For 30 years, Michael Leahy struggled with an addiction to pornography that eventually led to an affair, ruined his marriage and pushed him to the brink of suicide.
“[Real sex] began to feel like bad porn to me,” Leahy said during an appearance at Western last year.
Leahy, speaker and author of Porn Nation: Conquering America’s #1 Addiction, recalled his decades-long battle with pornography that eventually escalated into a devastating sex addiction.
For Leahy, the downward spiral stemmed from an encounter with porn in his youth — and he’s not alone.
Registered clinical counsellor Andrew Lukas, who runs the London-based Freedom for Life counselling centre, has worked with clients as young as 14 whom he classifies as excessive porn users.
“By the time someone is in university, they could easily have five to seven years of frequent usage,” Lukas said. “Now they can’t back away from it even if they try.”
While most full-blown sex addictions don’t show up until later in life, the university lifestyle facilitates frequent porn usage and sexual experimentation.
“There’s lots of people in the age group looking for sex,” Lukas explained. “It’s pretty straightforward and not all that frowned upon.”
Lukas estimated anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent of his clientele dealing with sexual addictions — which are primarily related to pornography — are university-aged.
The term ‘sex addiction’ encompasses a wide variety of behaviours, including the frequent use of pornography, masturbation, casual sex, strip clubs, massage parlours and prostitutes as well as continually getting caught up in sexual fantasies. Such behaviours can even manifest themselves in sexual harassment.
“Underneath most of this, there tends to be emotional issues that need to be addressed,” Lukas said.
According to clinical psychologist Guy Grenier, a former professor at Western, sex acts as a coping mechanism for people with addictions.
“Sex is naturally rewarding,” Grenier explained. “It releases endorphins in the body and feels good.”
However, he added sex addiction is not a formal medical diagnosis.
“Compulsive sexual behaviour is typically what people mean [when classifying an addiction],” he said. “It’s not like a physiological addiction to a drug.”
Regardless, there are warning signs that someone’s sexual behaviour is doing more harm than good for them.
“As far as university students go, it’s a lack of focus,” Lukas said regarding frequent porn users. “Even if someone is not looking at porn, they’re thinking about it or feeling bad about it.”
“In an academic setting, it can be a particular challenge [for sex addicts],” Grenier added.
“This is the last time in your life when you’re exposed to people of the same age who are looking to couple, to establish long-term relationships ... when you’re obsessing about something, you’re putting lots of time, effort and resources into it and missing out on things that make life interesting.”
People become desensitized by the fantasy world created by pornography and tend to seek new methods for reaching their initial level of excitement, Lukas said.
“It can lead to places where people at first think, ‘Oh, I’d never do that,’” he added. “People start to objectify [others] ... they become objects for sexual leisure.”
Putting yourself in sexual risk, cheating on a partner, not being able to get schoolwork or a job done and spending a lot of money you do not necessarily have are all indications you are on a slippery slope when it comes to sexual behaviour, according to Grenier.
Lukas added the reasons people have sex are a telling sign of a potential addiction as well.
“People feeling lonely, isolated ... if they’re using sex as a way to meet those needs, that’s unhealthy.”