Dr. Rob and Noah Church: A Conversation About Porn

Dr. Robert Weiss and Noah Church are experts on digital-era porn addiction. Dr. Rob is Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity and author ten books including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction. Noah is a recovering porn addict, creator of the website Addicted to Internet Porn, and author the memoir Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn. Recently, Dr. Rob and Noah got together to discuss 21st-century pornography, how it is used, and the problems it creates for some individuals. Excerpts of this conversation are presented below.

ROB: Noah, I know that you self-identify as addicted to digital pornography, and that you have found ways to overcome that issue yourself, and that you work very hard to share this information with others. That’s similar to my own story in some ways, but I came along way before Internet porn was a thing so I’m curious about your experience. When did you start using porn, and how did it affect your life?

NOAH: I was among the first generation to grow up when it was common to have a computer in the home with internet access. … I was always interested in women and girls, even when I was really young. It wasn’t long before I had the bright idea to search for pictures of pretty women online. That was when I was about nine or ten. I found what I was looking for and much, much more, as you can imagine. It didn’t take long before I was hooked on that and would seek it out whenever I could get time alone with the computer.

At first, it was just pictures of women and heterosexual sex, but it escalated. Some of the things I saw initially disturbed me or went against what I was interested in, but as time went on I started to notice that the things I used to look at just didn’t excite me as much, and I would seek out those things that had at first disturbed me or repulsed me. Over time, I seemed to need them in order to get that same feeling of arousal, that same vibe.

ROB: That’s very common. I see that with clients at Seeking Integrity all the time. Sex and porn addiction escalate the same as every other addiction. It’s like heroin addiction. Nobody starts out with a needle in their arm. First, they have a couple of beers, then a joint, then they steal grandma’s pain pills, then they crush and snort the pills to increase the effect, and suddenly they’re in an alley shooting up. Addictive sexual behaviors like using porn are the same in that regard. And it can happen really slowly, so a person almost doesn’t notice it.

NOAH: Absolutely. When I was 13 or 14, I got a computer in my bedroom, so I didn’t have to worry so much about sneaking around and I could spend more time online. And I did. I wouldn’t say it was every day, but most days, for anywhere from half an hour to several hours. It wasn’t really until I was 18 and in my first real relationship that I discovered that I had a problem that went beyond just the time I’d invested and the escalation I’d experienced. We were in love and we wanted to have sex for the first time with each other, and for the first time, period. But when that moment came, I just didn’t have the sort of physical response that I was expecting. That was a shock to me. I was shocked that I wasn’t able to get an erection, that I wasn’t physically aroused, because this was something I’d been looking forward to my entire life. And I was very attracted to her.

ROB: That’s also common – young men with porn-induced erectile dysfunction. We call it PIED. Heavy porn users, especially porn addicts, grow conditioned to the neurochemical rush that the endless, constantly changing stream of supercharged sexual imagery that online porn provides. They get jolt after jolt of dopamine and adrenaline as they move from one image or video to the next. Over a period of time, that’s what their brain comes to expect from sex. Unfortunately, a single real-world partner can’t match up. It doesn’t seem to matter how much you love that person or how attractive that person is, you struggle to achieve and maintain an erection. It’s a real shock when that happens, and incredibly distressing.

NOAH: I left that day and went home, and the first thing I did was search for answers online, to see what could be going on, what’s the problem here. But at that time, back in 2008, pretty much all I found was that if it’s not a physical problem, if you have no problem getting an erection by yourself, then it’s most likely psychological. Performance anxiety.

ROB: Yeah. I don’t think anyone was talking about PIED back then.

NOAH: Norman Doidge may have mentioned it in his book [The Brain That Changes Itself, 2007]. But I couldn’t find any information about it online. So my girlfriend and I tried many more times. I thought that maybe I just needed to get more comfortable being intimate with her. I also thought that maybe I just masturbated too much, so I would give it a break for a couple of weeks and then we’d try again. But that didn’t seem to help. … At that time I didn’t realize that it could take months or even a year or more to recover from the long-term effects of consistent porn use and porn-induced sexual dysfunction.

ROB: Until the last decade or so, most of the sex and porn addicts I dealt with had early-life trauma issues that needed to be dealt with. Over the last 5 to 10 years I’ve noticed a new category of porn addicts – individuals, most often young men who started using porn early on like you did – whose addictions don’t appear to be driven by unresolved trauma. It’s more than they’ve become conditioned to the intensity of porn or that they turned to porn instead of engaging in more traditional, in-person childhood and adolescent sexual and romantic development. Where do you fall on the abuse spectrum?

NOAH: I had a great family growing up, a very healthy and happy childhood aside from my problems with pornography. I wasn’t abused in any way, sexual or otherwise. For me, physical attractions were always present and part of my life. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t fantasize about women or girls. I just had that idea in my head. So I decided to search for some pictures online. From there, it became an addiction, but not rooted in any specific trauma. For me, it’s more related to the easy and unlimited availability of that content from such an early age.

ROB: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to ask that question. I’ve talked with a lot of therapists who deal with sexual issues, and almost all of us are seeing two distinct porn-using populations. First, there is the typical trauma-based, trauma-driven addict. And then there is the addict who found porn early and got hooked but doesn’t have any of the usual underlying trauma. The consequences of the addiction are pretty much the same, but the path to healing can be a little different, once sobriety is established and maintained for a few months because the underlying drivers are so different.

NOAH: Yeah, I think you’re correct. I didn’t have the trauma, and my porn use never completely isolated me. I had friends. I had girlfriends. But still, it definitely stole my ability to enjoy sex and intimacy. And that in itself was a trauma. It bothered me for a long time and it caused me a lot of pain. But it’s not what led me to use porn in the beginning or even to use it compulsively.

ROB: So how did you eventually establish sobriety and recovery?

NOAH: When I was 24, I figured, “OK, I’m ready now, I’m going to figure out what this is.” I started the same way I started looking for answers back in 2008 when I was younger, which was just by searching the internet for answers. But in 2008 there was nothing really helpful. This time what I found was vastly different. I found the stories of many guys, guys around my age, with similar tales to tell about how they were consistently using porn for years and either couldn’t have sex for their first time or they had lost the ability to get aroused with a real partner.

ROB: I assume you initially found help online, rather than in-person, because there wasn’t much in-person help back then?

NOAH: Yeah, a TED talk let me to a website, and from there I found other stuff. And it all just became so clear what had been going on with me. It was a huge relief just knowing that I wasn’t alone anymore, that other guys had been through this, and they had gone through and seen the other side and had recovered. And knowing that pornography was the cause of all this pain that had happened in my life—it was like there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. So I was actually quite happy and excited about quitting porn and seeing the improvement and finally putting it behind me.

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Today there are many online resources for individuals struggling with pornography. Free information is available on SexandRelationshipHealing.com, AddictedtoInternetPorn.com, NoFap.com, RebootNation.org, and FighttheNewDrug.org. For information about treatment for sex and porn addiction, check out SeekingIntegrity.com.