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
Lifeline: 13 11 14 / http://www.lifeline.org
Mensline: 1300 78 99 78 / http://www.mensline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 / http://www.beyondblue.org.au
Mantherapy: 1800 2738255 / http://www.mantherapy.org