The Porn Problem

Internet pornography has exploded, and with it a rise in problems associated with increased use as millions of people struggle with compulsive behavior and its effects on their lives and relationships. Here's a look at the issue and solutions.

What’s the problem?

Pornographic images have existed for thousands of years, but only recently has there been a rise in compulsive behavior, or addiction, associated with porn. Researchers attribute the explosion in pornographic consumption to the “AAA affect:” accessibility, affordability and anonymity.

“Nobody knows, you don’t have to walk into a store and ask for the magazine behind the counter or go to the adult bookstore to get that video,” said Tucson addiction therapist Debra Kaplan.

Conservative estimates place the annual revenue of the internet porn industry at $15 billion, bigger than Netflix. The internet’s most popular adult site, Pornhub, had 33.5 billion visits in 2018. That ease of accessibility with no immediate consequences has a big impact on everyone.

But really, what’s the problem?

Many see pornography as harmless — an act between any number of consensual adults who are portraying roles for the enjoyment of an audience, just like actors. A majority of the population, male and female, say they watch porn at least occasionally. Yet, the effects run deep.

Studies show that viewing pornography can result in loss of attraction to partners and diminish stimulation in the real world. The arousal centers of the brain literally shrivel up, requiring more extreme stimuli to produce the same results.

“A boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, can’t compete with the sexual content available online,” Kaplan said. She said the brain becomes more tolerant of images and arousals, seeking more and more each time.

“I can look at an image, and it was really arousing, but I’ve looked at it five times and it’s really not that arousing anymore, I’m building tolerance,” she said. “It takes more now to get the same desired effect.”

Kaplan said that individuals also lose the ability to deal with stress, always looking for an easy release to deal with anxiety or other difficult situations.

The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not recognize addiction to pornography as an official diagnosis, but more people are casting aside stigma and seeking medical, spiritual or behavioral assistance due to an inability to stop engaging the material.

Official diagnosis associated with pornographic or sexual “addiction” often include obsessive-compulsive or impulse-control disorders as well as depression and identity disorders. But a hypoactive sexual addiction distinction was determined to need more research before inclusion in the DSM.

Despite the lack of an official designation, research shows that viewing porn and engaging in compulsive masturbation, which is usually associated with frequent porn use, displays the same effect on brain activity as heroin or other drugs.

The same chemicals are released, the behavior is rewarded and a cycle is created, which has a strong effect on those caught in the mix.

“There are four driving desires that men and women have,” said Joonho “JK” Kim, pastor of Calvary Chapel of Sahuarita. “The first one is oxygen, the second one is water, the third is food. The fourth one is sex. More than alcohol, more than drugs.”

For some, this porn cycle results in real-world sex becoming less desirable, while the compulsive behavior takes time and energy from other pursuits the person once enjoyed.

Many women report their partners wanting to engage in dangerous or unhealthy sexual activities based on what they have come to expect from porn, while men report needing increased novelty in their sex life to experience the same level of arousal as before.

“Images today are much more violent than they used to be,” Kaplan said. “Porn is not as benign as it used to be.”

The harmful effects are much greater on teens, whose “plastic” brains are more susceptible to long-term damage from addictive behaviors.

“Children now, who grew up with phones in their hands, they are at particular risk because their brain development can’t tolerate those images,” Kaplan said.

The issue is so pervasive, the state Legislature is considering a resolution to declare pornography a public health crisis.

Republican state Rep. Michelle Udall introduced a non-binding resolution in February that would declare porn "perpetuates a sexually toxic environment that damages all areas of our society."

Their stories

Kaplan said the occasion viewing of pornography isn’t necessarily harmful.

“Porn, in and of itself, like alcohol, can be benign for many people,” she said. It’s when it is used in a way that isn’t healthy that leads to problems.

If the behavior is done in secret, or if the individual would not engage in the behavior if others knew about it, that indicates an issue, Kaplan said.

Studies indicate the frequency of porn use may not even directly correlate to seeking treatment, but rather consequences in their personal lives (loss of sexual arousal for a partner, decreased interest in work, family issues) that lead many to seek treatment.

“I knew I needed help when it became an everyday thing,” said Allen of Phoenix. He has been attending various therapies and sex addiction groups for years after his wife discovered his compulsive porn usage in 2013. “When I wanted to stop but couldn’t, I knew I needed help,” he said.

Christine of Tucson has been seeking treatment for her compulsive behavior associated with porn use for over 30 years.

“It affected my family, my career, I couldn’t give 100 percent of myself to anything because of it,” said the self-described soccer mom. “Seeing the impact it had on my family, as I struggled to show up for life, it was so hard.”

Allen and Christine's real names are being withheld by Green Valley News for privacy.

For many years, neither Allen nor Christine were able to have a personal computer or smartphone for fear the compulsion to access porn would be too great.

Christine became suicidal at one point as she struggled to take back control of her life.

“I would promise not to do it, but would end up back again,” she said.

She said with the rise of the internet, people are now able to feed their compulsion almost anywhere. “They step away from their desk at work, take their phone to the bathroom and access it and engage in the behavior,” she said.

Many barriers exist for those seeking treatment for their behavior associated with pornography. With no official porn or sex addiction diagnosis able to be given, many don’t understand the problem in the first place.

“They don’t think it’s a thing,” said Christine, who has attended health and psychiatry conferences to help spread the word on the issue.

She said that while she has had some positive reactions to her information campaign, she has also had “some very juvenile responses from people who are supposed to be professionals.”

“They don’t take it seriously,” she said.

A lack of research and studies complicates finding treatment. Much of the data available is conflicting or rely on small sample sizes and self-reporting to determine how harmful porn usage is.

For example, even determining how many people view porn is difficult, with statistics showing anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of males and 30 to 86 percent of females access adult images or videos.

Also, the stigma around the behavior is so strong, most people don’t want to admit they have a problem, much less take the steps to deal with it.

“Who really wants to talk about that kind of thing out loud unless the person wants to really get out?” said Pastor Kim. “I'm not naïve that every person wants to speak about it on the up and up.”

Numerous websites and 1-800 numbers exist to deal with addiction, often specializing in drug or alcohol addiction. Counseling, therapy and rehabilitation services exist as well, depending on what level of care and treatment an individual needs.

“People are very hesitant to reach out for help,” Christine said. “People are afraid they will be treated like a child predator or a rapist.”

Christine and Allen have both found help through Sex Addicts Anonymous, which operates similarly to Alcoholics Anonymous for those with a drinking addiction. Christine had already been in therapy when her therapist recommended SAA.

“If you’ve ever been to an AA meeting or seen one on TV, it’s just like that, except we’re dealing with sex addiction,” Christine said. “There are no leaders, just other addicts trying to help.”

SAA offers a 12-step non-denominational faith-based program, providing sponsors and support from those who have also struggled with the compulsive behavior.

For others, accountability helps keep them from engaging with internet porn.

Kim connects people struggling with pornography use to an elder or deacon at the church and has them install tracking software on their computer “so that person, wherever they go on the internet, the accountability person will know where they are going.”

Even then, it takes more than someone looking over your shoulder to break the compulsive behavior.

“Unless that person wants to get out, there's not a thing in the world that can stop that person,” Kim said. “It has to come from the heart. Until that person realizes what havoc he's bringing unto himself and the family, until that person realizes, nothing's going to happen.”

Kaplan said the first step for anyone who feels they may have an addiction is to reach out to a professional for an assessment.

“Mostly it’s reaching out to someone who can give you feedback and counter the self-talk that says ‘this is fine,’” she said. “Open up to someone who is in a position who can help. Don’t just keep this a secret.”

Christine wants everyone to know that help is available, no matter your situation.

“I felt freakish, as a woman, having these feelings,” she said. “But I wasn’t alone. And you can learn better ways to cope when things get difficult.”

Andrew Paxton 520-547-9747

Andrew Paxton 520-547-9747

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