The first time anyone ever mentioned pornography addiction to me was while I was chatting with a friend at a Dunkin’ Donuts after Sunday services. He mentioned it only casually — “I’ve had problems before dealing with sex and porn” — and then the conversation moved on.
But then I started to notice it more often: Guys who would casually mention their problems with sex, lust or pornography. These weren’t random strangers, either, but men I saw on a regular basis. Soon it had become abundantly clear: A lot of people are struggling with lust, but no one likes to talk about it.
To be clear, I use the term “lust” here to cover a wide range of behaviors from pornography addiction to an overzealous love for Tinder. It all comes back to the same core emotion, and it manifests itself differently in every person. And I would be remiss not to point out that it’s not just men who struggle with it — Nielsen ratings indicate that one-third of online porn viewers are women.
One of the things that finally inspired me to write this article was when Dan told his story at Hoboken Grace back in June. In case you haven’t seen it yet, Dan talks openly about using pornography and relationships to cover up the pain he was feeling.
“In my mind I wasn’t as concerned with building a relationship as I was seeking the same type of escape from pain,” Dan said. “Looking back I’m able to see that I wanted that … feeling you get when you’re with someone physically rather than simply wanting to be with someone in the long run.”
Dan’s introduction to pornography began like most others: the internet. One day in sixth grade he accidentally found himself on the wrong website (as do 28 percent of teens who have been accidentally exposed to pornography). Initially he rejected what he saw, but eventually the idea of pornography became a normal thing.
“You hear your friends talk about it,” he said. “It was kind of normal. I really didn’t realize the gravity of it. You don’t really talk about porn as an issue until maybe college.”
But for most Americans, just admitting that you have a habit can be a hard step to make. According to a study performed by the Pew Research Center in 2013, only 12 percent of the 1,003 Americans surveyed admitted to watching internet porn.
That’s a startlingly low number for an online industry that generates $3 billion each year in the United States alone. CovenantEyes, an online accountability group, claims that about 64 to 68 percent of young adult men and about 18 percent of women use porn at least once every week. And in 2010, 25 percent of all internet searches were for pornography. From these statistics we can only conclude that the other 88 percent of Americans lied to Pew (though Pew freely admits that performing the survey over the phone was not the most tactful approach).
But no matter who you hear it from, every source echoes the same sentiment: Pornography is a growing problem. Unlike alcohol or drugs, the dangers of porn are not readily apparent. Pornography will not give you cirrhosis. It will not increase your risk for cancer. Nonetheless, its effects can be very real.
John is a counselor at a private practice who helps men and women from a variety of backgrounds tackle issues from anxiety to addiction. Frequently he encounters men and women who struggle with lust or pornography.
“It’s like any other drug,” he said. “You build up a tolerance. You’re continuously doing something and after a while it almost becomes boring or unsatisfying, and you have to do more.”
“After a while the stimulation starts to die off after a bit,” he said. “So you’re always trying to find more and more and newer ways. It builds and it builds to a point that it can be almost all consuming. It can get to a point where people look back on the time they spent viewing porn, and all of a sudden three or four hours have gone by.”
I spoke with Michael (whose named has been changed for this article) about how lust and pornography have affected his life. His struggle began in his teen years as a way to escape from emotional pain.
“My struggles have primarily been linked to using sexuality as an escape from feeling pain” he said. “That was kind of the root of my struggle that continues all the way through my adult life, and it’s something I’m still dealing with.”
And Michael is certainly not alone. He shares a similar story with many men and women who use sexuality as a way to cope with anything from depression and anxiety, to forgetting very serious traumatic events.
“We want to numb that pain,” said John. “We want to numb that struggle. So we will go to many different coping strategies, and it just happens that sex and pornography can be one side of that.”
What is clear is that pornography does play a major role in diminishing trust between partners. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 56 percent of divorce cases involve one party having “an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.”
“It is very hard for you to realistically achieve what you would achieve through pornography,” John said. “So you almost start judging people — the human beings, the loved ones that you’re with –- comparing them to the images you’re seeing in pornography.”
It can even get to the point where porn gets in the way of loving relationships.
“It can ruin our ability to truly invest in a real relationship,” said John. “And we’re not able to really seek love either, sometimes. There’s almost a numbness, in my opinion, and people will never see that.”
But if sex and pornography addiction are such common problems, then why does it fly under the radar so easily? It’s a question with many answers. One answer is that it’s easy to hide, and pornography thrives in secrecy. This also means that it can be hard to recognize a problem even when you have one.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is that people don’t realize the effects the pornography can have on others and on themselves,” said John. “Or if they do, it’s hard for them to truly process what kind of harm it can do to a loved one or a child.”
Availability is another major part of the issue. In the pre-internet era, people seeking out pornography needed to actually venture outside and buy it at a store (presumably in trench coat and over-sized hat, since you were embarrassed to be seen doing it). And you were forced to contend with whatever they had available.
But pornography is everywhere now. It’s even in our pockets: An analysis of more than 1 million hits to Google’s mobile search sites shows more than one in five searches are for pornography on mobile devices. Most of it is free. And the supply is virtually limitless.
For Michael, the escapism first came in the form of books, but the digital age changed all that.
“As I got older, the internet opened up new possibilities for me to escape,” he said. “Before long it kind of evolved into chat communications available on the internet. Then I realized I could get a sense of intimacy — albeit false — through those means. It was kind of a progressive arc of decay in that area of my life.”
It’s also possible to fill whatever need you are seeking at the click of a button. As the saying goes, “If you can imagine it, there’s a porn for it.” And like other forms of addiction, porn use frequently escalates. A 2016 study discovered that half of the porn users surveyed had escalated to material they once found “uninteresting or disgusting.”
In fact, there is now mounting evidence that pornography is sapping men of their sexual drive. Only within the last few years has pornography become so easily available with the arrival of high-speed internet and smart phones. The results? Millennials have become the very first wave of victims falling prey to porn-induced erectile dysfunction, or PIED. As Time magazine puts it: “These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning.”
Now, the same people who were once enthusiastic porn users are starting to push back. Growing communities are now discouraging pornography use. Your Brain On Porn is a website started by Gary Wilson to document the overwhelming effect porn has had on its users, on top of thousands of personal testimonies from its readers. A Reddit community for people who are trying to abstain from pornography has close to 200,000 members.
Also fueling the problem, Michael says, is the volume of the content available on the internet. “Without too much effort, you can kind of tap into a great mass of material that can be really destructive to your thinking,” he said. “It really opens up all sorts of dangerous avenues.”
“We don’t like to be uncomfortable,” John said. “So instead of being uncomfortable, we’ll look for the quickest satisfaction to make us feel comfortable. And because of how readily available things are, we find ways — basically through addictions — to help us cope with something deeper within ourselves that we don’t want to address.”
“Part of it goes to the misuse of sex,” said Michael. “Sex is intended to be a form of God’s love between a man and woman in the context of marriage. I think what is seen with pornography, masturbation and lust is that it’s become something that can be decoupled from that intent. It becomes something where it’s an attempt to find intimacy, love and safety but in the wrong place.”
The good news is that there is a road to recovery. When asked about the first steps to take, everyone I spoke with gave a unanimous answer: Talk to somebody. When dealing with addiction, John said, accountability is paramount.
“That is probably one of the most important aspects. You have to start talking about the issue, talking about the problem and opening up to somebody who can be an accountable person in your life,” said John.
Michael emphasized that while many people seem to have no problem with sexuality or pornography, it’s important to remember that it’s not doing any good for them either.
“What I found is that I couldn’t do it on my own,” said Michael. “Talking about my problem with a counselor or other guys was one healthy step I’ve taken in my life. I think the act of telling another human being about my struggle was a really important part.”
For anyone who is struggling with lust, sex or pornography issues, another suggested step is seeking help. Hoboken Grace can recommend private counseling and therapy groups.
“Humility is a really important initial step,” said Michael. “Realize that sometimes you can’t always do this on your own.”