Saturday 20 December 2014

Porn-aholic: A love of porn transformed into a serious addiction

When he left his own birthday party early to look at online pornography, Neil finally faced up to the fact that he might have a serious problem.

Norma Costello

Published 14/07/2014 | 02:30

Can porn enhance our sex lives, or does it create unrealistic expectations?
Can porn enhance our sex lives, or does it create unrealistic expectations?
'People start a complex psychological relationship with images onscreen' - psychologist Fergal Rooney.
Sunday is the most popular day for people to log on to porn sites.

'I honestly don't know how it happened. I just stopped going out. I told myself there was no way I would meet someone anyway. It led me 
to a really bad place. Porn became a complete fantasy world, 
a real escape."

So says Neil, a 29-year-old accountant, who still can't pinpoint why it happened. He has a job, good friends and sees himself as "decent" looking. He is just another normal Irish guy. But this normal guy is part of a rising demographic of men seeking help for their growing addiction to online pornography.

Neil's problem started two years ago. He would come home from work, go straight to his bedroom and spend his evenings logged on to a "maze" of porn sites.

"It was like porn became the centre of my days," he says. "I would start thinking about porn the minute I woke up in the morning. If a friend called over to my house in the evening and stayed a while, I'd get really irritated."

'People start a complex psychological relationship with images onscreen' - psychologist Fergal Rooney.
'People start a complex psychological relationship with images onscreen' - psychologist Fergal Rooney.

A couple of months later, Neil started missing nights out with friends, and rarely came out of his room. Bit by bit, this Galwegian started to cut himself off from what he describes as "the important time you don't recognise, the time you spend connecting with other people". It wasn't until he left his own birthday party early to watch porn that he knew he had a problem.

"The funny thing is, I never thought porn was the problem," Neil says. "I blamed other things for taking up my time - my work, phone calls from friends and family, even doing my washing! It wasn't until my birthday that I knew something was very wrong with me."

Neil considers himself lucky. Unlike many others, he was able to recognise his problem in time before it escalated.

"I feel like I dodged a bullet," he says. "I mean, I could have waited until it got worse. I could have started watching porn in work, got in trouble with my company, and all that stuff.

"I can't imagine the humiliation if work found out, and it was only a matter of time before the monster in my room started following me out of the house."

Neil is not alone. The number of specialist counsellors and therapy groups springing up all over the country is a clear indication that Ireland is facing issues with online pornography.

Fergal Rooney is a psychologist who coordinates a specialist service at St John of God Hospital in Dublin. He is seeing more and more self-referrals from people like Neil; people anxious to address their spiralling issues with porn.

"It's an issue I see more and more of," Fergal says. "People log on and start a complex psychological relationship with images onscreen. The internet is facilitating all sorts of behaviour, and leading people to psychologically and emotionally harmful practices.

Can porn enhance our sex lives, or does it create unrealistic expectations?
Can porn enhance our sex lives, or does it create unrealistic expectations?

"They start out by clicking onto porn sites with hundreds of thumbnail images," he adds, "and what begins as a relatively minor issue can escalate very quickly."

Today, porn is easily accessed through smartphones, bedroom computers and electronic tablets. The merger of the internet and "the industry" has facilitated an entirely private relationship between porn and its consumers - a relationship we still don't fully understand.

Shane, a Dubliner in his 30s, runs a sex-cam business in London. His users pay for women to carry out explicit acts over a web camera. He says the industry is misunderstood and misjudged, and that emotions run too high when discussing this issue.

"I have tried to talk to people about my job," Shane says, "but, you know, 90pc just go apeshit when I tell them. Either that, or they want some dirt on what exactly the girls do online, and whether or not they're exploited."

Shane says he hasn't told his family what he does. He adamantly denies that he is embarrassed by his job, but says he is tired of being judged.

"This is the whole problem with porn," he says. "People just can't have normal conversations about it. It's always hysterical or focusing on extreme cases."

Shane might be right.

Sunday is the most popular day for people to log on to porn sites.
Sunday is the most popular day for people to log on to porn sites.

In 2010, one of the largest-ever studies into human sexuality, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, dispelled the notion that 
one-in-four websites are pornographic, claiming that the real figure was only about 4pc of all internet sites.

So, despite being told we're all glued to internet porn, the exorbitant figures previously bandied about in debates seem to be way off the mark. So why is there now an increase in people seeking help for problems related to porn? Opinions vary, with some claiming that porn itself is not the problem, and that pornography addiction - like alcoholism - depends on myriad individual factors combusting at once. Dr Jamie Saris, an anthropologist from the National University of Ireland Maynooth, feels people can be overconcerned about the effects of viewing pornography.

"There is an argument that porn desensitises viewers so that they want more and more extreme pornography," Jamie explains. "But this could - in principle - apply to any exciting experience.

"For some, one pint leads to two," he continues, "then 14 shots of whiskey and then chronic alcoholism. But this is only applicable to a certain demographic.

"If the desensitisation argument was universally true, then, surely, violent videos should be the subject of moral panic and regulation before porn?"

Shane, the sex-cam entrepreneur, agrees with Jamie Saris, and feels that the addiction depends on the individual, particularly those who use porn as a release from the stresses of their lives.

"I work in this industry every day," Shane says, "and I'm not addicted. It all depends on the person. I can see it through the stats on the sites. We get the same people online for hours, but they're not the majority. The majority are casual users who don't go mental on it."

Shane feels that those who become porn addicts use pornography to deal with problems in their life.

"For the guys online the whole time? I don't know," he says. "They might be running away from their problems or they don't want to deal with their real lives. Maybe they've got underlying psychological problems. People in Asia spend 20 hours a day on gaming sites and you don't see a furore about that. Because it is sex, people get too emotional and lose all logic."

Porn is a sensitive issue, and discussions on the subject are often shrouded in shame, making it uncomfortable to confront. The causes of pornography addiction are constantly debated, and many have opposing views.

Some therapists claim addiction to pornography can be traced back to a fundamental "fault" in a person's coping skills, which may have developed in childhood or adolescence.

This could lead to people abusing pornography as a way to deal with stress when they do not have the right coping skills. Fergal Rooney says there has been a shift in how psychologists see the causes of pornography addiction.

"The landscape seems to be changing," he says. "This issue, that might previously have been linked to childhood, can now be sourced closer to the pornography itself."

For example, many therapists treating people with pornography addictions now believe that constant exposure to porn, even indirectly, can create a habit in an otherwise healthy person.

Which is something to bear in mind as, more and more, popular culture and everyday commercials are filled with sexual imagery. Fergal feels our current attitude to pornography is unhealthy and can nurture addiction.

"Porn is starting to be seen as something everyday and acceptable," Fergal says. "One man told me his GP ignored him when he went to get help. He was simply told, 'it's not a big deal'." Whether porn addiction is caused by lack of coping skills or constant exposure is one thing, but the impact of pornography addiction on relationships is apparent.

Neil feels he has wasted time and stalled his love life by abusing pornography.

"I can't get into a relationship until I'm 100pc again." he says. "How do you tell someone you've a porn problem? Can you imagine? They'd run a mile. I'm not a pervert, but even I can admit this whole thing points to a very fucked-up person."

According to Fergal Rooney, porn can put partners under pressure to conform to sex acts they might not be comfortable with - putting stress on relationships.

"From a clinical understanding," Fergal says, "it is clear that pornography does have an impact on relationships."

"It can give someone a whole new sexual script, one their partner might not be comfortable with. For young people, it can mould their sexuality, the natural learning is taken away from them. For older people in relationships, it can produce a much wider range of what is expected sexually, which can cause relationship problems."

But, for people addicted to porn, it's not only personal relationships that are affected. The addiction can become so strong that many are only forced to confront it when they get caught - usually by employers who use spyware to track employees clicking on sexually explicit material during work hours.

Fergal Rooney says those with problems with pornography often visit explicit sites during work hours as they feel there 
is less likelihood they will be found out.

"I get referrals from companies," he says. "A lot of people will see the workplace as an environment where they won't 
get caught. It's not unusual and it's a growing issue."

Currently, hardcore pornography is legal in Ireland, but moves are being made to curb our use of pornography - moves some say could bring on a new era of prohibition and a Big Brother type of internet moderation.

As of this year, new internet service provider customers in Britain have an "opt-in" policy to allow pornography on their computer. The move is in 
line with government proposals to curb
the influence of pornography on young people and stamp out child pornography.

Whether or not this is going to work is debatable. Those pushing for tougher censorship laws claim that exposure to pornography is damaging for society, especially for adolescents and children.

Many commentators, however, feel that it will be impossible to block all pornographic sites, and that this does, in fact, cause headaches for people trying to access social networking, dating and video streaming sites.

There have been serious problems with the introduction of the "opt-in" filters in the UK and, when it began, sites with gay, lesbian and sex education in their titles were banned. These porn filters can also, technically, create a government database of all pornography users.

Besides which, with Miley Cyrus gyrating naked in videos, and advertising becoming more and more provocative, is all this porn panic coming too late?

The truth is that we still have little understanding of what impact online pornography - and the internet for that matter - has on the human mind. To say internet pornography can, single-handedly, destroy our relationships is extreme, and to ignore its effects is denial.

For Shane, the idea of banning pornography is pointless and an invasion of our privacy rights.

"In America, they tried to ban alcohol and it just threw everything into the hands of gangsters, leading to a situation where people got more drunk than ever. If they try and ban porn, the same thing is going to happen.

"It's also a bit creepy to think that governments will have a list of porn users. I don't think I'm alone on that one," he adds.

An outright ban on porn brings us back to the days of personal and sexual censorship. Those backing the introduction of filters and "opt-in" clauses could lead us to some very difficult questions of personal autonomy and what role our government should have in our sex life.

Protecting our children from exposure to hardcore pornography is difficult, but not impossible.

It should, however, be a process carried out in an open manner, and not staring down the barrel of the censor. Pornography addiction is a growing issue, but, like alcohol prohibition, it could be a step in the wrong direction.

Neil, who has experienced a pornography addiction first hand, does not support an outright ban on "the industry", but feels people need to be wary of how much time they spend in the land of cyber sex.

"I know not everyone gets addicted," he says. "And I never thought it was a real addiction until it happened to me.

"It's so embarrassing. None of my friends know. They'd just take the piss and I'd be seen as a freak.

"If couples want to watch porn sometimes I don't see the problem, but, for single guys like me, it can replace sex completely and become an obsession," he says.

One thing is certain - as we race through the Information Age, where citizens are replaced with "netizens", and an entire generation is unaware of life pre-Google, it might be the time for open dialogue on where this entanglement of sex and the screen could lead us.

On-line porn in Ireland - the facts

Hardcore pornography is legal 
in Ireland, but it isn't allowed to depict 
any acts that are illegal in the State.

In the 1960s, the Catholic Church unsuccessfully lobbied to have an outright ban on pornography.

It is illegal to use to ".ie" domain address for pornography sites in Ireland.

According to one pornographic 
website - Pornhub -Irish visitors to 
the site grew 20pc in the last two years, and 77pc since 2010.

Most Irish pornography-users log on between the hours of 10pm-1am, with 
a slight increase between 2pm and 3pm.

January is Pornhub's busiest month 
and September is a quiet month for pornography users.

Other studies show that Sunday 
is the most popular day for people to 
log on to porn sites.

Globally, there are 30,000 unique 
users logging onto pornography sites 
every second.

Sunday Independent

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