Philip has an odd problem with girls. You’d never know by looking at him: he’s handsome, smart and charming. As a successful mid-20s business executive at a New York-based start-up, he has no problem getting dates. And, he admits frankly, he has no problem getting them into bed.
But then, suddenly, he took a complete break from women.
The problem, he says, was related to what he delicately calls “performance issues.” He looks away, his blush evident. “I know, I know,” he says. “What guy in his 20s has a problem with that?” But real-life sex “doesn’t work right for me.” He tells me he “gets the job done” with “a lot of effort,” but he’s never really satisfied. “It’s just not the same,” he adds.
“The same as what?” I ask.
“The stuff you see online and in videos,” he says, looking evasive for a moment and pursing his lips. “You know — porn.”
Philip finds it difficult and strange to have sex with a real-life human being, even one he’s really attracted to. And when he’d finish the deed, he’d feel a bit odd because he’d spent the entire time fantasizing about someone else, replaying videos he’d seen in his brain. Sometimes, he’d start, but not be able to finish. Sometimes, the only thing that made him feel better, he says, was firing up the computer and watching pornography, often in secret.
I ask if he calls himself an addict. It startles him for a moment, but he doesn’t deny it — he’s says he’s still getting used to that idea.
Philip is a member of a young, uber-connected generation to come of age sexually at a time when access to sexual content is easy, cheap and omnipresent. It’s a predicament that stands at the intersection of Internet and sex — and nobody is quite certain the direction it’s heading to next.
Most people can pinpoint a moment when they realized what sex was. Some stumble in on parents “doing it,” while others find a stash of “girlie mags” underneath a bed. Maybe it was from a particularly steamy movie or reading a racy novel. Or, if you’re like a friend of mine, parents sat you down and laid it all out as pre-teens, sending you screaming from the room.
For Philip, the sexual awakening happened over a computer. While playing a computer game on his older brother’s computer, he stumbled upon a folder. He opened it, and discovered a stash of video stills from the infamous Pam Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape, full of explicit, graphic imagery. He was around 10.
The memory of that discovery, he says, remains vivid because of the intensity of emotions he felt: pleasure, fear, fascination and shame.
That night, in bed, he couldn’t shake the images from his mind, the strange things he’d seen. He felt repulsed, but strangely, also desired to take another look. So, the next day, as he played computer games again, when he was certain his brother and father were occupied, he peered into the secret folder. Over that summer, he unearthed more images, and even discovered a few illicit links while browsing the Internet — sites his brother or father had looked at.
Philip’s young age isn’t a shock — on average, a child’s first exposure to pornography is around 11, according to the Christian Post. That’s not so different before the Internet, either — in the mid-80s, the Attorney General discovered boys ages 12 to 17 were the largest consumer group of pornography, according to Citizen Link, and the average age of first exposure was estimated to be 11, as well.
But in the digital era, everything is more widely available to all. And when Philip was old enough for his first computer at age 12, sure enough, he learned to find the pictures of naked women. “This was before parents were encouraged to keep tabs on their kids and the Internet,” he adds.
Left to his own devices at such an early age, he regularly hit up hardcore sites. “There’s so much free crap out there, all you needed was to set up some dummy e-mails and join,” he says. Soon, looking at pornography on the computer and, later, on his phone was part of his routine, right up there with playing games and messaging friends.
His online sexual explorations felt private and personal, but it marked his entry into one of the largest Internet-based industries in the U.S. Every second, 30,000 people look at pornography on the Internet, according to industry statistics — in fact, two-in-five people are on the Internet to look at sexually explicit imagery. One-in-four search engine requests are porn-related. It’s as ancient as warfare and taxes, but with such a powerful, widespread delivery system like the Internet, it has never made so much money or reached such a large, expansive customer base.
Philip’s forays aren’t aberrant at all — in fact, the industry has long played a role in human sexual culture, much to the dismay of conservatives. Sexually explicit images have been found as far back as ancient Greece or imperial Japan. And though the industry, by far, caters to men, women also respond to sexually suggestive images.
But according to Emory University, what men and women find stimulating divides along gender lines — men like novelty, while women generally prefer an emotional context of stability and security. Bestselling erotica like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” for example, contextualizes S&M descriptions within a committed courtship and relationship.
According to Psychology Today, some experts believe pornography satisfies a primordial need that men have for multiple sex partners. Evolutionarily speaking, a man’s success was predicated on impregnating as many women as possible. But most successful human societies emphasize stable family units, and women had the power of refusal to mate and bear children for men who wouldn’t stick around to help raise offspring. Through this lens — and many disagree with it, saying it’s reductive of male and female sexuality — pornography allows a kind of “release valve,” satisfying men’s need for novelty and variety without actually jeopardizing their real-life relationships.
Throughout history, pornography has always elicited criticism. Many say it encourages and shapes harmful impulses in relationships and towards women. Others criticize the idea of commercializing sexuality, saying it’s exploitative, unregulated and damages performers. But some see benefits, according to Men’s Health Magazine. Relationships, for example, tend to show higher levels of sexual activity if one of the partners watches sexually arousing imagery. It can also be used to encourage open discussion between partners on what both parties like or are intrigued by sexually.
The benefits, though, often require that the men and women who consume it have maturity, self-knowledge, communication skills and real-life experience with actual human partners. In Philip’s case, “I had way, way, way more virtual experience than I did real experience at a young age,” he says. “I had way more exposure of porn at an early age than was good for me or my future sexuality. And I’m paying for it now.”
It’s a cliche that the Internet is changing everything, but we’re only just discovering how the Internet is shifting human sexual experience. With the online nature of Philip’s early sexual curiosity, it’s not surprising his early sexual experiences were online, as well. He says he got his first “dirty e-mails,” and then sexts, before he had his first kiss. Texting provocative images wasn’t as common at his school, as media portrays, but he received and sent his fair share of them.
But the real constant was his online habit. He could always rely on it at the end of the night, he says, and there was always plenty of it, so he was in no shortage of something different to keep from getting bored. He could explore any possible appetite, at almost any time. “I wasn’t into the super-fetish stuff or really kinky, scary crap,” he says. “But if I was, I would have access to lots of it, easily.” He says he and his friends at school would share stuff all the time. “We’d burn it to disks and trade it back and forth,” he adds. “And later with zip disks, jump drives. It was what every guy did, no big deal.”
As Philip got older, going the online route for a fix was easier than real-life. “It’s a no-brainer in a lot of ways,” he says. “In real-life, you have to meet someone, convince them to let you get close enough, and you know, more often than not there are obstacles. In the end, I found it easier just to settle for instant gratification.” And there was lots of it, he adds. “By the time I got to college, it was just part of the routine. You know, wake up, go to class, come back to my dorm to watch Internet porn, go back out to class. Day in, day out, many times a day.”
The release of sexual urges, of course, is a normal and healthy part of human sexuality for men and women, but scientists are beginning to understand how its intersection with the Internet can shape our expectations, condition our bodies and rewire our brains.
Neuroscientists have long been able to parse out the physiological responses to pornography — quicker heart rate and increased blood flow, for example — but the physical response is actually preceded by a more complex neurological process. First, the brain’s visual processing and attention system are activated, and the sexual nature of pornography seems to kick it into overdrive in a way that most ordinary images do not.
Then, the brain’s “reward” system — also called the mesolimbic system — floods with dopamine, which is responsible for feel-good sensations and pleasure. To cope with the influx of signals, the brain’s motivation, reasoning and logic systems activate — but more often, in the case of men, they simply power off due to less blood flow as the visual and arousal systems overload. That means the reasoning and logic systems of the brain are weakened.
We also experience a desire not just to watch, but to act out some version of what we see, due to “mirror neurons” that activate while we watch sexual images. The system kicks in almost as a way to “relieve” ourselves of an overpowering sensation. It’s not enough to just watch — we have to act it out in some way.
But the real cement in wiring the brain is at the moment of sexual release. “The big kicker that people leave out of the equation is the ejaculatory response,” William Struthers, professor of psychology at Wheaton College, told Men’s Health Magazine. “This is what really stores the memory. When you have an orgasm, there’s a release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, presumably to bind you to your partner. If you’re viewing pornography, your partner is the screen in front of you.”
These neurological reactions are especially intensified with Internet pornography, especially since most of it is tailored to men’s tastes — including that for more out-there genres that can arouse more quickly and intensely. And with the Internet, we can trigger these intense responses again and again, essentially training our brain on what’s pleasurable — which is what Philip did freely and often in his dorm room.
The complex mind-body interaction of pornography and orgasm also dovetails with a larger psychological process called “sexual script theory,” which accounts for how people form expectations and beliefs around sex. The idea is that what we watch becomes our definition and expectation of “normal” in sex. Because we don’t normally grow up watching other people have sex, erotic images and videos carry particular weight in educating us on the sexual scripts we follow.
The problem, of course, is that our scripts can change considerably if we’re exposed to plentiful amounts of intense images early on and often. It certainly changed Philip’s sexual script, rewiring him in a way that made real-life sex a pale substitute for what he saw online.
Of course, not everyone becomes a brainless robot. Personal preferences still play a part, as do sexual experiences: if someone has a history of relationships or has other “models” of sexuality to draw upon, the neurological wiring of pornography is lessened and people learn to experience pleasure in other ways.
But if younger viewers are flooded with explicit images in greater quantity and frequency, they may not develop competing models of sexuality to learn from. Their “sexual scripts” can become narrow, making it hard to experience pleasure in different contexts. They form different expectations that make it hard to feel satisfied.
Philip’s experience reflects some of these ideas. “By the time I was with an actual girl when I was 16, I had racked up hundreds and hundreds of hours of porn watching probably,” he says. “I had seen so much growing up, but when confronted with an actual person, it was just weird. I felt like I should know what I was doing, but the girl I was with didn’t react the same way as the women in the videos. She didn’t like those things I wanted to do. I managed to get the job done, but it didn’t really feel sexy to me.” He found it easier just to hit the videos instead, with its more intense feelings and fewer emotional complications.
Philip also chalked his dissatisfaction up to a lack of experience and set about fixing it, particularly when he got to college, where he joined a popular fraternity renowned for raucous parties. “All I did in college was hook up,” he says. “I’m really embarrassed to say that I didn’t care whether the girls I was with were having a good time. I was just racking up points, experience, whatever. Just looking for opportunities to try whatever I’d seen in whatever video. It didn’t go any deeper than that.”
Consequently, he made it through college without a significant relationship. “There were a few girls I was monogamous with for a bit, but our rapport didn’t really go beyond going out and hooking up later,” he admits. “It sort of just took the work out of chatting a girl up, trying to get her into bed.”
He continued his habit during these brief relationships, which caused problems. “I’d tell them girls to be insecure, but then, of course, deep down, I was disappointed it wasn’t the same in the video,” he says. “I could only feel satisfied if I was fantasizing about something I’d seen. It was like I’d open my eyes and realize, oh, there’s a real girl there. I felt guilty about that. And then, that guilt led to other problems, functioning problems… so I’d end things before they got too uncomfortable.”
Now, Philip sees in hindsight he was showing the beginning symptoms of Internet pornography addiction — or at least a disordered relationship to his once-favorite pastime. The idea of pornography and addiction is a controversial one, however, and psychologists are careful to distinguish between compulsions and addictions. Most pornography use doesn’t fall under the umbrella of addiction, but the problem comes when a habit begins to impair normal daily functioning in some way, according to Psychology Today, often as a way to compensate for a deeper, underlying issue.
While Philip kept up with school — and after graduation, his job — he found himself unable to develop any real intimacy in his relationships. If an encounter escalated into a relationship, he admits he inevitably experienced performance issues, having been accustomed to much more intense, specific stimulation. “I’m a healthy guy in my 20s, I’m not supposed to have these issues,” he says. This drove him back to his computer in his humiliation, creating a vicious loop.
Addictions are also characterized by developing a tolerance for the substance of choice, and needing more frequent or intense hits to achieve the same level of buzz. Philip found this to be true, though he thinks it could be more related to an inherent need for variety. “It’s easy for me to get bored sexually,” he says. “I felt I had to switch it up a lot… and that I needed more of it. Of course, those problems are easily solved with the Internet. There’s no shortage of stuff out there for any appetite.”
Beyond intensity and quantity, our state of mind matters when it comes to the effects of pornography in our overall life. Using it to cope with stress, loneliness and other psychological problems on a regular basis makes us more prone to addiction or disorder. When we use pornography to escape from uncomfortable emotions, the hormones released by the body condition the brain to bond and attach to the screen images, and the feel-good pleasure often masks or overshadows the negative effects of pornography. The combination of psychological need and powerful hormones can re-pattern the brain — in fact, addicts show similar brain patterns to drug addicts and alcoholics, according to Cambridge University.
Despite the real-life experience of those like Philip — as well as the testimony found on plentiful forums and support sites — some don’t believe there’s such a thing as pornography addiction, saying it’s just another way to police people’s sexuality. Some, like sex therapist Marty Klein and sex columnist Dan Savage, argue addictions are actually secondary expressions of more primary illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They believe so-called pornography addicts just need to “stop looking at porn for five minutes,” look at emotional roots of their behavior and overcome social inhibitions to have a “decent” relationship alternative.
I repeat those ideas to Philip. “Easier said than done,” he scoffs. “You try undoing years of conditioning with just willpower and logic and tell me how it goes, especially with something as supposedly ‘instinctive’ as sex.”
Addiction or not, Philip realized he had a problem with his “little” habit. He came to a turning point when he met a girl a few years ago that he describes as a “serious prospect. She was smart, pretty and really nice,” he says. “Someone I could see myself settling down with, and I was also really, really attracted to her,” he adds. “The stakes were higher, and for the first time, I really wanted it to work.”
He had a great rapport with this girl outside the bedroom. “We could really talk about everything,” he says. “I felt totally comfortable with her, in most situations — except the most important one.”
But he continued to have the same sexual issues in the bedroom, which he secretly relieved with his habit. “She was very understanding and sweet, but I was too embarrassed about it,” he admits. “I couldn’t come clean with her about my underlying problem. I was too ashamed of it. That made me feel lonely and, of course, I turned to the computer for release in secret.” Eventually, his girlfriend discovered how he turned to pornography instead of her, and left him. The problem, she said, wasn’t the pornography itself, but the dishonesty he had around it.
For the first time, Philip was heartbroken — and he realized his habit was a bigger problem, one that could cost him real relationships. He sought out counseling, but discovered that finding treatment for his habit was difficult. He had to go through a few different therapists until he found the right one, who blended sex and relationship counseling, traditional psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral techniques.
Together, Philip says, they took on his issue from different angles. They addressed what he now sees as a long-term low-grade depression, triggered by unstable family situations when he was a kid. They also attempted to “rewire” his behavior and what he finds desirable in the present.
They installed trackers on his computers at home that record his online activity and report it to his therapist. He had to change e-mail addresses, since he would get a lot of porn-related spam that “triggered” him at his old address, and cut down on his technology use in general. He even started doing breathing exercises and yoga, to get him in touch with his own physicality.
He also rebooted his social life, focusing on outdoor and athletic group activities, such as volleyball and hockey, which gave him an outlet for his energy and drew him out of his psychological isolation. Most importantly, he sought out others going through the same journey. He eventually took himself off pornography “cold turkey,” which he says he found both “depressing and interesting.”
The process of rewiring himself is hard, he says. Philip has had years of looking at hardcore pornography, and could only find satisfying release by bringing up those images on his screen, or replaying them in his mind if a phone or computer wasn’t nearby. “I formed those preferences as a kid, essentially, and reinforced them hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times,” he says. “I feel like it will take forever to feel that intensity and pleasure with a real person.”
But now, he says, he doesn’t want he calls “the easy way out” anymore. As he gets older, he doesn’t want to be with a partner and “have my mind go off somewhere else to hit my peak.” He says he wants to know what real pleasure is, not just release. “I’ve definitely slipped up a lot,” he says. “But, you know, one day at a time. Or in my case, one night at a time.”
For Philip, what helps the most is a bigger-picture perspective on what he wants. “It’s learning that sex isn’t just relieving an urge or scratching an itch, it’s connecting with someone else on a deep, deep level,” he says. “My therapist helped me to see sex isn’t just orgasms, or reproduction — it’s about really being seen and understood and accepted on a profound level,” he says “There’s no porn out there out of all the stuff I’ve seen — and I’ve seen a lot — that shows that. That’s only something you can do with a real person.”
Names and identifying details have been changed. ♦