Covid-19 Lockdown, Relationships and Internet Pornography

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 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, become tired of continuously playing games into the early hours of the morning, but there is always plenty of pornography online to while the way the hours.

Some clients are finding that 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. Men tend to be very visual with their sexual arousal; pornography has been drawn on cave walls. But the overuse of Internet pornography can lead to relationship regression; the more time a person spends on the Internet, the less time for real intimacy and real relationships, and this applies to heterosexual couples and those in the LGBTQ communities. But it can also lead to other inappropriate behaviours, like stealing or embezzling money to pay for the costs of website memberships. Or 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.

In the brain, the Internet, and to a lesser extent, the television, opens up the visual pathways through the thalamus with direct access to the amygdala when viewing pornography. Individuals tend to be in a trance-like state with eyes locked onto the screen of a computer or television, fed by the driven need of the SEEKING system (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. These feelings of search and excitement and the desire to explore have no doubt been responsible for moving our species forward from living in caves to accessing our modern technological systems.

These primitive neural pathways reprocess the images, each with an emotional tag. 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.

As (male) Internet addicts spend hours online, searching for progressively more hard-core pornographic images, it erodes into time with his partner and the family (Manning, 2006). Sex in the relationship flounders, either because it becomes porn-like, male-focused, extreme and lacking in intimacy, or because the man completely loses interest in real-life sex as he cannot get aroused to the same degree with a real partner (Bridges, Bergner, & Hesson-McInnis, 2003).

This conflict between partners tends to occur due to the differences in how men and women respond to sex. Men tend to be very visual in their sexual arousal. When they view pornography, they enjoy the visual entertainment of watching the women (models) really enjoying the sexual activity and being very involved with their male and female partners. As Simon Lindgren argues, pornography for men is homosocial; men watch porn to be men, not necessarily alone but in a social and cultural context where the most important concepts are male pleasure through ‘wanking’ and a reduction of women into a category of their specific sexual parts, and that wives and girlfriends may be present in some sense, but inherently marginal (Lindgren, 2010).  Men tend to minimise the effect of their pornographic activity by saying, ‘pornography is just sex, what I do with my wife is make love’.


Women tend to struggle with such compartmentalisation. They are not so visual in their sexual arousal, hence the reason that most pornography targets male fantasies, although parenthetically, there is now a significant trend in female-owned pornography web sites (Attwood, 2010). Most women are more concerned with communication and the quality of their relationships, which sex enhances. Thus, when heterosexual women view pornography, they are less likely to view the activities taking place, and are more likely to focus on the women models, and to make a comparison between the model and herself. Thus, she is likely to feel that she cannot compete with the beautiful, long-legged, big-breasted, high-heeled, hypersexual woman her husband likes to watch. As a consequence, it is likely to lower her self-esteem and make her feel sexually inadequate. Some women try to compete with the pornography models by having vulval waxing (Brazilian style), breast implants and other forms of cosmetic surgery to make themselves more alluring to their partners. Others find themselves tolerating sexual activity, like brutal oral sex, anal sex or ejaculation on their faces, which has moved into mainstream Internet pornography within the last 20 years (O’Toole, 1998). These activities may be something that they women had not wanted or liked, and had not previously been usual in their loving sexual repertoire until her husband started viewing Internet pornography, but then he insists that such activities are normal and she is prudish not to want to accept it.

Kimberley Young and colleagues discussed the process of what they called ‘cyberaffairs’, which they held occurs because of the anonymity, convenience, and the ability to escape (Young, Griffin Shelley, Cooper, O'Mara, & Buchanan, 2000), so a romantic or sexual relationship is developed via a chatroom or a news group. They proposed a list of ‘at risk’ features that may prepare spouses or therapists for warning signs of this covert activity. These were:

  • A change in sleep patterns as people work late in the night or get up very early in the morning to engage in cybertalk;
  • A demand for privacy as the computer or laptop is taken into a private space and suddenly becomes passworded;
  • Usual household chores or activities with the kids get ignored;
  • Credit-card and telephone bills get hidden and lies are told to cover up extensive use;
  • Personality changes as the person becomes withdrawn and sullen, and may resort to defensive attacks when questioned;
  • Loss of interest in sex with the partner, as masturbation may be occurring on a frequent level;
  • Usual intimate relationship activities, like shared baths, talking over dinner, or renting a video, are shunned (Young, O'Mara, & Buchanan, 2001).

Of course, this kind of relationship withdrawal can also occur in the context of a partner who is addicted to using prostitutes, addicted to pornography on the Internet, or who is having a real-life affair. But the Covid-19 lockdown has created substantial turbulence in some relationships as they struggle to cope with being enclosed together for 24 hours a day, and although the restrictions are starting to lift, the turbulence created by it has produced lasting collateral damage in hitherto stable relationships.

Attwood, F. (2010). Younger, paler, decidedly less straight: The new porn professionals. In F. Attwood (Ed.), Porn.Com. Making Sense of Online Pornography (pp. 88-103). New York: David Lang.

Bridges, A., Bergner, R., & Hesson-McInnis, M. (2003). Romantic partners’ use of pornography: Its significance for women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 29(1), 1-14.

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

Lindgren, S. (2010). Widening the glory hole: The discourse of online fandom. In F. Attwood (Ed.), Porn.Com. Making Sense of Online Pornography (pp. 171-185). New York: David Lang.

Manning, J. C. (2006). The impact of internet pornography on marriage and the family: A review of the research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13(2-3), 131-165.

O'Toole, L. (1998). Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire. London: Serpents Tail.

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

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

Young, K., Griffin Shelley, E., Cooper, A., O'Mara, J., & Buchanan, J. (2000). Online infidelity: A new dimension in couple relationships with implications for evaluation and treatment. Journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, Special Issue: Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force (Chap 3), 62-63.

Young, K., O'Mara, J., & Buchanan, J. (2001). Cybersex and infidelity online: Implications for evaluation and treatment. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 7(7), 50-74.