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A Threat to Public Health
Since The Porn Trap was published, I've had numerous professional and personal conversations about porn that have sensitized me to the expansion and significance of problems caused by porn. I recently spoke with a woman while we both worked out on treadmills at the YMCA who told me how, after her father had died, she'd found a stash of hardcore porn videos and magazines in his bedroom. "No matter how much I tried not to let it bother me, it changed the way I think about him," she said. A man came up to me after a workshop and asked what he could do to help his 13-year-old son break a habit of masturbating to bondage porn. In my practice, I've seen several soldiers back from the Iraq war suffering from porn addictions they developed there as a way to deal with traumatic stress. And some people told me there were times they've seriously contemplated suicide as a way to escape the isolating nervousness of their obsessions with porn.
I never wanted to be out beating the drum against pornography. In the beginning of my career, if anyone had suggested I'd be here now, I'd have laughed at them. But from my own clients, my research, and my personal experience, I've come to the conclusion that pornography is moving from an individual and couples' problem to a public health problem, capable of deeply harming the emotional, sexual, and relationship well-being of millions of men, women, and children.
As a sex therapist, I'm amazed that what I once saw as a liberating sexual experience and a therapeutic option for improving sex with an intimate partner has evolved into something that can easily hijack and harm people's sexuality. Increasing numbers of clients report that porn has become "the great spoiler" for them sexually by spawning unhealthy interests and reducing their natural responsiveness. One man confided that he could no longer get an erection with a real partner. "I want to go back to how it used to be before I was into porn—when just being near a woman I cared about turned me on. How can I get my old sexuality back?" he asked. Another told me he'd probably remain single all his life: "I've lost all interest in dating. Porn is easier and more convenient than dealing with actual people. And even if I met a nice woman, I doubt she'd really want me, given how twisted my sexual desires have become."
Many female partners of porn users tell me they're turning off to sex with their partner because of the increased pressure they feel to act like porn stars and respond to porn-inspired sexual advances. And women looking for long-term partners are worried about how pornography is shrinking the pool of desirable men. "It's hard to find a guy who isn't into porn and genuinely doesn't like it. But that's who I want as a lifemate and father to my children," one woman explained.
I'm especially troubled by the way contact with porn appears to be harming young people's mental and sexual health. Teens have been identified as one of the largest consumer groups of porn. A 2009 research study of one thousand 13- to 16-year-olds in the United Kingdom by CyberSentinel found that teens are spending an average of one hour and forty minutes a week (87 hours a year) looking at online porn. Studies in the United States report similar exposure rates, with a 2004 study by Columbia University finding that 45 percent of teens admit that they have friends who regularly view and download porn.
Tech-savvy and naturally curious, young people are increasingly turning to Internet porn to learn about sex and as the primary focus of their masturbation. Some teenagers have begun showing signs that exposure to pornography could be undermining their ability to make healthy choices about sexual activity. For example, a 2009 Harris Interactive survey revealed that despite the legal and personal risks involved, 19 percent of teenagers are engaged in sexting—sending and receiving sexually suggestive, nude or nearly nude photos through text messaging or e-mail. And, according to recent data made available in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control, the age of first sexual involvement has fallen, the teen-pregnancy rate has increased (following nearly 15 years of large decreases), and sexually transmitted disease rates have increased.
Because of cultural shame and silence, children aren't receiving messages informing them that there's a difference between porn fantasies and the real world, where interpersonal dynamics matter and sex has consequences. Without these touchstones, kids may fail to realize how harmful and unfair it is to measure their own sexuality (or anyone else's) against porn standards and how dangerous it can be to try to mimic what they see in porn. A colleague recently told me about a college student who'd inadvertently maimed and almost killed himself trying to act out a sex scene he'd viewed in a porn video.
The only way to prevent the spread of porn-related problems is for people to be informed and to get help early, and for society to be alert to the problems. I'm not in favor of censorship, but with other professionals and health advocates, I support honest, age-appropriate discussions of pornography and its potential repercussions in public forums and health education classes. I believe we need a government body devoted specifically to researching the effects of pornography and developing policies, prevention campaigns, and treatment resources. I see a great need for parents, teachers, employers, clergy, healthcare workers, law enforcers, and therapists to start addressing pornography problems with the same kind of shame-free directness with which we've learned to tackle other public health concerns, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, domestic violence, and drug abuse.
As therapists, perhaps our most important role is in providing clients a safe place to discuss and examine their concerns. It's best to analyze porn-related situations on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration a client's personal values, sexual experience, sexual orientation, and relationship status. I often rely on the following questions to help clients increase awareness and begin to evaluate their involvement with porn. Is porn increasing or decreasing your self-esteem and integrity? Is it upsetting or alienating your intimate partner (or harming your future chances of being in a healthy relationship)? Have you become preoccupied, out-of-control, dependent on, or compulsively engaged with porn? How is porn shaping your sexual thoughts, desires, and behaviors? What negative consequences could occur if you continue to use porn? Only when clients determine they want help quitting porn do we proceed in that direction, utilizing the dynamic strategies that exist for achieving sexual recovery and healing. As mental health professionals I believe we're most helpful when we resist our tendencies to automatically condemn or advocate porn. Our effectiveness depends on our ability to join with clients in regularly evaluating porn's impact on their lives. While I remain aware that porn use isn't a problem for everyone, I keep in mind that, given its unprecedented power and accessibility, it can become a problem for anyone.
Wendy Maltz, L.C.S.W., D.S.T., is an internationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, and author of numerous books on sexuality. The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography (with Larry Maltz, HarperCollins, 2008) will be available in paperback in January 2010. Wendy and Larry Maltz offer professional training seminars on treating pornography problems. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.HealthySex.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at email@example.com, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.
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