My research project: exploring the lived experience of problematic internet porn users.

Hello dear reader,

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.

See this article for a therapist’s view of classification of sex and porn addiction as a discrete disorder: Dear Anyone Who Thinks Sex Addiction Does Not Exist…

  • Social factors.

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:

https://pornresearchstudy.wordpress.com/  

Update (October 2018)

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.

 

 

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Porn addiction – it’s not just you. Truth, reality and hope for addicts and partners.

In 2014 I wrote a serious article with a slightly tongue in cheek heading called  Is internet porn the beginning of the end for the human race?  Now while I admit, I may have been exaggerating slightly, the premise of the article was clearly not entirely without justification. It may seem a little far fetched but if, as I saw tonight while out at dinner, parents are using screens to placate/regulate a child’s behaviour out in public then what does that really mean for that child and their ability to engage with other humans later in life? What happens when, as a society, we are more comfortable relating to a screen or to another human being through the medium of a screen, than we are when faced with a flesh and blood human. One that you can’t simply swipe away when convenient?

How does this relate to porn addiction? Well for many years the debate on porn was centered around the notion that succumbing to the temptation of porn signified some kind of moral failing. From a religious/Christian point of view, it was a question of sinfulness.  A sign that one has allowed oneself to become infected with one or more of the seven supposed deadliest of sins, lust and/or gluttony. Or, from a feminist point of view, porn is seen as the vile exploitation of women as sexual, one dimensional objects with no humanity other than form. Exposure to pornography was seen as something that was detrimental to our morality and incremental to men’s seemingly unquenchable appetite for all things sexual. Yet as Naomi Wolf ironically points out in her article, The Porn Myth in actuality, the end result of too much exposure to pornography has had the effect, not of turning men into sexually ravenous beasts, but the complete opposite; sexual and emotional anorexics who can no longer relate authentically to a real life woman or get aroused by one. As it turns out, excessive viewing of pornography in this digital age turns men off, not on.

As numerous studies now show, repetitive and compulsive viewing of internet porn by men, (and a growing number of women) induces the opposite effect than one might expect, and just like a person who is addicted to a substance grows increasingly desensitized to the drug whilst continuing to crave it more and more, a person who is addicted to pornography finds he/she ends up on pretty much the same, well trodden treadmill. Intensely wanting something that can no longer provide the temporary relief and stimulation it once did.

Recent research implies that internet pornography is as addictive as certain drugs and affects the brain the same way. But, porn’s special hook is that it taps into that human need for attachment by adding into the mix hormones that are normally associated with bonding, love and connection. In effect, a porn addict becomes more attached to porn than anything or anyone else in their life. As a consequence, relationships, marriages, work and soon enough, the relationship with the self begins to suffer.

Porn addiction, like any addiction goes through stages – however, unlike most other addictions, the physical effects of porn addiction are virtually invisible, and the psychological and emotional effects are quite subtle, at first. In-fact, many porn addicts may seek treatment of a variety of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, OCD, as well as physical ailments, stress, other addictions and finally sexual performance before anyone “thinks to ask about their porn viewing habits”.

But more and more studies clearly link issues related to sexual performance, including as I mention in my previous post, erectile dysfunction in men in their late teens and early twenties, (something that was almost unheard of 10 – 15 years ago) back to extensive viewing of internet porn. It is only when they can no longer get an erection, or ejaculate even with porn that some men start to make the connection between their excessive viewing of porn and other issues in their life. Often this is the only thing that eventually get’s their attention. (Their partners, if they have partners, may have known for some time that something was happening, or rather…not happening!)

This sorry state of affairs is bad news for both porn addicts and partners of porn/sex addicts, many who spend night after night lying in bed next to a partner that never seems to be ‘in the mood’ for sex. The result can be devastating to marriages, relationships and the self-esteem to both parties. The secretive nature of most men’s porn addiction may also mean that some partners may not know that they are in a relationship with a porn addict or even if they are aware of their partner’s porn habit, they may not make the connection at first either. Or they may not know the extent of their partner’s porn viewing. The damage this causes relationships is thus far unmeasurable.  One site states that 56% of divorces in the U.S. involve one party having an obsessive interest in pornography among other staggering statistics.

So, is the news all bad? Well, no. Latest brain research shows that the brain is actually very flexible, and  malleable, kind of like plasticine. In-fact the term for the way the brain can change itself, based on what is experienced is called neuroplasticity. This is good news. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the same way you get yourself into a sticky situation is largely the same way to get yourself out of it. While the allure of internet porn may have lost its charm many clicks ago, the habit that it has created will be hard to break. Hard, but not impossible. For men who have lost the ability to relate to women, emotionally and physically, and for partners of addicts there seems little alternative, other than to dissolve the relationship, which let’s face it, is fairly likely. It can’t be much fun to be in a relationship with a porn addict. However, chances are that if you leave a relationship with one porn addict, you are more than likely to run into another just as addicted, or on his way to being so, seeing as in America at least, sex addiction (which porn addiction is a form of) has reached epidemic status, according to this 2011 News Week article.

So, how do you beat a porn addiction and reverse its affects on the brain? Well the answer is simple, if not easy and this is simply to stop it. Stop all contact with porn and masturbating to porn and give your brain a chance to rewire itself and re-learn, or rediscover what comes naturally.

That is the only solution. I did say it was simple, but not easy. Recovering from porn addiction (for addicts and/or partners) takes time, courage and commitment and it is not easy to do without support. There are some very good websites now that can assist, (which I shall list below in the resources) but the assistance of a therapist who is aware of the nature of porn and sex addiction, one who will take it seriously can be fundamental to long lasting recovery. At least, having a close friend or understanding partner (if that is possible) that you know and trust is also important. The reason being that porn and sex addiction most likely mask other issues. Issues such as fear of intimacy, abandonment fears, attachment disorders, and perhaps even trauma. Once the defence of porn has left the building, then there is nothing to protect your unconscious and chances are some deeply buried emotional wounds may re-open.

It’s important to be aware of this possibility as many who try to ‘re-boot’ as it is called on websites such as Your Brain on Porn and Fight the New Drug often try many times and fail because they are inadequately prepared or lack support.

If you are experiencing porn addiction or are the partner of a porn addict, seek help from a qualified therapist and/or see some of the websites listed below for more information.

SOURCES
http://www.covenanteyes.com/2013/02/19/pornography-statistics/
http://fightthenewdrug.org/get-the-facts/#sthash.ubb4Ty3m.dpbs
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050060/
http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2013/05/the-prevalence-of-porn/
http://yourbrainonporn.com/cambridge-university-brain-scans-find-porn-addiction
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125382361
http://newsok.com/the-five-stages-of-pornography-addiction/article/5407775/?page=2
http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/trends/n_9437/index1.html
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jun/13/a-letter-to-my-ex-husband-who-preferred-pornography-to-me
http://www.newsweek.com/sex-addiction-epidemic-66289
http://globalchristiancenter.com/mens/overcoming-temptations/16765-pornography-in-the-church-a-new-epidemic
https://www.lds.org/tools/print/article/narrow/?lang=eng&url=/topics/pornography/audiences/youth/teenagers-and-pornography-addiction-treating-the-silent-epidemic
RESOURCES
http://www.covenanteyes.com/ (Internet filtering service)
http://yourbrainonporn.com/
http://www.fightthenewdrug.org/
http://www.posarc.com/ (Partners of sex addicts resource center)