Gabe Deem couldn't get it up, and he couldn't work out why.
A good-looking guy in his 20s, he isn’t short of attention from attractive women. He isn’t a loner. There is nothing nerdish about him. He’s confident and chatty, a bit of a dude in fact. “But my battle began in my teenage years,” he says. “My sex drive for pixels began to outgrow my drive for real women—and I mean gorgeous real women. Nothing in the real world could turn me on and I just freaked out.”
Deem knew his erectile dysfunction wasn’t a physiological problem; he could get an erection using pornography, no problem. It wasn’t performance anxiety. It wasn’t a question of one of the more common causes that typically blight men as they get older, as a side effect of diabetes or cardiovascular disease. He was a young, fit man. But, having explored online forums and finding thousands of men with the same problem, and mostly just as befuddled as to the cause, he took one respondent’s challenge and found he was unable to masturbate without pornography. Years of using porn—he was first exposed to it aged eight and by 12 had high-speed Internet—had reconfigured his neural network during its most formative years of development.
“I’d rewired my brain and its arousal mechanism through a decade of porn use,” explains Deem, who’d later become a vocal campaigner for better awareness of porn addiction through his Re-Boot Nation brand. “Me and my friends had been tech-savvy kids and had no shame at all in our porn use. It was just a normal part of teen life, something you grow up with as a ‘digital native’. But it was only with time that I found that there are potential negative effects of porn use. Yet nobody in the mainstream was talking about it.”
“I’d rewired my brain and its arousal mechanism through a decade of porn use,” explains Deem.
They’re still not. Part of the problem is that, while there have been some 40 studies into the impact on normal sexual function of regular porn use for masturbation—typically in the form of what has come to be termed PIED (porn-induced erectile dysfunction) or PIDE (porn-induced delayed ejaculation)—there remains uncertainty among psychiatrists as to whether there really is a problem here, or, if there is, what it actually is.
The hallowed DSM, the regularly updated diagnostic bible of psychiatry, for example, has yet to recognise pornography addiction, although other important reference points are doing so. Last year the World Health Organization took a step to legitimising the condition by finally recognising compulsive sexual behaviour as a mental disorder, but couched its opinion as to whether that included addiction on par with gambling or drug abuse. Indeed, there’s the ongoing debate as to whether this has anything at all to do with addiction, as opposed to compulsion, to draw the kind of distinction only a clinician might appreciate and which hardly serves the people who need help.
“In fact, the world of psychology and psychiatry is only now starting to take porn ‘addiction’ seriously,” notes Dr Claudia Herbert, a clinical psychologist and managing director of the Oxford Development Centre in the UK. “We’re getting more aware of the potential negative impact and of the scale of the problem which, given that there’s such a very large [porn] industry driving it, is likely going to be huge. We’re finding that it depends on how far you’re engaged with the porn. But even if you only [persistently] view and don’t physically engage it would seem that it harms the mind. It reduces clear thinking, creates a spaced-out effect. You get withdrawal symptoms like headaches, restlessness, anxiety. This is serious.”
From anecdotal evidence, Deem says there’s little controversy about the idea that there’s a major problem out there that is largely going unaddressed, save by a few psychologists butting against the status quo and activists, such as himself, whose YouTube videos get hundreds of thousands of views. And since the impact on the growing, more plastic adolescent brain is more lasting and profound than it is, say, on a middle-aged brain that excitedly discovers Internet porn but didn’t grow up with it, it’s a problem that appears to most acutely (though far from exclusively) affect younger men. Since future generations will, through the devices to which they’re wedded, now also have the same access to porn, it looks to be a problem that needs to be tackled sooner rather than later. The repercussions for society at large could be grave.
“The people I work with are hugely varied. The fact is that anyone can develop a porn addiction—any age, men or women, though it’s more commonly a male problem; those that grew up with the Internet and those that didn’t. They come with a wide variety of stories too,” says Noah Church, the author of Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn and now a coach to those dealing with porn-related sexual issues. “Some don’t have what you might call a porn addiction but certainly have a sexual problem that porn use has caused. Others clearly do have an addiction. They struggle to give porn up even after it’s caused sexual problems and in some cases destroyed their relationship.”
It’s hard to be surprised at this when the matter is stated in cold hard terms. “Porn is unlimited, never-ending, 24/7, anywhere you go. You never have to look at the same thing twice. The expression of porn has changed so dramatically,” points out Dr Robert Weiss, CEO of Seeking Integrity and a California- based specialist in compulsive sexual behaviours for the last 25 years. “You take any super stimulus and make it more accessible and more people are going to struggle. What does the ability to watch porn for 10 hours straight do to a developing brain? Part of the problem is that, until more research is done—as we’re doing over the next two years—we don’t yet understand what we’re dealing with here. We don’t know if [people addicted to porn] need a Band-Aid or a hospital.”
With the way porn works—the visual, sexual stimulus, typically leading to the dopamine hit that comes in orgasm—it’s clear to see why it might be addictive, even if clinicians quibble over whether it changes the brain in quite the same way as a drug does. We’re hard-wired to get food and sex as matters of survival (for the species at least). “And when you combine stimulating content— porn—with an addictive delivery mechanism—the Internet—you get what’s called synergistic amplification. The effect becomes that much bigger,” explains Dr David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in Connecticut, US, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and one of the first scientists to conduct a large-scale study of the (pre Wi-Fi) Internet’s addictiveness.
“Some don’t have what you might call a porn addiction but certainly have a sexual problem that porn use has caused. Others clearly do have an addiction."
“Porn is addictive because it’s stimulating,” he adds. “It’s been around for 20,000-plus years. There’s hieroglyphic pornography. But it’s always advanced with every new media, from print to motion pictures to CDs, DVDs and the Internet. Porn has always been at the front of utilising the tech.”
So why is the medical field specialising in addiction so wary about acknowledging porn’s addictiveness? In part, he reckons, it’s because of a good old-fashioned prudishness. “In many places in the world, in the US for example, sex is still a dirty word,” he says. “There’s still a Victorian, puritanical shame to masturbation in spite of the fact that we use sex to sell everything, as the basis of entertainment. When you call someone a ‘wanker’, meaning idiot, it says something about how we feel about masturbation. You have this overt acceptance of sex and shame about it simultaneously and that creates a schism.”
Secondly, whereas alcohol and drug addictions are now more accepted as being neuro-biological phenomena, the old stigmas that once blighted both conditions—that their sufferers are simply weak-willed, with some kind of personality deficit— still cast a shadow over compulsive porn users. To acknowledge a behaviour is still seen by some as condoning it.
Thirdly, “there’s the difficulty that with porn it takes a long time to build an addiction, perhaps decades before it starts to interfere with your life,” says Greenfield, who reckons that it might take another 10 years before sex addictions—which like video game addictions are similarly under-explored—are officially recognised by the DSM. “If you use cocaine and it’s not having a negative impact, do you have an addiction? I’d say the same of pornography. If you use porn every day and it doesn’t affect your work, your family, your relationships or give you some kind of sexual dysfunction, then all power to you. I only tend to see people when it’s already had a deleterious impact.”
Then there is the issue of how a professional might deal with such an addiction. Cutting out drink or drugs is one thing; a fully functioning life is feasible without either. “But how do you do away with sex?” asks Greenfield. “How do you teach someone to treat their addiction and still remain a sexual being?”
Rob Watt, director of Innisfree Therapy, the only practice specialising in addictive sexual behaviours on London’s famed Harley Street, agrees: the goal isn’t about encouraging abstinence but developing a healthy attitude towards sex. “Addiction suggests that once an addict always an addict, but that’s not true about sex or about food. What’s clear though is that porn addiction is a serious malady; people are watching it for hours at a stretch. But it’s less about quantity so much as the consequences. Lots of men are out there in front of a screen smashing one out and having a great time; it’s not an issue to them. Plenty of people watch porn and I have no problem with that.
“The people I’m talking about are desperate, perhaps suicidal,” adds Watt. “They find themselves masturbating at work. In fact, they don’t often present themselves for treatment without having been caught, often by their partner, with often disastrous results for their relationship, with the partner often seeing it as a form of betrayal, especially given this unrealistic romantic notion we have that a partner should be able to satisfy all our needs. We need to recognise that there are new generations coming up now whose first real sexual experiences have the hyper-intensity of gaming, with which there’s a crossover with porn. We’re probably not far off this being as big a problem for some women as it is for some men either.”
“How do you teach someone to treat their addiction and still remain a sexual being?”
Indeed, Watt argues that the compulsive use of porn often has roots in childhood trauma—not necessarily a major trauma, maybe not a trauma the individual is even aware of, but psychological problems stemming from the abandonment of certain needs while they were growing up. How do we numb this? By reaching for those things that can change a mood instantly—the likes of food or an orgasm. Indulging gives the illusion of control over one’s life because it’s what one wants to do.
But the dopamine hit is short-lived and—unlike the endorphin high possible through exercise or communing with nature—it’s never satisfied. Novelty becomes essential. Tolerance levels rise. Physiological dependence develops. Intimacy with a real person starts to look, by comparison, a bit boring, a bit like hard work. Sufferers stop seeing real people as sexual. Porn becomes a physical pleasure that keeps them from the richer emotional pleasure found in a relationship.
No wonder then that tackling the issues underlying such feelings is not fast work. Yes, the basic compulsive behaviour might stop in weeks, says Watts, but addressing its underlying causes might take years. “I don’t think the solution is just to tell someone suffering from what is a compulsive behaviour to not touch their penis for the next 12 years,” he stresses.
“Porn was never a moral or religious issue…I simply gave up porn so I could have sex with my girlfriend again."
Robert Weiss is more black and white about the situation. “For most, it’s a question of putting down porn and committing themselves to life-affirming activities—join a choir or whatever,” he reckons. “It’s in that kind of thing that [sufferers] start to have fun and enjoy people again. It’s an all or nothing deal. But typically these people find they don’t want to go back to porn.”
Similarly, both Church’s and Deem’s solution is, akin to the ‘12 Step’ advice given to alcohol or drug addicts, to go cold turkey when it comes to choking the chicken: henceforth, complete abstinence, if not from touching one’s penis or from sexual relations with another person, then at least from porn. “For me, porn was never a moral or religious issue. I’m not for banning porn and have nothing against people who watch it. I simply gave up porn so I could have sex with my girlfriend again, that’s all,” says Deem, who started to find that his normal sexual service began to be restored some three months after quitting—a not uncommon period of time needed to press the reset button—with full recovery after nine months.
“If I’m asked by other men what to do, that’s my advice: just stay away from porn forever if they want a real sex life, if they want love in a relationship and all the other things that people find fulfilling and emotionally necessary. Everyone wants the connection that jerking off will never give you,” says Deem. “But quitting is not easy. It’s like trying to quit junk food when you work in Walmart. Porn is anonymous, affordable and accessible.”
“If I’m asked by other men what to do, that’s my advice: just stay away from porn forever if they want a real sex life, if they want love in a relationship and all the other things that people find fulfilling and emotionally necessary."
Tell that to Church. Six months into being clean, his relationship ended under the strain and initially this fired a determination that, although he now faced an emotionally tough time, he wouldn’t go back to porn. “But I did end up relapsing, and then I’d have one or two months off porn again, and then relapse again—and this was even after I’d written the book on the subject,” laughs Church, who recommends (easier said than done, of course) finding structure and discipline, being clear on the values you want to live by, setting some rules for yourself, spending time getting on with other activities you want to do. “I still have the urge. It’s not plaguing me. But I don’t think you can be too comfortable about it. Complacency leads to relapse. It doesn’t take much porn use to bring the dysfunction back,” he stresses.
Can anything be done to tackle this issue at the root before it gets to the point where more and more average Joes find themselves being inadvertently sucked into the dark vortex of select-a-fantasy cyber self-love? There are calls for smartphones to be come fixed with some kind of filter to prevent under-aged users from accessing porn, though of course, there’s also wide acceptance that such filters would likely be quickly circumvented. And that hardly helps the many grown-ups. Beyond that, argues Deem, we need much better sex education for schoolkids and adults alike so that we at least understand the neuro-conditioning our brains undergo when we use porn excessively.
“The industry [psychiatry] is getting better [at addressing the issue] but we’ve got a long way to go yet,” says Church. “I don’t think we’ve seen the peak of the problem yet.” But one thing is clear, reckons Weiss: “We’re certainly at a point now where it’s time for people to stop saying ‘Porn addiction? Is that a thing?”
From: Esquire Sg