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Porn addiction: ‘a public health problem’, but is it real?

by Silva, Co-authored with Mojo Men

Arousing. Accessible. Anonymous. Affordable. Is it any wonder that x-rated screen time has become a worldwide phenomenon?

In 2019 alone, Pornhub reported an average of 115 million visits per day — and over 42 billion by end of year. In 2020, lockdown saw those numbers rise by almost 12% in global traffic.

So why do we watch porn? And could it ever trump sexual intimacy in real life? Some worry that, like Pavlov’s dog, the more orgasms you have in front of your computer, the more you come to associate sexual pleasure with the 2D version. 

The real question is, would (or rather should) that matter? 

In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed compulsive sexual behaviour as a mental health disorder. But porn addiction isn’t included in that.

And yet ‘porn addiction’ has cemented itself as commonly referenced health concern, written about by journalists and top academics alike. A 2014 study estimated that “50% of all internet traffic is related to sex,” and found that “pornography is harmful to the brain”. It can “decrease sexual satisfaction” in relationships and drive “novelty seeking behaviour” which might often be met with disappointment in a partner. 

The BBC recently conducted a study comparing porn habits across Britain. It turns out, 31% of British men believe they’ve experienced porn addiction before. Are they right?

But where is the evidence? In his recent work with Mojo Men, world-renowned Psychosexual & Relationship Psychotherapist, Silva Neves points out that while there is a correlation between unhealthy relationships with porn and sexual dysfunction, there is no causation. In the porn course he leads on the platform he says “sexology tells us that responsible porn is neither good nor bad. It is adult entertainment, full stop. However, you may have problems with your relationship to porn and how you use it.” In other words porn cannot be blamed for the sky-rocketing rates of erection issues in young men.

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So if porn use does come with unwanted side effects, what are they? And how can we keep them in check?

For starters, porn can create unrealistic expectations in the bedroom. Many women feel dehumanised by the way they’re portrayed in porn, and men feel pressured to perform in ways only a porn star can. 

Neves identifies three common reasons why you might have an unhealthy relationship with porn. 

1. Pre-existing sexual anxiety

Sex can be awkward for many people. It causes anxiety. But watching porn when you’re anxious, will only increase that same feeling. 

‘My penis should be big and hard all the time’, ‘my body should look perfect from every angle’, ‘sex should last for 30 minutes or more.’ These ‘ideals’ can set you up for failure, as well as poor relationship, intimacy and mental health issues. 

2. Sexual shame

Sexology research suggests the more ashamed you feel about porn and masturbation, the more it’s likely to affect your erections. If you pin point where that sense of shame stems from, and try to get comfortable with your erotic mind, porn will become less of an issue. And so will your erections.  

3. Unresolved psychosexual issues

For some men, going solo feels more comfortable than getting intimate with someone. They can get it up with porn, but struggle to get erect with their partners. It’s called ‘situational’ erection problems — and yes, there’s a fix.

Once you’ve identified the root cause of your porn problem, you can start to address the issue.

This is where semantics come into play. 

If you’re treated for ‘porn addiction’, your recovery will likely be based on the abstinence-based model — a 12-step philosophy used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It’s a cold-turkey approach, and not one Silva Neves would advocate because there is virtually no evidence that an addiction 12-step programme is efficient in resolving issues with porn. After all, demonising porn and forcing abstinence can lead to a feeling of shame when there are understandable relapses. 

If on the other hand, you address your ‘problems with porn’, you’ll be taught to retrain and resensitise your body. This involves using exercises that retrain your brain to sensations of touch rather than visuals, and can be done with or without porn. 

Mojo Men’s porn section is led by Neves and combines mindful masturbation techniques, clinically proven audio-exercises and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), focusing on pleasure, erotic awareness and sex-positivity

It is not the doom and gloom porn masterclass you would expect. Hear how South London comedian Obi Juwah and Youtube Vox Pop star Morfo Peyiazis get on when they talk to Silva about how to incorporate porn into a healthy relationship. That’s right, there can be positives to porn. 

Perhaps the most powerful scene of the course is a live therapy session with 23 year old Cam, who believes he’s suffered from porn addiction since his early teens, after the death of his mother. The footage is absolutely captivating as this brave young man shares in the hope of helping others. You really feel privileged to be allowed to witness it.

‘Addiction’ or ‘problem’, it’s clear that untreated, an unhealthy relationship with porn could impact daily life, erections and relationships. It’s also clear that porn can be used as harmless ‘adult entertainment’, without any side effects. 

Next time you hit the incognito browser make sure you have a think, what does porn mean to you? 

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Silva Neves

Co-author

An international speaker, world renowned Psychosexual therapist who sits on the accreditation board of COSRT.