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"Sex isn’t Difficult Anymore": The Men Who are Quitting Watching Porn

By: Simon Usborne



Addiction to pornography has been blamed for erectile dysfunction, relationship issues and depression, yet problematic use is rising. Now therapists and tech companies are offering new solutions.


Thomas discovered pornography in the traditional way: at school. He remembers classmates talking about it in the playground and showing each other videos on their phones during sleepovers. He was 13 and thought it was “a laugh”. Then he began watching pornography alone on his tablet in his room. What started as occasional use, at the beginning of puberty, became a daily habit.


Thomas (not his real name), who is in his early 20s, lived with one of his parents, who he says did not care what he was doing online. “At the time, it felt normal, but looking back I can see that it got out of hand quite quickly,” Thomas says. When he got a girlfriend at 16, he started having sex and watched less pornography. But the addiction was just waiting to resurface, he says.


During the first UK lockdown last year, Thomas lost his job. He was living with older relatives and trying to protect them from Covid while becoming increasingly stressed about money. He was spending hours online, where the pornography streaming sites had found a rising demand from people stuck inside.


“It became daily again,” he says of his habit.

“And I think about 80% of my mental downfall was because of porn.”

Thomas began seeking out more explicit content and became withdrawn and miserable. His self-esteem plummeted as shame consumed him. Did he ever feel suicidal? “Yeah, I did get to that point,” he says. “That’s when I went to see my GP. I thought: I can’t sit in my room and do nothing; I need help.”


The shame stopped Thomas from mentioning pornography to the doctor, who prescribed antidepressants. They improved his mood, but not his habit, which was starting to breed mistrust in his relationship and affect his sex life. He began to think other men must be trapped in the same cycle. “So I just Googled something like ‘How to stop watching porn’ and there was so much,” he says.


The debate about pornography is focused on the supply end of a multibillion-pound industry – and the fraught business of keeping it out of children’s bedrooms. In its darkest corners, pornography has been shown to trade on sex trafficking, rape, stolen imagery and exploitation, including of children. It can also pervert expectations of body image and sexual behavior, with frequent depictions of violence and degrading acts, typically against women. And...

"It has become almost as available as tap water."

Plans by the UK government to force pornography sites to introduce age verification collapsed in 2019 due to technical struggles and the concerns of privacy campaigners. The UK still hopes to introduce some form of regulation. In the meantime, it is up to parents to enable their internet provider’s filters and hope their children are not accessing pornography outside their home.


The market is dominated by MindGeek, a Canadian company that owns sites including YouPorn and Pornhub. The latter, which says it gets 130 million daily visitors, reported an immediate spike in traffic of more than 20% in March last year. The pandemic also triggered a rush of adult content at OnlyFans, a platform where many people sell homemade pornography.


The result, say pornography campaigners and a small but growing network of specialist therapists, is a rise in problematic use, particularly among men who grew up in the age of high-speed broadband.


They say casual consumption can escalate, leading users to seek out more extreme content to satisfy their urges. They blame pornography for contributing to depression, erectile dysfunction and relationship issues. Those who seek help often find their problems are misunderstood.

Paula Hall, a veteran psychotherapist who specialises in sex and pornography addiction, started working with drug addicts in the 90s before changing course. She had noticed a shift in attitudes towards sex addiction. “It used to be seen as a celebrity issue,” she says from the Laurel Centre, her firm of 20 therapists in London and Warwickshire. “It was rich, powerful men who had money to pay sex workers.” Fifteen years ago, few of Hall’s clients even mentioned pornography as an outlet for addiction. Then came high-speed internet. “Now, it’s probably 75% for whom it’s purely porn.”


Enquiries went up more than 30% in the year after the start of the pandemic; Hall recruited five new therapists. They see almost 300 clients a month. “We’re seeing people for whom therapy is very much what is needed,” she says.

“Addictions are a symptom – a coping or numbing mechanism.”

Several studies have looked at the effects of pornography on the brain. Some have suggested that it triggers greater feelings of desire, but not enjoyment, in compulsive users – a characteristic of addiction. Others have indicated that the brain’s reward system is smaller in regular pornography consumers, meaning they might need more graphic material to get aroused. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, because it’s a problem,” Hall says. She has seen men who pace the room and can’t think of anything else until they get a fix of pornography: “They get the jitters.”


Hall promotes better sex and relationships education, plus improved access to help for people who develop a problem. She also believes in age verification. But even if governments devise something that works, Hall adds, “we must accept that a determined child will always find a way of beating the system, which is why we must educate as well”.


Some material redacted to shorten blog post

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