I’ll just get right to the point: I like porn. A lot. I would say I use Internet porn sites five days a week, on average, and spend about three hours at a time on them (sometimes more). I do think I have “numbed” to it, to some extent, over time, to the point it takes a certain type of porn to really excite me (a fetish, you could call it). I use porn for mental inspiration when I masturbate, obviously, and don’t really enjoy masturbation without using it. I am single. Maybe that’s needless to say. I enjoy sex with another person (who doesn’t?), but with porn there is less pressure to perform, no chance of STDs, and I can indulge all of my fantasies, so I prefer it to the real thing most of the time. It’s part of the reason I am not interested in being in a relationship right now. But I can also picture a day when I will want to be in a relationship and maybe fall in love and have kids, and when that time comes, I’m afraid I’ll still prefer porn to sex with a person. I have read conflicting information on the Internet about whether a person can be addicted to porn. Some people say it’s a real addiction, others say it’s not, others say the jury is still out. Can you set the record straight, please? And if I am addicted to porn, what has to happen for me to break the habit? It doesn’t feel like a problem to me right now, except for the amount of time I spend using it, but then I think about what alcoholics say: “It’s not a problem, leave me alone.” You’re the expert. You tell me. —Nothing but ‘Net

Dear Nothing but ‘Net,

Thank you for your candor. You raise some interesting points, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

First of all, I want to stay out of the controversy of whether pornography use is addictive. I personally believe that anything producing a euphoric high, including sexual pleasure, has the potential for either an addiction or an addiction-like habit. There are many criteria I use in my clinical work, one of which is: what term is useful to the person? Some need to call it an addiction in order to take it seriously. Some prefer to call it a “disease” to reduce shame and treat “symptoms” as they might a physical illness. Some prefer “habit” or “compulsion.” For my purposes, anyone is welcome to call it what they like.

The key, for me, is identifying the cost and consequences, psychological and relational. In short, if it becomes a “must” and not a choice; if it becomes the “only” choice that offers some kind of emotional balance or soothing; if it shrinks rather than expands a person’s life; if, in other words, a person’s cost becomes higher than the return while it’s still difficult or impossible to stop, then in my view it’s probably time to do some soul-searching.

I also assume, incidentally, you would not have written in about it if some aspect of it wasn’t bothering you. That’s important.

Psychologist Patrick Carnes, who pioneered research into sexual addiction (or, if you will, sexually compulsive behavior), wrote a book about his early findings called Out of the Shadows, which you might want to have a look at if you’re interested in seeing an early example of what has come to be called “sex addiction.” He claims there are “four core beliefs” of a sex-addicted person. I don’t necessarily think there are the same “core beliefs” for each person, but one of these beliefs, which I have seen more often than not, is the notion “sex is the most important thing” in one’s life in terms of excitement, satisfaction, emotional fulfillment, etc.

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Two other things came to mind when I read your message. The first is something I often tell people if they’re not sure they have become dependent: try going without it for a week. Is it possible? If so, is it difficult? In what way? Does it quickly seem impossible to do without? (A red flag, by the way.) What is masturbation or sex like without porn? Is it dull or unexciting? Some people say they can’t get aroused without that behavior, meaning sex with a partner becomes compromised. Some also report a spike in depressive or anxious feelings after stopping such a habit. It would be educational to try going without for a set period of time, I’m guessing.

The key, for me, is identifying the cost and consequences, psychological and relational. In short, if it becomes a “must” and not a choice; if it becomes the “only” choice that offers some kind of emotional balance or soothing; if it shrinks rather than expands a person’s life; if, in other words, a person’s cost becomes higher than the return while it’s still difficult or impossible to stop, then in my view it’s probably time to do some soul-searching.

It’s notable that not only do you profess a liking of porn, but a certain kind of porn, or “fetish,” which suggests to me that porn has become a habitual part of your life. I say this not at all to criticize, but rather to point out the apparent extent of your involvement. It strikes me as comparable to someone who starts off smoking pot occasionally and ends up, over time, seeking a very specific strain of marijuana. This implies to me your tolerance has gone up, which is one of the classic symptoms of dependence in general; more excitement or “pushing the edge” is needed to maintain satisfaction or arousal. Most of the time, as I’ve observed, tolerance continues to rise as more excitement or edginess is sought.

Generally, those who end up turning to a “thing” to provide sexual satisfaction with such habituation have experienced some kind of emotional injury or even trauma earlier in life. (Not always, but often.) Many of the men I work with who struggle with porn, for example, experienced abandonment and/or intense criticism from parents, to the point their own desires, including normal sexual desire, became “wrong.” Thus, sexual desire comes with a layer of shame, and an inner critical voice saying such desires are unacceptable, meaning they go “underground” and seek covert expression via a “thing” rather than another person. The problem is not a moral one (excluding illegal material or means, of course) but rather an emotional one, as porn becomes the only safe haven for sexuality.

It is hard to see that sexuality contains very strong feelings or desires for intimacy that become eroticized or sexualized, unconsciously so. I have come to the (somewhat tentative) hypothesis that behind sexually compulsive behavior of any kind is a deeply painful loneliness, isolation, and fear of intimacy—combined with a terror of re-experiencing emotional pain, rejection, etc., in a relationship with a person.

Which brings me to my second (and perhaps most important) point. Those who become habituated to pornography (or other ritualized stimulation) often find themselves in a catch-22 regarding relationships. If there is any underlying anxiety or something painful in the background as yet unresolved, it’s possible you might—and I mean might, since I have little to go on—find yourself postponing the search for your future wife and mother of your children, since you’ve already found a kind of reliable companion with pornography. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In other words, with pornography as a reliable go-to outlet, you may be unmotivated or tenuous in starting the risky, uncertain process of seeking a partner. Also, remember that sex at the start of a relationship—like communication itself—can be awkward, tentative, and not all that “hot.” Control and power is shared, and sometimes a new partner’s preferences don’t at all jibe with ours. Like anything, sexual intimacy takes compromise, commitment, and time, as each couple develops its own rhythm and dance moves, as it were. Sex is on the continuum of emotional relating between two people, or perhaps a different type of relating—but still a communication within the relationship, not something happening outside it. Sex is much more emotion and communication, often unconscious, than we might realize. Couples will sometimes tell me, “We’re having problems with sex but unsure why”; exploration usually reveals that the challenges are in the relationship itself, both inside and outside the bedroom.

A person with trust issues in general may have trouble relaxing in bed. Someone struggling with shame may dislike having to explain his or her preferences or likes/dislikes to their partner. And so forth.

This is also why, incidentally, people who have affairs often run into the same problems they are having in their marriage, perhaps in slightly different form; whether sex leads to a more emotional connection or vice-versa, it lands them in the same place: having to negotiate, compromise, and accept the imperfections of an intimate other, meaning we face some of our own skeletons and insecurities as well. A person stays safely sheltered from all this when it’s just that person and a computer or a TV screen.

This is a long-winded answer to a complicated question. To boil it down: See if anything I say here resonates with your experience; check out Carnes or other authors on the emotional motivation to use pornography; and give yourself some time away from porn to see if or how much you miss it. And thank you for writing. Should you find yourself in need of counseling on the issue, there are some fine therapists out there who specialize in these areas. Good luck!

Kind regards,

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