Sex Addiction, according to Wikipedia, has been around since the 1970s, but porn addiction (specifically internet porn) is a far newer concept, not least because of the relatively recent development of technology to make online porn so available and therefore powerful in its addictiveness.
During my early days of therapy for my porn addiction, I was quickly and eagerly referred to Sex Addicts Anonymous, or the more relationship-orientated Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. These programs follow the tried-but-not-that-tested 12 step approach to recovery conceived by Alcoholics Anonymous.
Upon attending, it was immediately clear to me that my personal addiction was a bit different to the addictions of some of the others in the room. I was hearing stories of infidelity, prostitution, exhibitionism and worse. My habit was solitary masturbation to internet porn, and the more I thought about it, the more I came to think that not only was porn addiction different from sex addiction in the nature of the harm it causes to the sufferer and others, but also in the reasons why it is addictive.
I settled on a compromise that porn addiction must be a sub-set of sex addiction. It shares plenty of characteristics to sex addiction, but it also has some specific nuances that make it different. Without a specific place to go for porn addiction, it seems SAA and SLAA are still the best option for porn addiction sufferers.
Let’s start with the similarities. Porn and sex addiction both share the same broad definition:
For an individual to be compelled to compulsively continue with certain sexual behaviours in spite of the known or unknown negative consequences that those behaviours bring to their life
That isn’t a formal definition I copied from somewhere; it is just how I perceive it and the two key elements are the compulsivity and the negative consequences. So by this definition porn and sex addictions are the same. I’ve related to all shares of others in the groups when they refer to the anxieties and struggles regarding the above – the destruction of self-esteem, the inability to say no, the self-loathing, the harm caused to others, to pick just a handful.
I think they are also similar in that the 12 step program is probably equally appropriate to each of them. Both sufferers will benefit from the introspection, self-understanding and life changes that the 12 step program encourages.
What I find to be the most interesting difference is in their actual addictive nature, or addictive properties.
(Internet) porn addiction by its nature only exists due to the prevalence of online porn and the technology available to view it. By providing a limitless supply of instantly-accessible visual stimulation, online porn does, in my opinion, something different and unique to the human brain. I’m always a bit wary when treading on the science turf as I haven’t researched it enough to confidently support or resist the claims, but my gut instinct is that this is true – that porn triggers dramatic, recordable chemical reactions in the brain similar to those well understood in other highly addictive drugs. For a bite-size overview, watch this video:
So it is this constant hit of sexual stimuli, tricking the brain into going into mating overdrive, that makes porn unique. I can’t see how ‘traditional’ activities that sex addicts suffer from activate the brain in this way, as experiences tend to be with real people and therefore far less varied in such a short space of time.
A unique approach
That is of course not to say that the end results aren’t similar, or even identical. The addict, regardless of the type of sexual behaviour, still ends up exhibiting the same compulsive and destructive characteristics. But, if we are to accept the premise that the nature of the addictions are different, does that not then suggest that we should take a more specific approach to the treatment and recovery of porn addiction?
Again, I’m not an expert in therapy or recovery so I can’t really answer that, but in my experience with both subjects, while I’ve seen huge benefits, I’ve also been conscious that so far I’ve received very little help that is specifically tailored to porn addiction.
For example, the use of internet blocks is commonly recommended in the SAA program, but the context is very different. For many sex addicts I’ve spoken to who act out ‘in person’, porn is not in itself addictive, and doesn’t tend to be included in their inner circles. They may fall back to it if the real hit can’t be achieved, but to them porn is more of a trigger or a prelude to the real thing. This means that for them, internet porn blocks are useful to help prevent journeying into their addictive behaviours, but they aren’t actively and directly preventing their inner circle behaviours.
For porn addicts, however, internet blocks are one of the most primary and fundamental tools to physically prevent an addict from acting out. This elevates the importance of blocks a huge deal, but this distinction is rarely made in recovery programs. Of course, blocking porn is only a way of helping to achieve sobriety, it is not the solution to recovery (which involves introspection and life changes), but that sobriety is a vital ingredient to recovery. It saddens me to see so many porn addicts ambivalent towards blocks. Blocks are, without doubt, not for everyone, but the implications of using or not using them must be considered by each individual before deciding on a recovery strategy.
Anyway, I don’t want to get into a debate about blocks, but the point is that there are distinctions to be made between sex and porn addictions, which I feel could be further considered by recovery programs and therapists.
So, do we need a PAA (Porn Addicts Anonymous)? I’m not sure… there are probably more similarities than there are differences so grouping them together makes a lot of sense, but I can’t help but feel a little under-catered for when I attend and share. For now though, I will continue to explore SAA and SLAA meetings, as they provide a unique chance to talk to others in my situation, as well as provide the potential for a more formal recovery program.
1. I say “not that tested” because I haven’t yet actually read any studies on the success rates of SAA 12 step programs. I imagine this sort of data is extremely hard to collect due to the anonymous and secretive nature of 12 step attendees, especially for sex-related programs. This lack of validation of the success rates is a big contributor to my ongoing cynicism of, and reluctance to commit to, the SAA 12 step program.