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Are Your Porn Viewing Habits Becoming a Problem? Here’s How to Know.

Porn use is up dramatically during the pandemic. This is what men should keep in mind about how it effects their relationships and themselves.

While many industries have seen sharp declines during the pandemic, one has seen a dramatic rise: Pornography. Porn use has increased with some sites seeing a more than 20-percent gain in traffic since April. This is in no way shocking. COVID-19 shutdowns forced many of us into our homes with nowhere to go. Combine this with high doses of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty brought on by our new normal and it makes sense that more people are logging onto porn sites.

This is to say that you’re not alone if you’ve sought out a bit of stress-relief in the virtual arms of online porn. Porn can be beneficial — or benign, at least — in moderation. In fact, most studies have shown that men who view pornography only occasionally, and with the consent of a significant other, suffer no negative outcomes. But once you’re sneaking around or clicking through pornographic sites instead of parenting, psychological and relationship issues inevitably follow. Researchers found that men who watch porn compulsively tend to have lower self-esteem as well as trouble connecting with loved ones. And women who discover their husbands watching porn behind their backs report feeling betrayed — as if cheated on.

But what should men keep in mind about their pandemic porn use and what are the signs — and side-effects — of overconsumption? Fatherly spoke with love, sex, and relationship expert and therapist Dr. Laura Berman about COVID-19 porn viewing, why more men are turning to porn as a release and escape, what healthy porn use looks like, and what happens to the brain when too much porn is consumed.

What do you make of the COVID spike in porn use?

Porn has been around forever, but it’s been coming up more and more recently. With free porn sites and high-speed streaming improving in the past five years, it has become super-duper accessible. This could be a good thing, as porn can play a healthy role in people’s lives. But even before COVID, I saw an increase in people presenting concerns about porn addiction.

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COVID is exacerbating porn use and creating more complications. We have more time on our hands, a lot more access to technology, and we’re not allowed to leave the house — plus layoffs. A lot of people are stressed out, and porn is a stress reliever. Whenever stress levels are high and people feel a lack of control — things that COVID has brought out — we’ll see an increase in addictive behavior.

Why do men often turn to porn as opposed to other stress reliefs? 

The biggest stressors with the greatest sexual side effect are financial- and work-related. Your job and financial stability are tied to manliness and virility. With so many people dealing with furloughs, layoffs, and uncertainty about the future, anxiety, and stress are way up. Stonewalling, shutting down, and addictions all kick into high gear.

What’s new about this situation is the impact of COVID on relationships. Before there were things you could’ve swept under the rug when you and your partner were busy, like ships passing in the night. Now with things slowed down, you can’t stick your head in the sand. You’re stuck in the same place all day long. Communication, fighting, how you deal with stress, dividing labor, whose job is more important, who keeps the kid occupied — all these conflicts coming up are magnifying the unspoken issues couples have. There’s tremendous pressure being put on relationships and couples are seeing what they are made of.

All this leads to a greater incidence of men investing energy away from their relationships, especially sexual energy. They’re turning to porn as a release and escape.

What does healthy porn use look like? 

What’s healthy could be so many things, so long as it’s consensual and doesn’t include children or animals. Using porn for stress relief after a hard day is like having a beer — watch a little porn and have a release. That’s normal. If you can still connect with your partner or even use it together, that’s healthy.

And what about unhealthy? What effect does it have on relationships?

A big issue with porn is that it is a really bad representation of what women want, what men and women look like, and how men should act sexually with a woman. In porn, you can touch a woman’s shoulder and she’ll writhe in ecstasy, right? A lot of guys who get their education from porn don’t know what women want and what pleases them. Men think women want to be choked because they see that as the norm. Women are complaining to me that men are choking them, thinking that’s going to turn them on based on what they see.

Porn has a big effect on the brain, too. It can change arousal systems.

Yes. Some studies indicate that porn changes the neural pathways and synaptic connections in the brain. Your arousal system gets built around porn as you’re training your brain and body in a certain way.

What can this result in?

When I work with compulsive adult porn users, I find that their ability to get aroused with real-life women has been diminished because they’ve programmed their arousal system around something very solitary and specific. They’re watching certain kinds of acts, for one, but in addition to what they’re watching, they’re manually stimulating themselves in a way that no other human could replicate. The more you’re watching and self-stimulating in a unique way — hand up, down, in, out — the more your system is in the habit of getting that stimulation. No human vagina can replicate what you’re watching with porn and what you can do with your hand.

So you’re acclimating your body to something no one else can really provide.

Sexual arousal pathways are part physiology with erogenous zones, but the main sexual organ is between your ears. Everyone is so different in what moves them to sexual cycle: arousal with foreplay, plateau or high-arousal state, orgasm (peak), and resolution (refractory period). Our brains are plastic, but if we get used to a lot of fantasy — particularly a go-to fantasy — and especially if we use porn images as a substitute for imagination, we’re using the same kinds of images and scenarios, and that imprints on our brains.

We want to keep things flexible. Just as women can become addicted to vibrators by using them one specific way every time, men will get used to responding to very specific stimulations. It’s best to practice other ways to pleasure yourself and keep all your skillsets available to you, so your brain and body stay flexible. You can use porn, but watch different kinds of porn and use fantasy, too.

So, what are the signs of porn abuse to look out for? When does it become a problem?

If you find yourself doing it for hours at a time, compulsively, or the benefits of the distraction are over too quickly and you have to go for it again, that’s problematic. If it’s pulling you away from more productive and supportive activities, if you’re doing it instead of sleeping or working, or it’s your primary sexual release, those are signs. You could be working on your sex life during this time, but instead you’re self stimulating and using porn as your only outlet, you’re not going to be able to connect with your partner. If you can’t get aroused without it, can’t relieve your stress or anxiety without it, or it affects your relationships or sex life, then it’s a problem.

It’s also a problem if it’s a secret. Women may feel threatened by porn, possibly seeing it as a sign of their partner wanting someone else, even though that’s rarely what it is. But guys hide it, and then the withholding thing gives it even more meaning.