It was a decade ago that was listening to the radio when I heard this line being spoken for the first time by a mother who was describing the time the police came to her house to enquire after certain pornographic material which had been downloaded using the family IP address. She described the early morning raid by the police, the taking away of the family computers, the suspicion hanging over her husband – until it was discovered that it was the couple’s 14-year-old son who had viewed the material in a curiosity-driven trawl through multiple pornographic internet sites.
That may have been the first time I came across that line, but I have heard it many times since in the intervening period as I have moved into work supporting young boys and men in their efforts to free themselves from their addiction to online pornography.
Pornography and the Adolescent Brain
There has been considerable research in recent years into the effects of consistent use of pornography on the adolescent brain and, indeed, on the brain in general. To summarise a complicated process briefly, the plasticity of the adolescent brain (with all brains, actually), combined with a leaning towards hyper-arousal when it comes to matters of sex, leaves the teenage child prone to a vulnerability of dependence, which can be frightening in its speed and grip. The reward centre of the brain is hard-wired to be stimulated and demanding when certain things connected to the propagation of the species are on offer. Food and drink come to mind – but sex is important, too. As a species, we need to have sex to survive.
For the young adolescent, perhaps still some years away from a sexual encounter with a real person, the online world offers instead a kaleidoscope of sexual experiences at the touch of a button. In the secrecy of their bedrooms they are free to explore material that would have been unimaginable (certainly illegal to print) just a few decades ago. The brain does not know the difference between a computer and a real person. It just knows that its owner is excited sexually. Its reward centre is activated, and it releases that precious drop of dopamine, which will prove to be both curse and blessing, the first step on the road to addiction. To put it bluntly, for the child, it feels good – and the brain will begin to lay out the neural pathways which will make it easier to access that feeling in the future. As in all things – from football to depression – the brain gets better at what it practices.
As the boy becomes more habituated to the use of the pornography, so it becomes more difficult to achieve the level of arousal that was easily done on first viewing. In essence, the brain is developing a level of tolerance. The user has to find newer forms of stimulation – generally much riskier, more challenging sites – in order to satisfy the brain’s demands and to receive that precious dopamine hit. It becomes more difficult to focus on one item. The user will begin to hop from site to site in an effort to find the ‘best bits’; the whole purpose will become about gratification, generally marked by masturbation, which once achieved, is the signal for the whole cycle to start again. It all feels so natural. There are no drugs involved – apart from the delicious ones supplied by the brain. The parts of the body that react are doing so naturally. What can be wrong with something that feels so right?
Boys and not girls
The research on girls’ use of pornography is scant, but what does exist points to their usage as being considerably lower, and less frequent, compared with that of boys, something supported by anecdotal dealings with young people. Although many young girls (estimates suggest as high as 40%) will have viewed pornography, this is more likely to be out of curiosity rather than habitual usage. This might be partly cultural, partly to do with the way arousal works and develops in adolescents, partly to do with the interest in internet activity shown by girls generally (interestingly, figures in gaming addiction, a process which ‘piggy-backs’ on to the reward system, has similar figures in favour of boys’ dependency), and significantly to do with the type of pornography available, which is overwhelmingly produced for the gratification of men, with women in the role of the passive provider. Even the dominatrix – which alludes to a degree of power for the female – is a male construction, designed to gratify male desires. Given this context, it is no surprise that even into adulthood, the vast majority of pornography is consumed by men.
Meanwhile, in the real world
At the young man develops, they will want to practise their sexuality in the world around them. The difficulty for them is that their brains, accustomed now to being aroused by digital sexual-stimulus, will already have an idea of what sex looks and feels like, how their partner should behave and, significantly, they will already have internalised an idea that sex is something that involves their gratification. The notion that giving pleasure to others might be a fulfilling part of sexual engagement is something that is beyond their experience – even though their experience in some respects is a considerable distance ahead of where it might be in a non-digitalised world. For the habituated user of online pornography, it can be very difficult to come to terms with the fact that the person within their arms has feelings and desires which are unlikely to conform to those who have aroused their senses online. The online world will often present an exaggerated view of sexuality: breasts and penises are larger; bodies are firmer; all imperfections (and hair) are removed. For the habituated user, it can be very difficult to achieve any kind of arousal, and desire is lost – only to be found again back in the online world, where the brain, comfortable, primed and ready, can once again be gratified.
There is another difficulty that habitual users have to face. Their online experience will have normalised certain aspects of sexual behaviour that in the real world would be considered shocking or taboo. Even on the blandest pornographic sites freely available to all, one will find countless ‘sex with my stepmother/ sister/ etc’ as titles. It is as though it is the most normal, routine practice in the world. There really are no boundaries.
It would be easy to be judgemental with parents whose children become habituated to online pornography. But there are a number of reasons for their ignorance and then denial regarding the habits of their sons. Firstly, unless they have used pornography themselves, they will have no idea how much is available – unfiltered, free and without the requirement of age verification – at a simple click of a button. It is hardly their fault that they just don’t know what they don’t know. Secondly, as pornography and issues more widely to do with sex are practised in areas of secrecy, there is often a barrier of shame which makes any non-judgemental discussion of the subject impossible for parents and children. Thirdly, and linked to the former point, the image of their children that many parents carry in heads often allows no room for an activity they themselves would find abhorrent. It is why so often when parents come to see me with their sons, they are in a state of shock. It is not unusual for them to apologise for the fact that their son is in this position, claiming plaintively that they ‘never thought their son would be using pornography.’
As youngsters become men
Unfortunately, many adult men who have to deal with addiction to pornography fail to do so until they are much older. Many of the clients I have worked with on the issue have endured many years of habitual use before being forced to seek help by circumstance rather than because they see it as a problem. It might be to with failed relationships; it might be because of worries to do with their increasingly poor sexual performance in real relationships – often manifested in low mood, anxiety or depression; or it might be that their sexualised treatment of a partner or friend is not appropriate for one reason or another and they feel a strong sense of shame. This last is perhaps worth highlighting as it has been the topic of national debate recently.
One of the dangers facing habitual users of online pornography is that they must deal with a blurring of the lines between what is real and what is imagined. Of course, we all do this to some extent when we watch a television show: we are adept at sorting what lies either side of that line between the real and the imaginary. But these television shows are not tapping into the reward centre in our brains; they are not linked to our areas of desire, gratification and reward as is the sexual instinct. On top of this, for many young people, they will have no experience outside of their online practices to guide them as to what is appropriate or not. They haven’t yet learned what is normal. If they make a mistake in this area, they could be left with a legacy of shame and regret – or much worse if their actions pass into illegality.
What can parents do?
My advice to parents is always very clear on this. Before you do anything else, contact your internet provider to make sure your controls are locked down – and never share your passwords with your children, or even enter a code when the child is in the same room. It is another story, but never underestimate the ingenuity of young people for discovering their parents’ passwords! Then talk to your child. Be curious. Take a parental interest in their internet history – not in a judgmental way, but one which seeks to understand what is going on for that young person. If your son is using pornography habitually, seek support for yourself and for them. Do not ignore it, for in any number of cases it will not go away. Research indicates that those who become addicted to online pornography are likely to be prone to low mood and depression, not surprising given that they may well be living a kind of double life, a part of which exists in a place of secrecy and shame. Those last two bedfellows are hardly the harbingers of happy, fulfilled lives.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch. Online therapy is available.