Athlete Nick Willis has displayed remarkable personal courage by disclosing he once suffered an addiction to pornography. As a man of 32 with an Olympic silver medal to his name and happily married, he looks back on an obsession that started in his teens and stopped when he took steps to stop it, two-and-a-half years ago.
His experience will be a common one for young men of the internet era. They are no worse than young men of any era but their access to private, visual representations of sex is vastly greater in volume and variety.
Many of them may be surprised to hear someone describe his interest as an addiction. Pornography is not a drug like alcohol or tobacco that can cause car accidents or cancer. It does not physically impair the senses or damage their physical health. But the damage it can do is to their social and sexual development and it is more pernicious than most drugs in that its effects are not obvious.
Willis says that even when he recognised the harm he was doing to himself, he did not realise the effect it was having on others, especially his wife. "My understanding of how to form real relationships with the opposite sex became hijacked," he said.
That is the harm of pornography.
The scale of its availability on the internet requires a greater social response than the subject has ever required. Censorship might have worked well enough for magazines, films and videotapes but it is not going to work on the web.
Close parental supervision may succeed in protecting children but parental control becomes harder to impose as children reach puberty, when the greatest damage may be done to their sexual development.
The only effective antidote may be for teenagers to hear, loud and clear, that real sex is better than pornography. Willis said, "Porn makes you think you are having sexual needs met, but really they are hollow and leave you feeling empty and lonelier than before."
He knows that sex in a relationship of love is fulfilling in a way that bears no comparison to solitary visual stimulation. Somehow that message has to be conveyed to young people long before most of them will be fortunate enough to discover its truth for themselves.
Schools are probably already doing what they can to foster honest and healthy discussion of respectful human relationships and counter the false impressions of the opposite sex that pornography promotes.
Films and literature can do better, which does not mean they should be prudish. Cinema productions that portray sex accurately and powerfully are rare and precious.
Addictions are hard to break. For those sad, solitary individuals who need pornography, Willis recommends talking openly about it to someone they trust. But not many will have his courage.
Commenting in the Herald on Sunday, Professor Doug Sellman of Otago University's national addiction centre said the key to recovery was to adopt new patterns of behaviour to trump the addictive response.
But first pornography has to be recognised as an addiction by those who think it is doing them no harm.
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