It’s no secret that the Internet is bursting at the seams with porn. Sure, we also go online for information, interpersonal communication, dinner reservations, music, shopping, and much more. But porn is without doubt a primary online activity. In fact, search engine data neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed 400 million worldwide searches representing more than two million Internet users and found that 13% of all searches were porn-related. So yes, lots of folks are looking at pornography.
Given the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that the porn-related question we most often hear in our therapy practices relates to the amount of porn people use. Much of the time this question is posed by wives worried about their husband’s online endeavors. In short, these women want to know: How much porn is too much? And when does it cross the line from use to addiction?
This, of course, is a bit like asking how much alcohol makes a person alcoholic—there just isn’t a set answer. In other words, addictions (to both substances and behaviors) are not about the amount of something; rather, they’re about obsession, loss of control, and directly related life problems. People qualify as addicted if:
- They’re inordinately preoccupied with a potentially addictive substance or behavior (thinking about it, pursuing it, etc.);
- They’ve lost control over use (using even when they don’t want to, not being able to stop once they’ve started, etc.);
- Their lives are falling apart as a result (relationship issues, trouble at work, financial problems, legal woes, depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, social/emotional isolation, etc.).
Those are the benchmarks therapists use to diagnose porn addiction—and every other kind of addiction. So the amount of porn a person is looking at is not a defining factor. Nonetheless, research does suggest that porn addicts—those individuals who meet the criteria above—typically spend at least 11 hours per week searching for and looking at porn (with or without masturbation). And it’s not uncommon for use to escalate well beyond that level—reaching 20, 30, or more hours per week.
Signs and Symptoms of Porn Addiction
There are numerous other signs and symptoms, beyond the conditions above, that often indicate compulsive porn use:
- Escalation—increasing amounts of time that a person spends on porn, and/or an increased intensity of the material they view (moving from vanilla porn to hardcore, fetish, or violent porn).
- Withdrawal—becoming restless, irritable, and discontent when porn is not available.
- Dishonesty—lying and keeping secrets about porn use (amount of time, content they view, etc.).
- Disconnection—loss of interest in family, friends, work, and previously enjoyable activities.
- Sexual Dysfunction—loss of interest in real-world partner sex and/or problems with delayed ejaculation (DE), erectile dysfunction (ED), and/or anorgasmia (inability to reach orgasm).
Over time, many porn addicts will link their porn use to other forms of compulsive sexuality—sexting, webcam masturbation, anonymous and/or casual hookups, serial affairs, prostitution, sex clubs, strip clubs, voyeurism, exhibitionism, online sex games, etc. This is the equivalent of substance abusers escalating in their addiction, ingesting any mind-altering substance they get their hands on. Still, many porn addicts are strictly porn addicts, just as many alcoholics are strictly alcoholics.
Porn-Induced Sexual Dysfunction
As you may have noticed, we list sexual dysfunction as a common sign/symptom of porn addiction—and with good reason. One relatively large-scale survey of sex addicts found that more than a quarter (26.7%) experienced ED, DE, or anorgasmia. Smaller studies suggest that sexual dysfunction is a common sex addiction side effect—17% of sex addicts reported problems in one study, 58% in another.
Unsurprisingly, the primary sexual dysfunction issue is ED—even among younger porn addicts in their teens and twenties. Much of the time these men report that they have no trouble achieving and maintaining an erection when looking at porn, but they struggle with real-world partners. Compulsive porn use seems to create a psychological disconnection that manifests physically in some men as ED. After all, when a guy spends the vast majority of his sexual life engaging with endless amounts of constantly changing, hyper-stimulating online imagery, a single in-the-flesh partner can’t exactly compete—even if the porn addict truly loves that partner.
This, of course, is one of the true paradoxes of sexual addiction: Sex addicts, especially porn addicts, often struggle to perform sexually with their real-life partners. And this is not because they’re not interested in great sex, or they don’t want to be with their partner. It seems that their sexual response has become conditioned to function only in the context of stereotypical porn images. So they struggle to get hard, stay hard, and reach orgasm with actual people. Sometimes they can only manage to perform face-to-face when they replay in their minds the videos and images they’ve seen online. Over time, they often come to desire porn sex more than partner sex.
This becomes a huge issue for the partners of porn addicts. When a man turns to porn and then cannot perform sexually with his partner, this undermines not just his own sexual pleasure but also his partner’s. More important, it undermines the very security of the bond between partners. After all, sex is also a bonding behavior. Worse, partners may take this on themselves, resulting in significant sexual self-image problems.
If you believe you are losing your partner to porn, what can you do about it?
1. Ask your partner if he thinks that the time he spends looking at porn is getting to be a problem or interfering with his ability to really be with you in bed. If you can manage to do this with curiosity and concern, it usually works better than accusing or blaming. It may be that your partner can soothe your fears. For many, occasional porn use does not become in any way addictive, and there may be other things going on, such as unresolved conflicts in your relationship, that reduce a partner’s sex drive or cause him to withdraw physically for a while.
2. Step aside from the shame and fear that arises when you feel less than desired by your loved one. Try to keep in mind that someone can become caught in a less than functional habit for many reasons and in many ways. Gerry helps his wife Anna by telling her, “Look, I started watching porn as an escape from bad feelings way before I met you. It kind of stopped when I met you, but then we were getting into fights and going to porn just made me feel better—less stressed out. This isn’t about you. It’s just the way I learned to cope.”
3. Seek help from a couples therapist who can help you and your partner talk about this calmly and cooperatively. Partners’ perspectives often differ wildly. John says, “You are overreacting. All I am doing is typing and watching people have sex.” Mary counters, “But you don’t have sex with me anymore and your head is full of your onscreen girls. I feel betrayed. It’s like you are having an affair.” The couple’s therapist can help the porn-watching partner decide for himself if his habit is a problem, and also help the anxious partner talk about her fears and her perception of the porn issue. There are also educational resources that can help, such as the video, “Your Brain on Porn,” or the Wendy Maltz book, The Porn Trap. If it seems appropriate, the porn-watching partner can also seek out a sex addiction therapist for an evaluation. They can also join a peer group, such as SA (Sexaholics Anonymous) or SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) to get a perspective on how (un)healthy his or her relationship with porn is.
4. The therapist, who hopefully uses an approach outcome studies have shown to indeed help couples, can help improve your communication and emotional connection. The cycle of relationship distress—withdrawal from physical and emotional connection by one partner and anxious complaining and anger by the other—can then become contained. This distress can be either the result of, or the trigger for, a growing addiction to porn. Tim tells Lucy, “After we had the twins, I just felt left out—like I didn’t matter to you. And when I looked at porn, I felt male and strong and calm. I didn’t feel so bad that there was this big space between us.” Lucy responds, “Well, I need you Tim. I want you to come back to me, not go to those girls on the screen. I want you to come to me for comfort and for sex. I never meant to turn away from you.” If you and your partner are really caught in a demon dialogue of criticism/accusation and evasion/withdrawal, then you are both isolated and stressed and really need to change this dance, which simply maintains relationship distress and any porn problem. It is easier for your partner to turn to a screen that is at the command of his fingertips than to deal with you, an enraged partner.
5. You can find a therapist for yourself. Bonding science tells us that feeling shut out and rejected by the person we depend on registers in our brains in much the same way as physical pain. Plus, that rejection is a danger cue that can send us into panic. A therapist can help with such feelings. If finding one is too hard, then finding other ways to de-stress and find comfort are crucial for you.
The best answer to an over-activated relationship with porn is a secure, engaged emotional and sexual relationship with a partner. We are getting better and better at helping people find this. (To read about how the new science of bonding can help, read my book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.)
Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that we do not use the word “addiction” in this article to in any way dismiss or judge the many forms of eroticism or the diverse ways that people explore their sexual desires. It is used to refer to a growing pragmatic, clinical reality, and to further the discussion about how to deal with it. For referrals to a certified sex or porn addiction therapist, visit http://www.sexhelp.com. For couples counseling information and referrals, visit http://www.iceeft.com.
Dr. Stefanie Carnes / http://www.iitap.com/about-us/dr-stefanie-carnes
Dr. Sue Johnson / http://www.drsuejohnson.com
Susan Johnson, Ed.D., is a best-selling author, clinical psychologist, distinguished research professor, dynamic speaker, and recognized innovator who has changed the field of couples therapy.
She is director of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and distinguished research professor at Alliant University in San Diego, California, as well as professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa, Canada. She trains counselors in EFT worldwide and is recognized as one of the most prominent researchers and presenters in the couples therapy field.
[i] Ogas, O. & Gaddam, S. (2012). A billion wicked thoughts: What the Internet tells us about sexual relationships, p 15. New York, NY: Plume.
[ii] Cooper, A. Putnam D.E., Planchon, A. & Boies, S.C. (1999). Online Sexual Compulsivity: Getting Tangled in the Net. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 6(2):79–104.
[iii] Hall, P. (2012). Understanding and treating sex addiction: A comprehensive guide for people who struggle with sex addiction and those who want to help them. Routledge.
[iv] Raymond, N. C., Coleman, E., & Miner, M. H. (2003). Psychiatric comorbidity and compulsive/impulsive traits in compulsive sexual behavior. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 44(5), 370-380.
[v] Voon, V., Mole, T. B., Banca, P., Porter, L., Morris, L., Mitchell, S., … & Irvine, M. (2014). Neural correlates of sexual cue reactivity in individuals with and without compulsive sexual behaviours. PloS one, 9(7), e102419.
[vi] Rosenberg, K. P., Carnes, P., & O’Connor, S. (2014). Evaluation and treatment of sex addiction. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 40(2), 77-91.