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Exploring the Lived Experience of Problematic Users of Internet Pornography: A Qualitative Study

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Abstract

Sexual Addiction and Internet Pornography Addiction are both hotly debated topics in the media and academic forums alike. This phenomenological, qualitative survey of 53 self-identified problematic users of internet pornography explored their subjective experiences as self-identified problem porn users. Their experiences were analysed thematically and the results documented. Effects on mental health & wellbeing, Effects on relationships and Experience of dependency were the emergent core themes. This is an original manuscript / preprint of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity on 15 May 2020 available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10720162.2020.1766610
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EXPLORING THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF PROBLEMATIC USERS OF
INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY: A QUALITATIVE STUDY
Associate researcher: Francesca Palazzolo
Research supervisor: Dr. Cathy Bettman
Australian College of Applied Psychology, Sydney, Australia
Author Note
This is an author’s original manuscript. This research paper was completed as part of the requirements
for the Master of Counselling and Psychology program at the Australian College of Applied
Psychology, Sydney. The project was supervised by Dr. Cathy Bettman, former Senior Lecturer,
ACAP.Francesca Palazzolo has now completed the program and is not affiliated with any other
institution. No funding was sought or given for the research project, which forms the subject of this
article. The writers have no interests to declare.
This article has been accepted for publication in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, published
by Taylor & Francis.
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Exploring the Lived Experience of Problematic Users of Internet Pornography:
A Qualitative Study
Internet Pornography (IP) is a phenomenon that has been the focus of much research and
debate recently, yet there is still a lack of consensus regarding when the use of IP becomes
problematic. There is also a lack of qualitative research on the effects of IP on those who self-
identify as experiencing problematic use. This phenomenological, qualitative study surveyed
53 self-identified users of IP. Thematic analysis of the results found that users experienced a
number of psychosocial impacts attributed to their use of IP, such as diminished positive
mental health and wellbeing, detrimental effects on relationships and intimacy, and symptoms
of dependency. Suggestions for further research are made.
Keywords: internet pornography, addiction, qualitative research, thematic analysis,
dependency
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The internet’s influence on society, culture, sexuality, and human communication has been
well documented, especially in relation to the influence of the consumption of sexually
explicit media (Cooper, 1998; Rosser, Noor & Iantaffi, 2014; Harper & Hodgins, 2016; Wéry
& Billieux, 2017). Cooper (1998) identified what he called the “Triple-A engine” of the
internet and argued that access, affordability, and anonymity give the internet the ‘power’ to
transform human sexuality. In the twenty years since, it appears the effects of these factors
are indeed at play, particularly in the area of online pornography consumption. While
pornography has probably been in existence since humans could write or draw, the internet,
and in particular high-speed internet, has taken this natural aspect of human behavior and
transformed it in a way that must have been unimaginable to earlier generations (Cooper,
1998).
Today, the internet is accessible almost anywhere, any time and the smartphone, in
particular, has made the internet, and hardcore pornography, available 24 hours a day. The
rise of tube sites and “gonzo porn(non-professional pornography uploaded to a website,
similar to YouTube, which allows anyone to view and upload content anonymously) coupled
with the fact that an infinite variety of pornography is now free or available for a low cost,
has made internet pornography extremely popular. Porn Hub, for example, one of the most
infamous tube porn sites, boasted a record 42 billion visits in 2019, up from 33.5 billion
visitors in 2018 (“The 2019 Year in Review”, 2019). Users of Pornhub can access an infinite
variety of pornography for little to no cost and can share pornography videos whilst
remaining anonymous.
The increased popularity of Internet Pornography (IP) has led to concerns about its
addictive properties and usage. In fact, the phenomenon of IP dependency has recently been
debated in both academic and non-academic literature alike, (Willoughby, 2018) fueled by
the controversial exclusion in 2013 of sex addiction in the fifth and most recent edition of the
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Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) (APA, 2013).
Researchers have been divided on the issue (Kraus et al., 2016), mainly with regard to if,
when and how much IP use is to be considered problematic, as well as what to label this
phenomenon (Wéry & Billieux, 2017; Duffy, Dawson & Das Nair, 2016; Harper and
Hodgins, 2016).
Literature Review
A review of the recent literature from 2013 to the present day was conducted of peer-
reviewed articles that specified internet pornography in the title. It was noticeable that most
studies to date have been correlational or quantitative in nature. Of the 38 published articles
selected for review, a total of 34 were single studies. There were four reviews, Love, Laier,
Brand, Hatch and Hajela (2015), Duffy, Dawson and Das Nair (2016), Park et al. (2016) and
de Alarcón,de la Iglesia, Casado and Montejo (2019). Only seven of the studies used
qualitative research methods.
The de Alarcón, et al. (2019) review detailed and collated the evidence on IP use to
date and concluded that the brains of problematic users of IP share similar core brain changes
to those of addicted substance users. This systematic review replicated Love et al.’s (2015)
review on neuroscience findings, which concluded that “Internet pornography addiction fits
into the addiction framework and shares similar basic mechanisms with substance addiction”
(Love et al., 2015, p.389).
The Park et al. (2016) review found that the removal of IP use was the key factor in
the reduction of sexual dysfunctions in young males according to clinical reports, thus
suggesting that excessive IP use was a direct cause of the previously unexplained sexual
dysfunctions. The Duffy et al. (2016) review focused on the phenomenon of “perceived
addiction” to IP and found that the phenomenon of self-perceived pornography addiction was
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often described as excessive pornography use coupled with adverse effects. However, it
found that due to limitations of the studies in the review, its results were inconclusive.
The term “perceived addiction” (Grubbs, Volk, Exline & Pargament, 2013) began to
appear in the literature in 2013 and has caused considerable confusion, with some researchers
inferring that participants’ “perceived addiction” to pornography is related to psychological
distress, not their actual use of pornography (Grubbs et al., 2015). The Harper and Hodgins'
(2016) study examining correlates of problematic internet pornography use among university
students found that “participants were more likely to have higher general anxiety and distress,
as well as lower life satisfaction, if they reported symptoms of addictive IP use" (p.6). It also
reported that higher scores on the Cyber Pornography Use Inventory, a proposed assessment
tool for IP use (Grubbs, Sessoms, Wheeler & Volk, 2010) correlated with higher scores on
the BSI-18 (Brief Symptom Inventory) which would suggest that higher levels of IP use
correlate with higher levels of psychological distress. However, when concluding the study
Harper and Hodgins (2016) discounted these findings citing the use of self-report measures as
a limitation of the study, stating that “some participants may have lied due to the sensitive
nature of the topic,” (p.187) despite the participants being assured anonymity. They also
stated that there is uncertainty about whether actual daily use of IP is the cause of the
psychological distress, or whether the participants’ suspicion that their use is becoming
problematic is the cause of their psychological distress.
The remainder of the single studies on internet pornography were varied. Some
studies were based on identifying symptoms, criteria, and etiology of problematic internet
pornography use while some focused on the psychosocial effects of IP (Gesser-Edelsburg &
Arabia, 2018; Muusses, Kerkhof & Finkenauer, 2015; Racidon et al. 2016). Several studies
explored body image, sexuality and identity issues of IP users (Klaassen & Peter, 2014;
Kvalem, Træen, & Iantaffi, 2015; Pekal et al., 2018; Maas & Dewey 2018; Hare et al., 2014)
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and others sought to find correlations between IP use and psychological distress, such as the
Harper and Hodgins (2016) study mentioned above. There were many studies which examine
the effects of problematic IP use and relationships (Gesser-Edelsburg & Arabia, 2018; Wéry,
Schimmenti, Karila, & Billieux, 2018; Racidon et al., 2016; Beyens, Muusses, Kerkhof &
Finkenauer, 2015; Park et al., 2016; Sirianni & Vishwanath, 2015), yet there were no
qualitative research studies which documented IP users’ subjective experiences.
The literature reviewed, including the two systematic reviews by Love et al. (2015)
and de Alarcón, et al. (2019), showed that excessive IP use is problematic for some users and
causes high-end users to experience severe and adverse effects. Owens et al. (2012) noted
correlational research could only go so far, arguing for “greater specificity regarding the
themes, content, and messages embedded in IP which can be better explored using qualitative
methods(p.112). In the relatively few qualitative studies available, there appears to be a
distinct lack of “voice” (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006) from those directly affected by this
phenomenon. This study, on the other hand, aimed to explore what self-identified
problematic users of IP experience in their own words. In particular, it sought to investigate
in their own words what they are feeling, thinking, and doing, which causes them to self-
identify as problematic users of internet pornography. This study employed qualitative
research methods, which allow for richer, deeper exploration of the themes imbedded in IP,
as recommended by Owens et al. (2012).
Method
Qualitative research allows for personal, in-depth exploration of individuals and society with
a focus on making sense of phenomena as it is (Vossler & Moller, 2014). As this study
sought to explore the lived experience of problematic users of internet pornography, a
qualitative phenomenological study was considered the most appropriate method to use.
Phenomenological research aims to make sense of a person’s lived experience, from their
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own perspective and in their own words (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006). Data for the study
was collected online. Participants self-selected to complete an anonymous, self-report survey
which comprised of 17 open-ended questions and 3 demographic questions. The collected
data was analyzed using thematic analysis and was influenced by grounded theory (Strauss &
Corbin, 2007) in that a process of open, axial, and selective coding was followed.
Participants
The study sought anonymous participants who self-identified as experiencing
problematic IP use and were over 18 years old. Participants were asked if they had been
diagnosed with a serious mental health disorder in the last 12 months. Those who answered
in the affirmative were excluded to reduce the potential risk of harm associated with the
disclosure of sensitive or personal information in a vulnerable group and, to reduce the
potential of any reported symptoms of psychological distress being attributed to a previous
mental health diagnosis.
In total, one hundred and five participants engaged with the online survey, and a total
of 53 respondents completed the entire set of questions. Of these, 51 identified as male and
heterosexual. One male identified as gay, and one respondent identified as female and
heterosexual. The age of participants who completed the survey ranged from 18 to 61-years-
old, and the average age of participants who completed the survey was 30.5 years old. The
average age of first-time viewing of IP for the participants was 14.89 years. The youngest
reported age of first-time viewing of IP was six years old, and one participant reported being
40 the first time he viewed online IP. Most participants (N=39) reported that they had not
sought professional support for their IP use.
Materials
Data for the research was collected anonymously via a self-report online survey
hosted by Survey Monkey, an online survey platform. It included three ‘yes or no’ screening
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questions (comprised of the above inclusion and exclusion criteria) and 17 open-ended
questions, which required participants to write answers in their own words. If a participant’s
answers to the screening questions disqualified them, the survey terminated, and they were
directed back to the Participant Information Page.
The seventeen open-ended questions asked participants about their experience as self-
identified problematic IP users, their use of pornography and how they felt about it. They
were asked whether it had affected their lives and relationships, if they had experienced any
specific problems or benefits and whether they had ever tried to stop or reduce its use. They
were also asked if they had ever sought counselling or help in this regard (appendix 1).
Procedure
Participants were recruited online using both purposive and snowball sampling. A
notice was posted on selected websites where self-identified IP users congregate, including
social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and WordPress. A ‘participants
wanted’ notice was also posted on user-run support forums and the website Your Brain on
Porn (http://www.yourbrainonporn.com), which links to support forums. Participants were
able to share the post if they felt comfortable to do so. No compensation or reward was
offered for participation in the study.
Once the participants encountered an online post advertising the study, they were
invited to follow the provided link to the participant information web page
(http://www.pornresearchstudy.wordpress.com). Those who remained interested in taking
part after reading the participant information provided followed the link to the online survey.
As this study was undertaken as part of a Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy course,
the time available for the data collection part of the study was limited. The survey was open
for approximately six weeks, and in that period, over 50 completed surveys were collected.
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Once the data was collected, it was coded and thematically analyzed. Three core
themes emerged from the data: Effects on Mental Health and Wellbeing, Effects on
Relationships, and Experience of Dependency.
Ethical Considerations
HREC approval was received for this study. No identifying information was collected
during the sampling process, and participants were instructed to refrain from sharing any
identifying information. The participant information web page provided information
regarding consent and stated that participation was entirely voluntary, that participants could
withdraw at any time prior to submitting their final responses on the online survey, and that
completing and submitting the survey responses constituted consent for their responses to be
included in the study. Participants were also provided links to free online counselling and
support options.
Researcher Reflexivity
The Associate Researcher is a counsellor currently working in the alcohol and other
drugs sector. Part of the reason for her interest in this topic came from personal experience
working in a youth mental health setting, in which two clients presented to the service she
was working at with concerns about their IP use. Little was known about how to help these
clients. The Associate Researcher felt that their concerns about their IP use were minimized
or misunderstood by the service at the time.
Currently working in a different organization, for an alcohol and drug service, the
Associate Researcher has observed that still little is known about this phenomenon and its
effects on users by the service’s clinicians. However, her informal online research showed
that many IP users are experiencing detrimental effects which they attribute to their excessive
consumption of internet pornography.
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In choosing a phenomenological approach for this study, she wanted to be able to give
IP users a voice, to be able to tell the story of their experience in their own words. The
researcher’s aim was to be as objective as possible, by keeping a research journal and
frequently consulting with her supervisor, with the aim of letting the data speak for itself. To
this end, apart from collating and coding the responses into themes and sub-themes, the use
of self-report, open-ended survey questions allowed for the participants to speak to their own
experiences in a direct and self-directed manner.
Results
The final three themes which emerged from the data were: Effects on Mental Health and
Wellbeing, Effects on Intimacy and Relationships and Experience of Dependency. Each of
the themes have a number of sub-themes attached to them, which are defined below, and are
illustrated with direct quotes from the participants.
Themes
Subthemes
Effects on Mental Health & Wellbeing
1. Anxiety & Depression
2. Cognition
3. Sleep, Mood & Motivation
4. Guilt, Shame & Self-worth
Effects on Relationships
1. Lack of intimacy & Connection
2. Alienation
3. Unrealistic Expectations of Women
Experience of Dependency
1. Difficulty Stopping Use
2. Escalation
3. Physical Symptoms
4. Easy Gratification
5. Prioritization of Porn
6. Negative Life Outcomes
Table 1. Summary of Themes and Sub-themes
Theme 1: Mental Health & Wellbeing
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Participants described symptoms of anxiety and depression, poor concentration, and
an inability to focus on essential tasks. They also reported feelings of shame, low self-worth,
and guilt. Many also reported that their use of IP led to reduced sleep and, as a consequence,
low mood and feeling unmotivated or lethargic during the day. This seems to have had an
adverse flow-on effect, influencing their engagement with work or study, social activities,
and significant others. Many participants reported feelings of loneliness and alienation as
well as self-imposed isolation.
Subtheme 1.1: Anxiety and depression
Participants reported experiencing symptoms of both social and general anxiety,
symptoms of depression, including amotivation, isolating behaviors, and low mood, which
they attributed to their ongoing use of IP over time. As one participant stated, “It has caused
me to be lonely, depressed, and decreased my motivation to try and do things I care about or
that require some willpower. It has contributed to my social anxiety”. Another wrote that “it
slowly made me depressed since the age of 17-18. I couldn't find out what's wrong with me
the whole time. But since I quit, I more and more realized how lonely I really am and that
isolating myself has had to do with it”. The following participant expressed his confusion
about the relationship of IP use to his symptoms of poor mental health and his suspicion that
it may have negatively influenced his perception of women.
For a very long time, I have been dealing with depression, anxiety, loneliness, and
isolation and it's difficult to determine what is the relationship of my porn use to these
problems. On the one hand, porn has brought me relief and even a better mood in
many difficult moments. On the other hand, porn might have influenced my view of
women in a negative way.
Subtheme 1.2: Effects on cognition
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Participants reported experiencing symptoms of “brain fog,” an inability to focus, and
“ADHD” like symptoms. A number of participants reported a reduced ability to perform
complicated tasks such as homework or work-related tasks, even when to not do so would
cause significant consequences as one participant noted, “ADHD, Brain Fog, lack of
concentration, stumbling about porn even when doing important work.” One participant
remarked that his use of IP has affected his ability to concentrate and has “interrupted my
ability to focus on lengthy tasks, including reading and writing.”
A participant discussed the effects of his IP use as resulting in a “lack of motivation,
clarity, and brain fog. Like I said before, dealing with drug/alcohol abuse has played a role,
but I experience a hungover feeling now after watching porn”. This was echoed by the other
participants, as exemplified by the following quote, “I experience brain fog, lethargy, a big
decrease in energy and motivation. My self-confidence lowers, and I feel less comfortable
being around others.”
Subtheme 1.3: Sleep, mood, and motivation
Participants reported reduced sleep affecting their mood and ability to perform normal
tasks after engaging in IP use for long hours. Many participants reported feeling lethargic
and having “no energy” during normal waking hours. Frequently mentioned was the lack of
sleep from IP, with one participant stating, “I also waste a lot of time on porn and
masturbation. My energy has decreased a lot in the past few years.” This, in turn, caused
them to experience a sort of generalized malaise or “lack of excitement for life”. One
participant wrote, “I am almost certain that it has contributed to my lack of energy and
motivation.”
Subtheme 1.4: Guilt, shame, and self-worth
Feelings of low self-worth, lack of confidence, guilt, and shame associated with IP
use were noted. “Guilt” was associated with loss of productivity from wasting time on porn,
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“The sense that I continue to let myself down and let others down,” and the inability to
refrain from using IP, as one participant stated, “The fact that it has any kind of hold over me
is disconcerting.”
The shame associated with the actual content viewed also came up in many of the
participants’ answers. One wrote, “I look back at some of the things I would search for in
disgust now that I have quit,” and another stated feeling like a “broken corrupted person.”
Theme 2: Intimacy and Relationships
Respondents reported a lack of intimacy and engagement in ‘real-life’ relationships.
These included both sexually intimate and platonic or familial relationships. They reported
ongoing use of IP made them less likely to seek out connections with other people, including
friends, family members, partners, children, and notably, members of the opposite sex.
Subtheme 2.1: Lack of intimacy and connection
Problems with intimate relationships, such as an inability to engage in or maintain
satisfactory relationships, were reported.
I don't really have relationships. That's why I view internet porn. But a couple of
times I've come out of short-term relationships and felt a sense of relief that came
from knowing I was free to go back to internet porn, and I know that that can't be a
good thing.
Some respondents also reported feeling unmotivated to pursue relationships with
women at all, perceiving that it was too much effort and that it was easier to turn to IP as a
way to have their intimacy needs met. One participant stated,I have chosen the ease of porn
over trying to find a new partner,” and another reported, “Instead of pursuing real sexual
relations and healthy friendships with women, porn has served as an easier, quicker solution.”
Subtheme 2.2: Alienation
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Participants reported feeling alienated and disconnected from others due to their
growing preference to be alone to view IP. One participant wrote, “Porn surfing has stopped
me from participating in life in every way. I don’t socialize; I don’t celebrate, I don’t
participate.”
This self-imposed isolation seemed to perpetuate the reliance on IP to meet sex and
intimacy needs as well as making the participants feel even more detached and alienated from
other people:
I felt entirely alienated from people (romantically, sexually), as deep down I knew
that I didn't even have the desire (or capacity) to relate to people and 'join in' in the
fun. The sense of alienation made me feel sick, particularly when drunk.
Participants conversely connected the removal of IP from their lives with having a
positive effect on their relationships.
Now that I don't watch porn, I have much greater focus and enjoyment with my
family now, which means that when I was watching it regularly, I was not really there
with them in the way that I am now able to be. Often, I couldn't wait for them to leave
so I could watch porn.
Subtheme 2.3: Unrealistic expectations of women
Respondents reported having developed unrealistic and negative associations
regarding women, feeling a conflict between desiring connection with them, and being
unable to reconcile the images in their mind with the real women they knew, with one
participant saying, “It made me a pathetic and shy loner, who saw women largely as sex
objects while at the same time being scared of them in real life.”
Viewing of porn impacted the participants’ attitudes to women in particular, with one
participant stating that porn has “made me objectify women. Whenever I see a beautiful
woman, instead of appreciating their beauty, I would think of masturbating”. Standards of
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beauty were also influenced by IP, as one participant noted, “It made me feel negative
feelings towards the female gender, and I was a lot less attracted to average women.”
Theme 3: Experience of Dependency
The participants reported experiencing symptoms of feeling “addicted” to IP. The
language of dependency, i.e., “cravings,” being “sucked in,” and “habit,” was used often.
Participants also reported symptoms and experiences consistent with addictive disorders such
as; an inability to reduce use of IP, increased use of IP over time or needing to use more
extreme forms of IP to get the same effect, use of IP as a way to manage discomfort or gain a
sense of satisfaction or ‘high,’ and continuing to use IP despite negative consequences and
life outcomes. The following sub-themes illustrate these phenomena.
Subtheme 3.1: Difficulty stopping or reducing use
Participants described finding it difficult to cut-back or curb their IP use, even when
they developed a desire to do so, “I realized it was a habit and eventually that it had a
negative impact on my sexual life and possibly on my mood. Still, I struggle to stay away
from it”. Participants described feeling compelled to use porn, noting that “the cravings get
really bad sometimes. I feel like I have to submit to them”.
Participants reported feeling powerless and unable to cease their IP use, “I want to
stop using it for life. It is not only bad for me but also seems pointless to me to watch it
anyway. But I simply cannot stop”.
Subtheme 3.2: Escalation
Escalation was often described as either spending more time on IP or finding it
necessary to view more extreme content in order to experience the same ‘high’ over time, as
this participant disclosed, “At first, I watched relatively soft porn, and as years passed by, I
moved towards more brutal and degrading kinds of porn.”
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This escalation to more extreme, novel, and often violent content also contributed to
participants’ feelings of shame associated with their IP use, “I went from watching straight
porn to shemale (female with male appendage) porn to gay porn. How I feel about
it...confused.”
I don't understand how my interests changed. I went from a normal straight guy, to
watch shemale and gay porn. I now have a penis and ejaculation fetish and fixation at
30 years old. I wish I'd never found porn as a child.
Escalation of porn use was also linked to erectile dysfunction in some of the
participants, as they found that after a time, no amount or genre of porn was able to cause
them to have an erection, as described in the next subtheme.
Subtheme 3.3: Physical symptoms
Symptoms such as erectile dysfunction- conceptualized as an inability to gain an
erection without porn or with a real-life partner- were often described: “I couldn't get an
erection with women I found attractive. And even when I did, it didn't last long at all”. These
symptoms were often lamented by the participants, with one participant declaring, “It has
kept me from having sex! Lots of times! Because I can't stay erect. Enough said.”
Physical damage to the penis or body from excess masturbation was also reported.
One participant wrote of having “so many injuries and scars on the penis from so much
friction.”
Subtheme 3.4: Easy gratification
Participants reported using IP for “instant gratification,” and/or using IP as a form of
self-regulation or as a way to avoid having to face or confront problems or painful feelings;
“instant artificial happiness” is what one participant called it. Porn was described as “a button
we can push daily, for hours, for years.” Participants often spoke of not understanding the
effects that viewing porn would have on their lives, with one stating, “Pornography was a
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way to escape reality and feel good. And I was thinking that it was harmless”. The use of IP
as a way of gaining a positive experience or managing stress or loneliness became habitual
for these participants, which seems to have led to the reported feelings of dependency.
Again, porn trumps everything else. When you can just jack off and feel incredible—
what is that conducive to? Doing fuck all, you’re self-indulging and rewarding
yourself with the ultimate pleasure for no reason other than a whim. Why would you
do anything else? It zaps the enjoyment out of everything.
Subtheme 3.5: Prioritizing porn
Participants reported spending more extended amounts of time viewing IP and
consequently neglecting other areas in life, reducing time spent pursuing relationships with
others, personal development goals, career goals, or other activities, “Mainly, it takes time
away from me”, said one participant. “Watching porn takes away study time, work time, time
with friends, rest time, etc.”. Another participant noted that the time taken up by viewing IP
had a negative effect on his productivity;Then there is the sheer amount of time I have
spent viewing internet porn rather than doing something constructive”. The impact of lost
time is hard to quantify, as this participant stated,I lost count of the times when I was
watching porn and was supposed to be doing something else which was really important”.
Subtheme 3.6: Negative life outcomes
Finally, respondents reported feeling stunted developmentally by engaging
excessively with IP, especially if from a young age. This is captured in the following
statement:
Viewing internet porn took away my sense of self. In my developmental years
through to the end of high school, I was very popular, a high achiever, and connected
very genuinely with people in my life. However, over the years of porn's reward, I
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ended up in a state of total loss, which meant I couldn't feel positivity about myself
nor the world around me.
Some participants reported feeling as if IP use has had a pervasive and negative
impact on their life, with one commenting;
I'm not doing well in life, I barely have sex, I love fapping [masturbating to IP]. I’ve
become an under achiever and have achieved nothing worthwhile, I entertain too
much, I don’t sow but wish to reap a huge crop.
Participants spoke of the feeling that their use of IP contributed to a general lack of
personal fulfilment and overall reduced satisfaction in life. As one man said,
It took away my ability to process the world with any emotion. My porn use put me
into a state of emotional and social withdrawal in almost every aspect of my life, and
because of that, I suffered significantly socially, romantically and academically.
Discussion
This study explored the lived experience of self-identified problematic users of internet
pornography, in their own words. The main finding of the study was that for these
participants, problematic and chronic use of IP has resulted in significant personal suffering
and has had a mostly negative effect on their mental health and their ability to engage in
positive, healthy relationships. It has also led them to experience a kind of dependency, not
dissimilar to the experiences described by persons with substance use disorders. This
supports the results as reported in the two main literature reviews cited, which found that
problematic IP use fits into an addiction framework and should be considered a similar
disorder (Love et al., 2015; de Alarcón et al., 2019).
However, confusion surrounding the effects of IP on users persists, and a consensus is
still out of reach. For example, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines
addiction as a "primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related
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circuitry which is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by
substance use and other behaviors” (ASAM, 2018, para.1). This reflects current findings on
the neuroscience of addiction to include behavioural processes, such as gambling and internet
gaming, both of which were included in the 2013 update of the DSM. The World Health
Organization also included Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder in the recently updated
International Classification of Diseases manual, the ICD-11, (Grant et al., 2014), which was
published in 2018. On the other hand, the American Association of Sex Educators,
Counsellors and Therapists (ASSECT) currently states that it “does not find sufficient
empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental
health disorder,” (AASECT, 2019). This statement, which was first published on the
AASECT website in 2016, was still available online at the time of writing, despite the
addition of Compulsive Sexual Behavior disorder in the newly updated ICD-11.
Further conflating the debate were some commentators and academic researchers who
suggested that addictive use of internet pornography simply does not exist (Ley, 2015;
Nelson, 2016) or that perceived addiction to pornography is the cause of psychological
distress, not pornography use itself (Grubbs, Volk, Exline & Pargament, 2013; Grubbs et al.,
2015; Wilt et al., 2016; Grubbs et al., 2017). The various conflicting views on the
problematic use of IP may cause confusion for both users and clinicians.
The results of this study showed that many participants conceptualize and experience
their excessive use of IP as a behavior they cannot curtail, despite serious and far-reaching
consequences, with many describing their experience as a dependency, habit or addiction.
Their experiences illustrate and are well supported by the existing literature (Grant et al.,
2014; Kraus, Voon, Kor & Potenza, 2016; Love et al. 2015; de Alarcón et al., 2019).
The study also drew attention to comorbid conditions that may be present in
conjunction with the problematic use of IP. Many participants reported symptoms of mental
Exploring the lived experience of problematic users of internet pornography
20
20
health dysfunction, such as depression, anxiety, self-isolation, mood disturbances, and low
self-esteem. Harper and Hodgins, (2016) found that while IP use itself did not correlate with
symptoms of psychological distress, it did find that daily use of IP did coincide with higher
scores on measures of psychological distress, which this study supports. Often, erectile
dysfunction and anxiety about sexual performance is also a feature of chronic IP use. This
suggests that clients who present to services with concerns relating to their sexual
performance and complaints of depression or anxiety, could also be problematic IP users;
however, IP use is rarely assessed or asked about. For example, the Victorian AOD
assessment intake form (Victorian AOD Intake Tool, 2018) asks about problem gambling and
mental health but does not mention internet pornography.
The potential for mismatched treatment in these cases is significant. Without proper
identification of IP use as a distinctive issue, clients of public services may be eligible for
treatment for comorbid or secondary issues but not for their problematic IP use (Smith,
2015). Clinicians may also lack the knowledge and/or confidence in dealing with IP issues as
these may be seen as ‘not my scope’ and potentially minimized or misunderstood. This is
potentially invalidating and unhelpful for clients experiencing the kinds of effects described
in this study.
Recommendations for Further Research
Further research to investigate whether conceptualizing addictive behaviors as an
umbrella construct, with both substance and non-substance related manifestations, is
necessary. Without increased knowledge, proper assessment measures, or diagnostic
guidelines, it is possible that many problematic IP users are simply not being identified.
Alternatively, they may receive treatment for anxiety or depression without taking into
account their IP use. Future research could look at validating assessment measures for when
the use of IP becomes problematic and identifying IP dependency criteria.
Exploring the lived experience of problematic users of internet pornography
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21
While this study did not look at the effects of IP use on young people and children
under 15, the results showed that many participants first viewed IP as children. Given that
participants reported very young ages of first time viewing, one as young as six, with the
average age of first-time viewing of IP identified as 14.89-years-old, it would be a
recommendation of this study that further research on the effects of exposure to IP on users
as children and young people be considered a priority for future research.
Limitations
As this was a qualitative study, the results were not intended to be generalizable. It is true that
participation was restricted to English speaking participants, with some participants’
responses being limited by their English language competency skills. In addition, because it
was a written survey, the answers were probably shorter and more defined than if there had
been face-to-face interviews. However, the intention and value of the study are that the data
is unique and rich in depth and description. Whilst there was an attempt to control for
diagnosed mental health, it is not entirely possible to rule out to what extent pre-existing
mental health conditions may have impacted on the participants.
Conclusion
This study sought to explore the lived experience of self-identified problematic users of
internet pornography. It found evidence that problematic, chronic use of IP is positively
linked with symptoms of mental health decline, problems in relationships with self and
others, and similar psycho-social effects to those of similarly affected substance users.
Recommendations for further research have been identified as further investigation
into the proper classification and assessment of problematic IP use, the development of
appropriate treatment options which take into account IP use and comorbid conditions, and
further research on the effects of exposure to IP use on young people and children.
Exploring the lived experience of problematic users of internet pornography
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