After a half century of vigorous efforts to educate the public on the dangers of tobacco use, the prevalence of smoking and its level of acceptance dropped dramatically. According to Catholic psychologist Dr. Peter Kleponis, the same effort can and should be made regarding pornography.
Dr. Kloponis is the assistant director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. ZENIT spoke with him about pornography use and its addictive qualities -- and how to know when someone is addicted.
ZENIT: When have people crossed the line between the sexual imagery that is so prevalent everywhere in our culture, and actual pornography? Or is there a clear line?
Kleponis: To determine when a person has crossed the line between sexual imagery and pornography, we first need to look at how we define pornography. I define it as "any image that leads a person to use another person for his own sexual pleasure." The key word here is "use." Thus, the image doesn't have to be of an unclothed person. The woman seductively portrayed in a beer commercial during a football game can be just as pornographic as a woman shown in a hardcore pornographic movie on the Internet. The "line" is different for everyone. For some men, that beer commercial is a form of pornography because they may find themselves briefly lingering over the image and sexualizing it. Other men may not even notice the woman in the commercial. For those men, the image is an example of the sexual imagery that is prevalent in our society.
We also need to look at how images are designed to be used. It's obvious that hardcore pornography is meant to be sexually arousing. However, there are images of women in our society that are not defined as or marketed as pornography. However, common sense tells us that these publications are also designed to be sexually arousing for men. These would include the Victoria's Secret Catalog and the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit edition. Few men purposefully watch football games specifically for the commercials; however, most men view these publications specifically because they are sexually arousing. Thus, they could also be considered pornography.
ZENIT: The prevailing view for a lot of people is, "why is pornography so harmful; they're just images?" In a nutshell, how would you respond?
KIeponis: There are many reasons why pornography is harmful. First of all, pornography leads a man to use a woman for his own sexual pleasure. God never intended for us to use anyone. When a man is viewing pornography, he is usually not thinking that the woman is a person, with thoughts and feelings. He's not thinking that she's somebody's daughter or about the terrible circumstances that led her into the pornography industry. He is not aware of how the pornography industry abuses and exploits women. All he knows is that she is there solely for his sexual pleasure. This is using her.
Pornography is harmful to marriages and families. When a woman discovers her husband using pornography, she often feels devastated. Many women view this as serious as an extramarital affair. Marital trust has been broken. She loses all respect for her husband. She is no longer able to see her husband as a good role model for her children. Many women experience symptoms of severe emotional trauma because of their husband's pornography use.
Pornography harms young people's ability to have healthy relationships. The message it sends to young men is that women are there solely for their sexual pleasure. For young women, the message is that in order to be loved and desired, one has to look and act like a porn star. This may account for "sexting" and the spike in sexual promiscuity among young people. It's warping their view of what healthy sexuality and relationships are all about.
Finally, we now know that pornography is just as addictive as drugs or alcohol. Internet pornography has been called "the new crack cocaine" because of its addictiveness. As with any addiction, it can take over a person's life. This addiction is tearing apart marriages and families, ruining careers, and costing men thousands of dollars.
The bottom line is that pornography is not "just images." It is extremely damaging and should be avoided at all costs.
ZENIT: Is this just a problem for men?
KIeponis: Currently the breakdown of pornography addicts is 83% men and 17% women. Although it is still mainly a men's issue, more and more women are becoming addicted. However, the addiction is different for women. To understand this, we need to realize that men and women are "wired differently." Men are visually stimulated, and therefore they are attracted to the sexual images of pornography. While women enjoy looking at attractive men, they are not as visually stimulated as men. Women are more relationally stimulated. This is why they prefer romance novels, soap operas and "chick flicks." While some women are attracted to sexual images in pornography, most are attracted to Internet chat rooms.
In a chat room, a woman can be whoever she wants to be, and she can indulge in an online sexual relationship. She is, in essence, writing her own romance novel where she is the heroine. While there are no visual images used, the text is very pornographic in content. With this addiction, a woman can end up spending hours engaging in multiple online sexual relationships. What's more frightening is that women are more likely to meet in-person the men they have met online. This places them in potentially dangerous situations. Since it is a well-known fact that people lie about themselves in chat rooms, the man a woman meets could really be a dangerous predator. While women currently make up only 17% of pornography addicts, I believe this number will rise as more and more lonely women turn to chat rooms for comfort.
ZENIT: As you just noted, pornography use actually becomes an addiction. What are signs of this addiction?
KIeponis: Two common signs of an addiction are the development of a tolerance to the substance and a physical/emotional dependence on the substance. When a tolerance develops, a little of the substance is not enough. More is needed to get the same desired effect. With pornography addiction, a man will find himself spending more time online searching for porn. A few minutes turns into a few hours, and the content becomes more extreme. Instead of viewing it for a few minutes, he will end up spending several hours online. In addition, the type of pornography viewed becomes more extreme. Instead of soft porn, he now seeks out hardcore porn. This can include violent porn, fetishes, homosexual porn, and even child porn. This is because extreme pornography becomes the only kind of pornography that will arouse him.
Along with tolerance, a pornography addict will develop a dependence on it. Physically the body becomes dependent on the substance in order to function in daily life. Without a regular "fix" a man can experience real withdrawal symptoms. These include depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, difficulty with concentration, stomachaches and headaches. The dependence develops because the brain has become so accustomed to operating at an extreme level of stimulation (caused by the pornography use), that it can no longer function normally without that stimulation.
The ultimate symptom of an addiction is a life that is totally unmanageable, ruled by the addiction. The addiction has taken over and rules a man's life. Life becomes a constant search for the next fix, which in this case is viewing pornography and masturbating.
ZENIT: Is this addiction prevalent? What can be done to stop its growth across society?
KIeponis: Pornography addiction is highly prevalent in our society. Research has shown that there are approximately 16 million sex addicts in the United States; many of these people are specifically addicted to pornography. Another study found that 40% of Christians believe that pornography is a problem in the home, and 10% would admit to being addicted to pornography. Because of the shame attached to sex/pornography addiction, few people are willing to talk about it. Also, because this addiction is being fed in the privacy of people's homes, no one sees it. Thus, it seems invisible. However, every day thousands of people are becoming addicted to pornography. It's damaging marriages and families, ruining careers and enslaving people.
Because of our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, pornography will always be available in our society. I believe the best way to stop the spread of pornography addiction is through education. I compare this to tobacco use. Fifty years ago, doctors knew that smoking was killing people. They knew it was causing cancer, lung disease, heart disease, etc. However, it was politically incorrect to say anything negative about smoking. Every adult had the right to smoke. It took 50 years of massive public education, and the example of millions of people dying from tobacco use, to convince Americans that tobacco was dangerous. Today, most Americans don't smoke and are aware of the health risks associated with tobacco use. I believe that pornography addiction will have to be addressed in the same way. We need to educate Americans on the true dangers of pornography so that they too will choose not to use it.
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Peter C. Kleponis, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Therapist and Assistant Director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in West Conshohocken, PA. He has 15 years of professional experience working with individuals, couples, families and organizations, specializing in marriage & family therapy, pastoral counseling, resolving anger, men's issues, and pornography addiction recovery (www.MaritalHealing.com)
Dr. Kleponis is giving an IPS Online Seminar on "Causes, Treatment and Prevention of Pornography Addiction" for 3.5 CEs May 11, 2012. For more information and to register, click here.