When people have a history of having used porn to cope with emotional pain and stress and for sexual pleasure, they are particularly susceptible to wanting to use it again, no matter how motivated they have been to quit. Porn addiction is a chronic condition that doesn’t automatically go away just because someone stops using porn. As we discussed in chap­ter 4, long-term porn use—like alcoholism and other drug addictions— changes brain chemistry, and those changes take time to heal.

Former porn users often live with a powerful, underlying hunger for porn that can linger for months or even years after they’ve quit using it. They are particularly susceptible to feelings, thoughts, and situations they have previously associated with porn, because powerful memories of past sexual excitement can bring the underlying desire to use porn back to life. Brad explains, “Alcoholics know they are ‘alcoholics for life’: as long as booze exists, they want to drink it. And people who quit smok­ing cigarettes are the first to admit they are ‘smokers for life.’ Well, the same is true for us porn addicts. When you’ve had a sexual relationship with porn, you never completely stop being tempted by it.”

Recovering porn users are especially vulnerable to relapse because the cultural environment in which we live is filled with sexually stimu­lating messages and images. It is challenging to steer clear of porn for extended periods of time when provocative images that can arouse the desire for porn are everywhere—in ads for beer in magazines, in the scantily clad performers featured on television, in the sexually suggestive links that pop up unexpectedly on nonporn Web sites, and so on. But even if a proliferation of sexually explicit images weren’t present in the real world, they can still be ever-present in the former porn user’s mind. It’s been more than ten years since Alex used porn, and he told us, “Stay­ing away from porn is still hard. My mind is still full of the stuff. I can call up my favorite stories and pornographic pictures at any time. The images feel burned into me.”

Drug addicts and alcoholics who are also recovering from porn ad­diction told us that because of the compelling nature of porn, its abun­dance in the environment, and the sexual pleasure it offers, they often feel more prone to a porn relapse than a drug or alcohol relapse. Ralph, a thirty-six-year-old recovering alcoholic, told us his cravings for porn are stronger than his cravings for alcohol. His memories of using porn don’t serve as a deterrent like his memories of alcohol. “When I think about my drinking days,” he said, “I remember throwing up in drunken binges, not being able to drive, and hangovers. But with porn, it’s different. I never had an orgasm with porn that I didn’t find extremely pleasurable. It takes more thinking to stop myself.”

Kirk, a former marijuana and porn user, shared that he has had a harder time avoiding relapses with porn than with pot. “With stopping marijuana all I had to do was not buy it and stay away from people who use it,” he said. “One whiff of a joint at a party or friend’s house was all it took for me to slip. Now I don’t hang out with those people. With porn it’s not so easy. Sexual images are everywhere. I can get to porn anytime I want. I have to work much harder at staying away from it.”

Many users underestimate their bond with porn, believing they can avoid or resist the urges that plague other people in recovery. But believing you’re invulnerable can work against anyone’s ability to avoid relapse. Pastor

Jim Thomas cautions the newcomers to his men’s porn recovery groups: “Every one of the men in this room has relapsed to some extent. Don’t get cocky and believe that relapse won’t happen to you, because once you think you can avoid it, that’s probably when it’s going to blindside you.”

Even when their motivation is genuine and they are receiving com­petent care and support, recovering porn users can relapse anywhere in the recovery process. Some former porn users said they were more likely to slide back into porn early on because they were ambivalent about their decision to quit or assumed quitting porn would be easier than it actually was. They hadn’t replaced old porn patterns of sexual pleasuring and deal­ing with stress with healthier porn-free patterns, and they still held attitudes about sex that made it extremely difficult to turn their backs on porn.

Other former porn users told us that relapse became a serious issue for them in the later stages of recovery when they thought they had the prob­lem under control. They forgot how emotionally and sexually attached to porn they had been, how many problems porn use caused them, and how serious and risky even a little contact with it could be. Successful time away from porn led them to let down their guard. “I thought I could handle it,” Corey said. “I was testing myself to see what kinds of sexual images I could still enjoy.” As Corey and others discover, these “tests” increase exposure and vulnerability to triggers and can result in a serious relapse before a former porn user realizes what’s happening.