The Secret Allures of Pornography

An addiction to pornography produces guilt, shame, and other suffering

Lots of people, men in particular, are addicted to pornography. They are sexually aroused by the visual stimulation, and they return compulsively to the activity, looking for that pleasure. However, it’s often a pleasure that comes with a price. Many feel shame after feasting on the stimulation. They might also feel guilt if they have a partner who is being kept in the dark about it. They can also feel bad about themselves because they can’t stop the voyeuristic activity.

Pornography has dimensions to it of the impersonal, mechanical, tawdry, and boring. So how does a person become addicted to such voyeurism?

Several hidden psychological components are at play. When the consumption of pornography is addictive, it means the individual is acting out his inner passivity. He doesn’t have the power to act consistently in his best interests. This is the same inner weakness that leads one to be indecisive, to procrastinate, and to feel overwhelmed. This individual replays an unresolved emotional issue that involves the feeling of not being in charge of his or her own life. Such individuals frequently find themselves in fixes in which they are lacking in self-regulation, as with compulsive gamblers and those with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

All of us can suffer with guilt, confusion, worry, and anxiety whenever we are losing what may be life’s greatest struggle: to maintain self-regulation of behaviors and emotions.

The individual watching pornography can also be identifying with the degradation of the actors or models, most particularly the women. Through a perverse manipulation in our psyche, such degradation can be turned into sexual pleasure. It’s the same mechanism that occurs when a sadistic person is “turned on” by his abuse of a passive or masochistic person. In a non-sexual way, it’s similar to the pleasure a schoolyard bully feels when he abuses a passive boy or girl. Typically, the abuser feels superior, which covers up his or her identification with the humiliation and passivity of the victim.

With pornography, then, one source of the sexual pleasure arises from the individual’s unconscious (secret) identification with the sense of worthlessness that the degraded, passive actor may or may not be feeling. The negative feeling (degradation or a sense of worthlessness, or a sense of brute power) is “libidinized.” This clinical word refers to the action of libido, the pleasure drive, which is capable of turning displeasure into pleasure in some circumstances, with perversity, masochism, and sadism being extreme examples.

Every one of us can at times feel self-doubt and wonder about our ultimate value. We can feel a sense of relief, even a perverse pleasure, when someone other than us is identified as being the unworthy person. (This perversity is a factor in racism, where someone feels pleasure in identifying others as being inferior or worthless.) Even when we try to cover up our identification with the degradation, failure, or demise of the other (through our defenses and rationalizations), this unconscious identification of ours produces some form of suffering, often guilt and shame.

Instead of identifying with debasement, those individuals who are addicted emotionally to child pornography are typically identifying with the children’s helplessness and victimization. This same ability to turn intensely negative emotions into perverse pleasure can lure some highly neurotic individuals into pedophilia.

Another hidden element in the addiction to pornography is the feeling of disappointment. When pornography is first viewed, the excitement and pleasure can be intense. Before long, however, the pleasurable effect wears off. Now disappointment sets in. Pornographers introduce material that is increasingly sensational, bizarre, and perverse in an attempt to avoid the sated feeling. Yet the sated feeling persists, and it can in part be attributed to the disappointment that many people are unconsciously determined to feel in both sexual and non-sexual ways.

The Peeping Tom, for one, is driven not by his apparent wish to see naked women (which he can see legitimately in any strip club or on the internet) but by his determination as he slinks through back alleys to experience the disappointment of being refused the sight of nakedness by “uncooperative” women who “refuse” to bare themselves for his eager eyes. Keep in mind that we are compelled to experience repeatedly our unresolved negative emotions—in this case feelings of refusal and disappointment.

Watching pornography also presents the excitement of engaging in what is forbidden. As children, we encountered many sexual situations involving the forbidden. Seeing naked parents or siblings, even inadvertently, was often considered wrong or shameful. Men often hide their compulsive voyeurism from their wives or girlfriends, and then feel shame when caught and confronted. As little children, they may have been tempted into doing what was “bad” by the thrill of defiance and the wish to feel unregulated. Or, if they remained obedient, they may have secretly wished they were bold enough to defy their parents. As adults, they can still be aroused, this time sexually, by unresolved childish impulses involving forbidden behaviors.