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by Briana Y. Line, PH.D and Al Cooper, Ph.D.

Hal comes home from a long day, stressed and tired, and just wants to unwind a little. He looks forward to perusing pornographic magazines, enjoying the sexual images before him. Beautiful women with perfect bodies gaze longingly and directly at him, hungry for some appreciation of his masculinity and virility. He masturbates, and quickly feels the release he was searching for. He feels much better, and with renewed vitality, retires to the den to catch up on some reading.

Ben prefers the Internet. In the quietude of his home office, and without distraction from his wife, Ben surfs the Internet for pornographic web sites. He loves the rush of finding a new site with adults engaging in various and exciting sexual acts -- acts in which his wife refuses to participate. Themes of bondage, domination, and sadism are particularly appealing to him. He fantasizes about being a participant, but insists he would never "act out" these fantasies. He states that his fascination with pornographic material keeps him "faithful." He masturbates with fantasy, but never seeks sexual gratification with a partner outside of his marriage.

Pornography can, as many have argued, increase sexual excitement and variety. Research has also shown that pornography can decrease sexual tensions in some men. In addition, other research has suggested that there is no direct causal relation between pornography and sex crimes in America. So what's the problem? The problem is that both Hal and Ben are at risk for developing a serious and harmful compulsion.

Compulsive behaviors of any kind (e.g., involving alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, sex) are at risk for developing when the behavior in question is used to manage feelings. Pornography is no exception, and is often utilized to "self-medicate" against feelings of anger, disappointment, boredom, stress, anxiety, loneliness or sadness. Such mood altering coping strategies keep individuals from developing more adaptive and healthier ways of managing emotions.

Hal and Ben are at risk for developing other difficulties as well. While Ben reports that pornography keeps him "faithful," he's likely to become socially withdrawn. Instead of seeking solace or comfort from his wife (or other important people in his life), he is likely to seek comfort with his computer.

Further, he may develop less interest in real life relationships, and more of an invested interest in fantasized ones. His need for pornography may become a "quick fix" or instant gratification to soothe the unexpressed disappointments in his relationships. Finally, while he insists he would not go outside of the marriage to engage in the types of sexual acts he enjoys fantasizing about, he is at risk for doing exactly that. Pornography can heighten unacceptable urges in some people, and reinforces deviance associated with sexually abusive behavior. Further, it lowers inhibitions, spurring individuals who are inclined towards sexually abusive or deviant behaviors to act on their fantasies.

The sexual images involved in pornography often sexualize body parts and objectify people (i.e., perceiving others as objects, not as human beings), and the potential for divorcing oneself from feelings is substantial. Consequently, Hal and Ben are at risk for developing distorted beliefs about women, men, and children who are involved in the sex industry. They may perceive individuals involved as "liking what they do," or are just serving their own needs. Distancing and objectifying sexual acts actually help in rationalizing sexual acts that are often demoralizing, humiliating, and abusive. Overall, Hal and Ben are developing behaviors that serve to distance themselves from women in general, making it difficult for them to connect with women emotionally, and in ways other than sex.

So what are you to do if you find yourself verging toward compulsive sexual behavior?

  • Tell someone you can trust about your behavior. It may be tough to share a part of yourself that you're less than thrilled with, but breaking through the denial is essential to your getting the help and support you need. You would be taking a big step towards helping yourself if you reached out to someone you trusted and told them what you are doing.
  • Recognize that as your behavior continues, your modes of coping are becoming more restrictive. You're likely becoming more socially isolated, and less involved with others. Learn to connect socially and emotionally with other individuals, and find someone whom you can trust to discuss your feelings, concerns, and stresses. Behavior is less likely to become out of control if you learn to share your feelings with people you trust.
  • Learn the importance of asserting your needs, wants, and opinions. Realize you are not alone, and recognize that others can help and support you in your difficulties. Do not keep your feelings inside, as you are more likely to act on those feelings (i.e., by way of sexually compulsive or aggressive behaviors) in the future. The more you keep your needs and feelings inside, the more likely that you will use (and need) pornography to soothe internal discomforts.
  • Learn ways to connect and communicate with women in ways other than sex. Seek ways to tap into your emotional life. While your analytical, logical, and rational abilities may be essential skills on the job, your abilities to communicate effectively with people can be enhanced substantially by developing better emotional and social skills. You are far more likely to increase your emotional and sexual satisfaction with your partner by talking about your concerns. You only increase your dissatisfaction in the long run by turning to pornography to get your needs met.
  • Finally, seek professional help if the aforementioned steps feel difficult to follow through on alone. Be sure you find a professional with experience and training working specifically with sexuality and compulsive behaviors. This can aid enormously in combating behaviors that you may find internally distressing and/or hurtful to your family and independent functioning.

Take a step forward, any step, in confronting the denial. You're worth it!


Alvin Cooper, Ph.D., is the Clinical Director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre and runs the training program of the Counseling and Psychological Services at Stanford University. He can be reached at (408) 248-9737.


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Briana Y. Line, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre, and co-coordinates the Centre's group psychotherapy treatment program for sexual offenders. Dr. Line specializes in the treatment of sexual compulsive behaviors.


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