.
Differences Between Men and Women
There are differences in porn use between men and women. For example, more men than women use porn to masturbate when alone. They also seem more likely to use porn without experiencing any fantasies or intimate feelings toward a partner when masturbating. More women than men, on the other hand, tend to use porn with an intimate partner in order to enhance lovemaking and increase a feeling of intimacy (Bridges & Morokoff, 2011). It has been estimated that men are over 500 percent more likely to look at porn than females (Stack, Wasserman, & Kern, 2004) and that porn addiction is, overall, largely a male issue (Pile, 2014).
Why men use porn more than women may be due to a combination of factors. Porn is marketed more to men, and the pornography industry is very successful. In 2006, for example, the industry made more money than the top technology companies combined: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix, and EarthLink (Family Safe Media, 2014). Men may also use porn more because masturbation is the chief sexual activity related to viewing porn, and men typically masturbate more than women (Kinsey Institute, 2014).
What Are the Signs of Porn Addiction?
Porn addiction signs are similar to those of a substance addiction and other "process" addictions such as gambling. They include the following:
- Repeatedly giving into impulses to view porn and achieve orgasm
- Using porn more frequently or longer than intended
- Spending excessive amounts of time obtaining access to porn, viewing porn, thinking and fantasizing about use, and recovering from use
- Being preoccupied with accessing porn, fantasizing about it, or preparing to use it
- Using porn when other obligations should be taken care of such as work, school, family time, or social time
- Continuing to use porn despite knowing there are problems related to use such as family, marital, financial, psychological, or physical problems caused or made worse by porn use
- Building a tolerance for porn use by needing to increase the intensity or frequency of porn use to achieve the desired effect
- Giving up or reducing usual life activities in order to use porn
- Having withdrawal symptoms such as feelings of distress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability if unable to use porn —Adapted from Patrick Carnes' material on sexually compulsive symptoms (Carnes, 2000) and the criteria for substance disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)
Other signs and symptoms of porn addiction include:
- Secrecy—hiding porn use or hiding the extent of porn use from spouses and partners, therapists, and doctors
- Excessive time alone
- Preoccupation with electronic devices
- Viewing porn while family members are away or sleeping
- Shame and guilt
- Erectile dysfunction (ED) with partners
- Lack of satisfaction in sex with partners
- Lack of sex drive with partners
- Fantasizing about porn when having sex with partners
- Financial problems due to buying porn or accessing online sites
- Injury from excessive masturbation
- Depression—including suicidal thinking
Who Becomes a Porn Addict?
People from all walks of life can become obsessed with pornography. Beyond the common signs of a porn addict listed above, there are other specific characteristics that people with sexual addictions of any type often have. They include:
- Another addiction at the same time
- A history of trauma such as sexual or physical abuse
- Damaged self-esteem
- Problems with being close to others and trusting others
- Sex addiction or other addictions in close relatives
- A mental health condition such as "depression, bipolar disorder, a personality disorder (e.g., narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder), or difficulties with impulse control" —Adapted from Patrick Carnes' material on sexual addictions (Carnes, 2013)
Other risks factors for developing porn addictions include:
- Exposure to porn as a youth
- Loneliness and isolation
- Feelings of having been abandoned (Pile, 2014)
- A lack of exposure to healthy relationships as models (Skinner, 2005)
Counseling for family members is helpful, and there are treatment programs that offer help for children, teens, the addict, and the spouse or partner.
Impact of Porn Use on Relationships
For a porn addict, symptoms aren't just self-experienced. The addiction affects others as well. Family members become estranged, for example, as the addict is preoccupied with addictive behaviors and fantasies. Also, when an addict's use of porn is revealed, there can be a significant impact upon loved ones. Typically, the discovery of a family member's addiction is a family crisis with much emotional upheaval and distress. Shock, disbelief, anxiety, fear, grief, and anger are common reactions among family members. Counseling for family members is helpful, and there are treatment programs that offer help for porn addicts' children and spouses or partners.
One of the side effects of porn addiction is that spouses and partners of addicts can have a great deal of difficulty, particularly following the discovery of the obsessive behavior. For example, women in relationships with porn addicts tend to feel negatively about their relationships, to have self-esteem problems, and to have less sexual satisfaction (Stewart & Szymanski, 2012). Discovery can be traumatic for partners and spouses, and about 70 percent of women married to sexual addicts have symptoms of PTSD (or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)—a severe reaction to trauma (Steffens & Rennie, 2006).
Women in relationships with porn addicts often need support and counseling, not only to cope with discovering the porn addiction, but also with related and lingering effects such as having been traumatized by it. They are also likely to need help with making decisions about the relationship. If there are children involved, for example, women will need to consider how best to protect them from the addiction and events related to it. Particularly if the addict does not enter treatment, decisions about separation, divorce, childcare, child protection, co-parenting, and the like need to be made.
LGBTQ relationships can also be negatively impacted when one of the partners has a compulsive porn habit. After all, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans and queer people have the same emotional needs as everyone else. They also may use porn just as frequently as heterosexual people. In fact, according to one survey, gay and bisexual men actually reported using porn more frequently than heterosexual men (Downing, et al., 2016).
Some partners of porn addicts have issues of "virtual infidelity"—feeling their partners are "cheating" (Chamberlin & Streuer, 2011). Many also feel in competition with their partners' porn use (Resch & Alderson, 2013), thinking they are not attractive enough to keep their partners interested. Feelings of loss and grief about their relationships are common, as is depression, shame, humiliation, and a sense of worthlessness and betrayal (McKee, 2006).
Personality, emotions, empathy, intimacy, and human connection are absent in the porn experience.
Attitudes about women have been found to change in men addicted to porn of the heterosexual variety. One study done at Yale University suggests that exposure to porn "animalizes" women in the eyes of male addicts. This means that an addict thinks of women on purely sexual terms and as more animal-like than human (Gray, Knobe, Sheskin, Bloom, & Barrett, 2011). This is a process typically known as objectification.
Of course, men can also be objectified—either by women or by other men. For example, some gay men are part of a subculture in which porn use is a large part of their lifestyles. More gay men have reported using porn at sex parties and commercial sex venues than bisexual or heterosexual men (Downing, et al., 2016). One of the results is that some gay men expect their partners to live up to the physical beauty of actors in gay porn.
Objectification—viewing another person as an object to be used rather than as a complete person to have a relationship with—is one result of porn addiction. For example, people who perform in porn are typically nameless, except for perhaps "stage names," and the focus of the viewer is upon genitalia and what is done with them. Rather than perceiving the person who performs in porn, one reduces the person to objects: genitals and other body parts for sexual use. Personality, emotions, empathy, intimacy, and human connection are absent in the porn experience.
For addicts, these issues affect relationships with real people. Porn addicts live in fantasy and are not emotionally or psychologically present with other people (Laaser, 2004). Emotions and human attachment are separated from sex (Foubert, Brosi, & Banno, 2011). The intensity of porn wins out when it comes to "intimacy," arousal, and interest in another. For the porn addict, the experience of real naked people is "just bad porn" (Wolfe, 2014). Addicts feel that there is always "better" porn, and they are in constant pursuit of it.
Porn contributes to the notion that sexual pleasure is a self-absorbed activity and that the needs of others do not matter.
Sex and Aggression in Porn
Although some porn shows people engaging in gentle forms of intimacy, a significant amount of it shows aggression—often toward women. One study that reviewed porn videos, for example, reported that the most popular ones "overwhelmingly" portrayed aggression toward women (Bridges, Wosnitzer, Scharrer, Sun, & Liberman, 2010). Another study found that of 304 porn scenes, 268 showed physical aggression toward women such as spanking, gagging, and slapping. Verbal aggression toward women, particularly name-calling, was found in about 50 percent of the scenes (Bridges, Wosnitzer, Sun, & Liberman, 2010). Carlo Scalisi, a pornography entrepreneur, has said that amateur porn performers "come across better on screen" because they "still feel strong pain" (Sarikakis & Shaukat, 2008).
There is evidence that addictive porn use increases aggressive attitudes toward women (Foubert,Brosi, & Banno, 2011; Hald, Malamuth, & Yuen, 2010). Porn use involves strong power and control fantasies and beliefs in which the addict is in charge while others are submissive to his sexual desires. Also, porn contributes to the notion that sexual pleasure is a self-absorbed activity and that the needs of others do not matter.
Aggression in porn distorts how real people are viewed by porn addicts. For example, aggression is commonly shown to be pleasurable for the women in pornography (Foubert, Brosi, & Banno, 2011). This decreases a sense of reality about other people and empathy for them. It also breaks the connection between sex, intimacy, and caring. Aggressive themes send strong messages to the viewer, such as that people like to be abused during sex, they should be abused during sex, it is manly to be sexually aggressive and demeaning of one's partner, or it is sexually fulfilling to do so.
Since sex is often a difficult topic for children and parents to discuss—particularly if the child is not old enough to understand sex—professional counseling for children of addicts is helpful.
Children Exposed to Porn
Children of porn addicts are also impacted by the obsessive behavior. Some children accidentally discover porn in the home or witness the addict's sexual activities directly. Some learn of the addict's behavior through overhearing parental arguments or other discussions. Children who are too immature to understand the information can be very distressed, not understanding what has happened in the home. But children of all ages can feel insecure, unsafe, overwhelmed, anxious, angry, and fearful.
Often, there is a family disruption when the addict's behavior is discovered, and this is a loss and grief experience for children. Depending upon the age of the child, there can be a good deal of confusion about what the separation and the addiction mean for themselves and their families. Some children of porn addicts feel ashamed, humiliated, and fearful. They worry about what a parent's addiction means for them as the stigma of it "ripples" into their lives. They may feel the addict is perverse and disgusting, even dangerous, but also usually feel torn between their love for the addict and the overwhelming information about the addiction.
Children in families of porn addiction need support and information if they are aware of the behavior and related activities. Since sex is often a difficult topic for children and parents to discuss—particularly if the child is not old enough to understand sex—professional counseling for children of addicts is helpful. One must be careful not to add to a child's distress by over-informing them of the situation. Counselors can help the child with developmentally appropriate information and help parents learn how to support their children.
Treatment for Porn Addiction
Stopping porn addiction usually involves an approach that's similar to overcoming other types of obsessive sexual behavior. Appropriate treatment programs may be advertised with various terms such as:
- "Sexual addiction treatment"
- Treatment for "sexual compulsivity" (having a compulsion to perform sexual acts)
- Treatment for "sexual behaviors"
- Treatment for "sexual compulsions" (feeling out of control about sexual behaviors and compelled to do them)
- Treatment for "behavioral addictions" (being addicted to performing certain behaviors rather than ingesting substances)
- "Process addictions" (similar to behavioral addictions—involving addictive activities rather than ingesting a substance)
Services for the children and partners or spouses of people in recovery from porn addiction are typically also available in treatment programs.
Treatment Settings and Self-Help
Settings for porn addiction therapy range from outpatient to residential treatment programs. The first type involves visiting a counselor or therapist and/or participating in group therapy while living at home. The second type involves living in a treatment center for a certain period of time.
Ending porn addiction sometimes also requires using self-help groups to supplement treatment. Examples include:
- Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) https://saa-recovery.org/
- Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) www.sa.org
- Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA) www.sca-recovery.org
- Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA) www.sexualrecovery.org
- S-Anon International Family Groups www.sanon.org
- Codependents of Sexual Addictions www.cosa-recovery.org
The first four groups above are for addicts. They are 12 Step groups that are free of charge and based on the principles and steps of other groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Their First Step, which identifies who the members are, may be worded differently among the groups but are similar. Some examples are:
- We admitted we were powerless over compulsive sexual behavior—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- We admitted we were powerless over our sexual obsessions—that our lives had become unmanageable.
The last two groups above (5 and 6) are for the loved ones of addicts and also use the 12 Steps. Their members identify themselves as powerless over the addiction, too.
There are online support groups, chat rooms, and message boards for sexual addicts. There is also a great deal of educational material and recovery-related material on the Internet. Porn addiction resources of this type can be very useful; however, many addicts are triggered by computer use because they have used computers to access porn. Many will need to abstain from computer use in early recovery in order to control their urges.
A sobriety plan seeks to restore a healthy balance.
Abstinence or Sobriety
When treating porn addiction, it is often unreasonable to ask someone to give up sex in order to recover. Sex is a natural and healthful aspect of life, and many addicts have partners. As in dealing with food addictions, a sobriety plan seeks to restore a healthy balance, not to eliminate eating forever. For example, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous says that "Our primary purpose is to stay sexually sober and to help others to achieve sexual sobriety. Members are encouraged to develop their own sexual recovery plan, and to define sexual sobriety for themselves" (SCA, 2014).
Sexual recovery plans are usually individualized and completed with an addiction specialist or 12 Step sponsor. Initially, total abstinence from any sexual activity is usually recommended for 30, 60, or 90 days. This helps "detox" and "withdrawal" from sexually addicted behavior. After that, a long-term plan is typically made, setting limits on what sexual behavior can be engaged in. Some examples of behaviors to be abstained from in sexual sobriety follow:
- Chronic masturbation
- Paying for sex
- Having sex outside a committed relationship
- Having unprotected sex
- Masturbating to porn
- Using phone sex lines or online sex sites, engaging in "sexting" or sexualized massage, or visiting strip clubs or peep shows
While undergoing porn addiction counseling, people address their lifestyles, feelings, thoughts, and choices in order to prevent relapse. Some areas that are usually addressed in treatment are:
- Social isolation, loneliness, and the tendency to be withdrawn
- Using fantasy to cope
- Feelings of anger, depression, sadness, or boredom
- Other mental health conditions
- Unresolved issues of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and other trauma
- Avoidance and other addictive behaviors like substance use, workaholism, and skipping obligations like therapy, work, or family responsibilities
- Dishonesty and manipulation of others
- Relapse prevention
Find Porn Addiction Help Right Now
Many resources are available for porn addiction recovery. A lot of information can be found online, and treatment professionals trained in sexual addiction can be found across the country, as can self-help groups. There are also referral and placement services that can make appropriate recommendations for treatment programs and centers.
By learning what causes porn addiction and how to cure it, you'll be creating new possibilities for your life—and regaining a sense of pride and purpose. So end the struggle. With one toll-free call to our helpline at 1-844-810-3700, you can begin the rewarding process of breaking free and recovering.
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