For Josh Bowdoin, it started at age 14. His dad, also his high school principal, had asked Josh to help with the school’s website.
Josh opened an email and was shocked by what he saw: a graphic pornographic image. He immediately deleted it. But the emails kept coming, and Josh’s teenage hormones had been piqued. He started leaving the messages in the recycle bin. Soon, he was spending hours a day online, looking at porn.
“I knew immediately it was a problem,” Josh said. “I always felt miserable afterward and promised [myself] I’d never do it again. But then the next day, I’d go back to it.”
Now 31, Josh has been struggling with porn addiction for nearly two decades. In high school, alone in the computer lab, he’d spend two to three hours online looking at porn. When he got to college, it got worse; at his lowest points, he spent all night, a full eight hours, looking at porn online.
Treatment has helped Josh learn techniques to manage his addiction, but he still sometimes craves the escape. Just the other week, he spent four hours online, looking at porn. The week before that, half an hour.
Rewiring the brain
Josh is not alone in either his struggle or his early exposure to porqln. Studies have found porn consumption rates as high as 99 percent among men and 86 percent among women, and Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse found that most boys seek porn by age 10.
Internet porn is even more addictive than traditional porn, says sex researcher Gary Wilson, because it piggybacks on a behavior the brain has evolved to reward: sex with new partners. Porn offers an extreme version of this behavior, a never-ending line of novel cyber-partners that overloads the brain with dopamine. Like all addictive behaviors, the repeated accessing of this porn-induced dopamine hit creates changes in the brain. Everyday pleasures become less satisfying, and changes to the frontal cortex erode willpower.
“Porn gets wired into your brain,” said Jim Gouveia, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor in Oregon State University’s (OSU’s) Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). “You don’t have to go buy an orgasm, it’s just sitting in your lap. It’s very available; it’s hard to get away from. The chemical reinforcements are huge.”
Gouveia, who specializes in addiction counseling, said some people have a genetic predisposition toward addiction, and exposure at a young age increases the likelihood of any addiction. But unlike some addiction, porn addiction can be easily hidden. Meth, for example, presents visible evidence of addiction in rotting teeth and scabbed skin—but how many of us don’t spend hours a day online?
The result is a toxic cycle: time with porn means time alone; time alone creates feelings of isolation; and feelings of isolation lead to a desire for the dopamine hit the brain has been trained to get from porn.
“I was looking for friendship and love,” Josh said. “It felt safe in pornography, because I could get it when I wanted it, where I wanted it. A pornographic image can’t reject me.”
Working for recovery
Josh doesn’t use a smart phone. He is among the addicts who have chosen to use “dumb” phones to add a layer of separation between themselves and the porn. Because addiction erodes willpower, limited access is crucial for recovering addicts. But limiting access to online porn is almost impossible, which makes recovery particularly challenging.
“You don’t have to have alcohol in your house, you don’t have to go to the liquor store, but most of us have to go on the Internet,” Gouveia said.
It was only after Josh sought treatment at the Mid-Valley Fellowship, a faith-based organization in Albany, that he learned how to identify the root causes behind his addiction—insecurity in relationships and pressure-filled situations—and began to feel a sense of progress.
“When I’m in the midst of acting out, it’s hard to recognize the underlying issues surrounding the addiction, because I’m numb,” he said. “The reality is that when I take the pornography away, it becomes more difficult, because I actually have to face the problems.”
Matthew MacClary, who also sought treatment at the Mid-Valley Fellowship for his porn addiction and now co-leads one of the small groups there, said that becoming aware of the psychology behind his addiction was one of the most important steps in his recovery.
“It’s not like your prefrontal cortex is saying: let’s find an avoiding behavior,” Matthew said. “I had no idea that’s what I was doing.” Now, though, he can recognize that he was using porn to avoid the feelings of abandonment and loneliness he had as a child when his parents divorced and he struggled to connect to his peers.
“It’s a slow process,” Matthew said. “You start to build the ability to recognize the feeling you’re having in the moment, which is not an ability many people have. Then you can think, ‘I’m feeling threatened by this person. And I know that structures in my brain have stored a reaction to feeling this way that takes me down that path.’ ”
Training your brain to choose another path over the porn is not easy. Matthew said that the struggle with temptation comes and goes, but it never ends. Josh said he still struggles with his pride.
“I want to be strong enough,” Josh said. “I want to make the right decision and not need help.”
But both men said that the ability to speak honestly and openly about their struggles—as well as their personal faith—has been crucial to the healing process.
“You have to have ongoing help,” Matthew said. “It doesn’t end. You always need have people in your life that you’re open with.”
By Maggie Anderson