David*, 43, is a management consultant. He’s divorced, lives in south-east London and has one teenage son
It was a perfect summer Saturday. The weather was balmy, and the sound of families chattering on their way to Greenwich Park filtered through the big bay window in the living room at the front of my Georgian home on a leafy street. A typical suburban dwelling of the well-to-do.
But the shutters were firmly closed; the lights were off. The noise of a flyer dropping through my letterbox broke my deep concentration and I noticed the time on my laptop screen. F---. It was 3pm. I had been there, by myself, since waking at 8am, relentlessly scrolling and clicking through porn sites. I’d already dodged a text from a lovely girl I was seeing and passed on a brunch invite from a friend.
This depressing scene was me in 2019. I felt so lonely, a loser. To the outside world I was a successful man in my late 30s, who’d weathered a divorce, was back dating, and apparently living the bachelor dream. I had my own home and enough cash to treat any date to a meal at a decent restaurant. Yet here I was, mindlessly masturbating, desperately lonely. Pathetic.
How it all began
My relationship with porn had begun – probably like millions of other British pre-teen boys that grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s – when I discovered a stash of enticing, soft-focus magazines with names like Fiesta and Razzle under my older brother’s mattress. The pages were filled with busty girls in lacy underwear, their eyes seductive and hair long; slim bodies with improbably large breasts; tantalising shots of pink, brown and black nipples that I’d never seen in real life. They gave me a funny, excited feeling. These were the same kind of well-thumbed mags that were passed around on the coach as we travelled to our well-known, fee-paying school’s rugby fixtures.
We’d all be gawping at the magazine in a group, yet we wouldn’t discuss our favourites or the specifics of what titillated us, other than the predictable “wow, look at those”. Looking at porn already felt like a solitary pursuit. I found the more gynaecological pictures a bit scary back then and gravitated to the “soft” ones – topless or undressed women, that kind of thing.
As I got older, the internet became more accessible (albeit the old dial-up system), and I discovered porn websites. Pictures downloaded pixel by pixel. You were aware you were blocking others in the house – perhaps Mum – from using the landline, and potentially running up huge bills. Yet this added to the sense of porn use being elicit. The early browsers didn’t have “incognito” mode; the history needed clearing after browsing sessions. (If you don’t know how to go incognito, ask a bloke – I assure you they will.)
Coming from an all-boys school, and with no sisters, I was a late starter with girls. I was awkward; more into music and sport. Then, at university, I grew in confidence and started having sex and relationships. After relentless teen boy talk, it was like a whole aspect of life had been opened up. No amount of porn can prepare you for the sheer thrill of having actual sex. All the things that had looked a bit weird in the magazines were suddenly routes into pleasure. I had a girlfriend my age, Jessica*, who was stunning and studious – I couldn’t believe my luck. We shared a student house and I wanted to have sex with her all the time. Sadly, she did not. Not wanting to nag her (or be rejected), I’d frequently take myself and my laptop off to a quiet room, secretly using porn before climbing into bed with her. I was too immature then to question whether her reluctance was related to my performance.
The road to addiction
When I graduated in 2001 and landed a job, things took a turn. I broke up with Jessica and my work often took me away from home. I had a lot of time to kill in the evenings. This was before internet dating and apps, so I spent hours looking at internet porn.
Because I moved so often for work, it became normal to have short, sex-based flings rather than regular relationships. Now I realise this was the time when porn was “normalised” for me. I never thought to use paid sites or cable television channels when it was free and plentiful on the web.
When I eventually settled in London in 2006, porn had become a large part of my life. Like a hobby. Faster streaming of videos meant spending even more hours – and I do mean hours – browsing. Daily. Often in a “relaxing” pre-bedtime routine.
Then I fell hard for Puja*, a sexy, whip-smart, entirely dazzling colleague. It was such a passionate relationship, for three months I was in heaven. We perhaps shouldn’t have been shocked when she fell pregnant, and I immediately proposed, assuming this was the “right thing”. We married quickly, and tried our best as we had a child, but the arguments flared as the passion faded. I was devastated to be a divorcé by 30, but we agreed to co-parent our child with love – just not together.
Life became very dark, and my porn use spiralled. I was back living alone, with a high-stress job, and I’d accepted that my heavy porn use – four hours every night – was an actual addiction.
I have no training in medicine or psychology, but I know that a hallmark of addiction is loss – of friends, relationships, jobs, or just huge chunks time and your own self-worth. I have spent whole evenings and days off “using” sites.
A way out of stress
Porn used up all my downtime and became my only way out of stress. If I was up against it at work or, to my shame, dealing with a stroppy toddler, a quick look at my phone (yes, by now it was there too) gave me the dopamine hit I craved. I wasn’t even hiding in the loos – just looking for one quick picture or gif would suffice. Once, I brought something up on a site and accidentally left the sound on, filling my open-plan office with the sounds you can imagine. Yet it still wasn’t the wake-up call I needed.
There’s an old joke that men who say they don’t look at porn are either liars or can’t access the internet. It’s amazing how little men talk about it. I didn’t. This is a multibillion-pound industry, yet we don’t talk about it seriously. Perhaps if men were more open, I would have realised the extent of my problem and modified my behaviour. Perhaps.
Being single and dating can be depressing. And porn use definitely gave me a warped take on sex with women. The performance (mine) became all-important, rather than developing feelings. I’ve genuinely never looked at a real woman and compared her unfavourably with porn stars, though I’ve heard younger men can have this issue, which saddens me. I’d often plan my dating schedules, because if I’d masturbated all day, I didn’t want to compromise erections during sex. I misjudged this sometimes, leaving me unable to “perform”. Mortifying – for both me and her.
I could usually “pull” (yes, that’s horribly arrogant), but couldn’t form lasting relationships, yet I didn’t connect the dots.
When you read other articles about porn use, there’s an implication that it takes you to dark places. But in my case I never felt I was watching violent or non-consensual stuff, and I certainly never wanted to do any of that with women.
Did I think about the ethics? I have to be honest here: asking a porn addict if they’re concerned for the welfare of the performers is like asking a heroin addict if they’re worried about the opium farmers.
So how did this all end for me? Well, there was no rock bottom for my addiction, in the way alcoholics describe. It was a much less dramatic combination of things. My son is now a teenager (we don’t discuss masturbation, but perhaps we should) and the idea of him falling into my trap terrifies me.
I also finally met a wonderful, non-judgmental partner whose friendship I craved. I worship her and our sex life is healthy and honest. As I’ve hit my 40s, I suppose that indefatigable urge to masturbate wanes. I’ve learnt that meaningful sex with a real lover (complete with stretch marks and wobbly bits I adore) leaves me feeling really fulfilled, and not lonely.
My porn use nearly destroyed my chance of finding love, but I still believe masturbating itself is normal, healthy behaviour. I still do it now every few days to relax. It’s less damaging than unwinding by smoking or drinking.
But I’ve put my days of using internet porn behind me. Thank God.
As told to Susanna Galton
*Names have been changed
How to manage porn addiction
Psychotherapist Peter Saddington specialises in helping men overcome sexual compulsive behaviour. A clinical supervisor, here he explains more…
How common is it?
A lot more than you think. Unlike alcoholism, which is openly discussed, porn addiction holds a unique shame. So many men (and yes it is men) struggle acknowledging their compulsion; I commend David’s honesty. It’s taboo, not discussed with lovers or friends. Quoting accurate statistics is challenging because people aren’t truthful. Most young British males have watched porn. But similarly, most have drunk alcohol. That doesn’t make them addicts.
This is a growing problem, certainly, because accessing technology is so easy. For many people, like David, this addiction is transitory. Everyone is different. The majority of my clients have been “caught out” and their job or relationship is at stake; they’re not there, generally, off their own back.
What causes this issue?
There’s no single thing, it tends to be linked to three areas. One is trauma, which often starts early in life, such as sexual abuse, and watching porn is a way of self-soothing. By looking at porn continuously you enter a bubble that alleviates some of the trauma’s effect.
Second, attachment issues growing up can play a part. With dysfunctional family connections, or neglect, it can become a coping mechanism for managing distress.
Finally, there are more nerves in the testicles and penis and stroking/touching them feels good. For children this is self-soothing, not sexual. Then, with age, and readily available porn, there’s an immediate, exciting response: an erection. So what starts as a habit, slips into a compulsion.
How do you conquer it?
Acknowledging that you’ve got a problem is the first step. The second? Asking for help. These two things are crucial, yet the hardest. The third step is understanding the issue: why you’ve got it, how it works, and knowing the triggers – the times it happens. Once you’ve got all this knowledge, you’ve armed yourself with the fourth step: knowing how to manage it.
Where to seek help if you or your partner have a problem
Relate, where I work, is nationwide and a good starting place, though not all centres have porn addiction therapists.
The Laurel Centre specialises in treatment for sexual compulsion, and has advice for loved ones too.
But if you are unable to go privately, then your local GP can tell you about the NHS services in your area.
What age group is most at risk?
For most people, masturbation starts young, and there’s no problem; it’s impossible to predict who will develop an addiction, because generally that only is clear once you’ve been “found out” somehow or, like David, when it reaches the point where you’re acknowledging there’s a problem. I’ve helped men from the ages of 15 to 93. (And for those taking medication for Parkinson’s disease, there’s an increased risk of porn addiction, even if you haven’t had issues previously.)
Do you advise against all internet porn?
My clients are adults who make their own choices. But if you have alcoholism, it’s not realistic to think you “can have a few drinks”. For many sexually compulsive men, cutting out porn can be simpler.
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