Sex Addiction 5/7: Internet Pornography
In the fifth part of his blog series, psychosexual therapist Dr Thaddeus Birchard discusses the particular principles and problems of addiction to internet pornography, from ‘supernormal stimuli’ and the role of mirror neurons, to the two ways in which pornography addiction tends to escalate
About one third of the men who come for treatment for sex addiction at the Marylebone Centre are addicted to the use of internet pornography. Internet pornography operates on what Dr Al Cooper calls the ‘Triple A’ Engine – affordability, accessibility and anonymity. Well, it seems anonymous, even if your data is being collected by large faceless organisations. Dr Kimberley Young adapted this to the ACE model: Anonymity, Convenience and Escape.
Stan (not his real name) came to me some years ago because he was disturbed by his excessive use of internet pornography, which involved the same daily pattern. Stan was self-employed. He would get up in the morning and, almost immediately, go to his computer to surf the pornography sites. This would activate his arousal chemistry, which reduced his ability to make good judgements. He would go on to hook-up sites and, by lunchtime, he would have arranged to meet someone for casual sex in the afternoon. This normally involved receiving oral sex. By the time this had happened, Stan would have lost almost his whole day.
This happened four or five days a week. To keep going financially, Stan had re-mortgaged his flat twice. He was not getting much work done. Clearly there was a problem. It was at a more lucid time that he decided to seek treatment.
Internet pornography works on the principle of ‘supernormal’. This was a concept developed by Tinbergen and advanced by Barrett in Supernormal Stimuli. Animals and humans respond to artificially enhanced versions of real and normal phenomena. So, what is internet pornography but an artificially enhanced version of the real thing? Apparently, more than 80 per cent of female porn stars have breast enhancements. While the average erect penis is about 5.5 inches long, the average male porn star has an erect penis that is around 8 inches long. Supernormal stimuli, indeed. As Naomi Wolfe, writing about ‘the porn myth’ for New York Magazine, has observed, ‘Today, real naked women are just bad porn’.
Pornography works by using the brain’s system of mirror neurons. These mirror neurons create arousal when we see arousal on the screen, just as we can experience sorrow and joy when witnessing these emotions in others.
In 2014, there were 68 million searches for pornography in the United States alone, and most of these searches come during working hours. Pornography sites have a larger income than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined.
The problem of escalation
Internet pornography helps us to escape life’s problems. It provides a temporary refuge from stress, other negative affect states and difficult-to-tolerate emotions, with the added bonus of
powerful sexual pleasure. However, it does not solve these problems. And of course, the escape itself can become a problem.
Internet pornography tends to escalate in one of two ways. There can be time escalation: one intends to go online for half an hour, and one finally turns the computer off at 4am. The second, and perhaps more dangerous escalation, concerns the type of pornography. A man might get bored looking at video clips of two people having sex, and move on to group sex. A man might go from ‘barely legal’ (a category of pornography) to illegal. The problem is that, when he orgasms to the pictures at these different sites, their power is reinforced, and what was ancillary to the sexual drive can move mainstream. The arousal chemistry shuts down the ability to consider consequences.
Next week, we will take a closer look at the neuroscience of sexual addiction.