From Fathers for Good:
A growing problem that calls for serious solutions
(Editor’s Note: As a father’s site, we look at how this issue affects men, though a small percentage of women may also need assistance in this area. For more information, please visit our resources page.)
By Gerald Korson
Henry seemed to have it all — a good marriage, four young children, and a solid middle-management position with a financial corporation. He and his family lived in a good suburban neighborhood and were active in their local parish, where Henry was involved in the music ministry. At 35 years of age, he was poised for a promotion to a more lucrative upper-management post within the next few years.
He always worked long hours, both at the office and at home, but in recent months he had shown signs of stress. To his wife and children, he seemed more distant, irritable and gloomy, and he was spending longer and longer hours at the computer. He often missed family outings, saying he needed to complete more work. Even his co-workers noticed a change in his mood and productivity. He simply wasn’t himself.
Everything came crashing down one evening when Henry’s 11-year-old daughter walked into his den — and caught him watching an explicit internet porn video. Horrified, she told her mother, and this now-disillusioned family suddenly had some very serious issues to face.
A Hidden Addiction
Tragically, Henry’s situation is not at all unique. While pornography has been around for centuries, the problem of addiction has increased dramatically in recent years largely due to the vast presence of pornography on the internet.
Dr. Patrick Carnes, who in 1983 first advanced the idea that a person could become addicted to sex, calls the addiction to internet pornography “the crack cocaine of sexual addiction.” Like crack, it doesn’t take long for an internet porn user to become hooked — often just a few weeks. And like crack, habitual viewing of online porn creates an intense cycle of addiction that is extremely difficult to break without expert assistance.
The effects of internet pornography upon marriage, the family and the individual are devastating.
1. It destroys the trust and intimacy between husband and wife and often leads to marital breakup.
2. By exploiting human persons and turning them into mere objects for one’s own sexual satisfaction, pornography creates obstacles to real communication and personal interaction with one’s own spouse and with others.
3. It stimulates within the porn addict a distorted view of sexuality that can lead to the desire for increasingly riskier, more perverse and even criminal sexual behaviors.
4. Like any addiction, it draws focus away from one’s family life and relationship with God and sets a destructive example for children.
5. Viewing pornography and engaging in masturbation are serious sins that can block God’s grace when it’s needed most.
“This plague stalks the souls of men, women and children, ravages the bonds of marriage and victimizes the most innocent among us,” writes Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia, in his 2006 pastoral letter Bought with a Price: Pornography and the Attack on the Living Temple of God. “It obscures and destroys people’s ability to see one another as unique and beautiful expressions of God’s creation, instead darkening their vision, causing them to view others as objects to be used and manipulated.”
Catholics and other Christians are not immune to porn addiction. Some estimates put porn use among church-going men at 50 percent, a figure that differs little from use among the adult male population at large.
It’s an epidemic that is exploding in the internet age. A few decades ago, a man who wanted pornographic entertainment would have to visit a rundown X-rated theater in the seediest part of town or covertly purchase a racy magazine at the corner liquor store.
But with today’s internet, explicit pornographic images and videos are readily available — often at no cost, and with few or no barriers to users of all ages in the relative privacy of their own homes. It’s as easy to access porn online as it is to log on to sites like YouTube or Facebook, and it can even be downloaded to an iPod or cell phone.
For Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media, the internet is the primary factor in the increase in porn use.
“Particularly with the internet, we usually talk about the three A’s — accessibility, affordability, and anonymity — and sometimes I add a fourth A, addiction,” says Peters. “Pornography is addictive in any medium, but when you’ve got this smorgasbord at your fingertips, and you’re clever enough to keep anyone from finding out about it, it’s an awful lot easier for people to get into pornography.”
Those factors also make it much easier for children and teenagers to access pornography, according to Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a medical doctor and director of the Institute for Marital Healing, near Philadelphia.
“Unfortunately, kids in elementary and high schools can develop a really bad problem with porn at a very early age,” Fitzgibbons says. “They go to school and talk about porn sites with their friends. If it were not for the internet, these kids would not be into this fantasy world.”
Peters echoes this assessment. “With the advent of the internet, more and more children are being exposed to pornography, and at earlier ages, and to more extreme content,” he says.
Into the darkness
An internet porn habit may begin out of curiosity, by clicking on a racy advertisement or an e-mail or happening upon a site by accident. A man may continue to explore online porn because he feels it fills a real or perceived need, explains Mark Houck, co-founder and president of The King’s Men, a Catholic apostolate based in the Philadelphia area.
“Perhaps he is stressed at work, or perhaps he is bored with his life and looking for some excitement,” says Houck. “Whatever the case is, it begins with his false perception that the women and images he will see on the internet will satisfy his needs. The truth of the matter is that they will never satisfy his needs, and he will be left in a worse situation than he was before.”
Factors that may lead to the development of a porn-viewing habit include stress, marital conflict, profound self-centeredness, or the “pleasure principle,” a Freudian term for the drive to avoid pain and seek immediate gratification.
Sometimes there is a contributing cause in what Dr. Fitzgibbons calls “marital loneliness.”
“The couple has drifted apart in the home,” Dr. Fitzgibbons says. “They love each other, but they’re not present to each other, particularly in the evening. They’re in different rooms, even different floors of the house. That’s the worst mistake.”
Whatever the root causes, a man’s attraction to pornographic images can bring about a mental “high” that provides a brief escape from whatever stress or unhappiness he is experiencing in his daily life. It usually also provokes physical arousal, which leads the man to masturbate. Often this act is followed by guilt, shame, depression, and even self-loathing. Yet the attraction to this “high” soon returns, and he will likely be drawn back to the internet to enter this world of fantasy again and again.
Gradually, the porn addiction takes more time and more images. “What you see on the internet today is nothing more than the product of millions of porn addicts’ insatiable desire for their next high,” Houck says.
A destructive cycle
Eventually, the anonymity ends when the secret gets out. The increase in internet pornography addiction has brought with it an increase in the number of men and couples seeking help to overcome the problem — although it is not usually the man’s idea to seek help, says Dr. Fitzgibbons.
“Sometimes it’s the men, but more often the wives become aware that their husbands have this problem,” he says.
Most wives consider their husband’s porn use as a betrayal every bit as deep and damaging as if they had committed adultery.
“The negative impact on marriages is quite significant,” says Dr. Fitzgibbons. “I’ve had many women say that this is no different to them than their husband having an affair.”
Dr. Art Bennett, director of Alpha Omega Clinic and Consultation Services in Bethesda, Md., says that “the only way the addict can relieve these uncomfortable feelings of shame and guilt is to slip once more into the ‘erotic haze’ of cybersex, which then further ensnares the user in the web of addiction.”
The user may try to stop, but the withdrawal symptoms drive him right back to the very source of his addiction, Bennett says.
Tough road to recovery
While some experts object to using the medical term of addiction, most therapists in the field today agree that obsessive viewing of internet porn qualifies as a behavioral addiction: When a man views the images, the accompanying gratification tends to neurochemically “hard-wire” his brain and burn the images permanently in his memory in what some doctors call an “eroto-toxin” effect.
It thus becomes perhaps a more dangerous addiction because it derives not from an external substance, as in drug or alcohol addiction, but is internalized within the addict.
Rebuilding marital trust after the addiction is discovered is a major undertaking, says Dr. Fitzgibbons. The man must patiently discuss and rehash all that went on as deeply and as often as she requests. He must provide her with more attention and become more focused on their marital friendship. With time, if he can be chaste and accountable, his wife’s trust in him may grow again.
Part of the recovery process as well as a preventive measure is for husband and wife to practice good interpersonal communication and to spend quality time together — in other words, to build and maintain a strong marital friendship.
“Marital friendship is based on talking, communicating, being present to the other — not just watching television, but taking time to discuss matters or to do things together, even pray together,” Fitzgibbons says.
Effective dealing with stress is also essential. “You have to be really careful,” he noted. “You can get stressed, drained, and seek to escape it. Some people drink too much, gamble, or seek some other kind of high, even sports. For other guys, it’s a pornographic escape.”
The spiritual dimension
While treatment clinics and support groups can be helpful, Dr. Fitzgibbons strongly advises a strong spiritual component. “Where there is a spiritual component to the recovery, we have seen great success,” he says. “The Lord doesn’t want this darkness to interfere with the great sacrament of marriage.”
This would include recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist as well as a commitment to a fervent prayer life.
For resources on overcoming porn addiction, visit Where To Find Help.