Covid-19 Lockdown, Internet Pornography, and the Risk of Sexual Offending by Dr Glyn Hudson-Allez

Many counsellors and psychotherapists who have been forced to work online due to the Covid-19 pandemic have noticed a significant increase in people (most commonly men, but not always) worried about their levels of time viewing pornography online. The lockdown and individuals being furloughed and unable to work has led to them being sat in front of their computers for long periods of time feeling restless and bored. They share that they have overspent on online shopping or online gambling and are continuously playing games into the early hours of the morning, like Game of Thrones or WarCraft. Hours on end spent compulsively playing games via the Net means that spontaneous sexual arousal will occur whilst they are on-line, so pornography to feed the arousal of the moment is only a click away. And so is the addiction.

Internet sexual addiction is manifested as the individual becomes preoccupied in thinking about sex. This obsessive rumination leads to plans of ritualised behaviour, for example spending hours scanning the Internet for the ‘right’ arousing image. This may lead to sexual behaviour, either with one’s self or another in cyberspace. However, instead of feeling warm and comfortable with sexual satiation, the person feels bad about themselves, and feels shame and guilt. These negative feelings make the person want comfort, so leads back to rumination about sex, and starts the person going back around the cycle again, and back to their computer.

Whereas most men can ordinarily view pornography on the Internet within limits and boundaries, there are some who are ‘at-risk users’ (Cooper, Putnam, et al., 1999) who have insufficient control over the level of Internet pornography they use, again, which continues in the face of negative consequences. Some clients are finding that during the lockdown their masturbatory practice has increased substantially, and while there is nothing wrong with masturbation per se, when clients are presenting with masturbation 10+ times daily, then we are getting into obsessive behaviour as means of trying to self-sooth internal distress.

Contemporary website browsers can view any form of sexual repertoire, paraphilia or unusual or deviant sexual practice on the Internet in graphic detail, either as pictures, stories, animated movies or live sex shows in which they can participate remotely. But it can also lead to other inappropriate behaviours, like stealing or embezzling money to pay for the costs of website memberships. It may be a catalyst and precipitate real off-line sexual behaviour as desensitisation and tolerance occurs, and the computer and Internet per se may become a fetish and create arousal at the tap of a keyboard or the click of a mouse. Or it may lead some men, intentionally or unintentionally, to view images of the sexual exploitation of children.

Individuals tend to be in a trance-like state in front of a computer, which accounts for why the behaviour perpetuates in the face of, and in denial of, negative consequences. In the brain, the Internet opens up the visual pathways through the thalamus with direct access to the amygdala when viewing pornography, with eyes locked onto the screen of a computer, fed by the driven need of the preprogramed SEEKING system of the brain (Panskepp 1998). This visual system has two routes to the amygdala triggering basic pre-programmed emotions: the ‘quick and dirty’ route triggered by the sensory thalamus, and the ‘slow and accurate’ route via the thinking cortex. These two routes work antagonistically with one another. So, for the thalamus route to operate, the thinking system closes down, and vice versa (LeDoux, 2002). The Internet viewer, operating on his primary driver, the SEEKING circuit, therefore feels aroused, stimulated, and curious, whilst his thinking cortex is bypassed. The close proximity to the computer screen with the multiple, graphic three-dimensional images, triggers the SEEKING circuit and orientates the amygdala. To motivate and provide curiosity, SEEKING elicits endogenous opioids via the dopamine pathways for excitement and reward, and can be addictive.

The bypass of the thinking cortices using the quick and dirty route offers an explanation as to why Internet addicts scan the pornographic images for hours, losing a sense of the consequences of their behaviour, spiralling down into obsession and addiction. They are operating on a preverbal, automatic process hard wired into the neurological system. They are disassociated in a massive autoregulatory mode for long periods of time, closed and impermeable to interactive regulations (Schore, 2003). No wonder these individuals can offer no explanation for why they do what they do; the right side of the brain has few words, and the system was developed long before the cognitive processes came on line.

Tony Krone produced a typology of such men, which shows a progressive escalation in offending (Krone, 2004):

  1. Browser – who comes across pictures accidentally and keeps them
  2. Private-fantasy – purely played out in someone’s head
  3. Trawler – the person trawling for any and all pictures, some of which are children
  4. Non-secure collector – buys openly online from websites and chatrooms
  5. Secure collector – usually members of clubs with heavy security barriers
  6. Online groomer – initiating contact with a child
  7. Physical abuser – actively involved in the abuse of children
  8. Producer – provides images of the abuse for others
  9. Distributor – may not be interested in the material at all, but it is purely a commercial enterprise

For the lockdown Internet browser, escalation from 1 to 5 is all too easy.

There tends to be five predominant reasons that precipitate Internet offenders into therapy:

  • they have been caught via the law enforcement process (or feel they will be);
  • they have been caught by their relationship partner and threatened with the loss of their marriage or partnership;
  • their employer has found imagery of the computer and has threatened the termination of their employment;
  • their children have seen what is on the computer or what daddy is doing in front of it;
  • they have reached their own inhibitory level in their escalation of viewing material, which has precipitated a psychological breakdown, and in a few cases, a psychotic incident.

The viewing of sexual exploitation images of children does not mean that the viewer is a paedophile and therefore poses a risk to children (Jenkins, 2001; Sheldon & Howitt, 2007).  The reasons why people view abusive images of children are complex, and they are not a homogenous group (Middleton et al., 2005). Some do have a paedophile orientation and are at risk of contact offending or may have already done so. But the larger proportions of Internet offenders are viewers, collectors or traders of pornography, or they may be viewing (re-enacting) their own abuse as a form of repetition compulsion (Hudson-Allez, 2011). As Sheri Tomak and colleagues pointed out, individuals arrested for Internet sexual offences appear to be different from imprisoned contact offenders; they are less deviant, less physically aggressive and less impulsive. However, in psychometric assessments, Internet offenders showed no problems with intimacy or dealing with negative emotions, no distortions in sexual scripts and no antisocial cognitions. The researchers therefore concluded that they were more similar to members of the general population than they had previously anticipated (Tomak, Weschler et al., 2009). They also agreed with Dennis Howitt and Kerry Sheldon that Internet offenders show an inverse relationship between their viewing and their behaviour: the more the individual indulges in sexual fantasy via the Net, the less likely they are to act them out (Sheldon & Howitt, 2007).

We also need to consider the size of the viewer’s pornography collection. As Ian O’Donnell and Claire Milner argued when discussing the vast collections that some of these men have accumulated. It might take (if allowing 1 minute per picture) up to forty years of unbroken attention to view them all. Clearly then, it is the collecting that is the compulsion (O’Donnell & Milner, 2007). As Ethel Quayle and colleagues have elaborated, how the individual deals with the collection in the way it is categorised and filed, may provide the key to understanding the underlying motivation of the individual (Quayle, Erooga, et al, 2006).

The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown has led to a substantial rise in individuals becoming addicted to internet pornography, and some have slipped into the illegal viewing of the sexual exploitation of children. As a consequence, StopSo therapists will notice an increase in the numbers of clients contacting them for therapeutic help. Working online with such individuals is a difficult task, especially as the therapist will be using the therapeutic medium that the person is trying to modify. Therapists need also to be mindful that such individuals, who have been disinhibited by the use of online imagery, will also be less inhibited with the therapist. On the positive side, clients online seem more ready and willing to express their dark side early on in the therapeutic relationship given the distance through the electronic medium. On the negative side, some clients can also become disinhibited with the therapist, leading to inappropriate sexualised talk with, and masturbatory behaviour in front of, the therapist. Ground rules therefore need to be very strong with these clients if successful therapy can be achieved.

 

Cooper, A., Putnam, D., Planchon, L., & Boies, S. (1999). On-line sexual compulsivity: Getting tangled in the net. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 7(2), 5-29.

Hudson-Allez G. (2011) Infant Losses; Adult Searches. A Neural and Developmental Perspective on Psychopathology and Sexual Offending. London: Karnac.

Jenkins, P. (2001). Beyond Tolerance. Child Pornography on the Internet. New York: New York University Press.

Krone, T. (2004). A typology of online child pornography offending. Caberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

LeDoux, J. E. (2002). Synaptic Self. How our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Penguin Books.

Middleton, D., Beech, A., & Mandeville-Norden, R. (2005). What sort of person could do that? Psychological profiles of Internet pornography users. In E. Quayle & M. Taylor (Eds.), Viewing Child Pornography on the Internet (pp. 99-107). Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

O’Donnell, I., & Milner, C. (2007). Child Pornography. Crime, Computers and Society. Collumpton, Devon: Willan.

Panskepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quayle, E., Erooga, M., Wright, L., Taylor, M., & Harbinson, D. (2006). Only Pictures? Therapeutic Work with Internet Sex Offenders. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

Schore, A. (2003). Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self. New York: Norton.

Sheldon, K., & Howitt, D. (2007). Sex Offenders and the Internet. Chichester: Wiley.

Tomak, S., Weschler, F. S., Ghahramanlou-Holloway, M., Virden, T., & Nademin, M. E. (2009). An empirical study of the personality characteristics of internet sex offenders. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 15(2), 139-148.