The Internet Pornography “Gateway”

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It’s easy to see why professionals aligned with the sexual addiction model regard internet porn as a sort of “gateway” to more serious problems, but there’s another important component that features in the development of problematic sexual behaviors: character.

Problems related to sexual behavior abound in modern culture. Exercising appropriate self-management with regard to sexual impulses and boundaries appears increasingly challenging for many. Problems related to a lack of sexual self-discipline have been the ruin of many a marriage or other intimate relationship. Many report that viewing pornography on the internet eventually led them to engage in other behaviors they never thought they would, which is why so many professionals consider internet pornography a sort of “gateway drug” that can lead a person down the road to problematic sexual behaviors.

The very accessibility of pornographic images and videos of every kind on the internet is itself a frightening reality. Almost anything titillating a person can imagine is only a mouse click away on a computer or a tap away on a smart phone or tablet, and the ease by which a person surfing the web can be gradually led to increasingly risque sites is quite unnerving. But all true addictions begin with developing tolerance. When you’ve developed tolerance, it takes more and more of whatever you’ve been using to gratify, and it also usually takes something with a higher stimulation potential to satisfy your cravings. That’s why there can be a progression from pornography use to more problematic sexual behaviors.

It’s easy to see why professionals aligned with the sexual addiction model regard internet pornography as a “gateway” to other and potentially more serious sexual behavior problems. But there is another side to this growing phenomenon: although few are willing to acknowledge it, character always plays a role in these kinds of problems. Unless the role of character is addressed and addressed properly, it’s really hard to help a person get on the path to healthy sexual and other intimate relationships.

Over the years, I’ve counseled many individuals with sexual behavior problems. Among those who had turned to internet porn, there were many explanations for how and why they got started, but one factor stood out among all the others: problems with genuine intimacy. Fairly universally, they were unable to derive sufficient emotional satisfaction from deeply knowing, caring about, and being intimately connected to another human being. More particularly, intimacy itself could not produce sexual arousal. For that they needed a sufficiently stimulating “object.” They turned to porn in the first place because it gave them something they couldn’t find within a relationship. It was their inability to forge, nurture, sustain, and derive satisfaction from true intimacy that defined not only the deficiencies in their character but also the many troubles they had with relationship partners.

If a deficient capacity to achieve and derive emotional satisfaction from intimacy is at the heart of many sexual behavior problems, it stands to reason that a person remains at risk for all sorts of those problems — not just pornography addiction — unless the impediments to intimacy residing in their character are sufficiently and directly addressed. Addressing these aspects of character in therapy is a real challenge. Sometimes, it means recognizing, challenging, and working through a person’s narcissism. Other times, it means helping someone acquire social interaction skills they’d never successfully cultivated before. Still other times, it means challenging and completely altering the manner in which a person views prospective sexual partners or even the nature and purpose of sexual relations. Suitably examining such issues entails a heck of a lot of work. But experience has taught me that unless a person has grown in character to the point that they can really “connect” with another human being on a deeper, more meaningful level — as opposed to seeing and dealing with them primarily as an “object” of gratification — they’ll remain vulnerable to dysfunctions of sexual behavior. In the end, as is true for so many other problem behaviors, difficulties in this important area of human functioning ultimately comes down to character. The good news is that with proper attention and intervention, character growth can be nurtured, regardless of how stunted a person might be in their character maturity.

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It’s a sad commentary on our times that so many folks don’t really know how to regard or relate to another human being in ways that are both infectiously stimulating and rewarding over the longer term. When relationships are new, the “novelty” factor alone is often sufficient to pique a person’s sexual interest and bring them a fair amount of satisfaction. But the novelty effect inevitably fades. When that happens, if one doesn’t have the desire or the skills necessary to cultivate depth in the relationship, they’ll quite likely experience a chronic hunger for something else.

Unfortunately, all too many treatments for sexual behavior problems leave character out of the equation, ignoring those aspects of a person’s makeup that make it difficult for them to be truly intimate and to be “turned on” by intimacy. Over the years, my sexually dysfunctional clients have taught me the importance of addressing those very issues. Their porn use may indeed have been the gateway to other problem behaviors, but it was also a symptom of a more important underlying problem — and when we looked past the symptom and recognized and directly dealt with the underlying character and intimacy issues, a whole host of other problems eventually also resolved.

Editor’s Note: The CC-licensed image for this post was modified to obscure writing on the t-shirt.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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