Understanding the Compulsive Internet Pornography User

Pornography in magazines, movies, and videos has been available for decades. But in the last six to eight years the arrival of the Internet has meant easy access and an explosion in use. Millions of people, mostly men, are purchasing and viewing pornography every day without having to leave the privacy of their homes. A small but significant percentage get hooked on the habit, sometimes with disastrous results.

Categories of Pornography Use

Dr. Alvin Cooper, former clinical director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center divides online sexual activity into three categories: (1) cybersex, (2) online sexual problems, and (3) online sexual compulsivity. These categories can be adapted to any type of pornography user:

Cybersex is “using the internet to engage in sexually gratifying behaviors such as pornography, sexual chats, e-mails, and instant messaging.” It includes recreational use of pornography for “entertainment, exploration, support, education…efforts to attain…sexual or romantic partners, and to relieve stress.”

Online sexual problems are the “full range of difficulty that people can have as a result of their use of the Internet for sexual purposes.” These problems “can vary from guilt, financial ruin, loss of family, and divorce to jail sentences for viewing and/or transmitting inappropriate sites.”

Online sexual compulsivity is “the most serious” problem because it means a person has become dependent on arousal and sexual gratification to cope with life. This level of use “indicates loss of control and even diminished capacity to regulate activities of daily living.” People who become this compulsive find it very, very difficult to stop using pornography even when the consequences are extremely negative, such as divorce or jail time. Sexual compulsive users rarely can change their behavior without treatment.

Cooper notes that people often move progressively through the categories. A person might start out as a recreational user of cybersex, perhaps viewing out of curiosity, then progress to an amount of use that creates problems in life, then become a full-fledged compulsive user. Although most users are not “addicted” to pornography, no one should underestimate the habit-forming potential of viewing pornography.

How Sexual Compulsions Develop

Sexual arousal and gratification produce feel-good chemicals in the brain such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals create a feeling similar to the high from a drug like cocaine. Looking at pornography is arousing, which often leads to masturbation. When viewing pornography is accompanied by masturbation, the brain’s chemical response (or “reward”) is particularly strong. This combination of pornography and masturbation produces an immediate and powerful thrill that highly motivates a person to repeat the behavior. People do not get addicted to pornography per se — they get hooked on the mood-changing feelings they have when they use pornography.

The “Wave.” To help people who’ve never had a sexual compulsion understand the power of sexual compulsivity, sexual addiction expert Dr. Victor B. Cline relates an experience with one of his clients. “Ralph” came to Cline because he was struggling with a sexual compulsion to pornography. Ralph opposed pornography on both moral and religious grounds and always felt horribly guilty after viewing pornography. But despite the many promises he made to himself to quit, he found himself repeating the behavior time and time again.

Cline decided to give Ralph a monetary motive to stop his pornography use. He asked Ralph to write a check for $1,000, which would be given to charity if Ralph used pornography within 90 days. Ralph responded that no way would he view pornography if he knew it would cost him $1,000. Highly committed to quit, Ralph went 87 days before relapsing. On the second attempt, he relapsed after only 14 days.

Cline writes, “[He] confessed to me that even if he had given me $10,000 it wouldn’t have made any difference–he would still have relapsed. He could not control himself nor his behavior no matter what the consequences. I never used that technique again to break addictive behavior. It just didn’t work. Promises, good intentions, will power, threat of job loss, the possibility of divorce, frequent reading of the scriptures or even imprisonment do not deter the behavior. None of these work.”

How to Recognize a Compulsion

Addiction experts Washton and Boundy propose two questions to ask in determining whether an activity or drug is turning into an addiction or compulsion:

How does the activity affect the user’s life? If the activity (in this case pornography) is “causing you problems in your life but you keep doing it anyway” it’s likely the activity is turning into a compulsion. If you feel your life is becoming unmanageable and/or a large part of you wants to stop but you continue to use anyway, you are likely sexually compulsive.

Why is the user using the drug or participating in the activity? If your main purpose in using pornography is to get your mind off a bad situation or to change a bad mood, you are likely becoming compulsive. If you’re using something to escape or “distract yourself from intolerable feelings . . . it’s going to lead you in the direction of addiction [or compulsion].”

The Prevalence of Pornography Compulsion

Not everyone who views pornography is or becomes a compulsive user. Researchers estimate that approximately 3% to 6% of the general population is addicted. According to sexual compulsions specialist Rory Reid, “Just as everyone who drinks does not become an alcoholic, people who may use pornography are not necessarily addicted.”

Cooper found in a study that 8% of respondents used the Internet for sexual pursuits for more than 11 hours a week. He classified these respondents as “heavy users.” About 45% were “moderate users” at 1 to 10 hours per week and about 46% were “low users,” spending less than 1 hour per week. According to Cooper, the heavy users reported far more anxiety and other negative effects in their lives than low or moderate users.

Although most pornography users are not addicted, even non-compulsive use can create significant problems for both the user and his family. Cooper reports that 42% of the people in his study believe their sexual use of the Internet interferes with their lives. He says the more time a person spends online in sex-related activities the higher the negative effects in the person’s life.

Consequences for the User and His Family

Serious consequences can result from compulsive use of pornography, especially damage to relationships. While the user may experience a brief “high” from viewing pornography, he typically feels overwhelming guilt and shame, which in turn cause mood swings, irritability, increased aggression, depression, and anxiety. These mood disturbances all make relationships more difficult. Marital conflict over the problem can become intense, and often marriages are destroyed. Users also run the risk of exposing their children to pornography.

The financial consequences can also be devastating. The user may ruin his and his spouse’s credit, incur substantial debt, and, in extreme cases, end up in bankruptcy.

In the depth of the addiction, the user no longer cares about the price.

How Pornography Use Can Lead to Sexual Deviance

The media are reporting more and more that people who commit sexual offenses such as molestation, abuse, pedophilia, rape, “peeping”, and “flashing,” are often heavily involved in pornography long before they act out sexually. The Sexually Exploited Child Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department studied child abuse cases from 1980 to 1989 and found that “pornography was directly involved in 62% of the cases and actually found in the home of the molester in 55% of the cases.”

Victor Cline believes pornography use can progress into sexual deviancy through four steps: (1) addiction, (2) escalation, (3) desensitization, and (4) acting out sexually. Since addiction has already been described in this article, we will begin with discussing escalation.

Escalation. As addiction (or sexual compulsion) begins to take hold of the pornography user, he/she finds that looking at the same type of pictures or having the same kinds of sexual online conversations becomes boring. To maintain the same level of sexual excitement, the user needs contact with progressively more explicit material. “With the passage of time, the addicted [require] rougher, more explicit, more deviant. . . kinds of sexual material to get their ‘highs’ and ‘sexual turn-ons.’ It [is similar to] individuals afflicted with drug addictions.”

Desensitization. As the pornography addict views increasingly deviant sexual images, he can lose touch with appropriate sexual boundaries. What would have shocked and disgusted him earlier becomes acceptable and even desirable. Pornography insidiously replaces his sense of “this is wrong” or “this has gone too far” with the belief that “this is normal” and “everybody’s doing it.” The process of desensitization can, without the user even realizing it, slowly erode even the strictest religious and moral values.

Acting Out Sexually. Sexual deviancy is learned behavior and usually begins with a process called conditioning. Conditioning happens when two events are repeatedly experienced at the same time. The body “learns” to automatically respond to one event as if the other event was happening. For example, a person may “learn” to be sexually attracted to children by repeatedly seeing and masturbating to pornographic images of children in sexual situations. The two events of (1) seeing children and (2) masturbating to orgasm, happening together over and over again, “conditions” the viewer to become sexually aroused by children. While acting out may include unlawful behavior, research suggests that about two-thirds fixate on a particular type of pornography and this never escalates to sexually acting out other than self-stimulation.

Conditioning can occur by combining sexual gratification with any activity, object, or image –women, children, violence, shoes, animals. Research shows it is very easy for people to become conditioned using sexual stimulation and gratification. Rachman found that through the use of highly erotic pictures, he was able to condition 100% of males in his study to a sexual obsession with knee-length boots.

Looking at or talking about sexual acts often leads to a strong desire to act out what was seen in a pornographic image or discussed during cybersex in an online chat room. In 1988, Marshall found that 86% of convicted rapists admitted to using pornography regularly and 57% said they had committed the rapes in “direct imitation of pornographic scenes” they had seen. The pornography led to sexual fantasies, which in turn led to acting out the fantasy in real life. This pattern can lead to compulsive one-night stands, flashing, peeping, hurting self or others during sex, molesting children, and rape). Cline claims that sexually acting out can become an addiction in itself.

Not all consumers of pornography sexually act out, and not all rapists are hooked on pornography. Many people keep the fantasies inside their heads and never act on them. And many rapists are power-hungry people who simply enjoy hurting others. But anyone who uses pornography is at risk for eventually acting out the deviant behavior he views. The risk may be higher for some than for others, but the possibility of acting out is always there.

Myths about Pornography Addiction

Two of the biggest myths about pornography addiction (or compulsion) are: (1) individuals addicted to pornography need sex more than other people, and (2) relationships based on pornography can be real love.

Myth #1: Individuals Addicted to Pornography Need Sex More than Others. In an unpublished article written for religious leaders who help people with pornography problems, Rory Reid points out that women who compulsively overeat do so for many of the same reasons men use pornography, but “we do not suggest the woman’s problem with an eating disorder is about being ‘obsessed with food’ or because she ‘doesn’t get enough food.’ . . . [Rather], the problems with food are symptoms of underlying issues.”

A woman who compulsively overeats does so to soothe herself when she feels insecure, stressed, or bored. Similarly, a person who compulsively uses pornography often does so in an attempt to gain security or to relieve stress or boredom. Reid says that fantasy, arousal, and sexual gratification from masturbation experienced with pornography can change a person’s mood. The strong feelings of relaxation and overall well-being that come with sexual gratification provide a temporary escape from an unpleasant moment.

When people use sexual gratification as the primary way to change a troubling mood, they begin to think they need sex more than others. Washton and Boundy say that when a mood-changing substance like pornography (or food or cocaine) is used as the main way of soothing unpleasant emotions, other coping methods are not explored. It becomes easier and easier to use only sexual gratification to lift one’s mood. Thus, people who become addicted generally do not have adequate coping skills to deal in more constructive ways with stress, boredom, anger, and loneliness. Sex addicts think they need sexual gratification to deal with life only because they do not know (or have ceased to look for) another way.

Myth #2: Pornography Is About Real Love. Sometimes people come to believe that they are really in love with someone in a pornographic magazine, movie, or website. A man may think, “I’ve read articles about Candy and seen so many pictures (or movies) about her that I feel like I know her! I think I love her!” This is an illusion. He cannot really know her because she doesn’t exist. She is merely a shallow and fictional character created for the sole purpose of stimulating sexual interest. He will never see Candy tired, angry, old, or without her makeup. He does not really know Candy and she does not really know him.

If pornography users who feel they are “in love” with a pornographic character take the time to objectively assess their “relationship,” they will realize the relationship is a fantasy. Erotic pictures and videos, which capture a moment of idealized glamour, do not show the flaws, frailties, personalities, or dreams of real people. The pornographer’s use of lighting, makeup, cameras, and image-altering computer software cunningly hide any “distasteful” human weaknesses from view.

Real relationships are based on real-life interaction. One of the greatest joys of genuine love is the security that comes from being fully known to another and fully accepted-both the good and the bad. Love requires work, nurturing, risk-taking, commitment, and sacrifice. Images and relationships based solely on sexual interactions do not demand any of these things.

Women and Sexual Compulsions

Many people assume that only men can develop sexual addictions/compulsions. They’re wrong. According to Carnes, 20% of people with sexual compulsions are female. Because women are aroused more by feelings of intimacy than by visual images, fewer women develop compulsive behavior around what is normally considered pornography (magazines, websites, videos). Instead, women are more likely to develop sexual compulsions in the form of one-night stands, promiscuity, romance novels, cybersex, masturbation, and occasionally acting out sexually, such as molesting children.

Women are generally more relationship-oriented then men, so they may be willing to become involved in primarily sexual relationships for the fleeting feeling of being loved. Rob Jackson, a licensed professional counselor in private practice who specializes in sex addictions and co-dependency, calls sexual addiction an intimacy disorder because it is more about “a hungry heart that craves intimacy” than it is about sex.

Jackson also comments that society has a sexual double standard. “Society promotes the stereotypes that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘good girls don’t,’ even while grooming the girl to play the coy seductress.” As a result, girls who develop sexual compulsions tend to feel much more shame and self-loathing than male addicts.

Where to Get Help

For individuals seeking help for compulsive pornography use and other sexual addictions, the article Resources for Those Struggling with Pornography at this website provides a listing of helpful resources. Other helpful readings are listed at the end of this article.

Group treatment such as Sexaholics Anonymous help many people. To find the location of a group near you, visit http://www.sa.org. Counselors who are experienced with this problem can be helpful. You can search for a therapist near your location at http://www.apahelpcenter.org/locator/ or by calling 1-800-964-2000.

For Further Reading:

Don’t Call It Love: Recovery from Sexual Addiction, by Patrick Carnes

Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, by Patrick Carnes

Protecting your Child in an X-Rated World: What You Need to Know to Make a Difference, by Frank York and Jan LaRue

Willpower’s Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind, by Arnold M. Washton

Additional Websites

Help for Female Sex Addicts by Rob Jackson

The Growth of Trouble: Q and A with a Female Sex Addict by Rob Jackson

Sex Addiction Q and A, by Patrick Carnes