In this bravely honest account, Isaac Withers offers advice as someone who has quit the habit of watching pornography.
Three years ago, I published a blog about my personal struggle with pornography. Before that day, I had never spoken openly about porn, it was very much a secret problem that had been eating me up for years. More than anything else I have ever written, I look back on that piece as the beginning of turning everything around.
Three years on, I simply want to reflect and offer you the tools that have helped me, if this is your struggle too.
Just at the top, I want to say that if you do struggle with pornography, then you are one of many. Print pornography might once have been the domain of weirdos but internet pornography is today infinitely accessible and is firmly the domain of the normal person.
Studies show 93% of men and 62% of women have viewed porn before the age of 18 (CyberPsychology and Behavior) – the vast majority. In 2016 SimilarWeb, the world’s greatest database of digital behaviour, found that Pornhub was the 23rd most visited website on the internet, beating eBay, MSN, and Netflix with a 1.1 billion monthly visitor rate – that’s a lot of people. In fact, in response to the current pandemic, Pornhub gave the world free premium access for a month – so maybe this is the right time to be having this conversation.
A lot of people who access internet pornography might not describe their relationship with it as a struggle – so why do I? I don’t want to define it solely as a moral or religious argument What I will simply say is that I really hated what pornography was doing to me and how it made me feel.
I first came across pornography when I was 13 and by the time I was at university, it was wreaking havoc with my life.
It consumed huge amounts of my time, it made me less creative and more apathetic, it caused me to skip social events and regularly threw my sleeping pattern off.
What began to worry me the most, however, was how little control I found I had of it.
By the time I recognised how bad things were getting, I knew I wanted it gone. I didn’t know if that would be possible and felt trapped. After all it was essentially just the internet, how could I block it and still live the life of a normal Gen Z kid? I began to realize that what I was experiencing felt a lot like an addiction, a harmful behaviour that I couldn’t stop. That’s the main reason why I would describe it as a struggle, and why I have worked hard to shake it off.
Since then, my relationship with pornography has changed radically for the better. I’ve done the research and found software that helps. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with trusted friends about it and my life feels a lot more whole. If you too have experienced pornography diminishing your relationships and your happiness, then I want to offer you what has helped me – that’s always why I share this story, not to wallow in the bad or show off about the good, but in the hope that it will help somebody else.
So, here are the three things that helped me quit pornography.
1. Read-up: Neurons that fire together, wire together
When I was finishing my dissertation at university, I was living a small life – I was going to the library and reading and that was about it. In this stripped back time, I started to look at my pornography problem more closely as it was the only other thing still there, disrupting me still when everything else was on pause.
I decided that among the books I was reading for my dissertation, it was about time that I picked up a book about this thing that had bugged me since I was a teenager, one that might actually help me to take this problem seriously.
Matt Fradd’s The Porn Myth was just such a book. I read the majority of its chapters in a day, devouring it, hugely fired up by what I found there. Between its covers, I found research study after research study and account after account on just how much of a societal problem pornography is. It covered everything from the porn industry, addiction science, and how porn affects relationships among many, many other aspects of this issue. My biggest takeaway however was that it introduced me to the world of neuroscience and how pornography affects our brains.
For a long time, as a practising Catholic, I had really only thought about pornography as a spiritual problem, something that was attacking my sense of interior peace and freedom. That’s definitely part of it, but really learning about how to unlearn a bad habit from the science we now have at our disposal was a game changer for me.
That book introduced me to Dr Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who wrote a bestseller called The Brain That Changes Itself, charting what is known as ‘neuroplasticity’ (stay with me). Neuroplasticity is the discovery that the brain is not a rigid machine that when damaged is hard to rewire, but a growing thing that changes itself. In this book, he uses a simple and helpful phrase, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ meaning that the more you perform a behaviour, the easier it becomes.
In the brain, this is a neural-circuit that becomes stronger, a path that becomes deeper and deeper the more it is used. This is why the old adage that ‘practice makes perfect’ is true, but it is also the reason addictive behaviours get embedded over time and can be hard to shake – because they have become reinforced in the brain.
Working with men addicted to internet pornography in the 1990s, Doidge found that “Since neurons that fire together wire together … They imagined these images when away from their computers, or while having sex with their girlfriends, reinforcing them. … Because plasticity is competitive, the brain maps for new, exciting images increased at the expense of what had previously attracted them —the reason, I believe, they began to find their girlfriends less of a turn-on.”
Believe it or not, I found this new information empowering because I finally felt like I really knew exactly what I was up against – and that precisely because the brain is changeable: behaviours that imbedded in it could also be weakened; those paths that were most frequently walked down could become overgrown again in disuse. It was hugely hopeful news to me.
This study also helped me to figure out whether or not I was truly up against an addiction – it certainly felt that way. There’s still some debate around sex and pornography addiction. Not long ago the WHO (World Health Organisation) revised their International Classifications for Diseases register (or ICD-11) to include compulsive sexual disorder as a mental disorder, for the first time listing it under ‘Mental, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorders’.
I think Dr Doidge puts it best though. “People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act. All addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain.”
So that was step one – I was informed, but there was still a long way to go. Step two was to ask for help.
2. Ask for help: Getting accountability in place
For quite a while after that initial research, I managed to stay away from pornography. It lasted a whole summer, which was big at the time. I wrote that blog, opening up about it all and the great book I had read. This really broke open a big dialogue for me. I shared it through my Facebook page (because I’m just extroverted like that) and had about 10 friends message me about it, mostly relating to the same problem and thanking me for writing it. Critically, it also opened up a dialogue about it with members of my family, which was difficult for me but also hugely liberating.
It gave me confidence to be able to talk about the problem, and to continue to talk about it.
As good as that summer was, after it my life became the most intense it had been until then, leaving university and heading to an internship in London. I really struggled to adjust to this new way of living and on top of the stress of that and London living, I also had relationship problems that year, which are never fun. In this climate, having read a book was not enough to maintain my winning streak and I spiralled downwards again.
Pornography was often a coping mechanism for me, a kind of stress relief, and so that year I struggled with knowing the problem inside out but not having anything real in place to change things. It took another wake-up call for me to do that.
After visiting a girl I was really attracted to at the time, I very soon aftewards found myself using pornography again. This made it crystal clear to me, that I would never be able to have a healthy, fully honest relationship with pornography in my life, that it bred dishonesty. Because here was someone I was all in for, and it still wasn’t enough. I knew I had to do something real.
So, right then and there, I got some software and emailed two people very close to me inviting them to be my accountability partners in this struggle. E-mails are typically pretty dull things, but this was fairly nerve-wracking. It took me a while to press send.
Having blogged about it, this wasn’t an email coming out of the blue, so that helped, but it was still tough. I was finally asking for help and that is hard to do.
Asking for help is definitely harder than doing your research about a problem and it’s even harder than opening yourself up to talk about it because it is inviting other people to be actively involved in it.
But, I have a wealth of good people in my life that I trust, and among them these two said yes without hesitating, for which I am hugely grateful to them.
This is what that accountability looked like.
I downloaded a piece of software called ‘Covenant Eyes’. If that sounds like it was created by cheesy, American Christians then you’re probably not wrong but it was also the leading thing and it works. It basically logs all your web activity and even screenshots, and if it flags anything, it alerts your accountability people. It also is a firewall against adult stuff. So, this was big.
I wanted to have as few uncomfortable conversations as possible about pornography with these guys, so it operated as a massive deterrent to going down that rabbit hole. In fact, since getting this bit of software, I haven’t been on a single pornography site – it built a beautiful wall of trust and awkwardness between me and the thing I struggled with. It’s great.
I still had the internet with all its great stuff, and I had largely got rid of the substance I had no control over. The night I did this I had the same rush I had when I first read that book – it was the feeling of breaking new ground, of having moved ahead again, and it really did change things for good.
3. Close In: The Borderlands
Getting accountability in place I was excited. It seemed at the time it had solved the problem, and in many ways it had, but I’ve found that the struggle has moved to different grounds, to the borderlands. Having cut myself from ‘the real stuff’, my brain – conditioned as it was by years of searching the stuff out – still had the desire to take the paths it had taken so often since it was 13 years old.
So this was a tough time. There I was, as educated as I could be on my problem, with the right stuff in place, having spoken about it a lot, still trying to find something to satiate the desire online.
There followed a year of finding things in the borderlands that weren’t ‘the real thing’ but that led me down the same path, and it felt uncomfortably just like the years before. To my real frustration, there’s a lot of explicit stuff on mainstream platforms on the internet, often barely policed by the platforms themselves. So, this was tough and a problem I hadn’t anticipated.
The only way I sorted this out was by noticing my own patterns and again just putting the right things in place. Thankfully, ‘Covenant Eyes’ has a filtering function that you can add to and save, getting rid of some of the borderland. Just to give an example of a big one for me, YouTube became very problematic, but digging around, I found it had a setting that disabled adult mode, and I quickly put this in place, again killing access to a borderland and allowing me to keep being able to use it as a normal person would.
This to me felt like I was closing in, getting ever closer to a place where all the right barriers would be in place and I could just cut off access to pornography totally. I read some words from C.S. Lewis which made me think of it this way. He wrote in one of his letters: “In the end, they (women in pornography) become merely the medium through which he (the pornographer consumer) increasingly adores himself… After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of ourselves. … The danger is that of coming to love the prison.”
It’s a good image, leaving a prison, a cage, to come out of ourselves. I think of it a lot, it’s a bit of a motto, ‘the main work of life is to come out of ourselves’. I saw this work of the borderlands year as taking the cage apart and building it around the substance itself, caging it in, until it was totally cut off.
And that’s where I am now. I’m very aware that in future, a new borderland could appear, but I know that if it does, I’ll just go through the process again. The process of realising it’s dissatisfying, putting the right checks in place, and finding freedom again.
Some final thoughts … In my 2017 piece, which I re-read before I wrote this one, these lines really struck me. “There were good weeks and bad months, almost always the bad days outweighed the good and it depressed me.” That line really brought home to me where I had been, and just how different life was now. I never have bad months now, and bad days are rare and totally outweighed by good ones. That time goes back to being used for creativity, for reading a heck of a lot, and for engaging with real people, living outside of myself and my problems. Or for just watching TV.
If you’re struggling, that’s a good thing, it means that you’re not being complacent and that you want your life to be better.
It takes time to undo the things that are moulded into our brains, it takes time to let the path we once followed too often fall into disuse. Give it the time and you’ll get better at picking yourself up, until the falls become less and less frequent.
This started for me when I was 13 – I’m 23 now. It has been a long haul, so give it time. And then, if you feel up to it, please talk about it. I really believe that when we break taboos and talk, the freedom ripples out to other people – that’s why I wrote about this topic and continue to do so. The freedom ripples out.
You might have noticed that my story never had a line that said, “I just used will power and was uber strong and that helped” because, you know, it’s addictive stuff, I couldn’t.
Research, putting the right barriers in place, and asking for help. That was it, it wasn’t because I was impressive, I’m not particularly, but I have great friends.
I hope you don’t take Pornhub up on their quarantine offer. Like I said, my starting point for changing things was when I was writing my dissertation and had no social life – so maybe the quarantine can do that same thing for you. After all, who needs to waste time watching strangers having sex? Frankly, there are far better things to do with your life; we only have so much time after all.
‘The main work of life is to come out of ourselves.’
A version of this article first appeared on https://catholic-link.org
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