Strangers in love: how pornography damages relationships : REAL LIFE

Katie Sampson reports on the launch of Men and Porn - a self-help group for those who want to control the obsession
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JUST TWO weeks into her relationship with Michael, Anna discovered that he was obsessed with pornography. A regular visitor to strip shows and porn films, he had been reading por-nographic magazines since he was a child. Anna was stunned. "I'd alw ays felt that the men who went to porn shows were laddish mysogynists or pathetic no-hopers, so when the gentle and kind man I had fallen in love with told me that he had been visiting porn cinemas I was completely thrown."

A 1991 Mori survey shows that most men have used pornography of some kind. Of the 800 British middle-class interviewees, well over three-quarters had seen a soft porn magazine or film, and over half had seen hard core pornography. But there is a difference between occasional use and an obsession like Michael's. Obsessive users feel an uncontrollable compulsion and are unable to stop themselves, which was disastrous for Michael and Anna.

Michael attempted to talk to Anna about the situation. "I knew that I couldn't get close to her until I'd told her everything - I was caught between wanting to be honest and my fear of burdening her and infecting the relationship. One of the most disturbing things about this addiction is that it puts a block between you and anyone you love."

"I could find nothing that would help solve the conflicts for either of us," says Anna. "It was difficult for me to understand it. I didn't know how to distinguish between our sexual intimacy and his use of pornographic images." Michael and Anna eventually separated and remain hurt, angry and bewildered.

Much has been written about the pornography industry, but very little about how obsessive users are affected. It was because of this absence of information and support that John Jordan, Peter Baker and Mark Pigeon, an artist, writer and group therapist, all with experience as users of pornography, recently set up the Men and Porn Group. "Obsessive users tend to use porn when they are anxious, angry or stressed, when they feel a lack of control over their lives," explains Peter Baker. A tempor ary reliefis obtained but afterwards the underlying problems remain, compounded by a deep sense of shame.

The group founders have developed a "five stages of identification" plan. During each session, members are encouraged to identify what triggers their need to use pornography, how they seek it out, what happens when they use it, how they feel afterwards, and how it affects their relationships. This dispassionate approach eliminates any element of fantasy and hopefully leads to them being able to step outside the cycle and break it. A course with the group consists of 10 two-hour long sessions.

However, for some group members, this may not be enough. Psychoanalyst and consultant psychiatrist Dr Melvin Glasser, honorary consultant at the Portman Clinic, which specialises in sexual dysfunction, suggests that an obsession with pornography can be extremely powerful, much like eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. He believes that such a compulsion is very difficult to "cure". "This type of group might offer temporary respite, and this is such a distressing area that it's worth giv ing it a try. But my guess is that the majority won't be helped by a group that can only really scratch the surface of their problems," commented Dr Glasser. Obsessive porn users tend to be ambivalent about being helped; while they desire a cure, at the same time they enjoy the sexual gratification of pornography, whatever the subsequent emotional cost.

The Men and Porn Group admit that a 10-session course may have limitations, but point out that many men joined their group because their therapists had failed to address the problem adequately. And the psychiatric/psychotherapeutic world is still dividedbetween those who believe that pornography is a valid form of sexual expression and those who feel that it exploits both men and women.

The Campaign Against Pornography (CAP), shocked by calls from women looking for an alternative to therapists and marriage guidance counsellors who urged them to embrace their partner's use of pornography, are also launching a self-help group. "We aim to provide comfort and support to women who have been both mentally and physically hurt by their partner's use of porn," says Janice Williams of CAP. "But we are not prepared to hold the hand of a woman who says she wants to stay in a relationship where porn still plays a part. I would be very wary of turning this into a sympathy school for men."

A compromise between anti-porn campaigners and those who seek to understand rather than forbid its use seems unlikely. But opening up the debate, even if it provokes argument, is the way forward, according to Michael: "Men are in the dark here, the problem needs to come out into the open."

The Men and Porn Group, PO Box 3677, London N15 6SQ , tel 081-690 7512

CAP Support Group, tel 071-281 6376

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