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Roman Rytsar

RP, PhD, CSAT-C

For the last two years you have been working in the Whitestone Clinic in Ottawa, Canada. What is this centre?

It is a unit that specializes in working with people addicted to sex and pornography, as well as with the partners of addicts.

How is it that you came to work with people addicted to sex and pornography?

I can say that this work rather found me and not me looking for this job. After completing my doctoral studies in theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, I asked God what to do next. I became a chaplain at the hospital, where I minister to this day. I have been ministering not only to Catholics, but also for people of various beliefs, including non-believers.


What does the pastoral ministry of a Catholic priest to other Christians or non-believers look like?

addiction therapyIn Canada, it is common practice that a chaplain serves various people at the same time, including non-believers, and those who consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious” (in Poland, the equivalent could be ‘believer, but not practicing’). To become a chaplain, a candidate must complete a special course (Clinical Pastoral Education) which prepares him or her to work at the hospital, the military, or a prison. In working with believers or non-believers, the chaplain will use the value system that the person has and helps him or her to cope with difficulties in the face of illness or upcoming death.

Four years ago, I realized that I needed to continue to learn something new. When I was studying at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland), I was fascinated with the books of Anselm Grün (a famous German Benedictine) and I wrote my Licentiate paper about his thoughts. I always tried to combine theology with psychology, and I believe that, especially for a priest, the knowledge of psychological techniques is necessary to be useful when working with people. Now I have had the opportunity to combine them. I had met a person who works with sex addicts and this intrigued me. Also, it was a process of discernment. It took me six months to answer the question: did I really want to do this.

First, I worked as a volunteer. I sat in weekly meetings in groups and observed what this work was about. Then I signed a contract and started accepting individual clients. After a year, I started leading my own group. I am currently in the process of being specialized as a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. So far, there are only three specialists in Ottawa.


What is this work about?

At the Clinic I work only as a psychotherapist, not as a priest. I wear several ‘hats’ and I have to remember which and when to take it off. This is a very important distinction. As a priest, I am bound by the seal of Confession, and as a psychotherapist, in some cases, I have to break confidentiality.


Do your patients know that they are dealing with a clergyman?

Yes, and they don’t mind. And what if they want to confess? Then I recommend them to other priests. As a psychotherapist—before I begin therapy—I need to assess the problem of the person who comes to me. I use various assessment tests, explore the history of the problem, the family of origin, etc. At the Clinic, we use the system proposed by Dr. Patrick Carnes, which is based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dr. Carnes developed 30 therapy tasks (performables).

love and addiction ottawa therapy
How do patients come to you?

Most often people come to us after their sexual behaviour has been discovered. For example, a person was caught watching pornography, or bills from strip club or erotic massage fees have been revealed, etc.


Are men or women predominating?

I mainly work with men. The sessions are held individually or in groups. We have therapists who work with partners of addicts, and also with couples.


What is the age range for those individuals?

My youngest client was 25 and my oldest was 77. We don’t have a program for minors yet.

 

Based on the latest research on a representative sample in the US, it is known that 11% of men as well as 3% of women have an addictive behaviour towards the use of pornography. This data is quoted by Prof. Mateusz Gola from the University of California in San Diego. In Canada, are these statistics similar or different?

I do not have exact statistics from Canada. But I know that last year, Canada was fourth in the world for using the largest porn website, Pornhub, which is the “YouTube” of pornography. In 2019 alone, there were over 42 billion visits to this site from all over the world. 115 million users access it every day, almost 5 million per hour.

In 2019, the United States was number one and Poland was 14th when it came to using this website. In my opinion, this is a huge number of people who will sooner or later become addicts. It is only today that we have begun to realize that this addiction is a very serious disease. On the other hand, there is still a large number of psychotherapists who do not consider porn addiction as a problem and do not consider it an addiction.


Many people are convinced that it is impossible to become addicted to pornography. Usually there are arguments that you cannot become addicted just by watching. Is it true? What is porn addiction?

Various studies show that watching pornography stimulates the same areas of the brain as nicotine, drugs, and alcohol. It causes the brain to release the same hormones. Like drugs and alcohol, pornography activates the brain’s neuro-pathways, which induces cravings that demand higher, more extreme sensations.

addictionAlmost any activity can become an addiction: excessive drinking of coffee, alcohol, chocolate, work, computer games, the Internet, and even relationships with other people. All of this can become an obsession without which a person cannot imagine his or her life.

The human brain does not differentiate between an unhealthy reward and a healthy reward. But when it is stimulated, it blindly activates its centres of pleasure and an important chemical called dopamine is released which causes the brain to crave this reward.

In this way, the neurological pathways of accessing the pleasure centres of the brain become highjacked and this eventually leads to addiction.

In the USA in 2014, a brain study was conducted on 64 users of pornography. Frequent viewing of pornography was found to reduce gray matter in the brain in the areas responsible for motivation and decision-making. It also contributed to the weakening of control of impulses and desensitization of sexual reward.


What indicates Porn Addiction? When does this addiction begin?

If a child is growing up in a family where some addiction is present, it means that his or her level of dopamine is already low. The likelihood of a future addiction is much higher and a person will be seeking compensation.

Addiction of parents is not the only cause of future sexual addiction. The lack of secure attachment pushes the child to look for a relationship with alcohol, sex, drugs, food, because all of this gives immediate relief and the brain will remember what gives it pleasure. Eventually, the brain begins to demand more and more of the same.

The same applies to the negative feelings of the child that were not tolerated by the parents. The child doesn’t know what to do with the pain. He or she will seek pleasure or will try to avoid negative feelings by numbing them. Research shows that 75% of sex addicts come from indifferent or rigorous families where the parents were not emotionally present and involved in the child’s life.


Is there a psychological portrait of a porn addict?

Oftentimes, when we hear about a sex addict, we think immediately about a sex offender, predator, rapist or paedophile. Research on sex offenders has shown that only 72% of paedophiles and 38% of rapists meet the criteria for sexual addiction. Often the person who suffers from sex addiction or pornography is an ordinary, educated, married, and financially secure person. It may be a person who does not show any problems on the outside, yet at the same time leads a hidden life until it is revealed.

If someone has had inappropriate sexual incident or is in a long-term extramarital affair, it does not mean automatically that this person is a sex addict. Criteria for the diagnosis of addiction to pornography are similar to those in the case of abuse of, for example, alcohol, gambling, compulsive eating, etc. It consists in lack of control (compulsiveness), the continuation of the behaviour regardless of the negative consequences, as well as obsession or preoccupation.

 

Are there any stages of addiction to pornography?

It is hard to tell at what exact moment a habit turns into an addiction. The human brain is developing up to the age of 25. This means that each new experience that causes a dopamine outburst leaves a mark in the memory and we want to repeat this experience again and again. When a person eats a tasty meal, dopamine rises to 50%, sex and alcohol increase it to 100%, nicotine up to 150%, and methamphetamine up to 1100%.

fireworksA person always remembers his or her first kiss, their first time having sex, the experience of finding erotic magazines or pornographic files on the computer at home or at a friend’s place. Then he or she wants to repeat this experience or to return to it when they are feeling lonely or unhappy. When a teenager starts smoking, nicotine stays in the brain for 30 days. When this behaviour is repeated, it leads to addiction.

The same mechanism works when we learn a foreign language or play a musical instrument—stimulating the brain by repeating the same behaviour produces memory. It is the same with pornography. If I use it to escape pain or to relax, and I feel relieved after watching pornography and masturbation, in moments of emotional stress, whether positive or negative, I will look for an opportunity to repeat it. Eventually, it turns from habit to addiction.


How is addiction to porn treated? When a person comes to you and says that he or she is addicted to pornography, what do you say?

It is very rare that such a person comes alone. Most often, a man—because I only work with men—seeks help when he is caught acting out. For example, his wife has caught him watching pornography at home, or she received a message that her husband has a lover. And now she is threatening him with separation or divorce. Sometimes, a man has been caught watching pornography at work or masturbating in a public place. If that person still denies having a problem, then we suggest that he take the anonymous and free SAST test (Sexual Addiction Screening Test, see https://new.recoveryzone.com), which assesses whether a person has an addiction or not. Then we offer another, longer test, SDI (Sexual Dependency Inventory), and, after the results, we direct him either to individual or group work. In some cases, a person must be referred for in-patient treatment to a clinic near Toronto. There, he remains for 30 to 90 days in intensive treatment.


How long does porn addiction treatment take?

The entire therapy takes 3 to 5 years. During the first year, a person attends weekly meetings in intensive therapy in a group accompanied by a monthly individual visit with the therapist. After completing the therapy program in the clinic, the person continues meetings in SA (Sexaholics Anonymous) groups, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (12-step program).

 

What should be done to recover from porn addiction?

The first step is that a person needs to break through the denial that he does not have a problem, or that this is someone else’s problem. Sometimes it takes several weeks in group work to help someone realize that the problem is not with his wife who is against pornography, nor that his sex drive is higher than that of other men and that he needs more sex, nor that one person is not enough for him and he must have more partners, or that “everybody’s doing it and it’s not a problem.” In fact, “it” controls him and he can’t control it.

The second step is to realize that he or she has been using sex to soothe pain and to escape problems and an unhealthy sense of shame and unworthiness.

The third step is to realize that his or her thinking has been impaired by constant denial, delusion, and minimization of the problem.

The fourth step is to realize that the addiction cycle started with preoccupation with porn and, through ritualization, this then resulted in an obsession, and finally a compulsive behaviour.


Does the porn addict have the ability to fall in love?

Everyone can fall in love, but whether they can love deeply, that is the question. Oftentimes, sex or porn addiction is called a disease of intimacy. An addict cannot be intimate with another person. He perceives another person only as an object of pleasure or objectifies certain parts of the body.

addicts in family ottawaWhen a person begins therapy, a period of abstinence is recommended, including giving up masturbation for a minimum of 90 days. This time is needed for the brain to “reset” and to begin recovery. During this period, a person begins to see how addiction has controlled his life and how addiction was used by him as a coping mechanism for stress. During this period, a sex or porn addict begins to experience the withdrawal symptoms the same as a drug addict or alcoholic in rehab. There are problems with sleep, fear, anger, constant irritability, sadness…

When such a person realizes that he or she has been using sex or pornography to soothe pain or numb memories about a wound from the past, and that it was more a search for love than love, only then do they start learning about true love. A lot of people do not seem to know the difference between love and sex. Discovering the difference often comes as a big surprise.


How does pornography change social relationships? Does pornography affect the relationship between a woman and a man? Are porn addicts able to engage in such relationships?

Pornography distorts not only the relationship between a man and a woman but reduces the person to the level of an object. There is a misconception that pornography can teach new sexual techniques, enrich taste for sex, or spice up sexual experience.

I hear from men very often that they cannot have sex with their wife or reach orgasm, but a brief viewing of pornography makes them orgasm right away. The man’s brain thinks what he sees on the screen is real, and what’s more, he tries to repeat it in real life. No one can compete with what is seen on the screen, and what does not exist in reality. The enlarged body parts are only meant to arouse fantasy and the desire to watch as well as to stay longer on pornographic websites.

Erectile dysfunction or the inability to achieve orgasm is a common phenomenon among porn addicts. It causes the addict’s wife to feel guilty and inadequate, and she begins to compare herself to other women from the internet. Moreover, she blames herself for not being sexually sufficient for her husband.

A few years ago, a survey was conducted with 10,000 partners of male sex or porn addicts. It turned out that 60% of the test subjects showed symptoms identical to those who experienced trauma and were diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Trauma like this is a life-changing suffering.


You mentioned that pornography is treated by many people as an escape from problems, a way to relieve stress and tension. Is such thinking dangerous?

Pornography is exactly an escape from stress, pain and problems. However, it doesn’t solve anything, but it creates a vicious cycle. Porn becomes a habit and then addiction. It all starts with the misconception that the addict’s own needs will never be met and that is why he has to deal with it himself.

 

Will the number of porn addicts continue to grow?

Unfortunately, the ease of access to pornography only favours this. In the past, a person had to leave the house, go to the store, to look in the eyes of the salesperson, quietly ask for an erotic magazine or a videotape with pornography. And now all you need to do is to change a few settings in your browser to protect your privacy, click a few times … and voilá.

It is worrying that children now have unlimited access to the internet from a very early age and it leads to their first experience with pornography. Often, my clients tell me that their first exposure to pornography began when they were nine years old, some even younger.

family therapy

What should parents do if they notice that their child is watching pornography?

The shortest answer: do not panic or scare the child. The child observes the parents’ reaction to this situation. Depending on what the reaction will be the child will decide what to do next with it. Calm dialogue and explanation of the harm of pornography can help a child to understand why it is not beneficial. It is important for parents to remember what their child saw is usually connected with the experience of pleasure. If parents react, then the child might get conflicted: on the one hand, what he or she saw was bad because that’s what the parents said; on the other hand, he or she wants to experience that pleasure again. It is important to normalize the feeling of pleasure as a healthy reaction of the body to the stimuli, but on the other hand make a distinction between what the child saw on the screen, which was a distorted presentation of love and objectification of another human being. Not shaming, but teaching.

Children, unfortunately, often receive their first sexual education based on viewing pornography. To present a positive image of sexuality and to contrast it with pornography, specialists recommend talking to children about pornography before they see it.


When would that be?

Nowadays, this means that you should talk to your children before they have unlimited access to the Internet. Early conversation might prepare the child for what he can see online by providing some important context. It is necessary to teach that the body is good and beautiful, and that human sexuality is normal, and in the future will have the experience of pleasure. In such conversations, it is worth normalizing the child’s curiosity in such conversations and treating it as a normal developmental process. The most important thing is that the parents’ reaction should not provoke some kind of feeling of guilt and shame towards the child’s pleasure. If the latter happens, then sexuality would be associated with negative experiences and fear, as something bad and sinful. Keep the communication as open and gentle as possible.

family therapy What should parents do if they notice that their child is watching pornography?

The shortest answer: do not panic or scare the child. The child observes the parents’ reaction to this situation. Depending on what the reaction will be the child will decide what to do next with it. Calm dialogue and explanation of the harm of pornography can help a child to understand why it is not beneficial. It is important for parents to remember what their child saw is usually connected with the experience of pleasure. If parents react, then the child might get conflicted: on the one hand, what he or she saw was bad because that’s what the parents said; on the other hand, he or she wants to experience that pleasure again. It is important to normalize the feeling of pleasure as a healthy reaction of the body to the stimuli, but on the other hand make a distinction between what the child saw on the screen, which was a distorted presentation of love and objectification of another human being. Not shaming, but teaching.

Children, unfortunately, often receive their first sexual education based on viewing pornography. To present a positive image of sexuality and to contrast it with pornography, specialists recommend talking to children about pornography before they see it.


When would that be?

Nowadays, this means that you should talk to your children before they have unlimited access to the Internet. Early conversation might prepare the child for what he can see online by providing some important context. It is necessary to teach that the body is good and beautiful, and that human sexuality is normal, and in the future will have the experience of pleasure. In such conversations, it is worth normalizing the child’s curiosity in such conversations and treating it as a normal developmental process. The most important thing is that the parents’ reaction should not provoke some kind of feeling of guilt and shame towards the child’s pleasure. If the latter happens, then sexuality would be associated with negative experiences and fear, as something bad and sinful. Keep the communication as open and gentle as possible.


Do you recommend the sacramental life of Confession and Holy Communion to people addicted to sex or pornography?

Before I started exploring the question of sexual addiction, when I heard confessions, it never occurred to me that a person confessing the sins of watching pornography or masturbation might be an addict. Now I understand that a person can really become addicted to pornography or sex, and prayer alone, or even spiritual direction, would not be enough to solve this problem.

In the past, I thought it would be enough to encourage the person to make a decision and it would help them to change their behaviour, to pray more, to exercise in the gym, to avoid the occasion of  sin, and then the problem will go away. Unfortunately, this only resulted in the person returning every other week with the same problem. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is then treated as a doormat and the root of the problem is omitted. The penitent himself experiences disappointment and is indignant with God that He is not helping him and then guilt and shame close the door to any help.

The main misconception is regarding human free will. Now I understand that once a person has become addicted, it is impossible to get rid of it by willpower alone. Frequent use of Confession and Holy Communion will not solve the addiction if the cause has not been found and the person still does not know what it is from which they are escaping into pornography.


Does faith help in recovery from porn addiction?

Without faith, a person cannot live and function, but the most important thing is what a person believes and why they believe. My experience shows that people addicted to sex or pornography often have a distorted hierarchy of values and faith. Oftentimes, such a person thinks that faith in God will save him or her from danger or life problems.

For believers, sexual addiction can be a greater problem than for non-believers. The latter have no one to blame. On the other hand, in both cases the addicted person must realize that the addiction controls him and that he cannot help himself. Recognizing one’s helplessness and opening oneself to a Higher Power is the first step towards healing.

Roman Rytsar

Roman Rytsar

RP, PhD, CSAT-C

English translation of an interview conducted by Dr. Pawel Sokolowski with Fr. Roman Rytsar, theologian and psychotherapist. This interview was published in Miesięcznik Egzorsysta [Exorcist Monthly], July 2020, pp. 50-55.

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