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Emotional Wounds of War Spur Pornography Addiction Among Veterans

Returning home from war should be a joyful time for military personnel and their families. But for some service men and women, experiences abroad cast a shadow on life at home, making it difficult to acclimate to normal life. While some veterans turn to drugs and alcohol to cope, reports suggest a growing number are seeking solace in porn.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to an epidemic of porn abuse among military personnel. While an estimated 10 percent of civilians suffer from pornography addiction and other forms of sexual addiction, Navy Lt. Michael Howard, a licensed therapist, chaplain and sex addiction specialist, believes the statistic among military personnel is closer to 20 percent, according to a March 31, 2010 article in The Army Times.

Separated from their families for prolonged periods of time, it isn’t hard to understand how pornography could offer comfort and relief, albeit short-lived. But for some veterans, a porn habit becomes an escape hatch – one that doesn’t necessarily disappear when the immediate stressors have dissipated and the family is reunited on home ground.

Stress, traumatic wartime experiences, isolation from family, sleep deprivation and childhood abuse are all commonly cited factors that contribute to pornography addiction among veterans. Modern technology, including sexual chat rooms, smartphone apps and sexting, is bringing an unprecedented variety of explicit sexual content into the average American household, further exacerbating the problem.

The Progression of Pornography Addiction

Even though pornography is officially banned and blocking software is installed on military computers, military personnel are bringing home more than war stories and badges of honor, but also unrelenting porn habits.

A former U.S. Marine named Alex shares his story of recovery from pornography addiction on his blog, Feed the Right Wolf. A pornography habit that started at age 10 spiraled out of control when he returned from Iraq. Within two years, he was watching porn eight hours a day and couldn’t stop. In June 2011, Alex’s blog attracted its 200,000th visitor – a milestone he attributes to a lack of information available on the issue of pornography addiction.

Pornography use often begins with a spark of curiosity. Perhaps Dad leaves a magazine lying around or a friend raves about a hot new website. But like drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, and other substances and behaviors that trigger the reward circuitry in the brain, curiosity can quickly turn into an obsession.

“Online porn is to sex addiction what crack cocaine is to drug addiction,” said Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, internationally known sex addiction expert and founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.

Just as brain scans of cocaine users show heightened arousal when using cocaine, sex addicts’ brains light up when viewing pornography, Weiss explains. A concoction of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and dopamine, the “feel good” chemical in the brain, leads some to crave more of the experience and compulsively seek it out.

Some people are able to view pornography without losing control, but others find that one or two encounters prompt a desire for more unusual experiences, sometimes escalating to use of violent images or child porn, online hook-up sites, cybersex with strangers, and other risky or illegal behaviors. Despite the shame and disgust they feel, they remain inexplicably drawn to continue these behaviors.

Military Marriages Affected by Porn

Like other forms of addiction, pornography addiction affects many more people than just the addict. Pornography can be as destructive to families and marriages as real-life infidelity. In the past 10 years, military divorce rates have climbed nearly 40 percent and experts believe that pornography addiction may be a significant contributing factor.

“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,” wrote Jon R. Anderson in The Army Times.

People married to pornography addicts struggle with intense feelings of betrayal, one minute brimming with anger and the next wanting to save the relationship, says Weiss.

As pornography addiction increases, so do divorce rates. A study by Syracuse University researchers found that military veterans are about twice as likely to have extramarital sex as married non-veterans and nearly 10 percent more likely to have gotten divorced than non-veterans. A survey of 1,600 divorce lawyers found that more than half of all divorces involved a problem with pornography.

“Spouses need a lot of validation. They need a lot of support. It’s OK for them to be so angry and so frightened,” Weiss told The Army Times. “It’s OK for them to throw him out and demand counseling.”

While not all marriages survive pornography addiction, Weiss says about 80 percent of the couples he sees end up working it out. In couples counseling, spouses can work on restoring trust and rebuilding intimacy, while the porn addict develops healthier ways to cope.

Treatment for Pornography Addiction

Because of the delicate nature of the subject matter, pornography addiction is rarely addressed openly among civilians or veterans. While the threat of drug addiction is well-known, very few veterans are warned about the dangers of pornography addiction and other forms of sex addiction. Fortunately, a number of sex addiction specialists are working to change that.

“Despite being a touchy subject, the rise of sexual addiction in the military is an important issue and one worthy of an open dialogue,” says Weiss, who assists the military in setting up sex addiction treatment programs around the world.

Those who cannot stop abusing pornography, chat rooms, smartphone apps and other outlets for inappropriate sexual behaviors despite negative consequences may have developed an addiction. Other signs include leading a “secret life,” giving up interests or neglecting responsibilities to view porn, irritability or lack of concentration when unable to access porn, and lying about online activities.

In addition to education about the dangers of pornography addiction, treatment typically includes individual and group therapy, 12-Step meetings, and couples counseling when appropriate. Getting support from other recovering sex addicts helps people recognize that they are not alone and that treatment is the path to a richer, more fulfilling life.

Helping Our Nation’s Armed Forces

The people on the front lines defending our country are suffering extreme emotional pain, often in silence. While there is a great deal of support for the physical wounds of war, there is very little for emotional wounds, particularly those that are acted out in “forbidden” ways. Just as we would lend a hand to the soldier nursing a combat injury, it’s time to treat mental health disorders and addictions with the same sense of urgency and compassion.

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