When porn becomes a problem (Irish Times). Sex therapists Trish Murphy, Teresa Bergin, Tony Duffy (2015)

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Click on graphic to see ED rates, which show higher rates in young men than in men 35-49.

Kate Holmquist

Rachel thought she had “a healthy view of sex and pornography”, before her partner became a porn addict. “He pulled me down into a darkness that made me feel so dirty I could never scrub myself clean again.”

Having seen her partner go from spending hours every day on porn sites to using prostitutes, she now believes “pornography is a criminal industry created and manipulated by men; where women are treated like lumps of meat . . . they don’t have a voice and neither do we as women. And pornography is in every bedroom in the country – on the Luas, in the sittingroom. It’s cyber kerb-crawling.”

Therapists say pornography is not only damaging to women. Many of the men who view it are also being deprived of healthy sexual relationships.

Pornography is not quite as widespread as some people think (it is commonly said to constitute one-third of internet traffic, though 4 per cent is a more realistic figure). Nevertheless, it is more accessible now than at any other time in history: available to anybody with a smartphone, tablet or computer.

The broad term “porn” ranges from apparently benign videos, photos and accounts of sex, to dark, abusive content and “torture porn”.

In this latter category, the “victims” are often actors, but pornography also includes material in which participants have been forced to take part: eastern European sites have the worst record in this regard, according to anthropologist Laura Agustin.

‘Rape porn’

By contrast, so-called “ethical” porn, in which actors have fair, health-aware working conditions is available through some Californian paid sites. “Amateur” – ostensibly home-made – videos are another popular form, although the “amateurs” are likely to be actors too.

Though some porn sites charge for access, neither the mild nor the hardcore material is hard to find free of charge. An internet search for “rape porn” offers pages of results. This material is at the darker end of the pornography spectrum, but porn takes many forms and often begins innocently enough.

On the train to work, I witness two private-school first-years on their way home from hockey practice – a boy and a girl in muddied socks.

As they look at the boy’s iPhone, a series of his nude selfies pops up. The girl grabs the phone, swipes through the pictures and threatens to send them to her friends. He tries to wrestle it back. The girl’s blasé reaction suggests she’s seen this before. These are children distributing what they don’t realise is one step away from child pornography.

“The more young people see, the more normal it becomes,” says Teresa Bergin, a therapist who works with sex-addicted young men. “Teenagers’ brains are especially plastic,” she says.

Bergin treats men in their late teens and early 20s with erectile dysfunction caused by the continuous hyper-arousal of pornography. Unable to relate sensually to real women, they seek more intense “novelty” to become aroused, which can’t compare with real life, she says.

Distorted view of sex “The teenage brain is at its peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity,” says Bergin. “It makes the brain highly vulnerable to addiction . . . and these young men have been misled about the sexual act with all of the intimacy taken out of it.”

“Boys are being sexualised in a very different way now than before. Some are showing an inability to have intercourse. For them, the intensity of what they see on the screen can’t be matched. They click on stronger and stronger images, straying from the traditional and going into areas such as S&M.”

Teenagers pose a particular problem, but pornography has become part of our imaginative sexual landscape and is common among all age groups.

The Irish Times recently conducted an online survey of Irish people’s sexual habits. Though this was a voluntary survey whose results should be seen as indicative rather than definitive, 83 per cent of respondents to the survey said they had viewed pornography, including 99 per cent of men aged 17-34.

In The Irish Times Sex Survey, a significant number of young men (17 per cent of them aged 17-24) said they used porn daily. One third of female respondents had viewed porn, and just 1 per cent of women viewed it daily.

For heavy users, pornography can be very damaging. “For those who use it daily, their porn use can be a cause of huge difficulty,” says Trish Murphy, psychotherapist and Irish Times columnist. “It often takes over their thoughts and lives and they may find it very difficult to break the habit.”

Margaret Dunne, a sex therapist, says: “Porn actively harms real sexual relationships by damaging the development and experience of intimacy. It tends to be very focused on male pleasure. Porn viewing generally tends to be done in secret and therefore leads to a sense of betrayal when the partner finds out.”

Dunne treats porn users who “very quickly spiral downwards to addiction, which results in the man having difficulty having an erection with his partner.

“Pornography clearly remains a solitary pursuit,” says psychotherapist Brendan Madden. “This reflects the idealised nature of pornography where it represents an opportunity to fantasise and imagine having access to sexual partners and indulging in sexual activities that may not be available in real life.”

Sex and relationships therapist Tony Duffy has also seen porn use damaging men’s ability to be sexual in the real world.

Those who work in the area of sex addiction obviously encounter the worst cases, but they say they are seeing them with increasing regularity.

“Addiction to porn is becoming more evident and I think most sex therapists would agree. More men are spending more screen time interacting with porn, and this is problematic in terms of sexual behaviour,” Duffy says.

Is pornography always negative? Not necessarily. Half of those who answered our survey (see page 2) said they did not believe pornography negatively affected real-life sexual relationships.

And Teresa Bergin says that while sex therapists are seeing a huge increase in sexual problems caused by porn, it’s not always damaging. “It has some instructional value for people with no sex education, like most of the population, and young men have said that they’ve learned how to incorporate variety into their love-making, while couples who watch porn together say it can help develop a sense of adventure, as long as both are in agreement.”

Sex therapist Emily Power Smith says it can be enjoyable for women as well as for men. “Historically, women have been less drawn to porn due to what was available. Mainstream porn was and still is largely aimed at young to middle-aged straight men.

“However this is changing with a new wave of ‘feminist porn’, with a storyline, and sex that involves women having real orgasms. The films are made ethically, which means that everyone is paid well, healthy and not in it due to coercion or force. More women and men are demanding this kind of porn so they can enjoy it free from worry or guilt.”

Couples in agreement can watch it together to enhance their relationships (the Irish Times survey suggests many older Irish couples use it in this way).

Not all couples can make this work, says Bergin. “The intimacy-boosting effects of pornography may be confined to couples who are already well synchronised in their sexual tastes. If both partners aren’t equally open to porn and one of them feels it may be detrimental, then the effect can be negative.”

Dunne adds: “Using porn to spice up a relationship where libido is low can be great if two people want to watch it [but] when he goes off and watches it alone, there is a veil of secrecy and shame.”

Secrecy Dermod Moore, a psychotherapist who works with sex addicts, agrees that secrecy is a key problem. Watching porn can be an enjoyable experience, as long as it’s discussed.

“My point is that not that pornography per se is unhealthy; it is that anything that fails to get discussed becomes unhealthy. There are many arguments about it politically, especially from feminists; but what is lacking from both popular culture and in our private relationships is [a discussion of] the emotional impact it has on us.”

Rachel – who feels no one can really understand unless they were in her situation of living with a secretive sex addict – lost her partner, her home and was left penniless with a young child after spending tens of thousands of euro in legal expenses to extricate herself from the consequences of a sex addiction that her partner still denies. She doubts she will ever trust anyone enough to be in love again.

“They do it right under your nose on their laptops and phones. It’s the lying – even when discovered, there’s no contrition, they’re devoid of empathy at that point.

“And it escalates as they go into more and more extreme material, then turn to the purchase of women for sex.”

Rachel discovered her partner’s use of prostitutes after he gave her a sexually transmitted disease. Hers is one story, but similar ones have been repeated to me several times in interviews with sex therapists for this article. They say it is not unusual for pornography to become a gateway to prostitution.

“After starting with porn on the phone, he ends up answering the associated ads for ‘massage with a happy ending’,” says Dunne.

“In therapy, men will tell you that they would never have anticipated going down that route,” says Dunne. “If you could show them a picture on the day they first start out on this path, of the extreme pornography and prostitution they will end up in by the day they are in treatment, they would be shocked.”

Open discussion The 11 per cent of men using porn daily should question themselves. “Daily use means you are either a sex addict or on the way to becoming a sex addict,” says another therapist who works in a major hospital.

Among the problems he treats are infertility as a result of erectile dysfunction caused by porn, and depression in women whose partners have rejected them in favour of online porn. He has had clients who have lost jobs because they were so porn-obsessed they became incapable of “clear judgment”.

“They live in a second world of their own and become so disconnected from real life that they lose houses, jobs and homes. It’s not a big jump to start using prostitutes, swinging clubs and expensive chatlines. The deeper they go the less intense the thrill and some have four or five ‘affairs’ going at the same time on the company credit card,” he says.

“Their female partners are totally and utterly shattered. You could be an alcoholic or a gambler and there is a certain acceptance of that, but porn/sex addiction is different in the enormous amount of shame involved so that no one talks about it, causing isolation for the man and the woman.”

The “demeaning and misogynistic” portrayal of women , gives boys and men “a distorted view of what sex and intimacy should be”, says Dunne.

“I have heard secondary school girls saying that their boyfriends are quite rough. They are finding that while they want emotional connection and intimacy, pornography is affecting their boyfriends’ expectations of sex.”

The Irish Times Sex Survey suggests many young men now also use porn to learn about sexual technique. Fifty-four per cent of 17-24-year-old men said they found porn “instructional”, a finding that is of particular concern to Margaret Dunne.

This, she says, suggests “a very messed up idea of what intimacy and sexuality is about. There is a real risk now that younger men’s sexual scripts will become heavily influenced by, and distorted through, excessive porn use.”

Porn teaches people about sex, but not always in a good way, says Madden. “People learn a lot from watching pornography and it’s more engaging than the average sex education lesson. Pornography online spans sexual practices that are relatively realistic to sexual practices that are at best misleading and at worst encourage sexually exploitative behaviours. For young people, in particular, it can be hard to distinguish between them.”

Moore comments: “For all the freedoms that the internet has brought over the past couple of decades, I am not sure that we in Ireland are anywhere near the stage where we can discuss sex and/or pornography in a healthy way.

“We avoid talk in Irish culture that is sex-positive; by which I mean honestly and directly. Yes there is plenty of it about; it’s in the media, but the hardest thing of all, it seems, is to bring up the topic of sex in a way that is not comic, or shame-filled, or needing Dutch courage to address it. Practically all men have used porn; how many have discussed it, openly?”

Seeking stories

Kate Holmquist is seeking accounts of pornography use by Irish people. Share your experience confidentially by emailing tellkate@irish times.com