Andy is a young, committed Catholic, a graduate of a strong Catholic university where he met his future wife. They courted, married, and within two years had a baby on the way. Despite his youth, Andy landed a mid-level management position with a highly reputable marketing firm. He felt he was in a bit over his head, but was grateful for the opportunity, because the pressures of supporting his family were already weighing on him. The job was demanding, and the hours long.
One evening while working late and playing a video game on a short break, Andy stumbled onto a porn website, not realizing the gaming site had been a gateway to sexually explicit websites. Within a matter of weeks, Andy was making daily visits to chat rooms and porn web sites, mainly to relieve the stress and anxiety of work. He knew it was wrong and every day he resolved not to do it, but the temptation was so strong, especially now that his wife seemed totally wrapped up in the new baby, and had little energy to meet his emotional needs.
What Andy didn't realize was the highly addictive nature of his porn activity. Even at this entry-level porn use, he was already caught in the web of a chemical-like dependency called the "crack cocaine of sexual addiction."
Pornography or cybersex addiction can progress much more rapidly than any other chemical or behavioral addiction — the individual can become addicted in only a matter of weeks or months. The internet has an extraordinary capacity to introduce a trance-like state. Hours may pass while the individual is completely preoccupied with chatting online or gazing at pornographic images on the computer screen. This trance-like state is the first key element in the addiction cycle, which intensifies with each repetition. Another key element is the immediate gratification or pleasure that results from the sexual behaviors often associated with the viewing of pornographic materials (usually masturbation).
But, though there are moments of intense pleasure (releasing soothing and pleasurable hormones that are natural opioids), this self-gratification is compulsive, associated with severe mood shifts and is often accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness to change, self-pity, degradation, and shame. The sense of isolation and hopelessness can be so severe that there is only one thing that can help the user feel better…and the cycle begins again.
Secrets, Lies, and Betrayal
Relations with his wife diminished as Andy's addiction grew stronger. His wife really couldn't compete with the intriguing models (and the increasingly deviant sexual images) he found on the internet. He began making demands on her sexually that she was not willing to accept, which then gave him further justification in seeking solace in the computer images. Andy's increasing disappointment with interpersonal relations became yet another reason to view more porn and to talk with anonymous women online. "I do it to help my marriage," he said.
Andy told himself that the women in the chat rooms liked him for who he was, without any strings attached — unlike his wife who always seemed to be making demands on him. Andy would come home from a difficult day at work only to be accosted by his annoyed wife, who would thrust a cranky baby into his arms. He could barely stand to come home to the smell of diapers, the disappointment of his wife, and the baby's noisy squalling. Andy couldn't wait until he could be alone with the computer to finally relax in an erotic haze. He became more and more isolated. He began losing sleep as well. He was getting up in the middle of the night to view pornography online, and this took a toll on his ability to perform at work. Andy was soon living a double life: attending Mass with his family, appearing to be a good Catholic husband and father, while spending hours on the Internet cruising porn sites or in chat rooms.
Most porn addicts are trying to recreate the intoxication of young love. They feel they live in an unfair world in which bosses demand too much, wives complain and nag, and children are ungrateful. The porn addict tells himself that he deserves a break. The only relief he gets is from the addiction itself — which then leaves him feeling guilty and filled with self-loathing. These uncomfortable feelings can only be "drowned" — not in a drink, but in the erotic haze that is said to be 30 times more powerful than cocaine.
Addictive sexual behavior is unlike healthy sexual behavior in that it is a compulsion for instant gratification, it is associated with severe mood shifts (from the erotic haze to depression), is impersonal and emotionally detached, is not fulfilling (the addict always needs more, without feeling fulfilled), and is accompanied by negative self-worth, shame and guilt.
In the past, only those who chose to sneak into an adult bookstore or X rated movie theater were able to access pornography. The risk and ordeal of purchasing pornography kept many away. The Internet changed all that. In fact, pornography was one of the original financial backers that transformed an obscure research project into the information highway.
For the porn industry, it became the perfect drug delivery system — available 24/7 to millions of Internet users right in their own home, many of whom are children. This is called the "Triple-A engine" of affordability, anonymity, and accessibility driving the 57 billion dollar porn industry. Today, 4.2 million pornographic websites are just a mouse click away. 89% of teens in chat rooms have received unwanted solicitations of sex, and 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed pornography online (most while doing homework).
The Anatomy of Addiction
Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., pioneer in the field of sexual addiction, maintains that all sexual addicts have certain faulty, core beliefs that make them vulnerable to addiction. They experience a fundamental lack of self-worth and a mistrust of others that come from early childhood experiences (whether through some traumatic incident or through impaired early attachment experiences) and are reinforced by our culture. The four dysfunctional core beliefs are:
1. I am a bad, unworthy person
2. Nobody would love me if they really knew me
3. My needs are never going to be met, if I have to depend on others
4. Sex is my most important need
Viewing pornography is accompanied by self-gratification and triggers arousal, satiation and an increase in fantasy, which induce powerful neurochemical responses in the brain similar to those induced by addictive drugs and alcohol. When these neurochemical changes happen repeatedly, the responses to sexual behaviors become habituated, and these behaviors are now "hard-wired" in the brain.
Yet this cycle repeats itself, often escalating as the user compulsively seeks increasingly deviant websites, or even tries to live out some of his sexual fantasies. The user may try to stop, but discovers that he experiences anxiety, restlessness, and unease (symptoms of withdrawal). Often the secret sin is never disclosed — until a loved one stumbles upon his addiction, or until he loses a job, or gets caught engaging in an illegal sexual act.
Once discovered, it is difficult, but not impossible, to treat. The treatment requires an integrated model of individual therapy, a self-help twelve-step group such as Sexaholics Anonymous, and a strong spiritual program with frequent reception of the sacraments. Our Catholic faith can combat the faulty core beliefs of the addict, but often therapy is needed to face the issues of the past that gave rise to the feelings of worthlessness, fear, and mistrust. Oftentimes, there is a childhood trauma or abuse that needs to be addressed.
There is a growing movement to address the problem of pornography and to offer hope to those afflicted. In his pastoral letter, "Bought with a Price," Bishop Paul S. Loverde outlines the nature of the offense and counters many of the false arguments that attempt to justify pornography. Just last week, the second largest Canadian wireless phone company pulled their plans to sell pornography on mobile phones, after the Archbishop of Vancouver, Raymond Roussin, urged Canadian Catholics to boycott.
If anyone is suffering from pornography addiction, a first step is to take a look at the website www.unityrestored.com which was developed by Catholic mental health professionals and especially designed to help Catholics (and their families) who are afflicted by the scourge of pornography.