Disclaimer: This piece is NSFW and could be triggering as it touches on themes around porn addiction, domination and physical abuse.

I thought I had a healthy relationship with porn. In helping to make up the 30% of women who watch internet porn, I had been regularly partaking in its usage since I discovered its anarchic powers; and its ability to get me exactly where I wanted to go, double quick.

My psycho-sexual routine began rather innocently, a curious exercise in testing my boundaries. But it soon leaned toward the perverse; my impulses became more niche and my satiety less placated.

I was definitely not alone (despite being, ahem, physically alone) in my obsession with the epic availability to watch pounded orifices on my iPhone.

A recent study conducted by porn website Paint Bottle (and thankfully reported on by Huffington Post) found 30% of all data transferred across the internet is porn. In fact, porn sites receive more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter, combined.

stats on porn addiction infographic
Source: Paintbottle.com

Not long into my foray into the depths of websites like Pornhub and xxxHamster, my taste in content changed. it became more difficult to climax over watching ‘vanilla’ sex between two people. I craved the kind of visuals that would make Sasha Grey blush.

I wanted to watch women gang-banged by a football team of hard-bodied men with raging erections. I wanted to see double penetration; and I wanted to see women tied up and suspended in the air during intercourse.

Disturbingly, in all the videos I craved around male-to-female domination, I was searching for a specific moment in the clip, a particular vulnerable look that could not be faked – at least not by the type of actresses I had watched.

It was when the adult film star would unintentionally reveal her pain. She might move her hand to slightly push on her partner’s thigh, motioning for him to slow down. She might look him in the eyes with a look of terror at the unexpected pain she was in – all whilst offering a disingenuous moan to mask her true feelings. Or she might actually verbalise it with an “Ow!” That was what excited me most. That was what sent me into sensuous oblivion. Odious, right?

Is there something wrong with me?

I sat down with Pamela Supple, who has a Masters of Health Science and 25 years as a Sex, Relationship and Wellbeing Therapist under her belt. At her Sex Therapy Australia office in Sydney – which is surprisingly not decorated with phallic statues and lotus flower paintings a la Netflix’s Sex Education – I asked her why my sexual cravings had darkened in such a way. How could an out-and-proud feminist – who understands the generational effects of the male gaze – gain pleasure from the pain of her sisters?

“It’s part of your erotic imagination,” she said. “And if you act out on it and you actually like pain in a controlled environment, you could be a submissive and you’ve got a dominant because and you actually like pain in some way, shape or form.”

However, Supple told me not to confuse my erotic imagination with my innate sexual desires though; because the former can even be suffused by porn-use.

“You’re creating this beautiful voyage,” Supple said of our imaginations. “You’re creating, right? But with sex you’ve got to create it. You’ve got to communicate and you’ve got to explore. So to explore, most people look at porn, and this is where they get their ideas from.”

Despite the obvious signs that my brain was crossing the line past adventurous and over to Patrick Bateman-sadism, it wasn’t until I attended a work Christmas party (of all occasions) that it dawned on me that I might have an unhealthy relationship with porn.

The epiphany:

In December 2017, a coworker was telling me about how he and his wife never watch porn, neither individually or together. “If you look into it you’ll realise how damaging it is to your brain and your sex life,” he quipped.

A memory popped into my head of a time when my husband announced he was about to head out for the day. My thought process went a little like this: ‘Sex now or porn after he leaves? Which is quicker? Porn. I choose porn.’

This wasn’t a rare occurrence, too often I was not only choosing porn over my partner due to sheer convenience and time efficiency, I was actually hiding it from my husband. But why?

Sex Therapist Pamela Supple said it’s entirely normal to hide your ‘alone time’ from your partner, and there are many various reasons why some people do.

Her clients who struggle with porn addiction are mostly men, and range from under 25s who have developed performance anxiety, to 30-somethings who forgo food and sleep to undertake two-day porn binges, to the over-40s, whose comorbidities range from body dysmorphia and depression, to workaholism and chemical imbalances.

“[Some clients are] workaholics with whatever type of work they do,” said Supple. “[…] It’s easy to come home and just watch porn, get off, and then go to sleep, ‘Because I have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and start all over again. And because I work so often I’m not eating properly’.”

I’m now 15 months ‘porn free’, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can now see the neurobiological affects porn had on my brain at the time.

The research:

In the ‘70s and ‘80s it was illegal for people to even view a pornographic film – this wasn’t too long before the advent of streaming porn in the mid-2000s. Even in the ‘90s Playboy magazine still involved using the imagination for the younger eye. And for those who may have encountered their first view of the naked female form in a sexualised way via a porn magazine, their imaginations probably didn’t conjure up the kinds of experiences displayed in porn now.

Playboy Magazine 1991-04
Playboy Magazine (April, 1991)

In fact, as soon as someone views an erotic image, the reward system in the brain activates and begins releasing dopamine.

A 2016 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of porn viewers showed elevated activity in the ventral striatum when male participants viewed an erotic image; AKA the brain was releasing dopamine. What’s more, participants of the study who reported signs of porn addiction experienced greater degrees of ventral striatum activity (dopamine release) when they viewed porn.

It should come as no surprise then that a study undertaken by Duke University Medical Center in 2005 found that male monkeys will forgo food in order to view images of female monkey bottoms.

But perhaps this statistic will come as a surprise: Using data from six studies in the last three years, the rate for erectile dysfunction has increased from 2% 20 years ago (before the advent of streaming porn), to around 27-33% for men under 40.

One study on men aged 16-21 found 54% has sexual dysfunction, 27% erectile dysfunction, and 24% had low libido. These are the average rates of men in their 60s and 70s.

In all my research, I found this 2014 study out of the UK to be the most harrowing regarding porn’s conditioning of adolescent brains: It saw a high rate of anal sex in adolescents but found that neither gender enjoyed it. The study by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – which collated interviews about the practice with 130 16-18 year olds – found males expected it but didn’t enjoy it, and females felt coerced into doing it.

However, a cursory glance at publicly available research will tell you science is largely at odds over the risk-to-benefit ratio of watching pornography. A blog post on Psychology Today calls findings around the negative affects of porn on your brain “fear-based arguments”.

male gaze painting with photographer quitting porn
The male gaze

David J. Ley Ph.D. writes: “The problem is, there has been extremely little research that actually looks at the brains and behaviours of people using porn, and no good, experimental research that has looked at the brains of those who are allegedly addicted to porn.

“So, all of these arguments are theoretical, and based on rhetoric, inferences and applying other research findings to try to explain sexual behaviours.”

However, 15 months without porn in my life and I am one living example of the benefits of exercising abstinence. Almost immediately I found my partner more attractive – hell, I even found myself more attractive – and my orgasms were longer. My sexual tastes have changed and my arousal template no longer includes watching other women in pain, obviously.

Pamela Supple said, “There are underlying reasons why we do what we do.”

“Everybody’s addiction is different and we’ve got to look at that too; what is addiction?,” she added. “Whether it’s mental, whether it’s chemical or whether it’s family of origin stuff. There are different reasons why people do different things.”

There’s a sub on Reddit called /r/Pornfree

It’s a community of over 82,000 which exists “to help people of all ages overcome their addiction to porn.” I asked them what kinds of positive outcomes they noticed after their own experiences with abstinence.

One Redditor wrote:

“I have more drive and my mind is clearer. Before everything seemed dull and my head was like it was filled with fog.

“Also I realised that I am lonely and that I crave emotional connection more than sex. Before, all these emotions were sort of brushed under the rug. Also, sex is so much more intense and really more of an emotional thing.”

Another said:

“For me, cutting out pornography takes away the (extremely) brief high, but it also takes away the crashing low. It always left me feeling worse afterwards.”

This Redditor’s reply might be my favourite:

“I had higher confidence and self esteem. I was much more sure of myself, like I didn’t second guess myself and made decisions quicker. Overall happiness was higher, I was super cheerful all of the time. I would appreciate many different types of women other than the super attractive ones.

“Extra attention from women, now I know that whole ‘super powers’ thing is nonsense but I did notice more women looking at me.”

reddit post on /pornfree
Reddit post on /Pornfree thread

Expert Insight:

Sex Therapist Pamela Supple’s advice? “Everything in moderation”.

“Just have a break every now and then,” she said. “And try [masturbating] without porn. Because you’ve got this erotic imagination intelligence happening.

“Sex starts in the head: our thoughts, our processes, our connections, our sight, our smells… everything is associated with the brain. It’s everything.”

Personally, once I ‘unhooked’ I realised I don’t actually want my husband to tie me up and gag me, but I did realise that even his smile or his hand accidentally brushing against mine can turn me on.

If you’re currently struggling with pornography addiction there are many treatment options in Australia. For example, sex therapy, or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, or SLAA, which is open to anyone who knows or thinks they have a problem with porn addiction.

Illustration by artist and animator Sara Hirner. See more of Hirner’s work at @sirgross on Instagram.