I PROPOSE TO EXPLAIN, in 1,000 words or less, why pornography addiction has become one of the problems du jour, and the scientific basis for marriage therapists advising clients to avoid using it, particularly as a personal recreational activity. Addiction usually is related to substances we take in, and the chemical response that includes greater tolerance (it takes more to get the desired effect) and increased craving or dependency, whether physical or psychological. Using "addiction" for behaviors--rather than things we smoke, drink, inject, or ingest--muddies the water for many people. It sounds like a sorry excuse for weak character: Honey, I couldn't help buying five new pairs of Carlos Santana's. I'm addicted to them.
Nonconsumption-based addictions involve addiction to one's own brain chemistry. Enjoyable behaviors stimulate the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Stir in some adrenaline if there is a lot of stimulation and even risk-taking, and you have the basis for becoming addicted to one's own chemistry. Remember Pavlov's drooling dogs and classical conditioning from Psych 101? The previously neutral stimulus becomes linked to some sort of natural hardwiring, and a learned pattern is established. You might be learning something helpful, or you may be learning (consciously or not) something potentially problematic. You may end up with an addiction.
Pornography is ready-made for addiction. We are, after all, hardwired to get that little zing of pleasure when we see members of whatever gender we find attractive. It is part of what makes the world go 'round. Pornography has many short-term attractors: it is private and there is no responsibility to pay attention to anyone but yourself. Thanks to the Internet, you do not have to wait for next month's print issue to be released to find ever-changing variety. There is the excitement and anticipation that the next best thing will be there at the next click. Stir in the rash of dopamine and adrenaline, and it is a recipe for getting hooked. (Pssst, hey, kid, wanna buy a few more clicks?)
Typically, a raging and aggrieved wife demands her porn-using husband come in for marriage counseling. She asserts he has betrayed her by using pore. His argument usually runs along the lines of: so, what's the big deal with private entertainment? Why is it your business what I do in private? It's not like I was cheating. Her response: yes, you were. No, I was not. He may promise to stop ... he probably will not stop that easily. Odds are he does not understand why she is so distressed and will be tempted to shrug it off to female insecurity and her jealousy of the images that are younger and surgically altered, which he apparently finds so compelling. It is her problem, not his. Whose problem is it? It is both of theirs, and, by default, the marriage's as a third, vital entity. Here is why.
First, there has been deception. Any act of deception creates a small brick in a wall that mars the intimacy of the married partners. That deception may be how much he spent on that fishing reel, or whether she has decided that 50 Shades of Grey was the preliminary to a whole new oeuvre to explore when he is not home. Deception is deception.
Second, whomever is using the pornography deliberately is turning away from the spouse, towards others, or self, to meet a need that probably was promised to be retained within the marriage. Holding part of oneself in reserve is another addition to that wall of separation where there should be profound intimacy.
Third, orgasm results in the release of oxytocin. That is the hormone of bonding and connection. It also is released during breast feeding, helping the mother increase a sense of profound connection to the baby. Both sexual congress and breast-feeding are deeply intimate and trusting moments. It is that bone- and brain-deep connection that makes Lady MacBeth's assertion she would be willing to snatch a feeding baby from her breast and smash its brains out inconceivably grotesque. When the oxytocin release occurs outside the marriage, even if it is alone with an artificial image, a certain amount of connection is being scattered towards the image rather than the spouse.
Fourth, the nature of pornography separates emotional connection from physical release. Within a committed relationship, such as marriage, disconnecting emotion from physical connection creates a gap in intimacy. It is another brick in that wall of separation.
Fifth, pornography creates a ready-made backdrop for what marriage therapist and researcher John Gottman describes as CL-ALT, or the comparative level of alternatives. Strong relationships are characterized by, among other things, a tendency of spouses to view their partners and the relationship favorably and compare alternatives negatively. This behavior should increase over time, with long-married, happy couples likely to collaborate in verbally agreeing how much better their marriages are than others'. In the undemanding relationship between the pornography consumer and the computer screen (except for the credit card number, of course), there is an endless parade of (artificial) alternatives who never are cranky, never have morning breath, never complain about your mother or your hobbies or about "feeling fat." While no psychologically normal person imagines the people on the screen are actually available as replacement partners, a steady pattern of noticing preferable alternatives is not a good setup for finding one's real-life spouse best-in-class when compared to real people.
To be fair, a number of professionally trained sexologists (usually doctoral-level clinicians with years of supervision and training in working with sexual difficulties) often recommend use of erotica for couples in terms of education and exploring their own sexuality. I am not an expert in this area and have colleagues with whom I can consult and refer clients. I am not addressing conjoint use of resources. I am leaving morals and ethics out of it, too. For purely science-based reasons, there is plenty of rationale for leaving erotica in the past when two people vow to forsake all others--even computer-generated ones.
Dolores T. Puterbaugh, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Largo, Fla., and an adjunct instructor in psychology for St. Petersburg (Fla.) College; Troy University, Tampa, Fla.; and University of the Rockies, Colorado Springs, Colo.