Recently, Senator Ted Cruz’s Twitter account favorited a tweet featuring hardcore pornography.
Before I go any further, I think I would be fined by the internet if I passed up some comment about the way my previous sentence read, and it was written in the way that most media outlets have been writing it, as in his Twitter account favorited the tweet. Not Cruz himself, but his account. So, to be fair, earlier this morning my Facebook account wished my friend Thomas a happy birthday and it also liked a dog fail video. I knew my Facebook account liked dog fail videos, but I honestly didn’t know it knew Thomas, but he’s a good enough guy that I’m OK with that.
And let me be upfront: I recently launched an online pornography recovery program, so you’re probably going to think that I am unwilling to even try and see both sides of the aisle when it comes to the harmful effects of pornography.
See, I already did it, I already showed my bias. I didn’t simply say the effects of pornography, I said the “harmful” effects. I slid that judgemental statement in there without even meaning to. But there's a lot more to the story. Many years ago, I left a successful career in the software industry to go back to school — night school, no less — with four small children at home. I had no shoes, and I walked uphill both ways on broken glass, in the winter... sorry, I was practicing the way the story will eventually be told to my grandkids.
The point is that when I started my journey to become a therapist, the very LAST thing I expected to do was focus on the pornography industry. I did it because I felt a calling of sorts to do something that I loved.
Computer software fell in my lap after college; and before I could blink, ten years had passed and I was well on my way to a midlife crisis, and I’m talking the kind of epic proportions!
I wasn’t satisfied with my career. I was a modern-day equivalent of a Fuller Brush salesman, schlepping my floppy disks around the world, being routinely turned down at trade show after trade show by busy execs focused on finding the next strip club instead of my program that would speed up their hard drives by up to .0001 milliseconds. I know, hard to believe I wasn’t finding joy in that journey.
I was looking at Hawaiian shirts; the type with no top buttons. I believe I had just purchased some sort of gold chain and I was looking to trade up my Toyota Celica for a better sports car, and while I’m embarrassed to admit this next part as a proud, card-carrying 15-year-member of the “I shave my head bald and I love it club,” I was starting to look into hair plugs!
This “call” that I felt was specifically to work with men, to help them become better husbands and fathers.
Nowhere in this call was any mention of spending thousands and thousands of hours working with hundreds and hundreds of men who wasted hours, days, and weeks looking at porn. Men who were warping their sexuality without even realizing the consequences.
Little did I know I would spend hours debating with clients the cause of their early erectile dysfunction (which, by the way, is at an all-time high thanks to the current desire for pixels over actual people), or that I would eventually become an expert in how people access pornography on every device known to man — from kids' game consoles to GPS navigation units.
I now sit in countless couples sessions a week hearing porn-obsessed client after porn-obsessed client looking to me for help in convincing an unwilling spouse to really amp things up in the bedroom because he can’t be content with a goal of intimacy in sexuality. These men believe that satisfying sex, for them, has to include a variety of the things that he’s witnessed, or worked his way up to over the years of regular and routine porn exposure.
It’s not a surprise to learning that close to half of all divorces report that pornography use has played a significant role in the destruction of the marriage.
I work with doctors and lawyers, CPAs, and highway patrolmen, large and small business owners, students, teachers, landscapers, waiters, all whom struggle with pornography addiction. Porn is no respecter of persons, it is everywhere, and it is relentlessly trying to make its way into the home.
These clients who finally seek help have tried repeatedly to stop looking at porn but ultimately return. Most of them have been caught at some point by partners who feel betrayed. And when trust has been broken, it takes work to repair it, and that work can be difficult, which feels overwhelming at times.
This also leads them to feel bad, which can lead them to turn to porn. These clients routinely report that they struggle with an emotional connection with their partners, and most all recognize an increase in their objectification of women, viewing most as primarily body parts. Not human beings, mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives.
Most all feel disconnected from their families and their churches, and they typically come to a realization that they are disconnected from their lives because whenever they feel triggered, they turn to porn.
And it’s not about lack of sex in the relationship.
I sit with dozens of men each week who openly admit to assuming that once they were married their appetite for porn would subside when they had a more regular sex life. And while on occasion that is the case, I routinely sit with dozens of men each week who admit that they can have sex with their wives and then, after she falls asleep, they turn to porn so they can then find their true excitement.
Triggers that lead to viewing porn come in all shapes and sizes.
Some of the most common are stress, boredom, lack of connection with a partner. This is often a bit of a catch-22, as the lack of connection stems from the continued viewing of porn. When these triggers hit, thoughts turn to ways to porn and eventually, the brain moves that pattern over into the “habit center” of the brain. The basal ganglia, a little walnut-sized part of the brain, is purely reactionary, putting habit sequences into play without much effort.
And once it has become a habit, the brain, in its never-ending evolutionary quest to get out of work in order not to burn out so it can try and live forever, switches tracks right over to the habit center whenever the hint of a trigger is present.
Meanwhile, the average age of first exposure to porn for children, depending on the study, is now 8 to 11 years old.
We understand that this early exposure equals “sexualization.” The best way I can explain this is that when a kid is exposed to porn at that early of an age, he or she is now aware, and often focused on, those body parts that they are now trying to make sense of on adults. Ms. Johnson, to the sexualized youth, isn’t just his or her third-grade teacher. Ms. Johnson now has real body parts, and suddenly, learning that a shark’s body is made up primarily of cartilage (OK, sure, I’m pulling from experience on this one) is trumped by the fascination of whether or not she has ever done anything like the videos.
So why so much to-do about porn?
Why the concern over Senator Cruz’s Twitter account favoriting a video featuring pornography? Why concern ourselves with whether or not this politician or that politician liked or shared or viewed or denied something porn-related?
In my professional, pornography-addiction-recovery-program-creating, thousands-of-hours-of-working-with-pornography-addiction opinion, these actions represent just the tip of the iceberg. Pornography has slowly but surely warped the nation’s collective sexuality and numbed us all to the severity and consequences as well.
I know that porn is not going anywhere anytime soon — anywhere but probably becoming more entrenched in people’s lives — but I believe it’s at a significant cost. It’s at the cost of putting pixels in front of people, virtual reality in front of real relationships, and while the effects of this direction are bad enough in this therapist’s opinion — granted my job security appears to be intact — I believe the negative effects are amplified when these behaviors are out in the public arena coming from those who in theory represent the people.
I think I’d prefer somebody who’s going to accidentally like a post about the latest dog fail video, at least then I know he’s turning to a different avenue to avoid falling prey to those triggers.
Well, at least his Twitter account will have found that different avenue.
Tony Overbay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, host of the popular podcast The Virtual Couch, and the creator of The Path Back, an online pornography recovery program. You can download a free copy of Tony’s “5 Common Mistakes Christians Make Attempting to Break Free from Pornography Addiction” from his website, PathBackRecovery.com