How addictive is pornography?
'I'm frightened of real sex, which is unscripted and unpredictable so I engage in pornography, which is totally under my control. But it brings intense disappointment because it is not what I'm really searching for. It's rather like a hungry person standing outside the window of a restaurant, thinking that they're going to get fed.' That's how one man described his porn addiction to Edward Marriott. Do you use the stuff?
There's an episode of Friends in which Chandler and Joey discover they have tuned into a free porn channel. They leave the TV on, afraid switching off will mean no more porn. By the end of the episode, Chandler is seeing the world through porn-tinted spectacles. 'I was just at the bank,' he complains, 'and the teller didn't ask me to go do it with her in the vault. You know what, we have to turn off the porn.'
But men are further from turning off the porn than ever. Pornography is everywhere. In the US, people spend more on porn every year than they do on movie tickets and all the performing arts combined.
Pornography is not only bigger business than ever, it is also more acceptable, more fashionable, more cool.
It seems as if the sheer scale of the phenomenon has, in time-honoured capitalist fashion, conferred its own respectability; as a result, serious analysis is hard to come by.
Yet what about the millions who consume pornography, the men - for they are, despite pornographers' claims, mostly men - who habitually use it? The received wisdom, pushed hard by such mass-market magazines as Loaded and FHM, is that men derive a pretty uncomplicated enjoyment from pornography. But is it as simple as this?
Like many men, I first saw pornography during puberty. At boarding school, dog-eared copies of Mayfair and Knave were stowed behind toilet cisterns. Long before my first sexual relationship, porn was my sex education.
Being away from home, my friends and I longed for love, closeness, acceptance. The women over whom we masturbated - surrogate mothers, if you like - seemed to be offering this but, of course, were never going to provide it. The untruths it taught me on top of this disappointment - that women are always available, that sex is about what a man can do to a woman - I am only now succeeding in unlearning.
From men everywhere come similar stories. But today, boys no longer clandestinely circulate magazines after school. Access to internet pornography has never been easier, its users never younger.
At its basic level, pornography answers natural curiosity.
Adolescent boys want to know what sex is about. David Morgan, consultant clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst at the Portman Clinic in London, which specialises in problems relating to sexuality and violence, describes this phase as 'transitional, like a rehearsal for the real thing. The problem with pornography begins when, instead of being a temporary stop on the way to full sexual relations, it becomes a full-time place of residence. The more time you spend in this fantasy world, the more difficult it becomes to make the transition to reality. Just like drugs, pornography provides a quick fix, a masturbatory universe people can get stuck in. This can result in their not being able to involve anyone else.'
Psychotherapists Michael Thompson, pictured right working with boys, and Dan Kindlon, in their book Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life Of Boys, suggest that objectification, for boys, starts early. 'By adolescence, a boy wakes up most mornings with an erection. What people might not realise when they justly criticise men for objectifying sex - viewing sex as something you do, rather than part of a relationship - is that the first experience of objectification of sexuality in a boy's life comes from his experience of his own body, having this penis that makes its own demands.'
But the roots go back further still. Research has shown that boy babies are treated more harshly than girls and, as they grow up, are taught that success is achieved through competition. To deal with this harsh masculine world, boys can learn not to trust their own feelings and not to express their emotions.
Men become suspicious of other men, with whom they're in competition, and as a result they often feel lonely and isolated.
Yet men, as much as women, hunger for intimacy. For many males, locked into a life in which self-esteem has grown intrinsically entwined with performance, sex assumes a freight of demands and needs. Not only does sex itself become almost the only means through which many men can feel intimate, but it is also the way in which they find validation. Real sex itself, of course, cannot possibly satisfy such demands.
It is into this troubled scenario that porn finds easy access. For in pornography, unlike in real life, there is no criticism, real or imagined, of male performance.
Women in porn are always, in the words of the average internet site, 'hot and ready', eager to please.
Men, say psychologists, also feel threatened by the 'emotional power' they perceive women wielding over them. Unable to feel alive except when in relationships with women, they are at the same time painfully aware that their only salvation from isolation comes in being sexually acceptable to women. This sense of neediness can provoke intense anger that, all too often, finds expression in porn.
The porn industry, of course, dismisses such talk, yet occasionally comes a glimmer of authenticity. Bill Margold, left, one of the industry's longest-serving film performers, was interviewed in 1991 by psychoanalyst Robert Stoller for his book Porn: Myths For The Twentieth Century. Margold admitted: 'My whole reason for being in this industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don't care much for women and want to see the men in my industry getting even with the women they couldn't have when they were growing up. So we come on a woman's face or brutalise her sexually: we're getting even for lost dreams.'
As well as 'eroticising male supremacy', in the words of anti-porn campaigner John Stoltenberg, pornography also attempts to assuage other male fears, in particular that of erection failure. Pornography answers men's fetishistic need for visual proof of phallic potency.
Pornography, in other words, is a lie. It peddles falsehoods about men, women and relationships.
It seduces vulnerable, lonely men with the promise of intimacy, and delivers only a transitory fix. Increasingly, though, men are starting to be open about the effect of pornography. David McLeod, a marketing executive, explains the cycle: 'I'm drawn to porn when I'm lonely, particularly when I'm single and sexually frustrated. But I can easily get disgusted with myself. After watching a video two or three times, I'll throw it away and vow never to watch another again. But my resolve never lasts very long.'
Like many men, McLeod is torn. Quick to claim that porn has 'no harmful effects', he is also happy to acknowledge the contradictory fact that it is 'deadening'.
Extended exposure to pornography can have a whole raft of effects.
By the time Nick Samuels had reached his mid-20s, it was altering his view of what he wanted from a sexual relationship. 'I used to watch porn with one of my girlfriends, and I started to want to try things I'd seen in the films.' Married for 15 years, he admits he has carried the same sexual expectations into the marital bedroom. 'There's been real friction over this: my wife simply isn't that kind of person. And it's only now, after all these years, that I'm beginning to move on from it. Porn is like alcoholism: it clings to you like a leech.'
Psychoanalyst Estela Welldon, right, has treated couples for whom such scenarios spiralled out of control. 'I have seen cases in which first the woman has been subjected to porn and then they have used their own children for pornographic purposes.'
Even when in a loving sexual relationship, men who have used porn say that, all too often, they see their partner through a kind of 'pornographic filter'. This effect is summed up by US sociologist Harry Brod, in LynneSegal's essay Sweet Sorrows, Painful Pleasures: 'There have been too many times when I have guiltily resorted to impersonal fantasy because the genuine love I felt for a woman wasn't enough to convert feelings into performance. And in those sorry, secret moments, I have resented deeply my lifelong indoctrination into (pornography).'
Running through all pornography use, according to David Morgan, is the desire for control. 'A typical example might be a boy with fairly absent parents, either in emotional terms or in actual fact.' The boy, wishing his parents were more present - more within his control - can grow up wishing 'to find something over which he can have control.'
The user of pornography is also psychologically on the run.
Welldon says: 'people who use pornography feel dead inside, and they are trying to avoid being aware of that pain. There is a sense of liberation, which is temporary: that's why pornography is so repetitive - you have to go back again and again.'
Pornography, says Ray Wyre, a specialist in sexual crime, 'encourages transience, experimentation and moving between partners'. Morgan goes further: 'Pornography does damage because it encourages people to make their home in shallow relationships.'
For John-Paul Day, an Edinburgh architect, the experience of being a small boy with a dying mother drove him to seek solace in masturbation. He says he has been 'addicted' to pornography his entire adult life. He has attended meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous for 12 years.
Like drugs and drink, pornography - as Day has realised - is an addictive substance. Porn actor Kelly Cooke says this applies on either side of the camera: 'It got to the point where I considered having sex the way most people consider getting a hamburger. But when you try to give it up, you realise how addictive it is, both for consumers and performers. It's a class A drug, and it's hell coming off it.'
The cycle of addiction leads one way: towards ever harder material.
Morgan believes 'all pornography ends up with S&M'.
The myth about porn, as a witness told the 1983 Minneapolis city council public hearings on it, is that 'it frees the libido and gives men an outlet for sexual expression. This is truly a myth. I have found pornography not only does not liberate men, but on the contrary is a source of bondage. Men masturbate to pornography only to become addicted to the fantasy.'
In its most severe form, this can lead to sexual crime, though the links between the two remain controversial and much argued-over. '
'It is impossible not to believe pornography plays a part in sexual violence.'
Wyre, from his work with sex offenders, says, 'As we constantly confront sex offenders about their behaviour, they display a wide range of distorted views that they then use to excuse their behaviour, justify their actions, blame the victim and minimise the effect of their offending. They seek to make their own behaviour seem normal, and interpret the behaviour of the victim as consent, rather than a survival strategy. Pornography legitimises these views.'
The alternative to pornography, says Morgan, is not always easy. 'Relationships are difficult. Intimacy, having a good relationship, loving your children, involves work. Pornography is fantasy in the place of reality. But it is just that: fantasy. And the only thing human beings get nourishment from is reality: real relationships.
'And, anyway, what do you want to say when you get to the end of your life? That you wish you'd spent more time wanking on the internet? I hardly think so.'
Page created on December 1st, 2007
Page updated on March 11th, 2010