Gary Wilson, co-founder of the website Your Brain on Porn passed away recently. He was a pioneer in the field of porn addiction harms advocacy and was one of the first to sound the alarm on the potential effects and associated harms of internet porn. Gary was an honest, authentic and true champion of truth and science. His website, http://www.yourbrainonporn.com served as both a clearing house for the rapidly growing research and as a source of support for the growing numbers of, mostly but not all, young men struggling with issues which they suspect are related to their use of porn. His legacy will live on and his name will be remembered long after some of his critics’ are forgotten and relegated to the wrong side of history.
How much porn is there on the internet? The answer depends on your source, but It is estimated that between 4 and 37% of all internet traffic is pornography related, depending on where you look. One intriguing source of statistical data relating to pornography is Pornhub’s annual year in review. Porn Hub, while not the site with the most traffic on the net, is the only site that publishes annual “year in review” statistics, which includes the year’s top search terms, site visit stats and most popular categories. In December 2019, Pornhub published its seventh annual year in review statistics for the previous 12 months. It triumphantly boasted of its’ continued growth:
Pornhub keeps on growing and it doesn’t show signs of letting up. In 2019 there were over 42 Billion visits to Pornhub, which means there was an average of 115 million visits per day. One-Hundred-Fifteen Million – that’s the equivalent of the populations of Canada, Australia, Poland and the Netherlands all visiting in one day!
The equivalent of the populations of Canada, Australia, Poland and the Netherlands. Given the population of the world is currently estimated at 7.5 billion, 42 billion visits for the year of 2019 equals 5.6 visits per person on the planet. Let that sink in for a moment before we move on.
Other sources relating to the internet, numbers and porn show a variety of, depending on your perspective, disturbing statistics. According to a 2006 study of Google searches, “adult” was the biggest search category for mobile device searches, counting for 20% of all searches. Other popular search terms included “sex”, “porn” and “free porn”. A 2014 study estimated that 4% of all websites on the internet are dedicated to porn, which may not seem like a lot, but when one looks at the traffic on Pornhub as a guide to how many visitors porn sites may be serving, the numbers start to add up.
Here are some more, numbers that is.
28,258 users are watching pornography on the internet.
$3,075.64 is being spent on pornography on the internet.
372 people are typing the word “adult” into a search engine.
37 pornographic videos are created in the United States.
2.5 billion emails containing porn are sent or received.
68 million search queries related to pornography- 25% of total searches- are generated.
116,000 queries related to child pornography [sic] are received.
According to the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families, (2010) 47% of families in the United States reported that pornography is a problem in their home, pornography increases the rate of marital infidelity by more than 300%, and 56% of divorce cases involve one party having an “obsessive interest” in pornography.
Another way of estimating porn’s prevalence and rising popularity is to take a look at the global ranking of websites with the most traffic. Every year, Similar Web ranks the worlds’ 300 most popular websites. In 2016, it ranked both mobile and desktop data statistics together for the first time and noted a rise in the popularity of ‘adult’ sites. In 2016, the world’s most popular website was Facebook however for the first time, adult websites featured heavily in the top ranked websites, including 11 porn sites in the top 300 most popular sites globally for that year. Pornhub, attracting 1.1 billion visits a month in 2016 globally, saw 54% of its visits from mobile phones, with an average user session lasting about 8 ½ minutes. It rose from 38th place to 23rd, a higher position than online stalwarts such as eBay, MSN and Netflix. However, then as now, Pornhub was not the worlds’ biggest porn site, Xvideos was. It ranked number 18 in 2016 with 1.5 billion monthly visitors.
The popularity of adult content website traffic has risen steadily since. In July 2020 the most recent rankings show adult websites now account for 4 out of the top 20 websites visited, with 3 of those being in the top 10. Xvideos.com is still the world’s biggest adult website coming in at number 7 in Similar Web’s list of the world’s most visited websites. Not far behind is Pornhub at number 9 and xnxx.com at number 10. To give you an appreciation of context, Xvideos’ popularity in 2020 is usurped only by Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Baidu.com – China’s version of Google. Or, in other words, Xvideos is more popular than Amazon, Netflix, Reddit, Ebay and Microsoft.
Given the prevalence of pornographic content on the net, is it any wonder that more and more users would find themselves becoming “addicted” to “fapping” (internet slang meaning to masturbate to online porn). Or that more and more of these users would find each other on internet forums and chat rooms where the problems related to too much of a good thing first started to appear.
In Gary Wilson’s famous TED Talk, “The Great Porn Experiment” from May 2012, which now has over 14 million views, he mentioned that researchers were struggling to find a ‘control group’ with which to conduct comparison studies, simply because they could not find enough non porn viewing male participants, with which to conduct their studies. This and the numbers mentioned above should indicate that whatever one thinks of internet pornography itself, its impact on a generation of young men cannot be underestimated. I recently re-visited his Ted Talk on the topic and was absolutely appalled by the “Note from TED under the talk stating, “This talk contains several assertions that are not supported by academically respected studies in medicine and psychology. While some viewers might find advice provided in this talk to be helpful, please do not look to this talk for medical advice.” This is absolutely not accurate. There were, at the time of this talk, and certainly since, a multitude of studies on the effects of internet porn and its associated harms. For TED to place such a statement under this talk is a form of disinformation and does not reflect what the actual research shows. But more on this later….
Stress. It’s a word that gets used often in today’s busy-ness obsessed world, but do we really know what we are talking about when we say we are “stressed”. What is stress, really? Stress is anything which causes a person to feel unable to cope or pressured beyond what is comfortable, from feeling the urgency of a looming deadline to the blind panic one might feel whilst running from a dangerous predator. Both these examples place the person under stress to a degree.
Types of stress: internal and external
The term ‘stress’ is used in both physics and psychology. Both mean similar things, something is causing the system (you) to move beyond a state of equilibrium. When applied to humans, stress can be anything that causes feelings of pressure, tension or discomfort. There are generally two types of stress that humans experience: Internal stress and External Stressors.
Internal stress is stress arising from thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations (feeling hungry, tired, sick) and as a result of trauma. All these things increase tension which we experience as “stress”.
External stressors can come in the form of time constraints, deadlines, traffic, obligations, appointments, demands from others and financial burdens. These are all forms of external stress.
They both play off each other, in that external stressors cause internal stress, and internal stress can make it more difficult to adapt to external stressors.
Dealing with internal stress
Managing internal stress can be tricky. Much of it happens below the level of consciousness and it can seem like our thoughts, reactions and emotions are automatic or just ‘how we are’. This is not the case. Internal stress can be managed by increasing awareness of the content of our thoughts; paying close attention to the words we are saying to ourselves in private, tuning in to our emotional responses; asking questions of oneself such as, what sensations are present when I think these thoughts and generally listening to our body. Sometimes we are just tired, hungry, angry or thirsty. Sometimes, managing stress can be as simple as tending to our physical needs as they arise. For example, you might be tempted to work through lunch because you feel stressed about the volume of work you have to get through. However, working on an empty stomach makes it difficult to focus and you end up making a mistake. This ends up increasing your feelings of stress and overwhelm. If you had stopped when you were hungry and had something to eat, you would have saved yourself hassle later on.
Given that internal stress affects our thoughts, how we feel, and our actions, it is important to have tools on hand to manage all three types of internal stress. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) strategies and Mindfulness based behavioural therapies (such as DBT, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction are all good therapies for understanding how our thoughts, emotions and actions affect each other, and how getting a handle on how these three things can impact our ability to manage stress.
Managing stressful thoughts
Often the way we think about a situation causes us to feel differently. For example, if we think of things in a negative way then we are likely to feel upset and that may cause us to act irrationally or impulsively. And, usually when we act from a stressful place, we usually end up doing things that ultimately make our situation worse, and that of course, leads to more stress. For example, you get invited to dinner with a group of people you don’t really know all that well. This is a situation in which a lot of people may experience some nervousness or anxiety about anyway. However, if your mind starts coming up with thoughts such as “I’m hopeless in these situations, I never know what to say, What if nobody wants to talk to me, Why am I so ridiculous… You get the idea, it’s easy to see how one negative thought leads to another, and another, and how pretty soon the idea of cancelling altogether seems like a good idea. However, if you had stopped yourself at any point from thinking these thoughts and consciously made a decision to think different thoughts, more positive or even neutral thoughts, the negative thought train may not have had a chance to build momentum. Learning how to tune into your thoughts and deciding whether or not these thoughts are helpful, useful or accurate takes time and patience, but it is a skill well worth practicing. At first, you may find that you have already allowed your thoughts to get the better of you and have already acted on those thoughts and are feeling regretful before you remember that you are supposed to be practicing this new skill. Don’t let that worry you. At least you picked up, albeit after that fact, that you could have chosen to think differently. Keep at it, eventually you will catch yourself mid-negative thought and actively change how you think about a situation and then choosing more positive thoughts, change how your feel and act. It takes courage, patience and practice but it gets easier the more you try.
Handling stressful emotions
Focusing on your thoughts, thinking patterns, unhelpful beliefs about yourself is a great start. However, sometimes, stress seems to hit us out of the blue. Like an emotional storm that feels uncontrollable and all consuming. It all happens so fast that before we know it, we have said something, done something or taken something we regret. When this happens, our ability to think, act rationally or even speak can be affected. The opposite can also be true. Emotional stress can build up gradually, or we may experience a series of emotionally stressful events. Sometimes, our tendency is to ignore these feelings, to push them down, or to sometimes drink or use substances as a way of ‘self-medicating’ or coping. This can sometimes go on for some time and become a way of being and merely existing, but it is not really thriving or sustainable.
The best way to handle emotional storms or feelings is to stop. That is, stop whatever it is you are doing, pay attention to the feeling or the emotions as they are happening. If you are in the middle of an emotional storm, you often act out that emotion in ways that you usually regret. The best thing you can do if you find yourself in an overwhelming emotional storm is to hold on and wait for it to pass, and it will. Ground yourself in the present moment, (breath, feel something, look at something in the room) and count to 10, breathing in and out slowly as you do. Sometimes, going for a quick walk or a run can do wonders to settle an emotional storm. And yes, it’s o.k. to cry if you want to.
Learning to experience, process and attend to your feelings as they happen is also a skill that may take some practice. Sometimes, we have old ideas about feelings that may hold us back from experiencing certain emotions. Old “programming” from childhood that may tell us that this emotion Is bad, or not acceptable. What is important to know is that all emotions are healthy, and are neither right nor wrong, they just are. They are our truth in the moment. Emotions don’t harm us it is what we do to avoid feeling those emotions or when we allow our emotions to get the better of us that causes the most damage.
Stress inducing habits
Sometimes, stress can encourage us to take short-cuts in an attempt to manage day to day or because we fear dealing with the underlying cause of our stress. Sometimes this fear is valid. We may have responsibilities, debts to pay, or children to look after and taking time out to manage our stress properly can sometimes seem like too much of a big issue to tackle, or it can slip way down on the ‘priorities’ list of school runs, work meetings, deadlines and bills etc. However, often the short-cuts we take to manage our stress in the sort term unfortunately tend to be not so good for us in the medium to long term. Alcohol, just for example, can lead to serious health problems, relationship issues, loss of time and even premature death in some cases (car accidents, mishaps, violence). In-fact, addictions in general are linked quite strongly with childhood trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Trauma reactions generally increase stress in the body and an affected person may be more likely to turn to addictive behaviours or substances as a way of coping with the ‘unspeakable’. However, it is important to know that addictions don’t really solve a problem, they just delay the inevitable. Other stress inducing habits include poor time-management, staying up late (when you know you have to get up early the following day), eating junk or takeaway food in the name of ‘convenience’, leaving things to the last minute rather than attending to them as they arise,
External Stress: Prevention is better than cure
External stress as stated above involves stress that is external to you. First thing I recommend is doing what I call a ‘stress audit’. That involves simply writing down a list of all those things that cause you stress and working out what items you can do something about and those you can’t. For a very simple example, driving to work often causes a lot of stress because the traffic is out of control and getting worse. Consider taking public transport or leaving 15 minutes earlier. Or if your work is flexible, arrange for a later start time to avoid the peak hour crush. That is a very simple example and granted, there are some stressful situations which are out of your control. For those situations, practice letting go of struggling with unhelpful thoughts related to a situation you cannot control and try to focus your attention on those things that you can do something about. However, for those things that are in your control, small changes can add up to huge benefits when you put your mind to useful thinking and problem solving.
Making concrete lifestyle changes can be challenging, especially when coupled with having to give up an addiction or habit which previously seemed like your only way of managing or coping. It is well worth the effort however when you find out how to properly deal with stress in ways that truly benefit you and those around you.
Complex trauma and stress management
O.k. time for a disclaimer. The above advice is general in nature and you should consider your individual circumstances before following my or any advice you read on the internet for that matter!
However, I do want to acknowledge for some people who have experienced significant and extended trauma or who suffer with the effects of Complex-PTSD the above information may seem contrite or over-simplistic for your situation. I get it, however, trauma is not what happened to us but how our body responds to what has happened. This response creates added intensity to our experiences of and dampens our ability to handle every-day stress. The above techniques and ideas may not be and is not intended to be an overarching solution to complex stress, but the basic ideas are sound and can help with some of the effects of complex trauma such as anxiety, addiction, depression and avoidance.
If you are experiencing the above symptoms, seek out help. Your GP is often the first port of call however, it is easier than ever to find a therapist online or try out some of these online based courses for managing stress and anxiety. Most of them are free too which is not a bad thing.
So, you have completed detox and you have promised yourself, and others, that you will stay sober.
Recovery is about more than just quitting a particular substance, like alcohol or drugs, or stopping an unwanted behaviour, such as gambling or masturbating to porn. (If it were that easy, there would be no reason for me to be writing this guide!) Recovery is a personal journey, and it is different for everybody. For many, it is essentially a journey into unknown territory, so it is essential to have a plan, or at least a compass to make sure you don’t get lost or keep going around in circles, like the diagram above which shows the stages of change conceptualised by psychologists Prochaska and Di Clemente. The more times you cycle through the different stages, the easier it gets apparently, there-for creating more of an upward spiral, rather than a repetitive cycle.
But how can you turn your cycle of change into an upward spiral instead of a merry-go-round that never ends? Rehabilitation services are lengthy for a reason. It takes time to undo months, or sometimes years of dependency and habitual use of alcohol, drugs or unhealthy behaviours that have developed over time. But, not everyone can take the time to attend an inpatient service, or have obligations to family, pets or work commitments. If you fit into this category, and you have just completed a detox of some sort, then the below are essential for improving your chances of success this time around.
1. Get the basics right. Focus on sleeping, diet, exercise, taking prescribed medication as directed, water, nutrition. Getting as good a night’s sleep as possible is the single most beneficial thing you can do to improve your physical, mental and emotional health. Look up sleep hygiene for some tips on getting a good night’s sleep. Watch what you eat, move away from fast or pre-packaged food and try to fit in some home cooking. Look up recipes on YouTube or ask a friend to help if you can. Drink plenty of water. Take any medication as prescribed. Exercise daily. Give your body the love and care it deserves, even if you don’t feel like doing so at times.
2. Connect. Find a peer support group. AA and other 12 step groups or SMART recovery are both free support groups for anyone reaching out for help. The benefits of finding and connecting with a group to support you have been well documented. Informal friends, online supports and communities are also available nowadays thanks to the internet. Recovery can feel like a lonely place. It helps to know you are not alone.
3. Counselling. See a counsellor or psychologist regularly. Counselling in conjunction with peer support can help you to explore, reflect on and focus on your recovery goals with a supportive, compassionate other. Understanding what led to your addiction can help provide insight, motivation and direction when needed. Simply having someone to talk to, honestly, about your journey can be invaluable.
4. Utilize day programs. Free day programs are available, use them if you are not working or studying full time. Look up out-patient rehabilitation services in your area. Most day programs run 3 times a week, some are daily for 6 -12 weeks on average. Day programs are helpful when you have commitments to children or pets as you get to go home each day.
5. Talk – to your friends, family and community. Addiction is often clouded in shame. Because of this, many people find it difficult to talk about their struggles. Shame thrives on silence. I’m not saying, shout it from the rooftops, however, those closest to you care about you and are in most cases willing to help. Of course, it is important to be discerning when it comes to who is worth sharing with but don’t think you are in this alone. Connection is the opposite of addiction. This is another reason why formal support groups such as AA or SMART Recovery are so valuable.
6. Read, listen, watch. There is a lot of ‘quit lit’ out there, starting with the big book of AA (worth a read). If reading is not your thing, check out podcasts, apps and watch YouTube videos about recovery. Learn from others and educate yourself on addiction, brain science and the latest interventions. You will feel less alone and it will help you to stay motivated to continue with your sobriety.
7. Cleanse. Cleanse your device, your social media feed and your life of all potential triggers or people that remind you of your addiction, as much as possible. It is important that you prioritise your recovery especially in the early days/months. Detox is not just for your body. In many instances, detoxification is a process of systematically removing those things, people, places and habits from your life that no longer serve you. You may have to delete several numbers from your phone. At the very least, delete and block your dealer’s number!
8. Get creative or busy. Write, draw, paint, sculpt, tinker, redecorate, fix, repair, renovate, plant something, play something, collect something. Use that brain and fire up those neurons in a way that stimulates novel thinking. Creative pursuits and hobbies can also help with stress reduction.
9. Learn something. If you are not working full-time, recovery is a great opportunity to re-train or up-skill. If there is something you’ve always wanted to learn to do, now is the time to do it. Learn a new language. Learn how to play an instrument. Take a short course or go back to school/uni. Use that newly created space which you created in a positive way. Make a decision to only add things to your life that are joyful, positive or beneficial to you in some way, which brings me to my last point…
10. Cultivate a mindfulness practice. Whether in the form of a formal meditation practice, or simply moments of ‘dropping in’ to the present moment throughout the day. Learning how to pay attention to the present, mindfully, non-judgementally and on purpose is the essence of mindfulness and will help you immensely with your newfound sobriety. In a sense, mindfulness is also the opposite of addiction in that it is the opposite of what happens when we are intoxicated, drunk or high or in some other way ‘out of our minds’. Learning how to tend to ourselves in the present, to sit with and accept all our thoughts, emotions and sensations without trying to change or avoid them takes practice but is worth the effort. In essence you are learning how to be yourself, to be with your self and to accept yourself as you are, compassionately and non-judgementally. There are many resources, including apps, websites and books on Mindfulness available now, a simple internet search will provide you with a tonne of information.
So that’s it. My top 10 essentials for a successful recovery and relapse prevention plan. Of course, this list is not exhaustive but if you think I have left anything out that should be there please feel free to comment below.
Can we be addicted to negative emotions? Such as outrage, anxiety, fear, anger, depression, guilt or feeling ‘hard done by’?
We normally associate addictions with more or less positive things. Substances and behaviours that make us feel good or better in some way. Alcohol, helps us to relax, or feel happier or intoxicated. Cannabis can help us to chill, calm down or get lost in the music. Amphetamines can makes us feel confident, energised or ‘on top of the world’. Porn can makes us feel powerful, in control and aroused. All these things can help us to forget or distract us from pain, discomfort or relieve stress in some way. So it would make sense that some of us could get ‘addicted’ (attached to if one goes by the old definition of addiction as I discuss in an earlier post Why is the word addiction so controversial?) to these sorts of things. However, it has recently occurred to me that perhaps we can also become addicted to negativity in some way.
You may balk at the suggestion. Anxiety feels awful. Depression is terrible. Why would anyone want to continue with such negative emotions? I guess one needs to look at the pay off. What does one get by continuing with these emotional states that make us feel bad or worse in some way. Or, another way to look at it is, what do you get out of doing by continuing to feed the negative emotion?
Let’s take anxiety as an example. What does anxiety stop you from doing that you might otherwise do. Drive a car? Get a job? What do you get to do by not doing those things…. well you get to avoid the discomfort, fear and the possibility that you may get hurt in some way. You get to feel safe. You get to avoid uncertainty. And you get to avoid having to change. And, ever notice how the more you give in to your anxiety, and the more you allow depression to weigh on you the bigger and heavier they tend to get? It’s as if you are carrying around a heavy load or burden around with you…
Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, spiritual teacher and all round amazing human often talks about the concept of the “pain body“. The concept of the pain body is a strange one to get your head around. It is, according to Tolle, made up of all the slights, painful experiences and unfinished business that you carry around with you in your body, unconsciously. Any painful experience or trauma memory that has not been adequately faced or resolved at the time it occurred becomes part of our pain-body. In a healthy person, it may lay dormant most of the time, but some people live entirely through and completely identify with their “pain-body”.
Your pain-body can be awakened or ‘triggered’ by anything – an event, a person, an argument, a situation. Often it is awakened by something that happens to remind us of a past trauma or event. The current painful event awakens the pain-body and in that moment we become the pain-body. That is, we identify with our pain-body 100%. In ACT we call that “fusion“. Fusion is when we are so caught up in our beliefs, thoughts, memories, or pain that we believe those thoughts and are overwhelmed by the emotion generated that we in a sense, stuck to those thoughts, so much so that we become those thoughts.
The pain-body wants to live, according to Tolle, like any other entity, and it feeds on negativity and pain. And, the more we feed it, the more it wants and the stronger it gets. When we are living through pain, or in our pain-body, it can seem as if everything and everyone is against us. We see the world in terms of black or white, us vs them, good and evil. When we are in pain, we often lash out at others, and want others to be in pain too. We want to be right about our pain and therefor unconsciously seek more pain in order to prove ourselves right about how bad everything really is. The more we live through our pain-body the bigger, stronger and more dominant it becomes.
When we identify 100% with our painful thoughts and memories, we can sometimes act in ways that are unhelpful, hurtful to ourselves and others and are generally unpleasant to be around. We can act in ways that take us further and further away from our goals, values and true self. When we act in the service of our pain-body, we may think that we are doing something about our pain, but we often act in ways that bring us more pain. I am reminded of another famous quote by Eckhart Tolle which is,
addiction starts and ends in pain.
We can also become so used to being in our pain-body that we may come to prefer it. We may become more comfortable being angry, depressed or outraged that we no longer remember what it is like to not be those things. In essence, we can become addicted or attached to our pain because for some of us, that is how we identify.
But there is another way to be. When we realise that the only power our pain-body, or our trauma history, has over us is the power we give it then that is the first step towards becoming free of our free-loading pain-bodies. Often in therapy, at some point in time clients often say they feel lighter, more at ease, or as if a weight has been lifted from them. Maybe, this is their pain-body dissolving? It is worth a thought.
A positive affirmation to help dismiss or weaken our own body of painful experiences:
The only power the past has over me is the power I allow it to have.
Exploring the Lived Experience of Problematic Users of Internet Pornography– A Qualitative Study is a research project I conducted as part of the requirements for the Master of Counselling & Psychotherapy course I have recently (finally) completed. While it’s soon to be published in the peer reviewed journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, published by Taylor & Francis, in this post I reflect on what it was like to research this topic and I share some of the responses I received which highlight, to me, the seriousness of this emerging problem. I will post a link to the peer reviewed article here soon as it is published but I have uploaded a preprint version to Research Gate which I have linked to above.
In 2019 I completed the last few subjects of a Master of Counselling & Psychotherapy course I had started in 2016. As a qualified counsellor, working as a clinician in a youth mental health service at the time, I decided to take my time and just work through the units one subject at time. With a couple of semesters off here and there, three years later I was happy to see the end in sight with the last hurdle being the big research project which took up 4 out of the 12 units I needed to pass to complete the course.
I decided to do my research project on sex “addiction”, specifically, problematic use of internet pornography (note, there is no DSM diagnosis of sex addiction, to date, however, the ICD-11 now has a diagnosis of Compulsive Sexual Behaviour (CSB) disorder, which covers problematic sexual behaviours.) Having encountered several young male clients through the youth mental health service I worked at who were experiencing problems with their porn use, as well as previous experience with a partner who disclosed his own struggles with porn use (which I initially discounted as nothing to worry about!) – I thought there was something to this issue which needed to be looked into further. At that time, (2015 ) when I first started to research the literature on problematic internet porn use, I was completely unaware of the extent of the problem. In my informal research, however, I found the website www.yourbrainonporn.com and Gary Wilson’s now infamous TED talk (The Great Porn Experiment) and other TED talks on the subject, which was a wealth of information as well as an eye-opener. In my academic research I found some very interesting papers, including A. Cooper’s prophetic 1998 paper: Sexuality and The Internet: Surfing into the New Millennium which described some of the ways the internet was having an effect on human sexuality. In this paper, which has been well cited, Cooper highlights three aspects of the internet which he predicted, accurately it seems, could transform human sexuality. These were access, affordability and anonymity. The results of these three factors has resulted in an explosion (pardon the pun) of pornography on the internet and to give you just a drop-in-the-ocean statistic, Porn Hub boasted a whopping 42 billion visits in 2019 alone. And that’s just one website. That figure alone is staggering. (In my literature review which forms part of my research report I provide an extensive overview of the literature for and against the conceptualization of problematic porn use as an addiction.)
But despite these numbers and the overwhelming amount of academic research I found, including this 2019 review which did a pretty good job of summarizing the research and some of the controversy surrounding the, still ongoing, debate on sex and pornography, there are some who insist on downplaying the issue. Despite the inclusion of CSB disorder in the World Health Organization’s ICD-11, I found articles which went so far as to say Sex Addiction and Porn Addiction “do not exist”, or were not “real” or a “myth” and that believing you are addicted to porn is the cause of your symptoms, not the result of engaging with porn itself. I noticed pretty quickly that these authors tend to selectively quote studies which support their position, whilst stating that there is no “scientific evidence” to support the notion of sex or porn addiction (I found plenty). These types of articles all seem to share common themes; that religious beliefs or morality play a big part in why people struggle with porn use, and that those who voice any opposition or concern about the effects of excessive porn use are “anti-sex” moral crusaders, puritans or religious prudes. Granted there is the understandable concern that the term “sex addiction” is problematic in that it could potentially pathologize activity that is just a normal variant of a natural human behaviour, but their contention that porn addiction does not “exist” is “harmless” or is beneficial to society is itself problematic. Granted, there is evidence that moral conflict about pornography plays a part in users’ distress, (how could it not) however, it is a factor only, there are others. Rarely do they mention the potential effects of exposure to extreme pornography on children, the extreme and highly concerning content available to anyone, the links between internet pornography and sex-trafficking and rarely do they take into account the ocean of anecdotal evidence from users themselves. If anything, pro-porn advocates actively dismiss the growing tide of anecdotal evidence to be found online.
So, what’s the real story here? Are users getting addicted to internet pornography use, or not? Or are we too hung up on semantics? Does it really matter whether we label something an addiction or not anyway? In the end I suspect not, however, to blanket deny that there is an issue is the height of irresponsibility, somewhat delusional and invalidating in the extreme for those who self-identify as problematic users of internet pornography, or “porn addicts” – for want of a shorter term. Perhaps the issue is the word “addiction” and what can and can’t be called an addiction, medically speaking. Well, that is a topic for a whole other post, but if we can get over the linguistics for a moment, surely, what really matters here is that people, men mostly and their families, are suffering. Why, in this age of #metoo am I so interested in men’s suffering? Because, as a society, we cannot afford to ignore men and their suffering because men who suffer often affect others around them negatively too. Children, partners, other men and society in general. We all have a stake in this issue. That is why, for my research I wanted to find out why there are more and more people turning up on internet forums and sub-reddits, such as nofap and reboot nation to name two of the most popular ones, complaining of their struggle to give up porn and related problems, which they attribute to their ongoing and excessive use of internet pornography and masturbation.
Qualitative research is used in the social sciences to describe something in detail and more depth. It mainly uses words rather than statistics and is not meant to be generalized, but rather a deep dive into a particular topic. It is specific and often descriptive. So, my study took the form of an online anonymous survey of 20 open ended questions which asked participants who self-identified as problem users of internet porn, to write about their experiences. The questions asked were general and required participants to write out answers in their own words. There was no word limit, so I got a broad selection of answers, some short and to the point and some lengthy and detailed.
The survey was live for around 6 weeks and altogether 53 participants took the time to answer all 20 questions and submit their responses. I remember reading the first few survey responses as they came in, and immediately started highlighting and taking notes of what I was finding. I was firstly surprised at the level of apparent openness and honesty of some of the answers. It soon became apparent to me that these participants, (99% men), had clearly struggled with an issue that was bigger and more formidable then they had first thought. Concerningly, many reported first accessing online pornography as children, and the youngest said he was 6-years-old the first time he viewed internet pornography:
I must’ve been aged 6, I was laying in bed—alone—flicking through channels, & from nowhere came, well, porn. I can distinctly remember being: traumatised, intrigued, disgusted & aroused. My innocent infantile mind couldn’t process it.
At the other end of the scale, one man reported first finding online pornography at age 40. As you can see, quite an age range. Yet, the average age of first-time-viewers of porn on the internet turned out to be 14.89 years. I put together some super-simple stats that came out of the study below.
36% (19) respondents mentioned erectile dysfunction (ED) or weak/flaccid erections or inability to maintain an erection during actual sex.
70% (32) respondents report engaging with online porn instead of doing other important tasks, such as going to school, university or work
88% (46) reported their porn tastes changing or escalating to more extreme porn over time.
Only 9 mentioned seeking professional help for this issue.
Whilst my study was very small, only 53 complete responses, the answers were far richer and more detailed than I had even hoped for. It was overwhelming to be honest. After painstakingly coding and collating the codes into themes, I slowly built up a picture of what it means to live with a pornography consumption and masturbation problem. And while I ended up with three main themes, the one overarching feeling I personally got after reading through answers could be summed up in one word: Loneliness.
Loneliness, disconnection, isolation, feeling cut-off from other people and society, an overwhelming inability to engage with other human beings, and ultimately the Self, in a positive, meaningful, joyful or authentic way. The spectre of porn addiction appears to cast a long, diffuse and murky shadow on its followers, and it looks to be one that many users struggle to get themselves free of. Comorbidity is a factor (as it is in substance addiction) however, that does not discount the specific issues reported that seem to be directly related to these users’ excessive porn use.
But enough from me, the whole point of my study was to essentially let the data speak for itself. I will certainly post a link to my study when it gets published, but in the meantime, in order to do justice to the participants who took time out of their day to share their experiences, I thought I would post a “sampler” if you will of some of the particularly poignant responses I received, of which there were many. Too many to post here.
“After 16 years old, after my tastes escalated, I was very sad (nearly depressed). I had low self confidence, ashamed of myself and some social anxiety. I had no concentration also, porn may be related. I had no love or desire to search someone other than to have sex or for the social benefit of it (bragging to friends). So I had no relationships during highschool, I think porn impacted it deeply. In the beginning of college, I was alone in my appartment so I could watch when I wanted. Then I developed a very strong social anxiety, I was very stressed. I was very depressed as well, it occurs a lot when I drank alcohol. I still had friends but no love relationships. No erection without porn. Less ambition. I was more introverted and not very open to people.”
“I have never been in a serious relationship. My sex life is non-existent and I have an unhealthy sexual ideal. I have noticed mental, emotional and physical symptoms similar to the high and crash from drugs/alcohol. During the time in adolescence that I should have been learning and building social skills and healthy connections, I isolated and defaulted to porn and video games as well. Instead of pursuing real sexual relations and healthy friendships with women, porn has served an easier, quicker solution.”
“Guilt. The sense that I continue to let myself down, and let others down. The fact that it has any kind of hold over me is disconcerting. Then there is the sheer amount of time I have spent viewing internet porn rather than doing something constructive.”
“I’m lonely and depressed. I’m scared of trying to connect with women and commit to stopping because I’m ashamed of being inexperienced.”
“I’m not doing well in life, i barely have sex i love fapping ive become an under achiever and have achieved nothing worthwhile i entertain too much i dont sow but wish to reap a huge crop.”
“For a very long time I have been dealing with depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation and it’s difficult to determine what is the relationship of my porn use to these problems. On the one hand, porn has brought me relief and even a better mood in many difficult moments. On the other hand, porn might have influenced my view of women in a negative way.”
“It took away my ability to process the world with any emotion. My porn use put me into a state of emotional and social withdrawal in almost every aspect of my life, and because of that, I suffered significantly socially, romantically and academically. I lost many years of my development because I could not feel any pleasure and I could not make sense of the world – my mind was in a state of constant turmoil.”
“I never had a partner because porn kept me from even looking for one. I was scared to interact with someone in general but then also having to slowly bond with them and constantly working on maintaining a relationship seemed like too much of a struggle and not worth pursuing. Porn was a way easier “fix” for my loneliness.”
“I don’t really have relationships. That’s why I view internet porn. But a couple of times I’ve come out of short-term relationships and felt a sense of relief that came from knowing I was free to go back to internet porn, and I know that that can’t be a good thing.”
The above are direct quotes from the survey responses I received as such they have not been edited. As I said, these are just some of the answers received to my survey. I just want to take the opportunity to say a big thank you to all the participants who took time to complete the survey. I was humbled by their honesty, vulnerability and willingness to participate. I wish anyone struggling with this issue healing, connection and encouragement to seek help and support. Some resources are listed below. I am currently taking on a limited number of private clients (via Zoom only) for individual therapy. My counselling website is www.francescapcounselling.com
At the time of writing, there are now numerous studies including several reviews of internet pornography use, which indicate that compulsive use of internet pornography, like drugs or alcohol, is addictive. Yet there are some researchers, scientists and even clinicians who refuse to accept that sex or internet pornography can become addictive. They are a relatively small group but, as the saying goes, small does not mean quiet. In-fact, they are very vocal with their assertions and are often cited in the general media as “experts” in the field. One of the more prominent ones even offered therapy advice via an internet pornography cam site. In-fact a casual search on the internet will net you many articles claiming to ‘debunk’ the ‘myth’ of sex and/or porn addiction, citing a select few researchers and studies which support their “porn is harmless” stance or to explain the reported negative effects as the “belief” that you are addicted to porn that is a problem, not your viewing habits themselves. There also seems to be a current and ongoing Twitter battle for the hearts and minds of anyone who cares to listen on what can and cannot be called an “addiction”.
Why is this so? Anyone who cares to do their own actual research into the matter will find many studies and a growing number of systematic reviews of the research (a systematic review is when you do a search of a topic, collate all the studies you find, and attempt to come to some consensus of what the studies are reporting). However, Gary Wilson of the website Your Brain on Porn has a very thorough job of collating a long list of reviews and studies on the effects of porn which you can access here – if you have a free week or so to wade through them all! One thing I can tell you at a glance is that these studies are all primarily peer reviewed research articles and some are reviews of the research. It is hard to argue against the sheer volume of literature out there now on the topic, yet the T’war (Twitter War) rages on. There are even legal proceedings underway indicating that what started out as an academic debate is now getting real-world serious, with a number of individuals filing defamation suits against one particular researcher who seems to have taken things very personal indeed.
My own thorough review of the literature, which my own study supports, is that the research on problematic pornography use is leaning towards the classification of this phenomenon as a ‘behavioural’ addiction. Meaning, the person is “addicted” to an activity or behaviour, rather than a substance. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has already included one behavioural addiction in its category called “Substance Use & Addictive Disorders” (APA, 2013). However, interestingly, the terminology of the DSM-5 does not use the word “addiction” to describe any of the diagnoses in this category, despite the use of the term “addictive” in the category heading. In fact, as Richard et al. (2019) point out, they specifically state that the use of the word “addiction” has been removed because of its “uncertain definition and its potentially negative connotation’ (APA, 2013, p. 485). Despite its seemingly awkward welcome/not welcome guest status, the word “addiction” refuses to leave the party graciously. It continues to hang around in common usage and in both academic and social media circles, lurking about like the friend that no-one wants to admit knowing.
So why is the word “addiction” so controversial?
At the centre of this academic and social media tempest seems to be the word “addiction” itself. In order to make some sense of the passionate debate that is still raging as we speak, I thought it might be time to take a closer look at this currently unfashionable, problematic yet persistently sticky word “addiction”. Firstly, I shall look at some definitions, then I will attempt to look at the history of the word and finally I will add my own, humble, opinion at the end.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction broadly, as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviours. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioural control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”
The Centre on Addiction’s definition of addiction is similarly broad, “Addiction is a complex disease, often chronic in nature, which affects the functioning of the brain and body. It also causes serious damage to families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods. The most common symptoms of addiction are severe loss of control, continued use despite serious consequences, preoccupation with using, failed attempts to quit, tolerance and withdrawal.”
Popular psychology website, Psychology Today states that a “person with an addiction uses a substance, or engages in a behaviour, for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeat the activity, despite detrimental consequences. Addiction may involve the use of substances such as alcohol, inhalants, opioids, cocaine, and nicotine, or behaviours such as gambling.”
The APS defines addiction in terms of criteria for diagnosis relating to substance use disorders, and only mentions gambling and internet gaming as examples of behavioural addictions in line with the DSM it publishes.
Of course, there are others but I’m sure you get the idea. The common theme seems to be this: Addiction affects the reward centre of the brain, which causes the addicted person to want to engage in the activity or use the substance repeatedly, which in time causes the person to be unable to stop or reduce using the substance despite wanting to, and in the face of increasing problems caused by the addiction. But what does the actual word “addiction” mean and where does it come from?
Etymology of Addiction
According to Richard et al., (2019) the word addiction has a long and interesting history. It originally appears in the early Roman republic. The latin root addicere, was used as a legal term meaning “to speak to”. In the later Roman period, it was also used to describe indebtedness, usually in relation to gambling debts. In Roman times the person (addictus) who owned a gambling debt was in a sense, attached or enslaved to his debtor until the debt was paid. By Elizabethan times it was used to describe an intense attachment to some person, cause or object. Mostly the word “addict” was used as a verb, as in to attach or devote oneself to something. Attachments could be either positive or negative, so the use of the verb was in itself neutral. Richard et al. (2019) argue that it is the flexibility of the word addiction and its ability to be used to denote either an extremely negative or positive attachment which has led to its longevity and popularity in common usage, as well as causing diagnostic ambivalence.
The connecting of the words addiction and attachment makes a lot of sense to me clinically. While running a substance-use recovery group for offenders, I would often start the group with an activity which involved various definitions of the word “addiction” in order to facilitate discussion. There were various definitions, including some medical, some from official sources such as the DSM and some quotes from famous ex-users. I would then ask the group members to choose which quote they felt mostly described their own experience. Most often the users chose a quote by Dr Patrick Carnes, (who specializes in treating sex-addiction and has written several books on the topic including, Out of the Shadows ) in which he describes addiction as a “pathological relationship”. That this quote, written by a sex addiction specialist, was the one that these men would choose most often is interesting to me. They would then go on to describe their relationship to drugs as the most intimate, reliable and consistent relationship they had experienced. Their attachment to their drug of choice was very real and often, it had been the only thing they could turn to for comfort. Most of these men had histories of dysfunctional, abusive family lives, and most often they were let down by the very people you and I expect to be able to trust, again and again. No wonder their attachment, their addiction to their substance was so hard to give up. Carnes goes on to say that the pathological relationship with sex is a replacement for a healthy relationship with people. The same can be said for excessive substance users, problem gambling and those who consume pornography compulsively, which is what my own research documented:
“I don’t really have relationships. That’s why I view internet porn. But a couple of times I’ve come out of short-term relationships and felt a sense of relief that came from knowing I was free to go back to internet porn, and I know that that can’t be a good thing”
If we take the word “addiction” to mean simply an attachment, devotion, or enslavement to something, whether it be a substance, like alcohol or drugs, or an activity, like gambling, gaming or internet pornography, then the term addiction does seem to fit, at least as a descriptive term if not a diagnostic one. Any negative connotation to the word may well be attached to the substance or the behaviour which becomes problematic in that case, not the word “addiction” itself. Furthermore, those headlines claiming that porn addiction “does not exist” or is a “myth” because it is not listed as a diagnosis in the DSM are technically correct, because, in the current DSM there is no disorder with the actual term “addiction” listed at all. They are all disorders attached to the substance or behaviour, as in Alcohol Use Disorder or Opioid Use Disorder etc. – even though all these disorders fall under the umbrella of Substance Use & Addictive Behaviours.
Goodman (2001) made a, still, convincing case for the term “sexual addiction” to describe the phenomena of sexually related behavioural problems. He noted the similarities between substance use disorder and sex addiction and found them to be almost identical. In the proceeding 20 years, advances in neuroscientific imaging have shown these similarities are observable in the brain. So, if the term “addiction” where to be removed from the debate what would we be left debating? That excessive and compulsive use of sex or pornography does no harm? That people who describe themselves as addicted to internet pornography are delusional or wrong? I don’t think that’s helpful at all. The fact is, problematic use of internet pornography and sex exists, and is a real problem for many. Those that are experiencing this phenomenon firsthand no doubt care less for what you want to call their affliction, but more about getting help, recovery and healing from this issue, whatever it is called. As a counsellor, it is not my job to debate with clients about whether or not their issue is a “real addiction” or not. My job is to listen, to help facilitate change and to support my client create a better life for themselves and loved ones.
American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: Author.
Goodman, A. (2001) What’s in a name? Terminology for designating a syndrome of sexually driven behavior. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. 8:191–213, 2001. DOI: 10.1080/107201601753459919
Richard J. Rosenthal & Suzanne B. Faris. (2019) The etymology and early history of ‘addiction’, Addiction Research & Theory, 27:5, 437-449, DOI: 10.1080/16066359.2018.1543412
Sometimes life has a way of serving you up what you fear the most.
For me, it was the fear that people would come to know about my abusive relationship; that they would find out that the fairytale my life appeared to be was far from true.
Because for me, at that time, I erroneously thought that it would be THE WORST THING EVER if people were to find out. I believed that it was more desirable to live a life which consisted of walking on eggshells, bearing the occasional blow-up, waking up every day feeling sick to the stomach and depressed, than it would be to face the knowledge of everyone finding out how foolish I had been. I had made my bed, I thought, and now I would have to lie in it forever. That was some time ago now.
But I was reminded of this long-ago state of being as I was watching the recent Leaving Neverland documentary. For years, Wade Robson and James Safechuck kept their secret and lived with shame and secrecy for fear of ‘everyone’ finding out. Both of them even testified under oath that Michael Jackson never acted or touched them inappropriately, and this is one of the ‘facts’ that Jackson supporters bring up often. They lied for so long, how do we know they are telling the truth now?
Well according to some statistics, only about 30% of child sexual abuse victims disclose their abuse, and many wait a long time for doing so. The reasons for this are varied; the fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, a fear of not being believed, and feeling as if they were somehow complicit or even to blame for the abuse are all thought-processes which can silence a child well into their adult years. However, I personally think the core factor keeping victims of sexual abuse silent is shame.
Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised
According to www.intothelight.org.uk , “Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised.” The shame of the sexual abuse of a child is somehow flipped over from the perpetrator- who seemingly feels no shame -to the abused, who carries the burden of shame for both and for always. And the best receptacle for shame is always silence and secrecy.
This shame can then become generalized by the survivor and can manifest in different ways resulting in symptoms and behaviors which may seem unintelligible to an observer unaware of this person’s situation or history. The main effect which shame seems to have on a person is to constantly feel as if they are wrong or inconsequential. That things are somehow always their fault and their responsibility to fix; that it is absolutely essential that others are not put out by them, because they don’t count. Shame can result in behaviors which may look from the outside to be ’self-sabotaging,’ such as addictions and compulsions. Relationships become tricky because the shame infused person can never feel as if they are equally deserving of love, care, attention or that their needs are as important as anyone else’s. This can leave them susceptible to further abuse, manipulation and being taken advantage of. They may have a seemingly pathological fear of saying no. They may feel unlovable and therefore resistant to relationships where they are loved and respected. These are but a few of the examples of how shame and silence can impact a person throughout their life and cause them to act in ways which may make little sense until they are seen through the lens of trauma.
So for those questioning the validity of the claims made by Robson and Safechuck, citing their previous silence and lies as proof of the incredibly of their stories – do some reading on the long term effects of child sexual abuse and trauma in general, (including the trauma that comes from living with an abusive partner) and see what you come up with.
Sexual abuse and violence create shame which in turn breeds secrecy and silence. The best way to combat silence, is to break it. To speak your truth, perhaps quietly, tentatively at first and then, in time without shame. Shame may appear to be THE WORST THING EVER, but if you are lucky your worst fear may turn out to be the path that leads to your best self ever.
For the last 16 months I have worked as an AOD Counsellor (AOD stands for Alcohol and Other Drugs) and during this time I’ve come to notice certain reoccurring themes that keep presenting themselves in both my individual and group sessions.
I started to write these down and have come to a formative model of recovery which I liken to Kubler Ross’s stages of grief model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Kubler Ross published a book in 1969 called On Death & Dying in which she described the common phases or stages that patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses went through after their diagnosis. The stages are not necessarily linear, however there does seem to be a process of change happening, and this is something I have also noticed in my work with those recovering from addiction. I am not talking about the well used Stages of Change model well used in AOD treatment services since its inception in 1983 by Prochaska & DiClemente, which identified that change is a process that individuals go through involving a series of stages or phases that ultimately lead to lasting change.
Like the stages of grief, the below themes are not in any particular order, except for the first one. In my observation, a true and real commitment beginning the process seems to be a first important step, as it is in the 12 step model:
We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and that our lives had become unmanageable.
Sometimes, it can take many attempts to even get this far. As with the 12 step model, often the first step towards change is often the biggest leap to take.
Below are some of the themes or Tasks of Recovery as I have observed them. All the themes mentioned below need to be reckoned with at some point in the journey of recovery in order to get from the action stage to maintenance stage and towards real lasting change. I just want to say that it doesn’t matter what your addiction is, alcohol, drugs, porn or gambling, the following themes I think are universal and can be used alongside other therapy models often used in addiction treatment such as CBT or Motivational Interviewing. The following themes also feature heavily in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy so those of you who are familiar with ACT may recognize some of the concepts.
Decide that you want to make a change and commit to doing whatever it takes to staying on track. Russell Harris, author of The Happiness Trap has a great quote on commitment that I love. It really embodies a mindful, compassionate stance on recovery:
Commitment doesn’t mean you never make a wrong move or take a detour, and it doesn’t mean you stay on track 100% of the time; that’s unrealistic. It means even when you keep going off-course, you keep catching yourself and then getting back on track again
Connect with your values, meaning, purpose and spirituality. Use this self-knowledge to empower and motivate you to make the best decisions you can make, starting from now, that will help you to create a future now that is better than your past. Better doesn’t mean perfect, but better as in more real, honest, richer, meaningful and more colourful. A future present that contains more contentment, joy and inner peace.
Acceptance of the past and present means accept what has already happened. Doesn’t mean you like it or approve of it or wanted it to happen. Accept your current situation. Doesn’t mean you like it either or want it to be this way. However, struggling with non-acceptance of past and present is a futile exercise. It is a waste of time and energy which could be better used elsewhere. Don’t let your past dictate your future. This is what happens when you refuse to accept reality or practice avoidance. You are destined to repeat past mistakes. Acceptance releases you from this repetitive pattern. Acceptance means just “dropping the struggle“. This frees you to direct your attention and energy into doing what you need to do, in order to improve your life.
Lying & Honesty
Address lying and practice honesty in everything you do. Stop lying to yourself and others. Start speaking your truth, in a compassionate way. Be authentic, transparent and congruent. Make your word your bond. Turn up on time for appointments. Don’t say yes to something unless you are really intending to follow through. Don’t hide how you feel. Pick one person besides yourself that you can be 100% honest with. This can be a therapist, friend, partner or priest! Doesn’t matter who as long as it is someone trustworthy. Embrace the truth, it may not always be pretty but it really will set you free.
However, learning to be honest with yourself and others can be difficult if you are not used to it. Here is a simple strategy for practicing honesty which I call NOTE.
N – notice your thoughts and feelings. Take a breath and just sit with whatever is going on for you at that moment.
O – own it. Own your experience, don’t try to rationalize with yourself, or judge your feelings as right or wrong, good or bad. Just acknowledge that this is how you are feeling at the time.
T – take a breath. Take at lease one deep breath in and let it out. This allows your emotions (or energy in motion) to settle.
E – explain your reality. Start speaking. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to speak openly and honestly when you have given yourself a moment to check in first.
Forgiveness & Compassion
Forgive others for what they had done wrong to you. Forgive yourself for things that you have done. Simple as that. Like acceptance however, it does not mean that you are O.K. with it or like it. Doesn’t mean you approve of what was done, however, forgiveness is essentially a selfish act. Forgiveness frees you from negativity and resentment. Resentment is the cause of most dis-ease according to Louise Hay. Release resentment and be free of negativity. You will feel lighter and more at ease. Forgiveness is necessary if you are going to practice self-acceptance and love. There is no love without forgiveness. To err is human, to forgive, divine.
Guilt & Shame
Own up to any wrongs you have committed in the service of your addiction and address any lingering shame. It’s important to look at shame as a relapse prevention strategy as it is the most likely cause of lapses and relapse. Shame operates like an invisible suit of armour that keeps us safe yet apart from others. Shame keeps us from making real connections with people who might otherwise love and accept us. It is really important to separate guilt from shame. Guilt is feeling bad because of what you have done. Shame is feeling like you are bad. Remember, we are not our mistakes. It is important to address guilt, make amends if you have to (unless to do so would cause further harm) but remind yourself that you are always only ever doing the best you can with what you have at the time. In the past, you did not know this. Now you do.
That’s all I have come up with for now. If anyone has some others that they think I have left out or any feedback relating to the above please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear it!
Firstly, I must apologise for my lack of content and posts in recent times. I must admit I have been feeling a little guilty about that lately. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great ideas and notes I’ve jotted down here and there about things I’d like to share with you but I haven’t gotten around to actually posting them! But, in my defense, I’ve had a lot going on this year. Working full-time as a counsellor in the drug and alcohol space which is both challenging and super rewarding as well as trying to fumble through the last few subjects for my Masters (in Counselling & Psychotherapy) has, I must admit, taken up a lot of my time and energy. And now I’m about to embark on my first ever research project which is equally daunting and exciting!
My research project is an exploration of the lived experience of self-identified problematic porn users. I am quite aware of some of the controversy surrounding sex and porn addiction and of some of the backlash that has occurred in the recent media in the wake of the #metoo movement. I think there needs to be a deeper dialogue here and less of the name calling and semantics of whether or not something is labelled an “addiction” or not. Case in point, I had to change the name of my study and take out the word “addiction” to get it approved. The issues as I see it here seem to be multiple and complex. I will attempt to outline them here, forgive me if I digress as I am really just thinking out loud here (in a public forum such as a blog which is so 2018!) anyway… here we go:
Diagnosis as a precursor to treatment.
What’s in a name? Well funding and access to treatment as it so happens. The term “addiction” is no longer used as a discreet diagnostic term in the DSM-V. Instead the term “substance use disorder” is used under the umbrella category of “addictive disorders”. For example, if the substance of choice is alcohol then you have an alcohol use disorder. The DSM-V is the latest edition in a succession of ever expanding diagnostic categories which is used by psychologists, psychiatrists as well as government funding bodies when deciding who and what gets funding for Medicare backed treatment options. For example, if you are wanting to access treatment for mental health issues under Medicare, your doctor can only diagnose you with a condition that is recognized in either the DSM-V or the newly updated ICD-11, which finally includes a diagnosis of Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder, which can include compulsive internet pornography consumption. This is a positive step towards understanding, clarity and hopefully funding more more research in this area.
Despite this, there are still claims in the media that sex addiction is “not the same thing” as compulsive sexual behaviour disorder, including misleading headlines such as, “Sex addiction may not be real, but the world’s leading health group just recognised ‘compulsive sexual behaviour disorder’.
That is not to say there are no treatments available for those who identify as sex or porn addicts but they will most likely get treated for their co-morbid conditions (anxiety, depression, or a co-morbid substance use issue) or if they have the means, there are many private counsellors and therapist out there that do recognise that porn and sex addiction is a real phenomenon regardless of how the DSM-V or the APA wishes to treat it.
In light of the inclusion of Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder in the ICD-11 the AASECT position on the term “sex addiction” (that it, “does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder”) seems outdated, however, I see their position is still the same on their website. Whether or not something is called an addiction or compulsion is really a matter of semantics. The real issue is suffering. The suffering that is experienced by individuals who have developed real problems and consequences due to their use of internet pornography.
In the wake of the #metoo movement, and as a result of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Tiger Woods and Kevin Spacey to name a few of the high profile celebrities who have recently gone into treatment for “sex addiction”, following being outed for sex related crimes and sexual harassment claims, there has occurred a social media backlash of sorts denouncing the term “sex addiction”. It has been viewed as just a convenient excuse for bad behviour and in some cases as a way to avoid what some would consider appropriate punishment for their actions. This writer does not mince her words when declaring, “Sex Addiction does not exist”, with the equally clearcut sub-heading which declares:
“Sex addiction is a label used by rich, powerful men to avoid punishment for sexually violent behaviour.”
It is quite clear that the meshing of the terms “sex addiction” and “sex offences” is occurring to the point where some people see them as one and the same thing, (they clearly are not). Not all sex addicts are sex offenders and vice versa. See this article interviewing Dr Stephanie Carnes, daughter of Patrick Carnes who first bought the concept of sex addiction to the public’s attention with his many books on the topic, for a more balanced view. The point here is that social factors are part of the reason why the topic of sex and porn addiction is so controversial. Some commentators are wary of pathologizing a normal human behaviour. Some think that sex addiction is a term used to shame people and judge people who’s sexuality falls outside of the norm. These concerns are understandable but are a little far-fetched and not backed by the most recent research evidence.
What I find interesting is that no-one would question someone who self-identifies as an alcoholic to the same extent as some researchers are questioning porn users who identify as “porn addicts” – (see this article titled, “Believing you are addicted to porn is what causes psychological distress,” for an example of the popularization of this potentially damaging idea). So why is there such a spotlight placed on sex/porn addicts? The article is basically talking about the research of Joshua Grubbs and his team who have been researching the concept of “perceived addiction” to pornography and religious morality as factors in psychological distress related to porn use. I have no doubt that for some individuals, religious faith (or religiosity as it is sometimes called) and morality does add another dimension to the harms they are experiencing due to excessive porn use, but it is not the single factor as many other studies can attest to. I could list a bunch here but just head on over to www.yourbrainonporn.com for a comprehensive list. The Grubbs’ studies, for some reason, ignore a lot of other research in the area of porn use where users do not feel any moral misgivings about using porn but still describe symptoms which mirror those who are in addiction to substances such as alcohol or cocaine, including symptoms similar to tolerance (e.g. escalation of types of porn consumed over time), compulsion, desire, triggers/cravings, inability to curb use despite a desire to do so and symptoms similar to withdrawal.
Addiction and semantics
Words have power. In recent times there has developed a reluctance on the part of some clinicians, organizations and media to use the words like “addict” or “addiction” when describing what are in essence addictive behaviours. There is a reluctance to use these words as “labels” because of the social stigma attached to them. Most individuals I talk to as an alcohol and other drugs counsellor who are in recovery are the first to call themselves an “addict”. Speaking to recovering addicts, they appear to welcome the “label” or the description of their behaviour by this one word as a way to perhaps name their problem in the most efficient way, especially those from a 12 Step program. If this is the case, who are we as clinicians to correct them and say you’ve got it wrong? There is one word that seems to describe the behaviour most accurately for all these people, whether they are suffering from a substance use disorder or a “problematic behaviour”, and that word seems to be addiction. Following the philosophy that in order to cleanse oneself of an issue, one has to first acknowledge and accept that an issue exists in the first place, for many, the word “addiction” or “addict” best seems to do this. Whether or not the term is accepted by the media, clinical and scientific community is really irrelevant when it comes to recovery and healing from the wounds both caused by and those that have predated someone’s addiction. The fact that the DSM-V lists substance use disorders under the umbrella heading of “Addictive Disorders” should be enough to give the word some credence as the most accurate, descriptive term for a set of behaviours which involve physical, psychological and neurological factors that share common features (see Love et al., 2015).
The importance of honouring lived experience
Carl Jung, one of my favourite therapists, philosophers and thinkers knew that statistics only tell a part of the story, the “ideal average” as he called it. In order to tell the truth of experience one needs to use words rather than numbers. As a former journalist, it is always the story that interests me most. As researchers, we should not lose fact of the importance of personal insight and experience. As a qualitative researcher, my study is in the form of an online survey asking open ended questions and my aim is to explore what problematic users of internet pornography experience.
Here is a link to the participant information page:
The survey is now closed. I now begin the daunting task of coding and analysis of the results. The information page will remain live for the next few months in case participants need to access the support pages listed.
References & further reading:
Garcia, F., & Thibaut, F. (2010). Sexual Addictions. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse,36(5), 254-260.
Goodman, A. (2001). What’s in a Name? Terminology for Designating a Syndrome of Driven Sexual Behavior. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 8(3-4), 191-213.
Harper, C., & Hodgins, D. C. (2016). Examining Correlates of Problematic Internet Pornography Use Among University Students. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(2), 179–191.
Kraus, S. W., Voon, V., Kor, A., and Potenza, M. N. (2016) Searching for clarity in muddy water: future considerations for classifying compulsive sexual behavior as an addiction. Addiction, 111: 2113–2114.
Kwako, Momenan, Litten, Koob, & Goldman. (2016). Addictions Neuroclinical Assessment: A Neuroscience-Based Framework for Addictive Disorders. Biological Psychiatry,80(3), 179-189.
Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update. Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433.
Wilt, J., Cooper, E., Grubbs, J., Exline, J., & Pargament, K. (2016). Associations of Perceived Addiction to Internet Pornography with Religious/Spiritual and Psychological Functioning. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity,23(2-3), 260-278.
ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a powerful way to learn how to manage anxiety by accepting your thoughts and feelings and taking control of your life by taking committed action in the present to create a more meaningful, richer life in the future. It has a lot of tools and helpers that you can use right now to help you with any uncomfortable thoughts, memories, worries, feelings or urges, cravings and triggers that may present themselves on your recovery journey, as they invariably do.
ACT uses mindfulness based strategies to help you get present. Getting present is the first and fastest way to take control of your meandering mind. Mindfulness can be described as focused attention on what is happening both internally and externally without trying to change, judge or struggle with whatever is happening for you in that moment. This allows you to take control and make better choices.
Following are some mindfulness based ACT strategies.
Contacting the present moment
Grounding is a mindfulness based exercise which involves grounding yourself in the present moment in order to ride out any emotional storms that come your way.
The purpose of grounding yourself is not to make the storm go away or change how you feel about it but simply to hold you steady until the storm passes on its own.
What to do
When a painful feeling, thought or memory threatens to ‘capsize’ you don’t try to control it or push it away or bury it deep, instead;
Stop what you are doing.
Push both feet firmly into the floor
Clasp both hands firmly together
Take a deep breath in and let it out fully
Notice your pain…. and also notice the following
Notice 5 things in the room
Notice 3 or 4 things you can hear or smell
Notice the sensation of your body being supported in your chair or if you are standing, the feeling of standing on something solid. Feel the certainty of the ground beneath your feet holding you up.
Take another deep breath and remember that even though your pain feels and is real, so are these other things.
Defusion is another form of mindfulness which involves detaching yourself, ‘unhooking’, or creating some space between you and a disturbing, negative, worrying or otherwise unhelpful thought that has been getting in the way of you living the life or being the person you really want to be. There are many ways to practice defusion. Below are some simple strategies that can be done alone or with a therapist or another supportive person.
1 – I’m having the thought that…
One of the simplest ways of recognizing your thoughts for what they are (just words or images, floating in and out of our minds) is to put the phrase, “I’m having the thought that…” right before whatever your unhelpful thought may be. For example, if you are struggling with feeling unwanted or unloved you may have a thought that comes up for you frequently which is, “Nobody cares about me”.
When you have this thought all the time, it can understandably cause you to feel even more unwanted and unloved because you are ‘fused’ with the message of that thought, or to put it another way, you have convinced yourself that the thought is true and believe it 100 per cent. This causes you to feel even worse.
However, if you try changing, “nobody cares about me” to “I’m having the thought that nobody cares about me” – it suddenly takes on a different meaning. You are no longer telling yourself you are uncared for, you are simply recognising that you are having a thought about nobody caring. Notice the difference in how your feel when you put the words, “I’m having the thought that…” before such thoughts.
2 – Naming the story
Often we tend to tell ourselves the same old thing on repeat. Like a broken record in your head, our minds tell us all sorts of things that are often remnants of old conversations, memories and messages that we may heard from parents, teachers or other adults from childhood. Often we find these thoughts are similar in some way and soon enough, you may notice that they tend to be variations on a theme. Often, it’s a variation on the “not good enough” story. Not this enough, not that enough etc. Whatever it is, once you recognise your stories it’s time to practice letting them go if they no longer serve you. Try the following exercise it order to do this, especially when a particularly triggering thought takes hold.
Listen to your thoughts. What is your mind telling you. (Give yourself some time to do this, a few days or a week at least.)
What are they? (If it helps, write them down)
What’s the story? Remember, it’s just a story. It can be true or false, correct or incorrect but is it helpful? Does it help me in any way to keep thinking this way?
If no, practice letting the thought go.
3 – The Worry Later Plan
Take a deep breath and exhale completely before and after this exercise.
First listen to your thoughts.
What are they? What are you worrying about? (Write them down if it helps to clarify them.)
Ask yourself this question; Can I do something about this right now?
If yes, do it. No matter how small.
If no, then let it go and worry about it later. (Sometimes you can schedule a time to worry about this particular issue. You can even set an alarm. Often you might find that when worry time comes, the thing you were worrying about may have dissipated.)
4 – Mindful Stop
Do this anytime you are feeling uncertain, overwhelmed or anxious:
Now here’s one especially useful, ultra-brief, and very simple mindfulness practice, that you can easily incorporate into your busy daily routine, no matter how pressed for time you are. I call it the mindful S.T.O.P. Here’s how it goes:
S – Slow down (slow down your breathing; or slowly press your feet into the floor; or slowly stretch your arms; or slowly press your fingertips together) T – Take note (with a sense of curiosity, notice your thoughts & feelings; notice what you can see and hear and touch and taste and smell; notice where you are and what you are doing) O – Open up (open up and make room for your thoughts & feelings, and allow them to freely flow through you; use any defusion or expansion skill you like) P – Pursue values (reconnect with your values, and let them guide whatever you do next)
We often spend a lot of time struggling with unwanted thoughts, memories, fears or sensations. This often adds to our distress. For example, with anxiety, we might wish that we didn’t feel anxiety, we might tell ourselves, “I shouldn’t feel this way!” – then we might get angry about our anxiety, so before long we have anxiety, anger about our anxiety and soon enough we might start to feel depressed about our anger and our anxiety – so we now have 3 uncomfortable feelings that we are struggling with. Often our emotions become bigger or appear to be unmanageable when we refuse to look at them directly or are afraid to face them. Often, we find when we finally stop to notice and allow ourselves the luxury of experiencing our reality for what it is (instead of fighting with ourselves about how we should or shouldn’t feel) we find our emotions aren’t as big and scary as we once thought.
So, what if you were able to just let go of struggling with unwanted thoughts and experiences. What if, when anxiety came up instead of feeling dread or annoyance we just simply noticed it, acknowledged it and took a few deep breaths and carried on with our day? How would that change the way you manage stress and discomfort?
Try these exercises in your day to day life, you can use the “Mindful S.T.O.P” exercise every time you feel yourself beginning to struggle with an unwanted thought or experience. Pretty soon you won’t need to go through the all the steps, you will just be able to Notice, Acknowledge, Accept and Move On!
Remember, the point of power is always in the present moment.