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Addicted to online porn

X-rated Internet explosion wreaks havoc with troops' careers, lives

Mar. 31, 2010 - 08:27PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 31, 2010 - 08:27PM  |  
The seamy side of Porn 2.0 is picking off military marriages and killing promising careers like a shadow army of well-placed snipers.
The seamy side of Porn 2.0 is picking off military marriages and killing promising careers like a shadow army of well-placed snipers. (John Harman / Staff)
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The Marine staff sergeant knew things were spinning out of control. What he once thought was a harmless flirtation with online porn had become a full-blown obsession.

But looking at photos and videos of men and women having sex wasn't hurting anyone, he tried to tell himself. His wife never needed to know.

"It's like the old line about what happens on deployment, stays on deployment," the 34-year-old infantry platoon sergeant says.

Except that he couldn't escape the images and the need to look at more. At night, after his wife was asleep, he would sneak out of bed and spend hours online. Secret subscriptions were piling up. What started as passive voyeurism led him to prowl online hook-up sites and have webcam cyber sex with strangers.

"I just started needing more and more of it constantly more," he says. "It felt like I couldn't stop."

Military therapists and chaplains say they hear such stories with alarming regularity. Online erotica has been a marital minefield since the dawn of the Internet. But with the explosion of Web 2.0 — social networking sites, video sharing, blogs, wikis and mash-ups — the seamy side of Porn 2.0 is picking off military marriages and killing promising careers like a shadow army of well-placed snipers.

Addiction on the rise

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a new generation of dysfunctional pornography abusers, says Capt. Diana Colon, a therapist who heads an Army mental health clinic in Schweinfurt, Germany.

Civilian pornography use is high: The most recent studies suggest as many as one in 10 people in the general population suffer from pornography and others sexual addictions fueled by the Web.

But military use, given the largely young and male population, is believed to be much higher.

"Twenty percent would not shock me. That would be a conservative estimate," says Navy Lt. Michael Howard, a licensed therapist and chaplain who specializes in treating sexual addiction. He has helped dozens of troops and their spouses overcome sexual addiction issues, he says.

Porn can destroy marriages as easily as the infamous "other woman." According to a 2002 survey of 1,600 top divorce lawyers, more than half of all divorces involved a spouse hooked on porn sites. That same year, Army Lt. Col. David Bartlett Jr. strangled his wife with a computer cable after an argument about his online porn habit.

But the online videos available then are nothing compared with what porn users can find today, thanks to the same Web 2.0 technologies that have fueled revolutionary social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Porn 2.0 is as much user-created and traded as it is industry-generated and sold. Online do-it-yourself porn is creeping out from sites such as RedTube and Adult FriendFinder onto mainstream social media sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

Video games, too, skirt the edge of virtual sex; the "Grand Theft Auto" series lets players have sex with a prostitute and then kill her; and on "Second Life," where the real-life Army has launched a cyber-recruiting effort, your avatar can hire prostitutes, go to strip clubs and watch virtual porn.

Sexually explicit electronic content is everywhere. "Sexting" — sending sexually explicit photos and videos via cell phone — has caused scandals in schools and in the military. Porn apps for iPhones are readily available.

Your brain on porn

"Online porn is to sex addiction what crack cocaine is to drug addiction," says Robert Weiss, director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. Weiss is a longtime sexual-addiction counselor who is helping the military set up treatment programs.

If you watch a brain scan of a sex addict looking at porn, it lights up exactly like the scan of someone on cocaine, Weiss says. Here's what happens:

As the brain interprets pornographic images, it releases adrenaline into the bloodstream, speeding the individual's heart rate and constricting the blood vessels. Hands get clammy and eyes dilate.

"There is a heightened state of arousal — not sexual arousal, but a very physical change," Weiss says.

At the same time, the pituitary gland and hypothalamus begin to pump out endorphins, the body's natural pain relievers, and the endorphins, in turn, crank up production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that opens the pleasure centers of the brain while blocking the pain processors.

And that's just from looking. Masturbation amps up the dopamine even more. Too much dopamine over time can lead to addiction.

Just as with other addictions, what generated the initial high isn't enough later on. As tolerance grows, addicts develop an increasing need for greater exposure and a wider variety, Weiss says.

Careers in ruin

That's what happened to Sam (not his real name), an officer who began his career in the enlisted ranks. A former Marine Force Recon specialist with multiple combat tours under his belt, he says he turned to porn as a form of stress relief.

"I got into all kinds of stuff. Porn was my way of coping with the stress. It was my outlet, but it just kept escalating," he says. "The Internet made it so easy. Eventually, there wasn't anything I wouldn't look at. I just needed my fix."

He was disgusted with himself, but inexplicably drawn into it even as he shut out his family and sank into depression.

"It was a relief when I finally got caught," he says. Kicked out of the military for possessing child porn and required to register as a sex offender, he's now trying to figure out how to rebuild his life.

And he's not alone. Consider just a few recent cases:

• Navy Lt. Cmdr. John J. Hall, commander of a riverine unit in Iraq, got 40 months in prison after admitting to downloading child porn. His wife said he returned from war a changed man.

• Lt. Col. Richard Butler, the top law enforcement officer for the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., was arrested in January on child pornography charges after returning from duty in Iraq.

• Marine Pvt. Josh Fry, who was autistic and had a variety of lifelong behavioral problems, was booted from the Corps last year after platoon mates found pictures of nude underage girls on his cell phone.

Clearly, all online pornography users aren't getting hooked, much less turning to child porn. But like alcohol, gambling, cigarettes and coffee — anything that packs a buzz — casual flirtation can quickly become obsessive fixation, especially when stress is high.

A delicate subject

No one knows just how widespread porn addiction is in the military. But military divorce rates have soared nearly 40 percent over the past decade, and researchers in a major ongoing Army study tracking military marriages recently added porn use among problem areas to explore.

Anne Jackson doesn't need a study to be convinced that pornography addiction is a problem at Fort Hood, Texas. A military spouse and a domestic violence prosecutor for Bell County, Texas — the home of Fort Hood — Jackson says fighting over online pornography use is a common thread in many of the military cases she handles.

"The spouses are saying their husbands are coming home addicted to pornography, and they're not equipped to handle that," she says.

"Despite being a touchy subject, the rise of sexual addiction in the military is an important issue and one worthy of an open dialogue," Weiss says.

Over the past two years, the military and Veterans Affairs Department have enlisted Weiss' help setting up treatment programs around the U.S. and at bases overseas. The most recent trip: a three-day workshop in December for chaplains and therapists in Japan.

Marine Corps officials declined to be interviewed or answer questions about the scope of pornography addiction among Marines in Japan.

But "the people on the front line understand the problem and are doing everything they can to address it," Weiss says.

Who really suffers

Colon, the Army therapist, is one of those on the front lines. She returned from a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq last year where, despite official bans, she saw legions of troops getting hooked on porn. Now the chief of an Army mental health clinic in Germany, she says she's been counseling "a lot of soldiers on this issue."

"This is a very controversial subject, and there's not much training on it," she acknowledges. But she says she has seen firsthand how pornography addictions are contributing to additional problems among troops, including failed marriages and domestic violence.

Colon estimates that pornography plays a role in as many as 20 percent of the marital problems military counselors face.

"In many cases, pornography becomes compulsive and so addictive that the individual can no longer have a healthy relationship," Colon says. "Unfortunately, the women in these relationships pay the price."

It's when Web surfing turns covert, and secrets are being kept, that things really get out of hand. When the lies begin to unravel, the spouses feel betrayed.

"I've had a lot of cases like that," Colon says. "The wife feels betrayed. It usually feels like an affair."

Traitor in the bed

June was shocked when she found out about her husband's porn addiction. She knew that her husband, Frank, a Marine platoon sergeant, was struggling with what he had seen in Iraq.

She was unprepared for what she would see.

"It was shocking," she says. "He betrayed me and his child. I wanted to kill him."

Although they're both now in therapy, trying to put the pieces back together, recovery is slow.

There is no underestimating the pain that is felt, says the Navy's Howard, even when the infidelity "only" takes the form of porn.

"Many men don't get that. They'll define infidelity strictly in physical terms. But for the spouse, it's exactly the same kind of betrayal."

Typically, Weiss says, spouses have a sense that something is wrong long before the truth finally comes out. Then they'll find themselves on an emotional roller coaster, raging one minute, wanting to work things out the next.

"Spouses need a lot of validation. They need a lot of support. It's OK for them to be so angry and so frightened," he says. "It's OK for them to throw him out and demand counseling."

For those who try to work things out, there is hope: About 80 percent of the couples Weiss sees end up staying together.

The biggest part of that, he says, involves restoring trust.

"I worry about the person who says they will never do it again," Weiss says. "But the person who says, ‘I've got to watch out every single day' — that's the person who understands that this doesn't go away. The behavior can go away, but the potential is always there."

Related reading:

Porn addiction: How to get help

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