We both look similar. Two late-thirties men wearing check shirts, knocking back tea and coffee while we chat. But we’re not the same. And I’m working up to a difficult question: “So what kind of images were you into: oral, anal, vaginal?” For the man sitting opposite me with the warm eyes and easy laugh is a self-confessed porn addict.
When I first met Mike he’d been director of a multinational media firm earning Â£100,000 a year. But his fascination with internet porn videos had gradually taken an unbreakable grip on his life. It was a secret he kept from Annabel, his girlfriend of four years whom he was engaged to marry. Then in February last year, after hitting “rock bottom” with the addiction and coincidentally being made redundant, he finally decided to seek help. He confessed to Annabel and checked into the Priory. “I went through a full disclosure. The effect was huge for her – betrayal, disgust, shock. We were due to get married in September but we’re now living separately.”
So how did an intelligent, articulate man with a successful career come to be subjugated by pictures of strangers having sex? With admirable honesty Mike says he’s always been fascinated by porn. Aged eight he remembers finding his dad’s books of nudes and then, like many teenage boys, he traded porn mags. But in 1995 his habit made a quantum leap – he discovered the internet.
He was watching “fairly normal stuff”, he says, never teens or violent material. “I used to go to portal sites putting up free videos. Just people having sex, couples mainly. Nothing too weird – I liked women in their thirties or older and got into porn stars on and off. The most extreme I’d get is a gang bang.”
His obsession was both physically and emotionally driven. “It was generally about masturbation. By the end it was multiple times a day to the point that it had almost become self-harm.” He also craved its numbing effect: “I was trying to avoid every form of feeling. I’d often sit for four hours but not actually orgasm. It’s the build-up, it’s very ritualistic. [Orgasm] would be the end of it. Then suddenly you’d come right down.”
But shame and self-loathing were never far away. “Afterwards you feel just awful, guilty and disgusted with yourself. I was constantly trying to stop, thinking right, I’ll clear my cache, I’m not doing this again. And two weeks later I’d be back on it.”
Because of the porn he rarely had sex with Annabel and would arrange his weekends around his habit: “We’d had such a great sex life. But it went bad pretty quickly. There was the erotic desensitising but also not being able to get close to her because of the shame. And if she went away for the weekend I wouldn’t arrange something socially, I’d just do porn.”
As his porn use increased, so the images coloured his view of women.
“I found I’d sexually objectify just about every woman I saw. I’d be walking down the street looking for the next woman to look at. And in the office, it was so heavy.” He never harassed female colleagues but began visiting prostitutes and reading websites reviewing hookers. “For me it was the intrigue – I used to get a lot out of reading those sites. Towards the end it was compulsive but I was so not into it. I started seeing these looks of disgust in their eyes.”
By the end there was little or no pleasure, just a craving that had to be fulfilled. “The orgasm was nothing. It was: ‘I’ve orgasmed. I still feel low’.” Rock bottom came in Christmas 2009 when he and Annabel went on a month’s holiday to a place with only occasional internet access. “It was such an active holiday that I managed to stay away from it. On the outside I was having great fun. But on the inside I was dreading going home. God, I thought, I’ve got to sort all this out. How the hell am I going to deal with it?” That’s when he told Annabel and became an in-patient at the Priory.
Jenny Dew, the psychotherapist who oversaw his rehab at the Priory describes it as a “process addiction”, like eating disorders. Just as we all need to eat, these days few can live without the internet, which makes it difficult to cut oneself off from temptation. “If porn was a drug we’d rate it as cocaine,” she says, before Mike puts in: “And internet porn is crack cocaine.”
Erotica has been around since prehistoric man learned to daub on a cave. But the internet has revolutionised voyeurism by opening up a virtually infinite number of fantasies available free at the click of a mouse or touch on a smartphone screen.
According to UKOM/Nielsen research, 10.6million people in the UK – more than a quarter of the active online population – visited an “adult” site in January last year. At least 70 per cent were male. Meanwhile in a survey by Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at Oxford University, about half of men in a relationship admitted to viewing explicit material since starting their current relationship. Some might argue it’s only addictive types such as Mike who get hooked on porn. But Dew believes the internet has changed the rules. “Something like cybersex can be so pleasurable that people who have none of the typical profiles of an addict will become addicted. From a neurobiological point of view, we teach ourselves things. And if we do something over and over again we eventually wear a pathway in the brain.”
Mike is worried about the impact on society. He says contacts in the City are getting hooked on lapdancing clubs, while the imagery of porn is seeping into adverts, MTV and the fashion industry. He believes we’re in denial about the number of addicts out there. “The floodgates are going to open. It’s no longer restricted to downstairs dingy sex shops in Soho. Kids are being brought up on it. I know a lot of people out there who don’t see themselves as addicts but I believe they’ve got problems.”
That was what he told me six months ago. Now when we meet for coffee on the South Bank, Mike is ebullient. His new business is doing well and he has news about Annabel. “We’re together again, the marriage is back on. And we’re going to be buying a house shortly. We’ve been doing couple’s counselling. I think she got her head round the idea of addiction as an illness. She’s shown a lot of understanding.” He hasn’t looked at porn since February 4 2010. Like the recovering alcoholic he once was, he’s taking it one day at a time. There’s still a long way to go. “From what I’ve read, my brain can be rewired but it takes two to five years.”
He’s terrified of being identified because of the taboo around porn. Hence the false name and lack of photo. So why risk the success of his new life for the sake of a newspaper article? “I stopped drinking about 12 years ago. What prompted that was reading an interview in the Observer with the footballer Tony Adams. I totally identified with what he went through. I was a binger like him. So maybe this will help someone else out there.”
(Names and minor details have been changed)
This piece was published in the London Evening Standard on 12 January 2012