“Porn didn’t appear dangerous like other ‘bad habits.’ With gambling, you eventually run out of money. With drug use, you eventually degenerate, can’t function, and become physically ill. Porn didn’t impair my driving or do things like that. I didn’t see it as consequential. There were limited physical side effects. So porn didn’t concern me. I wasn’t worried about it. I thought I had done a really good job of compartmentalizing my habit. I kept it over there behind this wall, with the door closed and the lights off. Sure there were a few muffled sounds, but I refused to see that it was causing problems. When my life fell apart and I lost my wife and job because of porn, no one saw it coming — least of all me.”
Rick, a forty-two-year-old former porn user
Like Rick, many people who get sexually involved with porn have difficulty recognizing its downside. They may rationalize continuing to use porn by telling themselves it is “just harmless visual stimulation,” “safer than having a real affair,” or “something everyone is doing.” Rick justified his porn use by telling himself he could quit whenever he wanted to. “I thought of porn as fun entertainment,” he said, “just a little something I deserved, because I worked so hard.” Unfortunately, his rationalizations couldn’t save him when his marriage deteriorated because of his emotional distancing and dishonesty due to his porn use, and later when he was caught using porn at work.
Looking back on how porn eventually altered his thinking and his behavior to such a degree that it put everything he valued in jeopardy, Rick wished he had paid more attention to the “muffled sounds” and early warning signs that indicated porn was harming his life. “I learned the hard way how powerful porn can be,” he said. “It can be as compelling and life-altering as any hard drug. If only I’d seen what was happening and gotten help before I let it hurt me. I’m sharing my story now because I want to spare other people the pain I went through.”
While some people go through life using porn without it affecting them in any serious negative way, a growing number are reporting problems. For instance, of the estimated 40 million people who regularly access Internet porn in the US, as many as half self-report some type of negative consequences. And 8 to 15% of regular porn users describe their porn use as compulsive and having a significantly harmful impact on their lives.
A powerful product
Porn today is more prevalent and potent than the porn of the past. Since Playboy magazine was launched in 1952, pornography has gone through many transformations that have made it more available, private, affordable, action-oriented, and extreme. A teenager today can see more porn in five minutes over the Internet than his grandpa saw in his whole life. And much of the content that was considered “hardcore” twenty years ago is tame when compared to the anything-goes, extreme images that are just a click of the mouse away on a computer.
Whether or not porn creates serious problems depends to a large extent on how much, how often, and under what circumstances a person is using porn; the type of porn involved, and the emotional impact of porn use on an intimate partner. For example, compulsively and secretively masturbating to violent, degrading or child pornography has the potential to cause more serious consequences than, say, occasionally watching erotic films with a lover in which the material being viewed is mutually acceptable and is being used as a prelude to sexual intimacy.
Porn can be as powerfully addictive as using hard drugs. It creates a triple feel-good cocktail. It can sexually excite, create a fantasy escape, and through orgasm facilitate a feeling of relaxation. Like a drug, regular porn use can alter brain and body chemistry, create a dependency on it, and lead to withdrawal effects when a person tries to quit. Today’s high-tech, push-the-button delivery systems, such as computers, cable television, and cell phones, add to porn’s addictive potential by presenting stimulating game-like ways to instantly contact an unlimited amount of it.
Using porn can also be as destructive as having an affair. In 2003, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported that compulsive Internet use had played a significant role in divorces in the past year, and over 50 percent of those cases involved pornography. Eight years prior, pornography had an almost nonexistent role in divorce. A large percentage of female partners of porn users are disgusted by porn, see it as disrespectful and degrading to women, or consider private porn use as “cheating.”
Besides having a strong potential to create addiction and relationship problems, using porn can significantly harm a person’s sexuality. Contrary to the popular myth that porn use will enhance a sexual relationship, a third of all men say regular porn use makes sex with a real-life partner less arousing. Over time, porn directs sexual energy and desires away from sexual closeness with a real-life partner, and toward itself. And, it also can bend and shape sexual interests in directions toward risky, unloving, harmful, and illegal sexual behaviors, further compromising the porn user’s health and welfare.
Porn use can also damage a person’s mental health, physical well-being, family life, self-esteem, social relationships, and work. As their emotional and sexual attachment to porn deepens, many porn users become more self-centered, defensive about, and preoccupied with porn. They may lie to cover up porn use and pull away from friends and family. Sleep disorders and other health problems can emerge. Emotional problems include feeling irritable and quick to anger, experiencing increased feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame and self-loathing. The consequences of a porn habit can eventually spill into harming a person’s work life and career. Two out of three companies discipline employees for misusing the Internet at work, and pornography is the cause in over 40 percent of these cases.
(For a more detailed list of potential problems caused by porn see our free poster download, “The Hazards of Porn”. You may also want to refer to Chapter Four in The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography for a fuller explanation of the negative consequences of porn.)
Has porn become a problem for you?
If you are a porn user, the following “Problems Caused by Porn Checklist” can help you determine whether or in what ways porn use may be negatively impacting your life. This inventory list can serve as a beginning step in self-evaluation. Although some of these items may be attributed to factors and influences other than porn use, the more items you check, the more significantly porn may be causing, or threatening to cause, problems for you. We recommend you discuss your answers and concerns about pornography with a health care professional in your local area.
Problems Caused by Porn Checklist
Circle each number next to an item with which you agree:
- I lie to protect my porn use.
- I am spending large amounts of time thinking about or using porn.
- I have become self-absorbed and self-centered.
- I feel alienated from family, friends, and/or an intimate partner.
- I feel guilty about using porn.
- I am filled with shame and self-loathing about my porn use.
- I am often angry and irritated with others.
- I have diminished integrity and self-worth.
- I am not getting enough sleep and/or I am sleeping poorly.
- I maintain hidden stashes of porn that could get me in trouble if found.
- I am unable to feel good unless I use porn.
- I feel depressed much of the time.
- I feel stressed and anxious much of the time.
- I can’t stop myself from sexually objectifying other people.
- I have difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate sexual relationship.
- I am often afraid of having my porn use discovered.
- I am engaging in sexually compulsive or addictive behavior.
- I have difficulty managing and/or limiting my porn use.
- I ignore or fail to complete house, job or school responsibilities.
- I have compromised my school, career and work opportunities because of porn.
- I neglect family and/or important social relationships.
- I am exposing minors to pornography or contributing to possible exposure.
- I am unable to be completely honest with my intimate partner.
- I become defensive when confronted about porn activities.
- I am using porn even though I know it bothers my partner (or someone else).
- I have difficulty becoming or staying sexually aroused with a real partner.
- I have difficulty distinguishing between sexual fantasy and reality.
As with other health concerns, the sooner a person is able to recognize problems and get help, the easier it is to address them. It is crucially important to move out of social isolation and shame and talk with someone you trust about what’s going on. Recovery involves admitting the problem, seeking out support for making healthy changes, addressing the problems porn has created and learning new, healthier approaches to sex and relationship intimacy. Our book, The Porn Trap, offers many ideas for accomplishing these goals and provides a roadmap to successful healing and long-term recovery.
Quitting porn is not easy. It can feel similar to giving up a drug habit or leaving an established sexual relationship with an intimate partner. Success occurs for people who get clear on life priorities, secure a strong support system and develop strategies for dealing effectively with porn cravings and desires. People who are in couple relationships often benefit from working together with their partner to rebuild trust and learn new approaches to sex. In time, it is possible to overcome the hold porn may have on you. As Rick said, “Since I’ve stopped using pornography I feel better about myself mentally and sexually. Porn’s no longer ruling my life. I’m more confident and optimistic about my future.”
© 2022 Wendy Maltz, HealthySex