Kabir*, 26, is looking for porn on the internet compulsively, as he has done every day before and after work since he began full-time work.
Instead of socialising or working, Kabir spends almost £400 a month talking to sex cam girls, who charge him for the opportunity to instruct them how to undress or pleasure themselves on camera. He drinks Red Bull and black coffee to stay awake. Frayed and ashamed, he now wants to stop.
I find him on a sex cam confessions thread of the forum “NoFap” – an anti-porn use site where men, desperate to stop looking at porn, counsel each other.
Many of the users of NoFap are also non-porn consumers: wives of addicts; mums trying to wean their sons or sometimes daughters from porn, and even siblings looking to stage an intervention.
“I’d cancel plans to sit and talk to sex cams and it destroys my social life,” says Kabir. “I risk getting sacked at work because I check in on their web pages on my phone during office time. I initially liked the sex cams because it was more involved than just porn, you’d chat to a sexy girl and then you’d get a sexual experience. But now I have become so obsessive about it the thought of dating or stopping makes me anxious.”
To all intents and purposes, Kabir is a sex addict – just like celebrities Russell Brand or David Duchovny – unable to break the destructive habits of compulsive sexual behaviour. But, unlike other sex addicts, he is not actually having any sex.
Kabir is part of a whole new generation of consumers driving the explosion of online pornography. In 2018 market leader Pornhub revealed its videos were watched 33.5 billion times that year, by 92 million daily visitors (up from 64 million in 2016.)
Last year, a study by BBC Three of more than 1,000 Brits revealed 55 per cent of men said porn had been their main source of sex education, while a study by Natsal (National surveys of sexual lifestyles) of 34,000 respondents showed those who had not had sex in the previous month had risen to 29 per cent.
This new breed of younger sex addict – one unable to cope with flesh and blood encounters – is now populating addiction centre waiting rooms across the UK, says The Laurel Centre’s Paula Hall who has been a specialist in sex and porn addiction for fifteen years.
She says clients who arrive at her suburban Leamington Spa clinic, are split into age lines – older adults who are compelled to engage in damaging physical flings – and younger adults who are so fixated with online materials they are either no longer interested in sex at all or have discovered real sex cannot match their online experiences.
“A lot of the younger patients we are working with – aged around 18 to 28 – have never had a sexual experience without pornography or sex cams,” she says. “They are adamant it’s physically impossible. They have no experience of fantasy without pornography.”
Even if they experience real sex – they find it disappointing. Hall says: “Some of these youngsters are amazed their partners have body hair or sweat or their flesh is soft. That they don’t orgasm on touch. Real sex – rather than on a screen – smells in a way that is different from what they imagined – they are used to a sexual experience that isn’t messy or unclean.”
Other British clinics report similar findings. Nuno Albuquerque, Group Treatment Lead at UK Addiction Treatment says his practice encounter “no sex, sex addicts” every month. He says, “These particular patients have, over time, become psychologically dependent on masturbation, but when it comes to actual human contact and intimacy with another person, they’re unwilling or even unable to perform.”
A 2014 study from Cambridge University found that addicts watching pornography experience the same brain activity as drug addicts when confronted with their drug of choice and many will do anything to keep watching it. Earlier this year, 38-year-old Andrew Barnbrook defrauded his employer of £250k in order to fund his habit of talking to a sex-cam model.
Dr Thaddeus Birchard of the Marylebone Clinic has treated over 1,000 men in sex addiction groups since 2001 and says porn tricks the brain into wanting something it doesn’t need. “Studies have shown that butterflies would sooner mate with a replica of a butterfly made of glitter rather than the real thing. Hens would also prefer to sit on marbled eggs of a darker colour than their own plain eggs. Humans are just the same in that they have begun to prefer looking at man-made, constructed internet reality.”
The World Health Organisation recognised sex addiction as a mental health condition in 2018, although the American Association of Sexuality Educators Counsellor and Therapists stated two years before that there was not sufficient evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder. They also stated that watching porn was not addictive.
The confusion and lack of provision can leave sufferers on their own to seek help. Erica Garza, author of Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex And Porn Addiction, was diagnosed as a sex addict in her thirties after years of self-destructive behaviour. Now happily married after completing a 12-Step Recovery programme, Erica says her sex addiction grew from deeply held insecurities. Aged twelve, she was bullied at school for wearing a back brace which left her feeling insecure and alone. Instead of talking to someone about it, porn became a release.
“It provided me with an intoxicating combo of pleasure and shame,” she says. “This became my emotional crutch. While life stressors and triggers eventually changed so did my methods of achieving sexual gratification, supplementing chronic masturbation with hardcore porn and sex with strangers.”
While in the grip of her sex addiction, Erica was – unlike “no sex, sex addicts” – having real sex encounters, but watching pornography was also a big factor in her behaviour becoming damaging. She says, “When you’re searching page after page of a porn site looking for a new clip – and then another clip to top the last one – and when you’re obsessing about who you’re gonna sleep with – or just finished sleeping with – or grooming your body to be ready for sex, time gets eaten up, opportunities get missed. Life just sort of passes you by.”
Erica was jolted into tackling her behaviour when a friend – who was attending AA Meetings – pointed out her compulsive behaviours mirrored his own towards alcohol. She began attending Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings and started a 12-Step recovery programme which provided a safe, welcoming space and community of like-minded people who would listen without judgement about her worst deeds.
She says, “I do recommend meetings to other people as a start (of treating sex addiction) but I tried a number of different things to deal with those underlying emotions I’d been running from for so long. Meditation, Thai kickboxing, self-help books, talk therapy, a 7-day retreat called the Hoffman Process, and writing about my experiences were all tools that helped in their own way.”
Dr Rob Weiss, a sexual therapist based in LA with over 25 years of experience has seen the effects in young adults who have compulsively used the internet for sex.
“By aged 20, these sex addicts have not dated, they are just coming home and watching porn. They are not aroused by sex, because it cannot compete with hours of multiple videos. I have 21 year-olds who cannot imagine holding someone’s hand, panic about body contact and find it impossible waiting for a text reply because they’ve never had to wait to satisfy this impulse.”
Paula Hall says the effects of pornography has made the nation “sexually obese.” She says, “We are reaching for sexual material when we aren’t even aroused, in the same way a food addict eats when they aren’t hungry. One of the other damaging effects of porn is that many people have no idea what their natural libido is, they are just doing it compulsively, as a habit, because they have a spare hour or because they want to relax.”
Escaping any vice is hard, but the hazard for porn addicts is that the internet is everywhere, locked into modern life. You can take another route home to avoid the pub or off licence, you can ditch your friends who drink on nights out. But the internet sits in your pocket, following you throughout daily life.
For those in recovery, it is about finding a way to self-regulate, says Erica. “I still watch porn from time to time, but the difference is that I don’t seek sexual release because I’m trying to escape something. Knowing the difference in those motivations (is) crucial to conquering the addiction,” she says.