Internet Pornography, the Gateway Drug of Sexual Addiction: A Rabbi’s View

Why does pornography, particularly Internet pornography, pervade modern life?

An illustrative photograph of a man looking at pornography online.
AP

“The lack of sexual morality that pervades this society is all over the place, and the Orthodox community, no matter how traditional, is not immune from this, and it creates terrible problems,” Rabbi Barry Freundel said in the Washington Jewish Week. “Pornography and its accessibility is wrecking marriages. It’s two keystrokes away. You get on the computer, you hit the button twice and you’re there. I have not counseled a couple in any level of relationship in the last five years where pornography hasn’t been an issue.”

Freundel was quoted in this article on September 17, 2014, only weeks before he was arrested on voyeurism charges.

Why is it that pornography, particularly Internet pornography, pervades modern life? Is it becoming an increasing threat to society? What can Jewish sources teach us about it?

With the ever-expanding reach of the Internet into all aspects of our lives, the new normal we have come to expect is the possibility of instantaneous gratification. Yet all of us, despite the filters we apply and self-discipline we exercise, are exposed to Internet pornography. To illustrate, 34 percent of Internet users worldwide experience unwanted exposure to pornography through pop up ads or emails, according to a 2006 study. According to the same study, there are 4.2 million pornographic websites (12 percent of the total number of websites) and 72 million monthly visitors, while 28,000 Internet users access porn every second. Furthermore, 70 percent of American men admit to watching Internet pornography, according to an infographic cited by the Huffington Post, and 88 percent of scenes in pornographic films contain acts of physical aggression, a survey by Covenant Eyes shows.

In an attempt to understand more completely the effect Internet pornography is having on our lives, I spoke with Brad Salzman LCSW, a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist and founder of the New York Sexual Addiction Center, who also maintains a practice here in Israel. He is an Orthodox Jew and many of his clients are also Orthodox.

According to Salzman, Internet pornography is highly addictive and in vulnerable people can lead to a full blown sexual addiction that may escalate to other more problematic behaviors.

Salzman explained: “Internet pornography is the gateway drug of sexual addiction. Many people who become addicted to watching Internet porn will escalate to more risky or intense compulsive sexual behaviors.”

Salzman said that the “Triple A" engine - anonymity, accessibility and affordability - of free, anonymous and easily accessible Internet pornography, has created a perfect storm whereby there are no longer barriers to getting hooked. In addition, he says, the intense nature of Internet pornography actually overrides our brain’s natural feelings of satiation, leaving us wanting more and more.

“Sex addiction is actually a progressive brain disease that, like other addictions, if it is left untreated tends to get worse,” Salzman says. “That is why addicts overdose: because over time they need more and more to get high.”

As in other addictive disorders, the brain’s natural capacity to produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward, becomes compromised over time due to frequent exposure to the drug, whether it’s cocaine or Internet porn. So addicts are left feeling like they need another hit - another video, another chat session, another encounter - just to feel good again. Thus, the brain actually gets “hijacked” by the addiction, Salzman says. “When someone is actively addicted to sex, a part of their brain is simply not working properly. It’s like a part of them is not there.”

Research shows that as many as 90 percent of sex addicts experienced some significant trauma during their childhoods, whether sexual, physical or emotional, Salzman says. This often creates a lifetime of shame, vulnerability to addiction and a search for quick, easy escapes from existential anxiety. “Sex addiction is a great way to kill the pain, until it stops working. And then the pain is worse than before,” he says, adding that this can create a cycle that keeps addicts alternating between shame and acting out repeatedly.

There are several sobering messages that we can draw from these trends. “Sexual addiction has the power of a tsunami to affect millions of people, no matter whom they are or where they live. Everyone who has an Internet connection is vulnerable,” he says.

Salzman says that sex addicts typically require between three to five years in treatment to recover, but there is no cure. “Sex addiction is like diabetes. If you recognize that you have it, and you take precautions to avoid getting yourself in trouble and make good decisions, you can have a normal, healthy life. But it never goes away.”

The Talmud, while encouraging a healthy and spiritual sexual relationship between a husband and wife, understands the destructive nature of excessive sexual stimulation. There is a widely quoted passage in Tractate Brachot 5a: Rabbi Levi bar Hama said in the name of Resh Lakish that a person should always be on guard against the Evil Inclination (often identified as the sexual urge). Based on the verse from Psalms, 4:5, it is recommended that if a person finds himself unduly tempted, he should occupy himself with studying Torah. If that fails, he should read the Shema. And if that does not manage to subdue the Evil Inclination, he should remember the Day of Death (one doesn’t live forever, and will someday have to give an account for all one’s actions).

Interestingly and tellingly based on our subject at hand, the Talmudic commentator Iyun Yaakov warns that the last strategy of contemplating one’s death has a detrimental side effect, in that it can lead to sadness and, ultimately, depression.

Guard Your Eyes is a website that describes itself as “the leading resource in the Jewish world for those struggling with inappropriate material, ranging from teenagers who have just begun to stumble – all the way to those with full blown addiction.” Among the resources it offers is a 12-step program modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, which in turn draws its core concepts from the teshuva process, by which we acknowledge, resolve, and set in place concrete steps for positive behavioral change. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, a renowned specialist in addiction therapy, contributes to this site and recommends it as an effective and invaluable program.

We, the Jewish community, as does the world around us, have a serious problem with Internet pornography and our communal teshuva process must begin with that admission. None of us is immune. Once we truly internalize this message, we can begin to help ourselves and others take the first steps toward recovery.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.