Are you addicted to internet pornography?

As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, regularly published figures show that the viewing of internet pornography has increased significantly. This article is directed toward anyone thinking that they, or somebody else in their lives, has an issue with this increasingly problematic activity. It will seek to answer the questions of why this is happening to you, and what you might do to better manage or even cease this personal difficulty.

Do you have a problem?

The answer to this is probably yes if you, significant others or the norms of your social group think that you do. This is not to moralistically claim that internet pornography is explicitly ‘bad’. The issue is whether you are in control of your usage, and the possible implications of this if you are not.

My intention here is not to cover all of the explanations regarding what may have happened, or is continuing to happen to bring about this addiction, habit or compulsion, but to summarise possible causes and impacts upon someone that is struggling, and to describe a way forward.

From an evolutionary perspective, as human beings we seem to be programmed toward pleasure and safety, and away from pain and danger.  When we find something that we like, we might say that we are sensitised to it and we will actively seek it. If the time comes when the thing no longer brings us a reward, we become desensitised to it. At that point, we might simply move onto something new. It would appear then, that human beings are engaged in an ongoing process of sensitising and desensitising that may be driven by our desire for novelty. This tendency is conceptualised in the psychological phenomenon of ‘The Coolidge Effect’ which suggests that where sex is involved, novelty can be just as much a driver as reproduction. 

Image of hands leaning on railings looking out to river

The issue with internet pornography is that there are apparently infinite novel and new objects to sensitise yourself towards. With time, however, even the amount of images and videos can become ‘a bit samey’, which results in some people resuming the search for something new. As an example, this might mean heterosexual men looking at gay videos or vice versa, or in some cases, even ‘disappearing down the rabbit hole’ of illegal images. When you’ve seen it all before, finding something that gives an adequate level of reward becomes increasingly difficult.

As the addiction grows then, it has an increasingly adverse impact on your life with three particularly problematic outcomes:

  • You can lose interest in your sexual partner, which can result in relationship and family breakdown with all of its associated complications.
  • You can develop unrealistic expectations about what is real and reasonable to expect in your sex life. This could be particularly problematic with adolescents and younger men who have grown up in a world where access to this material has been largely normalised.
  • You ‘cross the line’ regarding what is acceptable – this can mean anything from in your relationship, within your social group or community, or breaking the law.

How can you manage problematic behaviours?

So how do you manage, or even cease, what may have become problematic behaviours? Whilst at face value this might seem to be a matter of choice, responsibility and the decisions that you make, discussions with men struggling with these issues inform that something in their thought process changes when they start to drift toward habitually viewing pornography. At some point, all of their prior promises and commitments to self and others seem to fade from awareness. They make a choice, almost without realising that they’ve done it again, and in that moment, are generally unaware of the shame, fear, anxiety, worry or guilt that will probably emerge later.

A useful way of understanding what is happening is the concept of ‘hot and cold cognition’. Cognition refers to the way we think, and the theory postulates that in the 'cold state' we will make rationally informed choices, whilst in the ‘hot state' those same choices will tend to be more emotionally driven. Neither is better than the other, rather they are mechanisms that have developed as an optimum means of evolutionary survival. In the hot state, you are likely to be motivated by drives such as fight, flight, survive and reproduce which are immediate and now.

An absence of the rationality, reflection and wondering that accompanies the cold cognitive state means that if viewing internet pornography becomes synonymous with this hot cognitive state, you are much less able to access those previous promises and insights such as consequence, shame, guilt and perhaps even fear. They will probably come later, but they just don’t seem to be there when you need them, and so the commitments you made previously to yourself and others, probably don’t even enter your consciousness.

Image of a woman sitting in coffee shop looking at camera

When you are in the cold cognitive state, such as now whilst reading this, you have the capacity to make informed choices. Just naming and owning an issue is the beginning of addressing a problem. Understanding how you function means that you could now design your own action plan, ensuring you have alternatives when you sense the drift toward the hot state that facilitates viewing. What interests do you have that can aid you to stay rational? 

Hobbies and activities can be useful distractions and might be chosen instead of going online. If you are already on the computer, have other options instantly available such as YouTube on your toolbar. Have subject areas available in your favourites that stimulate your ‘rational side’ – history, documentaries, Ted talks etc – so that one simple click is all that it takes to move toward a more acceptable alternative, an alternative which supports your desire to remain in the rational, reflective and personally responsible state.

Finally, you could consider developing a mindfulness practice for which you will find lots of information online. This approach will require you be more proactive in developing this skill such that it’s available when you need it, rather than starting to practice when you are already slipping down the slope of relapse.

Knowing what you want, understanding your process and building on your strengths through the mechanisms outlined above will be found to be much more effective than a simple emphasis on, "How do I avoid what I don’t want?".

Professional support

Often, the necessary changes will not be achievable without support, so the other options to consider are personal therapy, group therapy (such as Sex Addicts Anonymous) or specialist services for those who are at risk of or have crossed the legal line (e.g. STOPSO, Lucy Faithfull Foundation).

Provided nobody is at risk of harm, the work you do with your therapist will be completely confidential. The nature and extent of this confidentiality is something you will need to discuss and clarify at the outset of the work, but your desire to bring about positive change means it should not get in the way of such work. The choice is yours. If you feel you have a problem, surely it is better that you address it yourself now, rather than eventually be told what you must do by somebody else.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Peter Fallon

Having served as an engineer in the Royal Navy for fourteen years, I went on to train initially as a social worker, and later as a psychotherapist. This has resulted in extensive experience of working with distressed adults in both the statutory and private sectors. UKCP registered.… Read more

Written by Peter Fallon

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