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|Out of the Shadow - Page 6|
Soon after the turn of the new millennium, a new client helped me see what else was at play that made quitting porn so difficult, even for people who wanted to do so. Sam, a shy young man whom I'd been seeing for a few weeks, told me, "Doing porn feels like an incredible rush of life blowing through my veins, and the good part is, I can always go back for more." His description of his porn experience sounded eerily similar to the language used by the patients with drug and alcohol problems I'd worked with through the years. Over time, more of my clients experiencing the impact of porn in their lives began using words and phrases usually associated with hardcore drug addiction. They often referred to using porn as a "high" and a "rush." They started needing a stronger product in higher doses to get the same effect, and when they decided to quit, they frequently complained of continual cravings, preoccupations, and sensations of "withdrawal." "I tried going Ôcold turkey' with porn," one man told me, "but the urges were stronger than when I quit cigarettes and cocaine."
In 2004, concerned about what we were seeing in our practices, Larry and I began working on a recovery book entitled The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography (HarperCollins, 2008). Our goal was to create a sex-positive resource for individuals and couples that would help them understand how porn has changed and empower them to address porn problems directly and compassionately with effective strategies for recovery and relationship healing.
What we discovered in researching the book confirmed my feelings that porn use had many of the same properties as drug use. Addiction specialists and neuroscientists, such as Harvey Milkman, Peter Shizgal, Patrick Carnes, T. M. Grundner, and Helen Fisher, were finding that pornography did indeed have a druglike effect on the body and mind. Despite being ingested through the eyes and ears instead of the mouth or bloodstream, porn stimulates the reward and pleasure centers in the brain, instantly and dramatically, increasing the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with both sexual arousal and drug highs. In addition, using porn for sexual stimulation has been shown to increase production of other "feel-good" chemicals, such as adrenaline, endorphins, testosterone, and serotonin; with sexual climax, it releases powerful hormones related to falling in love and bonding, such as oxytocin and vasopressin.
Research shows that, like compulsive gambling and shopping, porn use can lead to a "process addiction," in which a person becomes addicted to a set of behaviors (e.g. consuming porn) that, in turn, powerfully alter brain chemistry. The Internet and other electronic devices allow porn users to click through a never-ending stream of stimulating material as they look for just the right porn site, the sexual activity of interest, or the ultimate fantasy partner. Like a carefully calibrated slot machine, it rewards only intermittently, compelling the user to stay engaged and not give up. Users can end up looking at porn for longer and longer periods of time, often seeking riskier content to "hit the jackpot" of landing on an extremely stimulating image.
Porn wasn't just operating like a drug—it was operating like a designer drug, able to give the user multiple types of results: novelty, excitement, escape, mastery, and (with orgasm) relaxation. All the new information about porn we were gathering helped explain why people of all ages and from all walks of life could develop such strong attachments to porn that they craved it compulsively, couldn't control their use, and couldn't stop, despite negative consequences.
My newfound knowledge of pornography's druglike effects helped me bring more compassion to the issues porn users faced. Not only were their partners in distress: anyone trying to quit using porn faced his or her own difficult emotional and physiological struggles. I started recommending that clients supplement their individual and couples counseling work with attending 12-step sexual addiction recovery programs, such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, and Recovering Couples Anonymous, or porn recovery groups of their own choosing. I began encouraging intimate partners to attend Codependents of Sex Addicts meetings and to check out supportive websites, such as www.pornaddicthubby.com. With my background in drug and alcohol counseling, I know that support groups can be critical to successful recovery, helping overcome social isolation and shame, building accountability supports, and sharing triumphs.
I began working with clients to develop effective strategies for preventing relapses. Many clients find the "trigger-zone" model and exercises that are described in The Porn Trap beneficial for identifying how close they are to having a possible relapse and knowing just what steps to take to get to safer ground. Given the importance of healthy sexuality to overall recovery and quality of life, advanced work is done to heal troublesome sexual fantasies and develop healthy strategies for self-pleasuring, relaxed sensual touch, and enjoying sexual intimacy with a partner.
Even though my research opened my eyes to porn's potential addictiveness, I know that not everyone gets addicted. Someone can have a problem with porn—for example, broken integrity, relationship difficulties, work problems, or an interest in child porn—and still not have addiction issues. But I began to understand more clearly that, for most of my clients and other porn users and partners with whom I spoke while doing research for the book, porn use almost always carries with it some negative consequences that can't be avoided.