Todd Essig, Ph.D.

Todd Essig Ph.D.

Over-Simulated

A Clinical Portrait of Excessive Online Porn Use (Part 6)

The story continues with the therapist confronting confusion and theory

Posted Apr 23, 2010

The story of "Paul and His Girls" continues with a brief journey into clinical theory and one therapist's need (mine) to understand this confusing patient.

Table of Contents (to date:)

Part 1: Getting started: Anything too good to be true, is
Part 2: "50 Way to Leave Your ... Therapist"

Part 3: A Rock and a Hard Place

Part 4: The Medium is the ... Sex Act

Part 5: Getting to know what it takes to be "one of my girls"

Clinical confidentiality has been strictly protected. The story told in this series is a constructed clinical portrait of actual events, a common practice in both the professional literature and in popular books. To protect patients (past, current, and future), families, and friends all identifying information has been thoroughly disguised and the tale told crosses several specific histories.

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Part 6 of "Paul and His Girls"
From confusion to addiction to metaphor to ‘Scaffolding'

Could online porn really be that powerful? Powerful enough to warp such a promising young life? Goodness knows, there's a ton of the stuff out there. Tons. The Internet is like a mall where one in 10 stores sell porn, and many more give it away or just leave it lying around for anyone who might want some. It seems obvious that there wouldn't be that much out there unless lots and lots of people liked lots and lots of porn; supply follows demand. What's not so obvious is why such a demand?

Such vast quantities of sexually explicit online imagery must be responding to something. But what? The call of adolescent curiosity (at whatever age!)? Empty moments of being lonely or bored? Maybe just the over-worked, over-stimulated, and under-gratified feeling horny? Probably all of those and more: the fact is people have wanted porn seemingly forever, at least since the ancient Greeks decorated pottery with sexually explicit images. Who knows, maybe Stonehenge was an earthworks and stone based peep-show. But do all those traditional motives explain the astounding amount of online porn available? Do they explain how Paul spent his free time, especially given all that this successful charmer could have been doing?

In a word, no.

Paul's use of online porn was more complex, more confusing—and I didn't like it at all, not one bit. I took small comfort from the fact that many other therapists were also flummoxed. People over-using online porn was (is?) still a relatively new problem. Plus, as technologies advance new forms emerge further fueling confusion. But minds abhor confusion, almost as much as nature abhors a vacuum. So much so that confusion never lasts. Something always comes along to wash away the confusion and re-establish cognitive comfort. With excessive online porn what initially came along to soothe my therapuetically confused mind was the concept of "addiction."

Addiction is a convenient, near-at-hand concept on the explanatory shelf. And calling Paul's porn-use an addiction certainly would eliminate my confusion. If his problems in living were nothing more than the clinically familiar—but no less potentially life threatening for its familiarity—situation of excessive behavior causing neurotransmitters to rewire the neural circuitry of motivation and reward leading to even more excessive behavior in an accelerating downward feedback loop the diagnostic mystery would be solved. For Paul there would then be the remaining open question whether his was a "sex addiction" or an "Internet addiction." Or maybe both, like an alcoholic compulsive gambler with a cocaine-addiction. But that would be the familiar mystery of differential diagnosis, not the confusion caused by just not knowing what to make of the whole situation.

But the evidence to support either "sex addiction" or "Internet addiction" as distinct diagnostic entities is sparse at best, no where near what would be needed to describe an entirely new illness. Instead, they're labels best thought of as metaphors not diagnoses. As metaphor they usefully communicate the depth and seriousness of the problem—there are many lives wrecked on the screen. But I realized they really don't explain much nor can they guide treatment, at least not for Paul. In fact, saying he was addicted to online porn would actually make it more difficult to help him. His troubles were not just a disease needing treatment, like alcoholism. Rather he was acting and choosing for reasons we were only starting to understand; nothing good would come from dismissing everything we had been discussing as nothing more than an addict's denial.

Since the concept of "addiction" left me as confused as ever about Paul and the power of online porn I turned to another explanation making it's way into the professional literature: the "triple-A engine" of affordability, anonymity, and accessibility. Because online porn combined affordability, anonymity, and accessibility it was a potentially dangerous activity in which people could get trapped. In other words, the engine of online porn's power came from the fact that it is cheap, private, and really easy to get.

The triple-A engine hypothesis is an appealing idea, but it only gets you half-way there. Cheap, private, and really easy to get does a nice job describing features that make online porn different from traditional porn delivery systems. All the old obstacles to acquiring porn, from cost to embarrassment to difficulty, disappear. But it does nothing to explain all that desire that has always pushed against those obstacles, nor does it say anything about the experience of those who go online. The triple-A engine hypothesis actually takes for granted the very things we need to understand. It's like saying that if liquor freely flowed from water taps it would explain an alcoholic.

Rather than minimizing the role played by porn-users themselves, I came to realize magnifying and understanding those individual points of view was precisely what was needed even if it meant there would be as many explanations as there are people with the problem. After all, when Paul spent time with his "girls," he was an active agent making conscious and unconscious decisions and choices in the pursuit of something, not a passive vessel into which digital toxins were poured. Of course, his experience was influenced by what the images afforded him, but what he psychologically did with the images and how he experienced them are the processes that need to be understood.

Unlike the due diligence he consistently practiced to make sure he never ended up with the "wrong girl," Paul approached porn as something separate, personal, and trivial. Separate, personal, and trivial was his "triple-something engine": porn was not part of his "golden boy" life, it was totally his, and porn really didn't matter. His "triple" give him freedom to make the most of his porn experiences (which would have been a recipe for a good life if only he had been able to apply the same strategy to relationships with actual women rather than just sexual images of women).

Everybody is their own story and separate, personal, and trivial was his. With porn he could ask without fear of consequence, "What do I like?" instead of looking for flaws. In a sense, every time he viewed an image or a video it was like the anticipation of a great first date-before the hunt for disappointments began. He approached using porn as an experience he tried to make work.

"It's really easy to make porn boring," he admitted one day. "I can kill the high whenever I want just by telling myself they're just a bunch of pixels. But I figure, why bother? Why break it?"

"I guess it's better to make it work," I said, curious where he was going with this. "Like you've said, it's just porn, something that's yours, a place to be free with no expectations, no real-life consequence. But how do you do it? How do you find so much pleasure from a picture?"

"Well, I guess first of all, I want to," he said with a conspiratorial smile. "Collecting is just fun. But when I want to get off I have to let myself get lost in the feeling. The porn makes it easy. I do slide shows of my favorite pics now, and some of the videos are pretty cool. I stay locked in and can change whatever I want whenever I want to. It's all mine."

Sometimes he got lost in a porn purveyor's increasingly creative use of technology and bandwidth, other times it was content; for example, he really enjoyed sex blogs when they started appearing. When life felt "too much" and he really needed to relax, he spent time with his girls; it was all about his need for a "break." At other times he said it was as though he was bathing himself in the imagery he collected, letting girl after girl wash over him.

By combining the sexual imagery of online porn, its very "online-ness," with what he  did I started to get less confused. Paul brought a lot of himself to porn: sexual desire, a need to be perfect, a need to relax. But he also needed what online porn provided him: a separate, personal, and trivial play space in which he could enact various fantasies. In other words, he was using online porn as an interactive support for his own internal processes. Porn let him look for and find a sexual breather from daily demands. It functioned as a kind of "triple-A" scaffolding he could erect—no pun intended—whenever he needed it or wanted it to.

Apparently, porn has such incredible emotional power in his life not because of its addictive power, but because it was so replaceable, like a scaffolding carted away and discarded after construction once the experience was over.

[End of Part 6 ... to be continued]