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Watching porn, getting addicted: Experts tell of cases they’ve seen and the risks linked to sexual offenders

SINGAPORE — Stuck indoors with nowhere to go, more people have gone online in search of entertainment during the Covid-19 pandemic. The dark side to this is that along with the surge in demand for video streaming and television programmes, there appears to be an increase in online porn use. And it is not just adults who are hooked.

Repeated exposure and self-pleasuring to deviant pornography, such as those depicting children, violence and voyeurism, can shape a young person’s sexual arousal pattern and lead some of them to develop deviant or atypical sexual interests, which they may eventually seek to satisfy through their sexual offending behaviours.

Repeated exposure and self-pleasuring to deviant pornography, such as those depicting children, violence and voyeurism, can shape a young person’s sexual arousal pattern and lead some of them to develop deviant or atypical sexual interests, which they may eventually seek to satisfy through their sexual offending behaviours.

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  • An addiction recovery centre reports that the number of people seeking help for compulsive sexual behaviour in the past year has doubled
  • This includes excessive viewing of pornography
  • Cases include highly educated professionals who cannot go through the day without watching porn
  • Experts said the rise could be due to boredom, having poor coping strategies to stress and increased screen time during the pandemic
  • Early exposure to pornography could be a risk factor for sexual offending, MSF said

SINGAPORE — Stuck indoors with nowhere to go, more people have gone online in search of entertainment during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The dark side to this is that along with the surge in demand for video streaming and television programmes, there appears to be an increase in online porn use. And it is not just adults who are hooked.

Some counsellors approached by TODAY said that they have seen children as young as 12 who have trouble tearing their eyes away from sexual content after stumbling upon it.

We Care Community Services, a community-based addiction recovery centre that runs a sex, porn, love addiction recovery programme therapy, said that since the start of the pandemic last year, it has seen a drastic increase in people seeking help for compulsive sexual behaviour, which includes excessive online pornography use.

From 50 cases in 2019, the number has doubled to more than 100 cases last year, of which 70 were new cases.

On average, most of these individuals are in their 20s; less than 10 per cent are under the age of 18.

Over the years though, We Care has seen one 12-year-old among its youngest clients.

Apart from watching too much porn, compulsive sexual behaviour also encompasses feeling a constant need to seek a sexual partner and having multiple sexual partners. This in turn affects the person’s life and work, and causes the person to miss out on important family and social experiences.

Ms Tham Yuen Han, clinical director of We Care, said that it has seen an increase in cases involving younger people who have issues because they have been watching pornography online. “That can be a good sign in the sense that people are more forthcoming in seeking help.”

Dr Adaline Ng, senior principal clinical psychologist at Better Life Psychological Medicine Clinic, a private practice that offers psychotherapy and counselling for addictive behaviours, said that younger patients tend to be referred for treatment by parents.

However, the older ones may seek help on their own because they are aware and motivated to change their addictive behaviour.

“Some may seek treatment if their partners discover their addiction and the stability of their relationship is threatened by this behaviour,” Dr Ng added.

Similar to other types of addiction, porn addiction can severely impact people's ability to carry out their roles and responsibilities in daily life effectively. Photo: iStock

While it is more common for males to disclose an addiction to pornography, Dr Ng has also encountered female patients with similar issues although they may not be directly seeking help for excessive pornography use. 

WHAT DRIVES PEOPLE TO TURN TO PORN

The experts said that the rise could be due to increased screen time and people having more unoccupied time during the pandemic.

Individuals with poor coping strategies may also turn to pornography to cope with distress, Dr Ng said.  

Studies that look into pornography use — such as a recent one published in November last year in the International Journal of Impotence Research — confirms this.

Other than for sexual arousal and pleasure, the reasons why people use pornography are because they are coping with stress, anxiety or negative emotions.

People experiencing loneliness or who were depressed reported a greater desire to seek out such material, the study found.

Boredom is another factor, which may explain why there have been reports of a surge in pornography use during the pandemic.

Having said that, problematic pornography use is not an overnight affair and has been ongoing even before the coronavirus struck.

Ms Tham from We Care said that research on sexual compulsivity is still new, but some risk factors contributing to the rise of such behaviours have been identified.

A key factor is the person’s early adoption of digital technology. The nature of digital technology, the convenience and accessibility, and the anonymity make it easy for people get hooked on pornography.

“Right now, there’s easy access to pornography. And you don’t even need to use a laptop nowadays. All you need is a handphone,” Ms Tham said. 

Early studies on compulsive sexual behaviour show that people at risk of such behaviour tend to have a history of some form of neglect or sexual trauma. However, Ms Tham observed that this is not necessarily the case now.

“In recent years, with the onset of digital media, we are increasingly seeing more younger clients who don’t have a history of trauma. They have very good childhoods, come from stable families, but the thing they have in common is that they are digital natives,” she revealed. 

“They do it (consume pornographic material) because it’s their way of de-stressing, stimulating themselves, having fun — we call this habituation.

“In many adults we see, their first encounter with pornography can start as young as 10 to 12 years old.”

For example, one of her clients is a 26-year-old working professional who first stumbled upon pornography at the age of 11.

Recently, he sought help after his wife discovered his three- to four-times a week pornography viewing sessions, and he watched it as a way of coping with work stress.

HOW SERIOUS CAN IT GET

Similar to other types of addiction, Dr Ng from Better Life Psychological Medicine Clinic said that porn addiction can severely impact people's ability to carry out their roles and responsibilities in daily life effectively.

For example, they may spend an excessive amount of time viewing pornography at the expense of other activities and tasks.

“They may have distorted views of how sexual intimacy is experienced, which can then affect the quality of their relationships.

“For example, they may believe that the contents of the pornographic material reflect reality and may be later disappointed in their relationships,” Dr Ng added. 

There are people who cannot get through their day without watching pornography. Photo: Ka Chen/Unsplash

For people accessing pornography through their computers or mobile phones, Ms Tham said that digital blockers may be recommended as part of the treatment process.

Restricting access gives the individuals a window period to avoid being triggered by their urges, and provides an opportunity for them to develop healthier coping strategies such as exercising, meditating or going for support group meetings, for example.

However, when the compulsion to access porn gets too much, some of these people are so digitally savvy, they end up hacking the digital blockers that they voluntarily put in place.

"That in itself is a sign of how compulsive the urge is,” Ms Tham added.

She has seen highly educated professionals and people who are high-fliers in their careers getting so hooked that they cannot get through their day without the urge to watch porn several times.

WHY EARLY EXPOSURE TO PORN IS RISKY

In some cases, a preoccupation with pornography or sex could progress to more risky sexual behaviour or get them on the wrong side of the law.

Responding to queries from TODAY, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said that sexual offending is a multi-faceted problem and one of the common risk factors is early exposure to porn online.

“We find that many of the sexual perpetrators we see started watching pornography at a young age, given that internet pornography is readily available and accessible,” its spokesperson said, adding that pornography use can affect a young person in different ways.

It can shape the young person’s attitude towards sex, sexual preferences and practices. For example, studies have found that for youth, pornography may strengthen attitudes of sexual aggression against women, especially when they may not understand the difference between consensual and non-consensual acts, MSF said.

“Repeated exposure and (self-pleasuring) to deviant pornography, such as those depicting children, violence and voyeurism, can also shape a young person’s sexual arousal pattern and lead some of them to develop deviant or atypical sexual interests, which they may eventually seek to satisfy through their sexual offending behaviours.”   

MSF’s Clinical and Forensic Psychology Service (CFPS) accepts referrals to assess and treat both intra-familial and extra-familial perpetrators of sexual crimes, meaning those occurring within and outside a family. It gets about 100 referrals each year.

They include referrals to assess and treat sexual offending behaviour.

CFPS noted that among the sexual perpetrators who were referred in the last three years, about three in 10 of them were 16 years old.

CHILDREN WHO WATCH PORN

Common cases involving young children that are referred to MSF are typically those who are introduced to pornography online by friends at around the age of 12 and who later stumbled upon voyeuristic pornography when they enter secondary school.

Children who use digital devices without supervision and filters run the risk of stumbling on pornographic materials online. Photo: Kaboompics/Pexels

Parents of such cases usually provide little guidance and there is no monitoring of the children’s use of mobile phones and the internet. The child and parents are also not comfortable discussing sexuality matters with each other.

Having a lack of effective coping strategies, the children then turn to pornography to cope with feelings of stress and frustration from poor academic performance, for instance.

They become increasingly preoccupied with sexual thoughts and satisfy themselves daily while watching pornography.

Such young cases also start having frequent thoughts of peeping at females in toilets and taking upskirt videos. They then act out these thoughts, take upskirt videos and enter female toilets to peep at people, MSF’s spokesperson said.

Ms Tham from We Care stressed that not all who are addicted to pornography are sexual offenders.

Dr Ng said: “It is a misconception that sex offenders commit their offences due to pornographic influence.

“Sex offending is a complex behaviour where the use of pornography is part of a fairly long equation.”

She added that sexual offences making news headlines also do not translate to an increase in actual sexual offending rates; it may be the sensationalising factor of media.

Dr Ng explained that sexual offences are influenced by various factors such as deviant or criminal attitudes and social rejection, among other things.

For example, a person may have attitudes such as “women are asking for it if they dress sexily”, or have poor social skills that prevent the person from forming age-appropriate relationships.

Being impulsive can also contribute to sex offending because of the compromised ability to consider consequences of their actions before acting, Dr Ng said.

Ms Tham, too, cautioned against labelling a child as a porn “addict” because sexual arousal and curiosity are part of developmental growth in boys and girls going through puberty.

“For a very young person, we tend to look at (pornography use) as a developmental issue. When they are first introduced (to porn), it usually starts with curiosity about their body, sexual behaviour and sexual engagement. A lot of times, most people come out of it when they have other engaging activities,” she said.

“But if they don’t, especially for a child who is very stressed, spends most of the time online and is given unfettered access, for example, they may begin to turn to pornography as a form of self-soothing mechanism. Then that’s where the habit can be created at a very young age.”

‘IT ALL GOES BACK TO THE PARENTS’

MSF acknowledged that children and young people are naturally curious about sex, but that remains an uncomfortable topic of discussion in society, so sexual behaviours usually occur in secret.

It highlighted the importance of parents, schools and the community in having open conversations with youth on sexuality matters and being proactive in providing them with accurate information on health sexuality and relationships.

Ms Tham said that for the very young, counsellors will work with the family to find out what is happening in their lives and at home.

“At a very young age, you can prevent it from becoming more serious. It goes back to the parents: They must be on a lookout for what kind of material their children are accessing online. Is their child spending a disproportionate amount of time online?” she asked.

“Regardless of whether it is porn, gaming or social media use, it’s always good to encourage a balance of online versus offline real-world activities, where there is community, engagement interaction with real people.”

As for the more seasoned addicts, Dr Ng said that it is possible to recover if individuals seek appropriate help to gain an awareness of why they are addicted to pornography and how they can address the underlying issues appropriately.

THE WARNING SIGNS

MSF said that there are some signs of possible problematic sexual behaviour in children or youth that parents and schools would need to watch for, including instances where the child or youth:

  • Focuses on sexuality to a greater extent than on other aspects of his or her life

  • Has more sexual knowledge than similarly aged children

  • Interacts spontaneously in sensual or sexual ways, for example, tries to sexualise play with others, makes sexual sounds, talks about sexual acts

  • Bribes or emotionally or physically manipulates another child or youth of any age into sexual behaviours

  • Engages in compulsive masturbation or preoccupation with pornographic materials, and such behaviour persists despite intervention by adults

Related topics

pornography stress sexual offence

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