By John Woods
Jamie was ten years old when he saw his first pornographic sex scene. During a sleepover, a classmate offered to show him ‘some funny pictures’ on his laptop.
‘At first I found it a bit scary and a bit yucky,’ Jamie told me as he shifted uncomfortably on his chair during our therapy session.
‘I didn’t know it was possible for people to do those sort of things — and there were lots of nasty close-ups. But it gave me funny feelings and the pictures started to stick in my head.’
For the next three years, while his parents assumed he was using his computer for his homework, Jamie visited porn websites for up to two hours a night.
Even when his school performance began to suffer, they had no idea of the murky world their shy, quiet son was inhabiting while upstairs in his bedroom.
While it’s not his real name, Jamie is typical of the young men I meet. He explained: ‘The websites led me to other websites and soon I was looking at even weirder stuff I could never have imagined — animals, children, stabbing and strangling.'
‘I stopped leaving my room and seeing my friends because when I was away from the pornography, I was dying to get back to see what else I could find.’
And it was only when the police came knocking one morning that Jamie’s secret life was exposed.
After identifying that someone in the house was accessing child porn, they took Jamie’s laptop away for examination. Jamie is only 13 — and he still hasn’t even kissed a girl, let alone had sex.
Though he is only a child himself, the result is that he has been put on the Sex Offender Register, blighting his life for the foreseeable future.
Even with intensive therapy, Jamie still suffers from deep shame — ‘as if it is written across my forehead’ — which has led him to fear he will never be able to form a healthy relationship with a woman.
As he told me at a recent session: ‘It still makes me think I might never have a proper girlfriend — because the pictures still come back to me sometimes. It make makes me want to shout, “Stop, stop.” But sometimes they still won’t go away.’
Jamie’s story is not unique. He is just one of the growing number of young patients referred by social services, youth offender services and police to the Portman Clinic — where I work as a psychotherapist. I would never normally consider speaking out in this way. But after much thought, I have come to the conclusion this is no longer just a private problem. It is a public health problem.
For the past 70 years our services, which are part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, have been available to anyone who has committed any kind of offence.
But an increasingly large part of our caseload is taken up with young people whose behaviour has become out of control due, largely, to compulsive internet porn use.
This year alone, this has included 50 referrals of children under 18, and that’s just for North London, where we are based.
Yet even though we are one of the very few units in the country dealing with these issues, funding cuts mean mental health services are having to make drastic efficiency savings that significantly reduce our service.
Our patients are the young people for whom seeing thousands upon thousands of sexually explicit images is still not enough.
I regularly see boys as young as 12 who have convictions for looking at child porn because they did not realise they had crossed the line.
I also treat children who are so frustrated at being unable to live out their fantasies in everyday life — and so confused by the message of endless sexual availability on the web — that they have committed rapes or sexual assaults.
Another example would be Paul, 12. He has been referred to us because his obsessive sexual viewing habits have now spilled into the real world.
At school, he has been repeatedly exposing himself to teachers and other pupils in lessons.
And, at home, his appalled mother has found him walking around the house naked in a constant state of sexual excitement.
Another case is Andrew, aged 13, who was referred to the clinic because he has been abusing his five-year-old half-sister. Due to his two years of constant porn use, he has built up a complex fantasy world — so it was no big step for him to try to involve her.
Our research at the clinic has found that although the internet doesn’t create these problems, it can release interests which would never have surfaced otherwise.
Without virtual pornography, it’s my belief that Andrew would not have acquired his compulsion to abuse, let alone dreamt up the idea of involving his sister.
One of my regular patients, Jude, was referred to me at the age of 18 by social workers who were concerned that years of web porn use had not only made him socially isolated but a danger to others, too.
When a girl he liked did not return his feelings, he told me: ‘I feel like stabbing her.’ He also threatened to kill himself because he felt he would never be able to have a normal relationship, and admitted he liked ‘seeing women being hurt’.
A particular scenario he enjoyed thinking about was a man grabbing a woman’s throat and punching her in the face.
Chillingly, he had already taken to following women late at night, and maintained he would become more of a risk to them if he was forced to give up watching porn.
All these cases are only the tip of the iceberg. For every young person who has come to the attention of police or social services, there will be tens of thousands more who manage to keep their habit under wraps — but who still face long-term consequences for their mental and emotional health. After all, we are rearing a guinea pig generation — a generation of boys and young men raised in a world where internet porn is freely on offer at any time.
Of course, critics who oppose restrictions will say pornography has always been with us; young boys have always looked at risque magazines.
Yet the advent of the internet — and particularly broadband over the past decade — means that never in human history has such a vast and relentless amount of it been so easily and freely available to all.