Into the Abyss: Appendix on Erotic Behavior

Unpacking erotic dependencies: Intercourse, Self-Stimulated Orgasm and Pornography

The previous series of essays discussed the use of specific and spiritually oriented exercises to combat unwanted behaviors and habit patterns. An area of specific concern for the Jewish orthodox community is combating the issue of sexual addiction, and other unwanted erotic behaviors. What follows here is a matter of fact conversation about a sensitive topic. It is not intended to be controversial or inflammatory. My intention is only to express honest observations about a topic that, in my eyes, is widely misperceived.

When having a matter of fact conversation about unwanted erotic behaviors and dependencies, there is no way to properly address the subject without speaking frankly about the entire issue at hand. In discussing these matters people tend to use the term “sexual” to describe the entire gamut of pleasure/erotic oriented behavior that relate to arousal. This is sensible in certain ways, as the various forms of behavior in this area relate to the type of sexual arousal mechanisms people use. But, in truth, there ends the comparison. Sexual intercourse, self-stimulated orgasm (masturbation), and pornography (the use of visual stimulation to facilitate arousal and fuel fantasy) exist on independent paradigms. When people conflate these it causes incredible confusion and creates a blockage to progress. When this happens all of these behaviors get lumped into a single category, one which is usually associated as “Bad” or “Shameful”. Then, emergence out of the crucible of dependency is binary and absolute, this often makes incremental success impossible.

Therefore a perspective which views each of these (intercourse, self-stimulation and pornography) as separate and independent behaviors is critical for gaining a foot hold toward success. It helps facilitate a more functional understanding of the problem and also legitimate human needs that exist behind the scenes of the struggle. This two part outlook helps frame a viable plan for solution. As we understand the nature of dependency but also what individuals are seeking when they engage behaviors beneath their ideal, we are better situated to eliminate them. Not only eliminating “bad behavior” but also directing attention toward fulfilling legitimate needs. These include biological and emotional needs, but also nurturing oneself and inspiring passion for life.

To further develop this understanding we will need to further explore the separations between intimacy, self-stimulation and pornography. One of the challenges in doing so is that the desired benefit of these behaviors, as well as the experience of them is inherently subjective, to an individuals tastes, ideals and beliefs. Yet, it is important to describe generally the way in which each stands on their own, in specific we will explore self-stimulated orgasm and pornography.

Pornography is far and away the most destructive behavior in the group we described above. The impact of the use of pornography cuts across the spectrum of life. The compulsive, regular and ongoing use of pornography distorts associations of reality, pleasure, fantasy and interpersonal relationships. In our view there is no productive or healthy use of pornography. This is true to such a degree that we will not use the word misuse here at all, because in our view all use of pornography in misuse. Yet, aside from highlighting the negative and destructive impacts of pornography, we can also look at other more innocent motivations that lurk beneath the surface of pornography use in general.

People generally associate the use of pornography as only an erotic stimulant. While this can be true, more often than not, there are other forces at work beneath the surface which drive the impulse toward its use.

Pornography allows a person an escape into a world of fantasy, a world which rarely matches harsh realities of their lives. It allows a person to visualize an imaginary intimacy that lacks the nuance of actual human interaction, and allows for the pursuit of illusions that wouldn’t be acceptable within the norms of their lives or society. In all of these ways pornography is an expression of fetishistic fantasy. An opportunity to step out of life and into a dreamed reality one wishes for, or just wishes they could explore privately.

The Process of seeking
The draw of pornography does not end in imagination and fantasy. Pornography can also provide other arousal mechanisms, particularly when mixed with the use of mass media on the internet. The neurological and chemical process that occurs within the brain when someone is seeking out and using pornography is extremely powerful. The visual and cognitive stimulation entailed in seeking and then finding specific imagery can have an almost drug like effect. When this sort of arousal is repeated, with some measure of regularity, the pattern has the ability to trap an individual in an addiction cycle that places a powerful hold on them. This aspect is actually not a sexual addiction perse but rather an addiction to the processes behind pornography. This can even evolve to a place where sexual behavior is not even a part of the individuals ritual. The “high” of pornography stands completely on its own.

If we reflect on all of this we can see that we have identified at least two specific forms of stimulus, within the experience of using pornography, that are reasonable in and of themselves. The use of pornography entails an opportunity to engage an imaginative journey into fantasy, and it is a stimulating cognitive process, almost like a game. These two types of stimulus are not inherently bad, one might even say they are necessary in the human experience. But, when these two forms of arousal are expressed through pornography they are distorted, and they are ultimately more destructive because they relate to an area that is complicated and most often unwanted. Yet, it is a mistake to discredit these two drives in and of themselves, especially as we are attempting to counteract attachments to this sort of behavior. If we are going to have success in eliminating pornography use from our lives, it will be important for us to come to terms with the gaps in need it is filling, and seek ways to fill those needs functionally,

Self-Stimulated Orgasm
Having explored the mechanisms behind the use of pornography, it is now important to explore the mechanisms behind the drive toward self-stimulated orgasm. In contrasting the destructive or problematic nature of these two behaviors, it is important to make note that self-stimulated orgasm is a much more normative activity then viewing pornography, in the sense that most men struggle with it in some form or another from the time of their adolescence, and that it mimics what is a fully normative process, orgasm in the act of intercourse.

In its early adoption self-stimulated orgasm, especially for young men who have no other sexual outlet, is driven by basic sexual needs. Yet as time goes on the underlying motives behind self-stimulation shift and evolve. The sexual drive is a complex thing. On the one hand it is driven by simple biology. Human males are driven through genetics and hormones to seek out partners for the purpose of procreation. This drive, in its purely biological form, is no different than that of any animal. It has cycles and is very non-discriminatory. Yet that is not the only aspect of the male drive toward procreative activity. Men are driven, genetically, sociologically and psychologically, to attract and engage possible mates. This drive includes the thrill of winning over the affections of their hearts desire, but also to provide for and protect that person. This aspect of the drive is discriminatory to the tastes and associations of the individual.

These biological, psychological and pleasure-seeking drives cause men a lot of tension and anxiety. When a man is aroused either because of a hormonal phase, or by a specific person which they have become attracted to, or both, a tension builds up within them. This tension can be so overpowering, that at times it feels as though a lack of relief will literally cause them to expire. What often times occurs to a man in these circumstances is that they become desperate for relief from this overpowering need and it feels as though self-stimulated orgasm is the most viable tool available for relieving the pressure.

Another aspect of this puzzle is that once a man is in an established relationship the avenue for relief from this sort of tension can operate within the context of that relationship. Yet, that relief is not always very practical. Healthy intercourse requires ‘two to tango”. This often leaves men at the whims of their partners. The pressure and frustration this causes can be incredibly disempowering. Here self-stimulated orgasm can also feel like a good alternative, and a way to take back control of his drives and life.

Then, there are other tensions that crop up in life. Being a man, being an adult, comes along with pressures and tensions of its own. Winding down from a long day or reducing the tension in the middle of ones day can be very challenging without some sort of externally induced chemical support. Here again men often realize that self-stimulated orgasm is a possible tool for stress management and emotional regulation. Though this resource is often ultimately becomes counterproductive, it is efficient in the short term.

These examples don’t describe the totality of why men engage self-stimulated orgasm, and what they get out of it, but it does describe some of the most prominent motivations.

Like with pornography, in order for us to address our dependencies and gain mastery over these areas we will have to come to terms with our motivations and drives. An individual seeking to make progress must acknowledge that these unwanted behaviors and attachments fulfill other needs that cannot be starved. We will have to work to adopt strategies for filling these needs in ways that better meet our ideals. One will need to recognize their struggles with stress and tension while developing healthy habits for coping. To acknowledge the tension that comes with desire, and develop strategies for coping with those as well.

In review: What we have been talking about here, throughout this chapter, and really throughout this whole series, is getting honest about what’s going on inside and rising above the simplistic and binary outlook of “do or do not”. While this equation holds true as relates behavior, i.e. we do or don’t do, act or don’t act, when it comes to our feelings, emotions and needs there is nuance and subtlety. There is a necessity to evolve and develop ones attitude in order to make it possible for a mature progress, one that is realistic and adult. As we make this sort of growth and evolution we can better approach our problems and challenges in a way that is balanced and effective. We can demonstrate a courage toward looking at the reality on the ground and harness our weakness’s toward a growth and evolution in all aspects of life

Note: It is important to make clear that from our perspective the purposeful (if even unconscious) use of pornography, self stimulated orgasm or even intercourse to cope with and manage with emotions, and or to fulfill other legitimate needs like imaginative fantasy, is inherently maladaptive. Engaging these behaviors specifically with that in mind brings about a destructive relationship with the behavior and that this tactic eventually becomes counterproductive. As is the case with all things that mirror an actual fulfillment of need, relying upon it as an ongoing support creates dysfunction and unwanted attachment. The key to understanding this is recognizing that just because a thing feels therapeutic that doesn’t make it therapy, and doesn’t make it appropriate to rely on. To state it more clearly, no doubt sexual type behavior helps a person to feel calm and reduce tensions, but engaging that behavior for that specific reason (as its primary intended function), and then worse, eventually coming to rely on it for that need, causes dysfunction. The sense of calm that comes along with intercourse in specific is a secondary benefit to the behavior, not its primary function. In our view, the primary functions of sexual intercourse is expressing bonds of love within an intimate relationship, as well as procreation, while other benefits are secondary.

As a matter of rule, in any situation, not just these behaviors, when a secondary benefit becomes a primary motive, and then even more so when a person relies on those secondary benefits to fulfill a legitimate need (or just to get a feeling that mimics the fulfillment of that need), it becomes troublesome very quickly. This kind of formula with any behavior, substance or process, has the earmark of addiction and dependency, and nearly always leads to destructive habits and attachments.

About the Author
Menachem Poznanski, LCSW is director of The Living Room, a clubhouse for Jewish young adults in recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction. Menachem is co-author of Stepping out of the Abyss: A Jewish guide to the 12 steps (Mosaica, 2017) and the editor of both Consciously and The Light Revealed, two social media initiatives focused on the messages of Jewish recovery and spirituality. Menachem resides in Cedarhurst, NY with his wife Naomi and their children, Zoe and Tani.