“My wife has told me I have a porn addiction. How do I know if it is an addiction, and what can I do about it?”
Gone are the days of a few tatty magazines hidden under the bed. Pornography has been supercharged via the internet. As most people know it’s as close as a click (or a poorly worded Google search) away.
So while therapists have always talked about sexual problems and compulsive sexual behaviours, the conversation about porn addiction is a relatively modern one.
It’s also still controversial, with some believing it is wrong to label it as such: it’s just an excuse for bad behaviour, or an innocent side effect of an excessive libido.
That hasn’t been my experience.
Many conversations with men over the years have convinced me that porn addiction is indeed very real, but like any addiction it is also just a symptom.
We recognise a number of addictions that don’t involve putting chemicals directly into the body, gambling being the main one, social media use being another.
We also recognise that through repeatedly engaging in pleasurable behaviour, we set our body up, through the over use of our brains own chemicals (or “neurotransmitters” and dopamine specifically) to get “hooked” on behaviour.
Like other addictions, it’s also the case that not everyone who uses pornography for sexual gratification becomes addicted. In fact for many it is a little harmless fun, or a normal part of a varied and healthy sex life – that is of course taking for granted that the porn enjoyed is legal, and consensual.
To define porn use as an addiction then, just like any other addiction, it has to cause problems.
More specifically, the amount and frequency of use tends to increase over time; the compulsion to use becomes more intense; there are repeated unsuccessful efforts to change; and the use is secretive or otherwise lied about.
But by far and away the most problematic symptom and consequence of compulsive porn use is a loss of intimacy or connection. The common thread with all men I have seen that struggle with this issue is that it has driven an emotional wedge between them and their partner, or compensated for a growing distance. And largely they haven’t known what to do about this, or how to fix it.
In my mind then, porn addiction is actually an intimacy problem: the immediate and constantly available nature of internet pornography offers a quick, one dimensional and ultimately unsatisfying fix of gratification. It replaces the messy, complicated and at times conflicted “real” relationship.
So, the solution is not to abstain from porn, but rather to do the avoided thing: turn towards the real relationship that is already there. Be more open, vulnerable and honest.
Rediscover the intoxication of your partner, and talk with her about your fantasies and what turns you on, rather than watching someone else do it.
Because real intimacy is addictive too: it’s just not a quick fix.