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The Sugars continue their series on porn with a letter from a woman whose fiancé is "addicted" to porn.
Note: The Sugars acknowledge that the American Psychiatric Association does not currently classify porn addiction as a mental disorder. This episode is meant to address problems that can arise from excessive porn use, regardless of how it's classified.
Noah Church: I was a member of the first generation to grow up with an Internet connection in the house. When I was 9 years old, I just had the idea one day — “Hey, I like looking at pretty girls. I’ll go to Google and search for pictures of pretty ladies.” I liked what I saw, so I kept looking at them whenever I had the chance — whenever my parents were in the other room or I had a little bit of time home alone. It just continued on from there, and it got worse when I got a computer in my own room at age 13 or 14. I was using porn consistently all throughout my teenage years. It wasn’t necessarily every day, but several times a week for anywhere from a half an hour to several hours in an evening. For me, the content kept escalating into more extreme stuff. I was exposed to things like bestiality porn and incest porn by the time I was 11 or 12.
Internet porn is very different from any other media or stimulation that we’ve ever seen before. It’s unlimited content, accessible as soon as you want it. It became more about the novelty of what I was looking at and always seeking something new than it was about reaching orgasm. I would delay orgasm just to keep going. That’s called “edging,” and it can be indicative of a more problematic relationship to porn.
At the age of 18, I had my first long-term girlfriend. We decided to have sex, but when she was naked before me in bed, I just wasn’t aroused, and I had no idea why. No matter how many times we tried, it just didn’t work. I felt broken sexually, and I wasn’t able to talk to my girlfriend openly about it, so it ended up leading to the end of that relationship.
Cheryl Strayed: A lot of [heterosexual] women partners feel jealous of their male partners using porn because they don’t meet those standards of beauty. Is that what was going on for you — that you had seen such an exaggerated ideal of the female form before having sex with a real woman?
Noah: This is a very common misconception. I hear from women all the time, “Why aren’t I enough? Aren’t I attractive?” It’s just not a fair competition. It’s one real, live woman competing against a type of stimulus that’s just so much more than our brains are actually evolved to handle. It’s instant access to dozens or hundreds of attractive mates. Instead of conditioning ourselves for the cues that come with real sex and real intimacy — like the scent of a lover or the sound of her voice — we’re wired to clicking to new websites and being home alone in front of a computer. I didn’t successfully have sex or reach orgasm with a woman until I was 24. There was a moment when I realized I had to find out what was going on. I found that there are thousands of other people out there who have lost their ability to have sex — real sex with real people — and what they all had in common was a history of years of Internet porn use. There were people putting their faces out there publicly, like Gabe Deem of RebootNation.org who had to quit porn to get his erections back. It took him nine months to recover. The TED talk “The Great Porn Experiment” by Gary Wilson — that was really my lightbulb moment, when I realized that pornography was making it impossible for me to have the type of happy, fulfilling, mutually-joyous relationships that I really wanted. So I immediately quit, and it took me two and a half months before I was able to have sex for the first time with my current girlfriend.
Cheryl: When you decided to quit, how did you do it?
Noah: Pretty simple — stop looking at porn and stop touching your penis. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. A lot of people are truly addicted, and that means that even after we’ve quit, we still have powerful cravings to go back and these ingrained habits that push us to return to our previous behavior. For me, I’d been lost for so long that when I knew that porn was the issue, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in a long time. I was filled with so much hope for the future and so much pain over what I had caused myself. That was enough to keep me clean for the first eight months, but I did end up relapsing later that year.
Cheryl: What happened when you relapsed?
Noah: For that first five or six months, I was with the first woman that I was really able to feel like I was in love with. I had told that to women before, but with her, I realized that I hadn’t actually felt that emotion before. That’s because porn doesn’t just cause porn-induced erectile dysfunction, it makes us less interested in daily activities and less stimulated by them. I realized that it annulled my ambition and my ability to feel emotions. Looking back, from the age of about 10 to 22, I didn’t cry a single time because I was emotionally numbed by what I was experiencing. So once I quit, I was finally able to feel love, and that was extremely transformative for me. But that relationship didn’t last, and a few months after we broke up, I was in a darker place again. In times of stress or depression or loneliness, people who are addicted are much more vulnerable to relapse, so I chose to relapse in a moment of weakness. And as soon as I made that decision in my mind, I was rock hard, and I was literally shaking with adrenaline. I knew on a conscious level this wasn’t what I wanted, but on a primitive level, it was like a heroin user who was seeing heroin for the first time after months of being clean.
Cheryl: It’s been two and a half years or so since you really stopped using porn and changed your life. Tell us about how you came to write your book and bring your story into the public.
Noah: The book started as a journal that I was writing for myself about my life-long interaction with pornography and my process of recovery. I started sharing it online on some anonymous forums, and a lot of guys and girls out there seemed to find it very helpful. I realized that there was no book out there that really dealt with this issue on the level that I would have needed when I was 18 or 19. So I just decided to write the book that I would have needed — a book that encompasses the science behind how long-term porn use changes our brain and alters our sexuality, a guide to recovery, a chronicle of my own story and other people’s stories — and I decided to publish that and start speaking out.
I am currently engaged to a wonderful guy - we laugh, we have adventures, we travel, we exercise, we cook. I love being with him and love so much about him. After we moved in together after a year of dating, a significant problem came up: he watched porn and masturbated almost every day. He had been doing this since he was 13, and he’s now 35. He was quite open with me about it, and we talked about how it made me feel and how it affected our relationship.
After a few months — and finally an explanation for the mediocre sex we’d been having for the duration of the relationship — he admitted that he might have an addiction to porn. This made sense to me. I often caught him staring at other women and he was often unable to sustain an erection through sex. I also felt that he was a bit emotionally disconnected and our relationship was lacking intimacy. We saw a couple’s counselor for a few months, which he says he “hated every minute of it,” although I found it helpful.
My fiancé said he would stop watching porn. We checked in almost every night, as I was his accountability person to help him through this. I thought he was doing well. Fast forward to now, a year later — lots of porn watching, girl staring and arguments. He recently conceded that he had hit “rock bottom” when I found him lying about watching for the third time. He is now “serious about getting better” by reading a porn addiction book and listening to a podcast. He refuses to see a counselor as he “doesn’t believe that works.”
After the realization of this over a year ago, my self-confidence has plummeted. I have gained weight, and I’ve found myself back in the middle of an eating disorder that I worked 3 years to overcome prior to meeting him. I don’t trust him, and I feel angry, sad and disappointed. I also feel unwanted and ugly and believe that he’d rather have sex with himself and the porn fantasy than with me.
I have kept this all to myself. I haven’t told anyone close to me, as I think it’s such a personal problem. I know I need support, but just don’t know where to get it without severe judgement. I truly believe he wants to get better, but on his own terms. I have given him some firm boundaries about being actively engaged in recovery. So far, he’s doing okay.
Our wedding is coming up. I’m hesitant to go into a marriage with someone I don’t trust. I want to feel wanted and sexy and have the confidence I had before finding out about his porn problem. I see him trying to get better and want to believe that he WILL succeed and it will help our intimacy. I’ve made lists about everything I love in this relationship and so much of it is great. I just feel this tug of unclarity or uncertainly about our future.
Am I being weak by staying in this relationship? Should we postpone the wedding until we have a better foundation to enter marriage? How can I regain the confidence I have lost?
Steve Almond: The issue here is not just Unsure’s partner’s porn use, but the dishonesty around it and the unwillingness to recognize that it’s really hurting her deeply. She’s anguished by it, and she’s falling into unhealthy patterns that are born of distrust and humiliation resulting from his porn use.
Noah: Unsure’s problem is a very common one. Dr. Mary Anne Layden is someone who speaks a lot about the trauma and betrayal felt by partners of porn addicts. Also, the book “Love You, Hate the Porn,” by Mark Chamberlain and Geoff Steurer, deals specifically with recovery from porn addiction in a relationship and how to heal with your partner. But Unsure, you have to realize that porn has been influencing your partner since he was 13 years old. He was a child when he started using porn, so it’s had a grip on his life for a long time. He might be serious about getting better now, and it’s absolutely possible that he will quit using porn, find the resources and the help he needs, and that you’ll have the man that you want him to be. But it’s also a very significant possibility that he’s not actually in that place and the addicted part of him is lying to you and to himself to protect that behavior. Deception is a symptom of addiction.
Cheryl: Unsure, I hate to be cynical, but there’s a very big difference between somebody who realizes they’ve hit rock bottom when they’ve been busted and somebody who realizes they’ve hit bottom because they’ve actually had that moment of truth. I do think that sometimes a partner saying, “You must change or I’ll leave you,” can be the inciting incident. But pretty quickly after that, the person who needs to change needs to be the engine of their own change. Here’s what your partner would be doing if he’d actually changed: He would be talking to you about all the new realizations he's having, the things that have been hard for him, the things that have been enlightening to him as he’s learning more about this problem — he would be opening up that space of intimacy.
Steve: Unsure, you’ve been involved with this guy for a while and have invested a lot. You’re planning a life together, so the stakes here are high. If you don’t believe him — especially when it comes to a behavior that sends you into an incredible, unhealthy shame spiral — and he’s not able to hear that and say, “OK, we need to take care of this,” and go to a counselor or do whatever it is that will allow him to start grappling with something that has been in his life for much longer than you have, I don’t think that’s a person you make that long promise with.
Noah: Unsure, it sounds like your gut is telling you that he is not being fully honest with you, and there are signs here that that might be true. He’s reading a book and listening to a podcast, but if he’s not willing to have a fully open and honest dynamic with you, that is a sign that he’s still hiding things. Maybe if he learns about the brain science and how he is physiologically affected by his porn habits, that could be eye-opening for him. So if you sit down and watch some videos together or just talk about that with some literature, that could push things forward.
Steve: I also think it’s very dangerous for Unsure to be the accountability person here. That puts her in the position of being the scold, the super ego, the buzzkill. Unsure and her partner need to have a long-term relationship with somebody professionally who will help them work through this.
Noah: Oftentimes a romantic partner is not the best accountability partner because an addict doesn’t want to make his partner feel betrayed, so he’ll just hide it. It really helps if he can tell a therapist or some friends and have them on his team. There’s also software out there that will send a report of his activity to his accountability partner.
Cheryl: I’m curious about what a lot of people would call “normal porn use.” Is all porn use destructive?
Noah: There are absolutely people out there who use porn in moderation and they’re in healthy, happy relationships. We know about 85% of young guys and 31% of young women use porn regularly. Porn doesn’t always destroy lives, but there are a lot of people for whom it does cause problems. For people who have self-identified as addicts or who have developed porn-induced systems like erectile dysfunction, you have reached the level, in my strong opinion, where porn is absolutely incompatible with a happy relationship.
Cheryl: One of the questions to ask is, “Is porn bringing about negative consequences in my life?” In this case, Unsure isn’t sure she wants to marry this guy, so this is definitely having negative consequences on the relationship. Unsure, you do not trust your partner. Your partner is not really taking your concern, or his own problem, seriously. My advice to you is to hit the pause button. It doesn’t mean the relationship is over, but you want a partner with whom you’ll have a baseline of trust and sincerity and – I’m just going to say it – more than mediocre sex. Sex is an important part of a marriage, and you’re starting off pretty poorly if you’re having mediocre sex – which is probably caused by your partner’s porn addiction – from the beginning.
Noah: Unsure, if you and your partner are able to break through these barriers and heal together, you can have a relationship that’s closer and more beautiful and more satisfying than you’ve ever had together before.
New episodes of Dear Sugar Radio are released weekly. Do you a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.