Ask Dr. David Greenfield if there’s a problem with pornography online and he’ll tell you there is – but not for reasons of prudishness or because of arguments against the adult industry per se. Rather, because pornography online – available, anonymously and for free, anytime, anywhere via our cellphones – is giving rise to a new form of addiction that can cause sexual dysfunction.
Pornography might not grab at the soul like heroine – addiction might grow over years, says Greenfield, the founder of the Center for Internet Technology Addiction, in Connecticut, US – but when it does, it can have a profound negative impact on the user’s life, crippling relationships as a result of making sexual relations in the real world problematic, thanks to what’s been dubbed PIED – porn-induced erectile dysfunction – and PIDE – porn-induced delayed ejaculation. Delayed, that is, as in probably not at all. Then there’s talk of withdrawal symptoms, including the likes of restlessness, anxiety, headaches and wooly-headedness. Some can’t focus on their work for the draw of pornography. Some say the whole deal is a ticking time-bomb, waiting, as it were, to climax.
For others it’s just talk because, among psychologists, there’s still debate as to whether pornography addiction actually exists. While there have been some 40 studies on compulsive masturbation using pornography over recent years, the DSM, the bible of psychiatry, has yet to recognise that there’s a problem. Yet certainly there’s much anecdotal evidence, especially from those ‘digital natives’ who have only ever known instant access to porn; whose young brains are, it’s been argued, more susceptible to addiction to the dopamine hit that porn provides.
YouTube has made confessional stars of the likes of Noah Church, author of ‘Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn’, and Gabe Deem, whose Re-Boot Nation has garnered thousands of mostly though not exclusively male adherents, admitting to their own issues with porn use and following his advise as to how best to deal with the digital dealer that is their keyboard. Neither of them have religious hang-ups or moral quandaries over pornography. They’ve both just experienced relationships fail over and over because they’d rather have fast, convenient, uncomplicated virtual sex over the complex and demanding real thing.
Their solution to the problem is equally uncomplicated. Deem is an adherent of a rather old-fashioned but, he claims, effective means of tackling porn addiction – and unfortunately it’s not some kind of slowly-slowly methadone-style measured withdrawal. He says the only way is self-discipline and complete abstinence – and reckons for most men who find themselves needing to re-boot normal sexual function this might take three months or so, allowing for inevitable relapses, with complete recovery after maybe nine month of abstinence. Others have suggested this cold turkey approach might be best supplemented by finding some kind of activity to replace, and displace, the urge to sit at a screen and take it in hand: taking up a sport, joining a choir, whatever it takes.
Note though that neither Church nor Deem are arguing for the foregoing of masturbation during this time, just masturbation aided by pornography. Indeed, Gabe suggests that one test as to whether one has become rather too dependent on the visual stimulus of pornography is to attempt to masturbate without it. If the physical sensation and an active imagination aren’t enough to do the job, then there may be an issue. By the same token, neither are recommending that a sustained period of abstinence can be followed by a return to using pornography – better, they say, to just be done with it and don’t look back. The urge may always be there. But you just have to live with it.
Whether psychiatry will come up with more nuanced modes of treatment will depend on its growing appreciation for there being a problem at all, which in turn may be a consequence of the sheer numbers of those ready to self-diagnose and report themselves as having a habit. It is, as Greenfield stresses, a very fine line between use and abuse. After all, drugs and alcohol are unquestionably both poisons, albeit sometimes enjoyable ones. You can quit them. Quitting one’s human sexuality in the same way isn’t an option.
His advice is sage: “If you use cocaine and it’s not having a negative impact, do you have an addiction? I’d say the same of pornography. If you use porn every day and it doesn’t affect your work, your family, your relationships or give you some kind of sexual dysfunction, then all power to you. I only tend to see people when it’s already had a deleterious impact.”