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Pornography problems at work harm companies, coworkers

In this Jan 23, 2008 file photo, a computer user is silhouetted with a row of computer monitors.
In this Jan 23, 2008 file photo, a computer user is silhouetted with a row of computer monitors.
File, Associated Press

Each morning, Bill walked into his office, sat down at his computer and began Internet searches that lasted for hours.

The first few days of his new job were fine, and his searching was all work related, but the more time he spent online, the more intoxicating the office's unfiltered web access became.

"I was pretty unfettered," said Bill, a recovering pornography and sex addict. "The nature of the illness … I became more reckless, more brazen in my usage."

He thought he was hiding his tracks well enough, but it wasn't long before several colleagues complained to their supervisor about images they'd seen on Bill's computer.

He was put on probation and the IT department immediately began monitoring his Internet use.

"If I were to try to go to questionable sites now, there's a block prompt that comes up," he told the Deseret News, which is using only his first name for privacy reasons. "Any time you try to penetrate that, it signals to someone in IT. So I have a system in place there to help monitor me, to help me feel safe."

That was six years ago, when Bill's computer was connected to the wall, and his phone only made calls. The blocking software and his own personal rules have kept him out of trouble since then, but he knows the problems for others are only increasing.

With the explosion of smartphones, tablets, iPods and iPads, a growing number of employees find they can't stay away from salacious sites and images, pulling up X-rated pages on their lunch hour, bathroom breaks and even in the middle of monitoring life-saving surgical equipment.

A former Mount Sinai Hospital technician is suing the hospital and her male former co-worker, alleging he repeatedly viewed pornography on his smartphone during open-heart surgeries rather than paying full attention to the equipment, and the Department of Defense recently reprimanded its employees for looking at pornography at work.

While companies may initially worry only that these activities are unprofessional, unproductive and unsecure, scholars say there are deeper problems created by unchecked pornography usage in the office — one of the most damaging being the way men objectify their female colleagues.

"Some businesses are aware of (sexual harassment) lawsuits, and they don't want a loss of productivity," says Mary Anne Layden, a professor and director of education at the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania. "But I'm not sure that I hear business people saying, 'Oh my gosh, this is toxic material that is damaging our employees, male and female, and destroying our society, and I shouldn't participate in the destruction of our own society. I don't hear that, which sort of troubles me."

Concerns with connectivity

In 2010, 62.6 million Americans — 20 percent of the population — had a smartphone. Two years later, 116 million Americans could pull up Facebook, Google and MapQuest on their web-enabled phones.

By 2016, eMarketer — an online publisher of data, analysis and insights on digital marketing and media — predicts that there will be more than 192 million smartphone users — 74 percent of the mobile phone population and almost 59 percent of the general population.

TIME Magazine's recent "The Wireless Issue" contains results from a summer survey asking how people across the globe feel about a constant connection to the Internet and what it's doing to them and their families.

In the United States, 76 percent of respondents said being constantly connected was "helpful," while 13 percent said it was a burden and 11 percent said they didn't know. In India, 94 percent of respondents said constant connection was helpful.

While such a connection provides a greater ability to stay in touch with friends and family, make purchases, conduct business, listen to music, navigate new neighborhoods, play games, etc., it also increases the potential for problems.

In the TIME poll, 76 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds across the globe had flirted via text, and 36 percent had arranged an affair by texting. While only 8 percent of Americans had used phones to coordinate affairs, 56 percent of respondents in China had.

New York marriage and family therapist Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill has one client who was caught looking at pornography and finally admitted his obsession: every day for years, he'd gone into the bathroom at work and pulled up X-rated images on his smartphone.

"The amount of technology we have access to every hour of the day between our phones and computers — phones that you can bring in a bathroom? It's crazy," she said. "Our society is going to have to take a good hard look at it, because it's becoming quite a big issue."

A big issue, yes. A new issue? No. The difference is just in how people find it, said Robert Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Sexual Disorders Services for Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction recovery and treatment centers.

"Back in the day (people) had to get dressed, go in the car to the icky place under the bridge to buy a magazine, and it smelled bad," Weiss said. "That was the 80s. There were a lot of inhibitors through the process. But now there aren't any inhibitors to finding sexual content … or partners."

Breaking the silence

After Bill talked with his supervisor and successfully completed his probation period, his questionable Internet activity didn't come up again. It was an awkward talk to begin with and in future annual reviews, he was simply given a positive rating in the "uses computer appropriately" category.

"It's kind of like white collar crime," Bill said of pornography use at work. "It's kind of embarrassing, which is part of the problem, because it can keep flourishing if there's a lot of secrecy."

Many companies write about "inappropriate Internet use" in their hiring policies or human resource guide, but many of them are quiet about the work they do policing their systems, if they police at all.

Terri Rieber, national channel sales manager for Pearl Software, which sells Internet blocking programs, says the majority of her clients don't allow her to use their names for referrals, perhaps embarrassed that they need to monitor their employees in the first place.

"They don't want to let anybody know they're A. using a software, and B. using my software," she said. "Maybe the thinking (is) if you put a software in place like this, that you have a problem with your employees — as in you don't know what they're doing or who you're hiring."

And often companies don't know, especially if the work environment promotes closed office doors and little colleague interaction, or if it's a male-dominated office. Because while pornography can snag women, "this problem among men is considerable and growing," said Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of "Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age." "It seems that society really doesn't want to address it."

Yet companies and even the US government are being forced to address it, first because of the security concerns it presents.

In 2010, the Boston Globe broke the story that senior staff at the Pentagon were using work computers to view child pornography. In April, a dozen Secret Service agents were accused of hiring prostitutes while in Colombia preparing for President Barack Obama, who was to attend an economic summit there. Investigation into the Colombia event brought up prior federal employee misdeeds, including allegations of leaked sensitive information, sexual assault and published pornography.

More recently, Pentagon Missile Defense Agency executive director John James Jr. had to remind employees and contractors not to look at X-rated sites at work.

"These actions are not only unprofessional, they reflect time taken away from designated duties, are in clear violation of federal and DoD and regulations, consume network resources, and can compromise the security of the network though the introduction of malware or malicious code," James wrote in the July memo obtained by Bloomberg.

Adult sites are often loaded with malware and viruses and can open up businesses to costly bugs or hackers. But when government agents with security clearances view pornography on unsecure sites, the stakes are exponentially higher, with a potential for national security breaches.

Regarding the most recent pornography usage, the federal agency responded that their monitoring system had worked as planned and no missile defense networks had been compromised.

Utah's Intermountain Healthcare system — one of the biggest employers in the state — is also concerned about network breaches, sexual harassment lawsuits and even the legal investigation of an employee who strays into illegal pornographic activity. However, it also realizes the value of being proactively protective, and in addition to its two-tier monitoring and filtering system for their employee's computers and smartphones, has stepped up to preemptively monitor employees who have expressed concerns about their Internet use.

"The patients in our hospital expect a certain level of conduct," said Karl West, assistant vice president of information systems and chief information security officer for Intermountain Healthcare. "We have an image and a reputation. There is an expectation for physicians and nurses who are working in rooms with patients, in private settings. There are high expectations that we'll meet and exceed the expectations in this area. From our perspective, I don't see it as a cost; I see it as a reputational issue and providing clinical excellence in all that we're trying to do."

Damage to women

The human brain has two processing patterns — one for people and one for objects. Both are viewed similarly when shown upright, but when pictures of people are turned upside down, they're far more difficult than objects to recognize.

Relying on this understanding of the brain, academics in Nebraska and Belgium showed 78 college students pictures of men and women in their underwear and swimsuits, and found that more were able to correctly identify pictures of women, not men, when they were shown upside down, supporting their hypothesis that on a "basic cognitive level, sexualized men were perceived as persons, whereas sexualized women were perceived as objects," the authors wrote in the study published in the journal Psychological Science in April. "Our findings showed no differences related to participant gender, which suggests that cultural beliefs that women are sex objects are shared by both men and women at a basic cognitive level."

This toxic view is being fueled by the prevalence of pornography, said University of Pennsylvania's Layden, and it has penetrated every strata of society, presenting unique and troubling implications for the workplace.

If a male is using pornography at the office and is sexually aroused, it will affect his behavior, ranging from subtle staring to inappropriate touches, she said.

Even without knowing they're doing it, those male supervisors may hire or promote women who are more sexually appealing over those who are less so, promoting an unspoken requirement of physical beauty or sexual availability, which makes women feel a need to improve their physical features to boost their career, said Layden, who is also the director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program and the director of the Social Action Committee for Women's Psychological Health.

In her work as a psychotherapist, Layden said the erroneous statement she hears most often from perpetrators of sexual violence is that "women exist only to arouse me."

"That belief is a core belief that fuels sexual violence," she said. "It's fueled by all this pornography that is completely pervasive and inundating on the Internet. It is damaging at every level. Every level of business is damaged by this message and by the use of that material on the job."

Personal boundaries

Bill knows he is lucky. Other companies have zero-tolerance policies and might have fired him on the spot. But his company was understanding and gave him a second chance. His wife stayed by his side, and he has the support of his recovery group, where he goes often.

In those meetings, Bill cringes when he hears other men talk about how they figured out a way around their company's blocking software, penetrated the firewalls or cracked a password to access what they were originally trying to stay away from.

He gratefully acknowledges he's not technologically savvy enough to know how to do that, nor is he interested in learning how.

"For me, it's an obsession of the mind," he says. "To get sobriety and keep sobriety you have to break that cycle of that obsessive thinking. You get more control over the obsession as you're able to reduce the triggers and the temptations, but you have to have some boundaries in place."

For Bill, those boundaries started at work with Internet monitoring and sharper e-mail spam filters, but they extend to his home as well, where initially he wasn't able to get on the computer without his wife putting in a password.

The group Sex Addicts Anonymous suggests setting online boundaries ranging from installing blocking software, which is available for computers, phones, gaming systems, etc., to telling someone when you're going online, what you're looking for and checking in when you're done. They also suggest never going online when alone and making Internet usage less anonymous by avoiding screen names or extra e-mails.

"For people who are in recovery, the most important thing to have is accountability," Weiss said. "As in any addiction, (pornography addicts have) to come to a place where they say, 'Left to my own devices, even my best intellectual thinking can lead me to downloading the wrong app … or looking for porn in the workplace."