Robert, a 35-year-old married father of two kids, first phoned me in a panic. He told me he’d been called into his supervisor’s office, along with his firm’s head of human resources, to discuss his “inappropriate use” of a company-owned laptop and smartphone. Both devices had gone in for routine maintenance, with the I.T. department checking for viruses, worms, and the like, and as that work was being done hundreds of pornographic images and videos were found on both the phone and his computer. And this was not the first time Robert had been confronted about misusing company devices. Two years earlier an extensive amount of porn had been found on his laptop, and back then he was both verbally reprimanded and reminded (in writing) of the firm’s “business only” usage policy. Robert and his supervisor had laughed it off as an episode of “boys being boys.” However, his boss had told him very clearly that if it happened again it would definitely be an issue – one that could potentially affect his future with the company. “So anyway,” Robert told me, “they say I have to go into counseling if I want to keep my job.”
Interestingly, nearly everyone I see in my practice who arrives via circumstances similar to Robert’s feels blindsided by this “attack” on his or her integrity. These individuals simply don’t think that they’ve done anything wrong. Usually they’ve been engaging in this and/or similar behaviors for months or even years. Often they’ve been warned by their employer, sometimes repeatedly, about misusing company equipment. Many have actually signed contracts stating they will stop misusing company devices, with those contracts outlining the exact consequences should they fail to do so. Yet they are somehow shocked that their employer is coming after them. They tell me:
- I only look at porn during lunch and on breaks.
- I travel all the time for work. What do they expect me to do when I’m stuck in a hotel halfway across the country?
- I’m the company’s top producer! Don’t I deserve a little reward?
- Everybody does it. Why are they picking on me?
- I’m not sharing any of this with coworkers or clients. Who cares what I do on my own gadget?
The reasons employees give for using company-issued digital devices in sexually inappropriate ways are numerous and varied (and sometimes really weird). The list is literally endless. In other words, these individuals are most often neck-deep in denial about what they’ve been doing, almost overflowing with justifications, minimizations, and even outright lies used to rationalize their sexual misbehavior.
Is Robert a Treatable Client?
When I first spoke to Robert he sounded anything but enthusiastic about “getting treatment” for a problem that he didn’t think was a problem. In fact, he told me flat-out that he would not have phoned me if not for the threat of losing his job. Despite his reticence, I suggested he come in for an assessment, and we scheduled an appointment.
When Robert arrived, he was adamant that he was not a sex addict. I explained to him that, although some people who repeatedly get caught looking at porn at work do qualify as sex/porn addicts, not everyone falls into that category and I had no intention of “judging him” prior to a proper assessment. Then I delved into his psychological and sexual history. And unsurprisingly much of his sexual life, outside of occasional sex with his wife, centered on his use of pornography. Like many males, peers had first exposed him to erotic imagery in his teens. Then, as the Internet developed, so did his penchant for porn. After being caught (the first time) using company-owned equipment to look at sexual imagery, he decided to transfer all of his porn viewing to his personal computer at home, and that had worked for a time. However, his wife eventually complained about the “disgusting stuff” he was looking at, also expressing fears about “what the kids might find there.” So he promised her he’d stop. Robert then went back to accessing porn on his work devices. He reasoned that enough time had elapsed to keep the I.T. guys from looking too closely at his phone or laptop, and even if he did get caught, after all this time it probably wouldn’t be a big deal.
Robert’s history pointed fairly squarely toward a compulsive, possibly addictive history of pornography use. He admitted that he spent “significant amounts of time” looking at porn, that he typically used porn as a way to “escape” from life stressors, that his porn use had resulted in prior negative consequences (trouble at work and problems with his wife), that he’d lied to his wife and his employer about his porn use, and that he’d continued to use porn despite the problems it was causing. Nevertheless, his resolution that he was “not a sex addict” did not waver. Rather than argue, I suggested that he consider a personal moratorium on porn and masturbation for 30 days, just to see what it was like. He agreed to that, mostly because he was intent on “proving me wrong,” even though I’d not once actually suggested that he might be a sex or porn addict.
The Moment of Clarity
A week later Robert returned to my office looking both ashamed and distraught. He stated that within 72 hours of our first session and his commitment to take a “time out” from porn he’d purchased a personal smartphone for the sole purpose of “getting away with looking at porn,” and ever since that time he’d been downloading images and videos (using the secret smartphone) and masturbating more than ever. “I just can’t stay away,” he told me. “I’m freaked out about work, and I’m worried that my wife is going to leave me, so I talk myself into looking at porn, but just for a minute and only as a distraction. But most times that minute seems to turn into hours. It’s like once I start looking I can’t stop until I’ve masturbated. Then I feel bad about what I just did, so I have those feelings to deal with plus all the stuff with work and my wife.”
“Can you draw any conclusions from that?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I have a problem with pornography. I’m hooked.”
Robert agreed to continue outpatient treatment with me, and we began the process of unraveling his denial, identifying his triggers, and developing coping mechanisms. Nevertheless, after two months his porn use continued relatively unabated. After additional assessment and consultation with a psychiatrist, I encouraged Robert to consider residential treatment, thinking that five or six weeks away from the stressors of work and home (and digital devices) might jump-start his sexual sobriety and give him some tread toward change. He agreed. Happily, both his employer and his wife supported the idea. The tactic succeeded, and he returned six weeks later in much better shape, with both the ego strength and the social support he needed to remain sexually sober.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out so well. A lot of times clients like Robert are unwilling to admit they have a problem with porn use (be it addiction or simply an issue with impulse control), despite the work-related (and other) consequences. They simply dig their heels in and find ways to bolster their already powerful sense of denial. Many do not return to therapy after their first session. Others do show up, but only physically, in an effort to manage the consequences they are facing. Some return much later saying, “If only I’d been willing to listen the first time, now I wouldn’t be dealing with….” And of the people who choose to actually address the issue head-on, as Robert finally did, many do so without the full support of their employer, significant other, or both.
What’s a Clinician to Do?
Sadly, men and women who struggle with porn addiction (at work, home, or elsewhere) are often reluctant to seek help, even when negative consequences begin to pile up, primarily because they don’t see their solo sexual activity as the underlying source of their unhappiness. Others do recognize porn as the basis of their problem, but they are too ashamed to ask for help. And when these people do pursue assistance, they often seek help with related symptoms rather than the problem itself – asking their doctor about depression, anxiety, chronic loneliness, sexual dysfunction, and relationship ills. Many men and women struggling with excessive and/or inappropriate porn use attend extensive psychotherapy without ever discussing (or even being asked about) their use of pornography and masturbation. This is a problem for the clinical work, especially if there is any past history of trauma or abuse, as any attempt to get near those difficult-to-process issues simply leads to more sexual acting out and the consequences that inevitably follow. As a result, for a lot of porn addicted clients the core problem remains underground and untreated.
Professionals that assess and/or treat men and women who are referred to them by Employee Assistance Programs and Human Resources Departments after they’ve been caught misusing company-owned digital devices for sexual purposes should be ready to ask difficult, potentially uncomfortable questions about all forms of sexual behavior – masturbation, affairs, app-related hookups, etc. If sex/porn addiction is uncovered, extensive counseling with a trained sexual addiction treatment specialist is typically required, often in concert with group therapy (and couples counseling if the client is in a relationship). Reading appropriate self-help materials and ongoing involvement with an appropriate 12-step recovery program are also highly useful. It is important for clinicians to understand that sexual compulsion/addiction is most often a symptom of an underlying psychological issue that will require longer-term therapy to resolve and overcome (trauma, attachment concerns, social phobia, ADD, etc.), but the client’s sexual acting out must be dealt with first in a cognitive behavioral manner. Until the individual has the social support and the ego strength to stop his or her problematic sexual behaviors (which only serve to evoke both ongoing shame and negative consequences in the present), there is little hope of effectively addressing the problem’s underlying causes.
For more information about the nature of sex and porn addiction, diagnosing it, and effectively treating it, you may want to pick up a copy of Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.