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Sex and Porn Addiction – An Overview

South Pacific Private interviewed John Larkin, a respected sex addiction specialist concerning his views and experience as a therapist in this field and specifically, his involvement in a recent documentary, ‘The Porn Ultimatum’.

This documentary was to explore the effect of porn viewing, especially compulsive and addiction-driven porn viewing, on relationships. In particular, the producer was keen to meet with a qualified sex addiction therapist and also a middle-aged couple who have been and still are working through the issues that have arisen for both of them as a result of porn addiction. Ken and Gillian have both been clients of The Oak Centre for over 18 months and were happy to share their story with the public. The documentary explored and followed Ken and Gillian over an 8 month period.

What is your perspective as regards the ‘Porn Ultimatum’s’ perspective that there is an epidemic of porn addiction in Australia?
The term I used in the documentary was a “tsunami” – and a Tsunami that has yet to actually break! Since the advent of the Internet there has been an explosion in both the production and the viewing of porn. For example, an analysis of 400 million web searches from July 2009 to July 2010 by Symantec found that over 13% of all searches were for erotic content (The 2012 XBIZ Research Report: Attitudes, Views and Trends Impacting the Adult Entertainment Industry). The largest study of porn use amongst tertiary students, conducted in 2009 with over 29,000 students, found that 51% of male students and 32% of female students first viewed pornography by the time they were 12 years old. In addition, it was found that 64% of male students and 18% of female students spend time online for Internet sex every week (Michael Leahy,2009, Porn University: What College Students Are Really Saying About Sex on Campus).

In my own practice I am seeing an exponential increase in clients who present with porn addiction symptoms – and a wide range of negative consequences such as loss of employment, legal action, suicidal thoughts, damaged relationships and families, traumatised parents/partners and children and depression – just to name a few.

What do you believe is the impact of porn addiction on relationships today?
Relationships can be damaged by porn viewing in a number of ways. Firstly, excessive use of porn can alter a person’s arousal template – meaning that a ‘normal’ sexual relationship with one’s partner does not have the same appeal or stimulation as it once may have had. Some have stated that porn is ‘sex on steroids’ – and that no partner can compete with that. Secondly, (and related to the above point), the porn addict may lose interest in non-sexual intimacy such as touching, caressing and sharing thoughts and feelings. As my mentor Dr Patrick Carnes has expressed it, sex addicts (includes porn addicts) have learnt to express their feelings through their genitals! Thirdly, the partner of a porn addict can be highly traumatised in that important “building blocks” of their relationship are damaged – or even destroyed. These “building blocks” include trust, loyalty and safety.

How prevalent is porn addiction in Australia in your experience? I am not aware of any Australia-specific studies on the prevalence of porn addiction (or sex addiction) but overseas research indicates the problem is significant – and is growing at an alarming rate. I am personally aware that porn viewing is a recognised problem in the United States (refer US Congressional Hearing, 2004), China, New Zealand, Indonesia and the Middle East. I am confident that wherever the Internet is available, porn viewing and its associated problems will be found. At The Oak Centre we find that over 80% of our patients have porn addiction as one aspect of their problematic behaviour.

What is your advice for therapists working through porn addiction with clients?
The treatment of sex addiction has some common elements with the treatment of other addictions – either chemical or other process addictions such as gambling and video games. This includes the setting of boundaries, processing childhood and adulthood trauma, learning emotional management skills and re-structuring dysfunctions beliefs. However, there are also some unique aspects to the treatment of sex addiction such as the writing of a Disclosure Letter by the addict to his/her partner and the writing of an Impact Statement by the partner to his/her sex addict partner. The writing and sharing of both letters should only occur under the guidance of a qualified sex addiction therapist. Therapists should also ensure that the partner of a porn addict receives his/her own recovery program. Often the recovery program for the partner of a porn addict can take longer and be more difficult than that of the porn addict. Porn addicts (and sex addicts generally) usually need to learn (or re-learn) a range intimacy skills to assist in re-building the relationship. Porn addicts often display an ‘intimacy disorder’ – meaning they find it difficult to be vulnerable and struggle to identify and express their thoughts and/or feelings. Some addicts may need residential treatment as part of their recovery program and I would advise therapists to refer their patients to South Pacific Private Hospital as it is the only residential program in Australia that I know of that effectively addresses a patient’s underlying trauma and other developmental issues which typically underpin addiction.

What is your advice for individuals who believe they or their partner may have a problem with porn?
Partners need to seek help for themselves as soon as possible. Partners often experience difficult emotional states such as betrayal, anger, fear, confusion, helplessness, anxiety, emotional withdrawal and depression. Partners need to learn to nurture themselves, set clear boundaries to protect themselves and avoid trying to “fix’ their partner. This requires appropriate support and ongoing therapy. Working as a sex addiction specialist – what changes have you observed in your profession? Our profession continues to expand and is becoming more recognised for its specialist diagnosis and treatment of sex addiction. For example, I regularly receive referrals from other mental health professionals, such as psychologists, who recognise they do not have the specific knowledge and skills required to treat sex addiction. Our profession is well supported by a growing body of research and a growing number of clinicians who specialise in the diagnosis and treatment of sex addiction.

What are the common signs or behavioural aspects that are indicative of a sex addiction or addiction to porn?
I like Dr. Carnes’ definition of addiction – “A pathological relationship with a mood-altering experience that the person continues to engage in despite adverse consequences” Key indicators of the possible presence of sex addiction include the following:

• Repeated unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop the behaviour

• Continuing the behaviour in spite of adverse consequences

• Using sexually stimulating behaviour to medicate uncomfortable emotional states

However, the actual diagnosis of sex addiction requires a thorough assessment and this forms part of the work that a qualified sex addiction therapist will perform.

A recent article on porn addiction in the Sydney Morning Herald contested whether porn can become addictive – what is your experience John?
Those with this view point usually do not have access to the research data that has been supporting the sex addiction model over the last 5 years. Recently, Dr Valarie Voon at Cambridge University has made a significant contribution to our understanding of sex addiction. She has published two landmark studies – one in 2013 and one in 2014 – both of which indicate that pornography addiction leads to same brain activity as alcoholism or drug abuse.

In the recent article Sydney therapist Ash Rehn (forwardtherapy.com) stated that the addiction concept is not helpful commenting, “One of my concerns is not to use a disease model when I speak to people,” he said. “When people are labelled as disordered or sick it makes it very hard for them to move forward or develop a sense of control.” What is your belief around the use of labels or diagnoses and the impact on the individual for getting well? In working with my clients I stress that addiction is a physiological problem – specifically a brain-related condition. Studies have shown that the brain of an addict (chemical or process addiction) is structurally different to the brain of a non-addict. I do not label my patients as “diseased” but I do inform them that their behaviour may have the effect of altering aspects of their brain structure – especially in the area of dopamine receptors. Once patients understand the cognitive, emotional and behavioural drivers of their addiction, they typically feel a sense of relief knowing that their sexually addictive behaviour is not due to them being a “flawed’ or “bad” person. Critics often purport that porn can’t be compared to ‘true’ addictions such as to drugs – how do you respond to this statement? I imagine that such critics would likely accept that gambling can become an addictive behaviour for some gamblers. In fact, most governments now accept the concept of gambling addiction and have even funded addiction counselling services for those most at risk. Again I would point such critics to research that supports porn (and sex generally) being viewed as a potentially addictive behaviour.

You can contact South Pacific Private 24/7 if you have concerns that you or someone you love it struggling with a sex or porn addiction. We are available 24/7 on 1800 063 332. 

Take our quick self-test for sex addiction today to find out if there is a problem: https://southpacificprivate.com.au/addictions/sex-addiction/self-assessment/