I never used to like pornography – not really. Yes, in my teens in the Seventies I used to have the odd copy of Mayfair under my pillow; yes, as a student in the Eighties I used to filch the occasional Fiesta from my flatmates. But on the whole I didn't really go for jazz mags or blue movies. I found them tedious, repetitive, absurd and very embarrassing to buy. There was also a certain bleakness about the harder, nastier porn videos: all those sad and sorry women; all those contrived and silly poses. And as for the guys with mullets and thick moustaches: ugh!
In 2001 I went online. A few months later, sitting idly at my laptop feeling a bit bored of typing my own name into Google, I decided to have a peek at all this porn that was supposed to be saturating the Net. I did this by googling the words 'girls' and 'hardcore'. Instantly the screen was flooded with suggested websites – hundreds of thousands of them. Some of them seemed to be free. I chose one. It was called The Hun and turned out to be various kinds of pornographic image arranged in galleries. Each gallery was given a title, e.g, 'two lesbians in a jacuzzi' or 'blonde Japanese co-ed loses her knickers'. I clicked on one of the picture galleries and sat back. Slowly the screen filled with about a dozen small photos (thumbnails) of the aforementioned lesbians. It didn't take long to work out that these disappointingly small images could be enlarged with a further mouse-click.
Somewhat to my surprise I found the images pretty titillating, and so I kept looking. I looked at more pictures of lesbians; I checked out the Japanese co-ed; then I looked at some more hardcore images, some pictures of group sex, and something called 'bukkake' which seemed to involve men ejaculating over submissive Asian women.
The last was not my cup of tea at all. However, there were enough things that were, and which dragged me back for more the next day. And the next. And the next. Soon, whenever I had a spare few minutes – or, better still, half an hour – I would start hungrily checking out Net porn. In a few weeks I had sourced a lot of websites that were much better than The Hun; sites with literally tens of thousands of categorised images of everything under the sexual sun: interracial porn, Japanese cartoon porn, women-smoking-on-the-toilet porn. It was a cornucopia, available 24/7.
At this stage I still wasn't hooked. I was finding Net porn intriguing and diverting rather than addictive and so there seemed no reason to stop. Moreover, Net porn involved no humiliating transactions with shopkeepers; many of the images were free; and you could simply turn off your computer afterwards and erase all the evidence.
One day I was surfing the Net as usual when I happened across a site that contained spanking images. Intrigued, I logged on to it. To my surprise, I had an intense sexual reaction to them. What was going on? I had not the slightest idea that I was that into spanking. The next day I went on to Google and started searching out more spanking-rich websites. It wasn't too difficult. Bernie's Spanking Pages; BDSM Café; the Spanking College: there were dozens of websites devoted to my new-found kink, and over the next hours, days and weeks I explored them.
This was the moment that the real addiction set in. My interest in spanking got me speculating: what other kinks was I harbouring? What other secret and rewarding corners lurked in my sexuality that I would now be able to investigate in the privacy of my flat? Plenty, as it turned out. Over the following months I discovered that I had a serious penchant for, inter alia, lesbian gynaecology, interracial hardcore, and images of Japanese girls taking off their hotpants. I was also into netball players with no knickers, and drunk Russian girls exposing themselves, and convoluted scenarios where submissive Danish actresses were intimately shaved by their dominant female partners in the shower. The Net had, in other words, revealed to me that I had an unquantifiable variety of sexual fantasies and quirks, and that the process of satisfying these desires online only led to the generation of more interest.
After about six months of increasing addiction to Net porn, I received a quarterly phone bill from BT. It was for £600-plus (my normal quarterly bill is about £150). As I stood there, staring in shock at the bill, I had to ask myself: what was it about Net porn that had got me so hooked? A few moments' consideration told me that there were huge and obvious differences between Net porn and old-fashioned porn. Internet sex is so easily and quickly available once you decide to access it that there is no time for guilt or scruples to kick in before consumption. And, of course, if one becomes bored with one particular theme, there are always newer and more shocking images. If you want Russian girls in latex miniskirts, they are there; if you want to explore images of Latino girls with Afro-Americans, there is a whole site dedicated to the genre (really). Whatever you think it possible to conceive of sexually – and beyond – is on the Net.
The trouble with this fine analysis of my problem was that it didn't actually stop me surfing. Try as I might to control myself, over the next few weeks I found that I was regularly spending five hours a day on my laptop – usually in the early hours when everyone else was in bed. This meant that I was getting about three hours' sleep.
Not surprisingly, my girlfriend was at last beginning to notice. 'Why do you look so tired?' she asked me. 'Are you seeing someone else?' What could I tell her? That I was seeing 17-year-old Bunko Kikazawa of Tokyo puppies, and half the girls in the Spanking College, and all the buxom and accommodating young ladies in www.hootermania.com?
The crisis point came just before last Christmas. I was missing so much sleep by staying up so late that my health started to suffer. One day I caught tonsillitis, which, because I was so run down, turned into a quinsy (a nasty suppurative form). Eventually, I went to the doctor, who sent me straight on to A&E. As I lay in the ward recuperating a few days later, the bitter truth sank in. This is it, Sean, I thought. You've really done it this time. You've actually wanked yourself into hospital. It was a road-to-Damascus moment. I resolved to find out what was happening to me, to find out if I was alone in my fate.
My first port of call was my friends. Were they suffering the same experience? It quickly turned out that many of my friends were having Net-porn-addiction problems similar or identical to mine. One friend confessed that he had cancelled his Web connection because he was so worried. Another said that he had nearly lost his wife through his constant surfing. Still another told me that had gone on to broadband – was mainlining the stuff –and was spending every hour of every weekend streaming porn videos online.
OK, I thought, all very fascinating and enlightening, but were my friends a representative bunch, or just a self-selecting group of middle-class neo-bohos? Further investigation revealed to me that my friends and I were not alone; that Internet-porn addiction is a burgeoning problem for men in the West (as is suggested by all those recent celebrity arrests).
Here are a few straws in the wind: there are said to be seven million pornographic websites on the World Wide Web. When MSNBC did a survey of 38,000 Internet users in 2001, one in ten of the respondents admitted a problem with Internet-porn addiction. One in four British companies has sacked an employee for surfing porn. More than a third of the UK's ten million regular surfers log on to porn sites. When an Illinois-based church opened a ministry for people with sex-addiction problems in 2001, they immediately got a thousand calls a week, mostly from men with Net -porn problems. America as a whole is said to have at least 200,000 online porn addicts – that is from zero addicts six or seven years ago.
It is a huge problem, and it is growing. So what can we do about it? The first thing, I think, is to recognise the root cause, which, to my mind, is the insatiableness of male sexuality and the way in which that insatiableness interacts with the Net.
My contention is that most male sexuality is designed by evolution to be an unscratchable itch; a desperate, unsatisfiable urge. It is like hunger: just as you aren't meant to wake up one day and say, 'Oh, I've had 6,000 meals, I think I'll stop eating now,' so men aren't meant to wake up one day and think, 'Oh, I've ogled 500 girls, I think I'll stop staring at them now.' A further problem with this is that when a man starts to explore his more deviant sexual fantasies, he can find himself in an addictive spiral, pursuing ever stranger forms of sex.
The insatiable nature of male sexuality means that it has to be curtailed. And in the past it was. Women were chaste and/or hard to get; pornography was naff, embarrassing and costly. But then along came the Net, which revolutionised things. To men, the Internet said, 'Hey, lads, this is different, now you can have as much sexual stimulation as you want; now you can see as many naked teenies as you like.' And men, of course, have not attained the ability to resist this kind of temptation. It's like giving beer to Eskimos; we don't have the enzymes to cope. Nor, in the secular 21st century, are we encouraged to resist desire. Women without money are told to give in to their acquisitive urges and buy on credit. Advertising everywhere tempts already obese children to scoff another family-sized bucket of KFC. It is the same with sex: we're taught, through magazines and television, that it is almost unhealthy not to explore every kink in our sexuality for fear of being repressed. And so we get the problem with Net porn: marry the infinite porn resources of the Net to the endlessness of male sexual desire, underpin it with consumer culture, and men can end up practically frigging themselves to death. As I nearly did, until I got so sick and bored that I finally stopped.
Granted, this analysis is not a solution. But the fact is that there are no simple solutions. For the government to set a limit on the sorts of things people are allowed to post or access would be as interfering and wrong as to set a limit on the number of beefburgers we can eat in a week. Men must be free to choose to spend all their waking hours in the Spanking College if they wish, but they should also be aware of the dangers.