Pornography has never been so easy to get hold of. Internet porn, offers images from the mildly titillating to the hard-core, at the click of a button, free to lap-tops, smart phones and tablets. A recent study into on-line porn addiction by the prestigious American Psychiatric Association (“APA”) suggests 60% of adult males and 42% of females, have logged on to an internet porn site in the last year (2016-17).
For some users, it is a bit of idle curiosity, for others, a bit of extra stimulation now and again. While many would not openly discuss their use of on-line porn, it has little ill-effect in their lives.
At LoveRelations, we have no particular view on the rights or wrongs of a burgeoning internet pornography industry. Yet we work with couples for whom frequent or compulsive use of pornography causes very real problems in their relationships.
Dr David Perl, Couples Therapist and Co-founder of LoveRelations, says: “Excessive use of pornography seriously impairs an individual’s ability to be aroused by ordinary stimuli, such as his or her partner. The pleasure centres of the brain which fire off dopamine and oxytocin – the “feel good hormones” released through sexual contact and orgasm, need bigger and more frequent “hits”. Partners of a pornography user start to notice either complete absence of sex in their relationship or their partner’s demands for more frequent, aggressive sex.”
Pornography, like addictive substances, according to modern neuroscience, sets up a craving for more and more. What may have started as a distraction, begins to eat away hours of time and ordinary demands of work, family and home, fall away.
David goes onto say “Often a couple will come to therapy and one partner will talk about ‘feeling shunned’ . They will bring issue such as ‘lack of connection’ or ‘losing intimacy’. When a couple begins to feel safe in therapy, one partner often raises their use of on-line porn.”
David cites one couple (names have been changed): Gary is a successful man in his forties, married to Deborah for eleven years, he came to LoveRelations after pressure from his wife. “Deborah was distraught at the amount of time he spent at the office – he was often there till midnight – and by his seeming interest in sex.”
“At first in therapy, Gary seemed defensive, hostile even”, says David, works with the couple. “It was only in his one-to-one therapy session that he broke down and admitted that he was compulsively using on-line pornography. Hours of his work time and his family time were being lost. Gary was consumed by overwhelming shame and helplessness around Deborah. He sensed he would suffer erectile dysfunction without the stimulation of the intense and aggressive images he viewed on-line. To respond sexually to his wife was now fearful.”
“Sex, masturbation and pornography all affect the pleasure centres of the brain,” explains Dr Perl. “Dopamine, the feel-good hormone, is released with orgasm. This gives the feeling of happiness and well-being and a lessening of stress and anxiety. When dopamine levels fall, the brain seeks out the activity now associated with this release of pleasure, once again. Because on-line porn is so immediate, and is so readily available to feed the brain dose after dose of stimulating images, it is easy to see how the compulsion is set up.”
In his therapy, Gary reported many of the typical damaging consequences of habitual porn use: shame, secrecy, loss of interest in real-life sex, inability to devote time to work, family and friends, and an increasing need for a higher level of fetishized, often sadistic images, to become aroused. Gary admitted that there were images on his laptop which might lose him his job.
David Perl says: “At LoveRelations, we offer a safe and non-judgemental space in both the couples therapy and the individual therapy. With Gary, it was important to offer first the safe space, then to engage in a bit of psycho-education. There is so much shame around sex and compulsive sexual behaviours that sometimes, explaining the neurological effects of stimulation and pleasure and the human brain can help lessen some of this toxic shame.”
David continues: “After a while, Gary was able to talk to Deborah about this in the safety of their couples session. Deborah was initially relieved. She had started to suspect him of an affair with a work colleague. After the revelation, Deborah experienced her own burgeoning shame. “What’s wrong with me”, she would often cry”. Deborah had difficulty in trusting that these cycles of on-line bingeing, as she called them, wouldn’t start up again.
“This is where couples therapy can be really effective” says David. “In the safety of a structured and facilitated session, all the shame and guilt and resentment and depression can be aired and worked through. Couples can begin to commit to working on their relationship anew.”
Ten sessions in to the couples therapy, Gary is working on his abstinence from on-line pornography. He is noticing how, free from compulsion and shame, his energy levels and his ability to concentrate and carry out tasks are increasing. Deborah reports that she is feeling “more loved, more valued. Gary and Deborah are beginning to renew their sexual contact with each other. Although it’s early days, they both report a growing optimism.”
“What’s so encouraging about all this work,” says David Perl, “is that our client opened his first session by saying “I didn’t think I’d very be able to have normal sex with a human being ever again.”
All names have been changed for anonymity.