Monday, July 21, 2014

Committed to Porn

Photo by Moko 2014
Linda and Jerry were a great couple. They truly enjoyed each other's company, had great
conversations, and laughed a lot together, even six years after they got married. There was one thing however that was not great: their sex life. At least Linda didn't think it was great. They both seem to have low libidos, which didn't seem right for how young they were. What was even more surprising was that Jerry didn't mind having sex rarely and sporadically, which Linda thought was strange for a 33 year old man. Linda and Jerry decided to go to couples therapy where the therapist suggested some exercises aimed at increasing the passion between the partners. During one of the exercises Jerry mentioned that maybe quitting watching pornography would also help. Linda was very surprised when he mentioned pornography, as she didn't even know that was an issue. She also didn't want to know how serious the problem was, as Jerry promised to stop watching it. After a while things have gotten a little better, until Linda walked in on Jerry masturbating in front of his computer.

It's Only Temporary - I Will Quit When I Meet The Right Person

Jerry became fascinated with porn early on in his life after he was exposed to it for the first time around age 14. By the time he was in college it became a significant part of his life. Since he has never been in a steady relationship before, he never thought his habit was harmful, nor that it had traits of addiction. He didn't find it problematic even when he started dating Linda. He was very attracted to her and having sex with her was not an issue, at least not at the beginning. Linda lived in a different state and every time they saw each other sex was a fresh and exciting experience. In between their meetings Jerry could freely go on with his "habit", which was justified by the distance between partners. The problems began when the couple got married. Linda, young and attractive, was very surprised to discover that Jerry was not a very passionate lover. She initiated sex a lot at the beginning of their relationship with poor results. She soon quit doing it out of fear of rejection, which was hurting her pride and decreasing her self-esteem. The interesting thing was that neither of the partners knew why the passion was missing. They discussed it many times and tried to blame it on stress, hormones and their life style. Now you may think that Jerry should know why their sex life was suffering... but he really didn't. It never crossed his mind that a habit that he acquired over the years could have such a powerful negative impact on his relationship with a woman he really loved. Pornography was supposed to be a "survival" strategy until he meets the right person. Instead it became the cause of erosion of his real relationship.

Getting Hooked

Why did Jerry get hooked on pornography and couldn't quit watching it even at the cost of his relationship? In order to better understand why we can get hooked on pornography we should take a closer look at how the reward system in our brain works. Whenever we experience a pleasurable sensation (such as chocolate, sex, or drugs) dopamine is released. Since watching porn is associated to masturbating and achieving sexual satisfaction it triggers the release of dopamine. According to Dr. Gemma O'Brien, a physiologist at the University of New England, "When people stimulate the dopamine pathways frequently, all the dopamine gets released. Then when they try to stimulate themselves again, whether by drugs or sex or whatever, there's not enough dopamine left in the nerves to release and give a nice response. So they have to go to higher and higher doses, more and more intense stimulation." (from article The Perils of Porn, 2/2005).

The Coolidge Effect can also come in handy in trying to understand this phenomenon. It describes the decreasing interest in the current sexual partner and the renewed interest and vigor with the novel sexual partner. This effect is present in all mammals and, evolutionarily speaking, it is aimed at increasing chances of spreading one's genes and genetic variety of the offspring. Most of us are not immune to the Coolidge Effect, but it doesn't prevent us from functioning in monogamous, committed relationships. However what happens when accomplishing sexual satisfaction happens only through the prolonged and consistent exposure to novel stimuli? It becomes very difficult to get stimulated by the same partner with whom we are spending our life.

Is It Addiction?

In his documentary "Porn on the Brain" Martin Daubney discusses results of a survey conducted in 2013 by University of East London on teenage porn habits. According to this survey a fifth of surveyed boys between 16 and 19 years old depended on porn as a stimulant for real sex. Based on the same survey 23% of boys tried to stop watching porn, but couldn't. According to psychologist Philip Zimbardo the average boy today watches 50 porn clips a week. By age 11 most boys have been exposed to pornographic images. It looks like the problem is definitely prevalent, but is it really serious?

With a subject as sensitive as pornography use it is much easier to find moralistic and political opinions than scientific data. Daubney comments that there is a lot of hysteria in regards to pornography, but very little fact available. In "Porn on the Brain," Daubney follows one of the first studies that actually looked at the brains of porn addicts conducted by Cambridge University. 
To simplify the results, the researchers found that porn addiction can lead to similar brain activity patterns to those found in alcohol and drug addicts (to read the full study please click here). The Sunday Times quotes one of the authors of the study, Dr Valerie Voon, who said: “We found greater activity in an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is a reward centre, involved in processing reward, motivation and pleasure. When an alcoholic sees an ad for a drink, their brain will light up in a certain way and they will be stimulated in a certain way. We are seeing this same kind of activity in users of pornography.” Even though much more research has to be done before we draw conclusions, it looks like impulsive porn watching may have significant parallels with addictions. 
Now addiction or not, how do you know whether your problem is becoming serious? According to psychologist Tiger Latham, "If you are finding the only way that you can climax is through porn, it might be time for you to consider abstaining and consulting a professional. As many men are painfully discovering, real sex involves touching and being touched by another person, not simply touching a mouse and then yourself." (Psychology Today, May 2012)

Can I Fix It?

"[Porn], something that is supposed to stimulate and arouse men (or women) sexually can actually destroy their overall libido and performance. So why isn't anyone talking about the effect on sexual performance ...? Probably because they flunked sex ed for grownups. They're discussing why a guy watches it--and not what happens to his penis when he watches." - Dr. Harry Fisch

Learning about the consequences of impulsive porn use is the first step to recovery. Like with any other impulsive behaviors, recovery is possible, but it is a long and difficult journey. It requires not only giving up the deeply rooted habit, but also rebuilding bonds with real people that have suffered over time. The good news is that the discussion about the consequences of impulsive porn use is becoming less of a taboo and there are some very helpful resources available to people like Jerry.

To read more about porn addiction and recovery visit:
http://yourbrainonporn.com
http://www.rebootnation.org

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