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Skeptical of the Porn Skeptics

I totally understand people who think porn is evil i feel the same exact way 1-2 seconds after I orgasm from porn. (Tweet by comedian Sarah Silverman on April 16, 2016. https://twitter.com/SarahKSilverman)

In eSkeptic for April 13, 2016, Philip Zimbardo, Gary Wilson, and Nikita Coulombe outlined the many ways that they believe “porn is messing with your manhood.” I personally know Phil Zimbardo to be a compassionate and energetic man who is generally positive about sexuality (I don’t know his coauthor Mr. Wilson). And everyone knows that Dr. Zimbardo is a world-famous social scientist, but in my opinion this article is short on facts that are reliable and relevant. Before we get to that, however, let’s note that we agree on several things. Yes, a majority of adolescent American males look at pornography. Yes, some of them report sexual difficulties. And yes, some of them report a compulsive quality to their attachment to porn viewing. Finally, there’s plenty to be concerned about when an entire generation of young men get a substantial amount of their sex education from Internet porn.

However, Zimbardo, Wilson, and Coulombe hypothesize effects of porn that science does not support empirically. They describe epidemics that really affect only a small number of people; they blame these alleged epidemics on neurological processes that haven’t really been established; and they stitch together a few isolated studies to conclude that porn viewing is undermining a generation’s ability to relate to real sex.

One of the key foundations of Zimbardo, Wilson, and Coulombe’s article are the reports of high school and college students about their lack of “normal” sexual functioning. They cite studies of young guys reporting “low sexual desire” and “erection difficulties,” who blame their “condition” on porn. But obsession with “normal” sex is a hallmark of adolescence and young adulthood.1 Exactly what baseline are these 17-year-olds using to decide that their desire isn’t “normal”? Which 19-year-old actually understands enough about sexuality to gauge how much his peers desire sex, how much they enjoy it, how reliable their erections are, and how often they have sex?2

For example, it is well-known that most adolescents (and adults, for that matter) overestimate the amount of sex everyone else has. Sociologist Michael Kimmel found that a sample of male undergraduates thought 80% of their classmates were having sex every weekend.3 Kathleen Bogle found the same distorted estimates in her interviews with students.4 So adolescent concerns about the normality of their sexual function are not a good measure of their sexual function. But it does explain the popularity of online forums like NoFap—where young people enjoy the sense of community, somewhere they can talk about sex and masturbating without fear of humiliation.

One reason some physicians mistakenly think they are seeing increased ED in young men is because some young men want erection drugs for performance enhancement rather than real ED, and they know what to say to get them. This is similar to the ways that students have learned to fake the symptoms of ADHD to get prescriptions for Adderall to help them study.5

The article cites many studies purporting to show that neuroscience now proves that porn erodes young brains. They don’t mention the tiny sample sizes of these studies—literally 10 or 15 people, in some cases. Nor do they mention the most common caveat of these studies’ authors, also routinely omitted by the popular media. For example, Zimbardo, Wilson, and Coulombe approvingly quote neuroscientist Valerie Voon discussing the results of two different studies. But contrary to how they interpret her words, she says quite clearly that “inferences about causality cannot be made.”6 Of a study she coauthored on compulsive sexual behavior (CSB), she says “significant gaps in understanding continue to complicate classification of CSB as an addiction”7

Most people, of course, are unable to read an MRI scan or evaluate claims about what neuroscience demonstrates. When Zimbardo, Wilson, and Coulombe state that “young porn addicts exhibit brain responses that are comparable to drug addicts,” many lay people think that proves the existence of porn addiction. But this reasoning by analogy says nothing. What does the similarity in brain responses mean? Scientists themselves say they aren’t sure. Besides, our brain responds in this same observable way when we cuddle a grandchild or enjoy a sunset.

Thousands of miles apart, peer-reviewed studies challenge the idea that porn use leads to addiction, or sexual dysfunction, or worrisome brain changes. North American neuroscientists Prause and Pfaus recently published a study in which pornography use was related to greater sexual desire for one’s partner, not to ED or lower desire.8 An ocean away, European researchers Landripet and Stulhofer found that neither frequency of porn viewing nor changes in the frequency of use were related to erectile problems.9 Both published in a high-prestige medical journal, these two studies refute claims that watching porn desensitizes erectile function, which supposedly leads to decreased desire and arousal for partner sex.

Further, according to Rory C. Reid, a research psychologist at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute who is also an expert in hypersexual behavior, “Watching the NCAA playoffs is going to change your brain, eating chocolate—any time you have any kind of experience, it’s going to change your brain.” And Reid is hardly pro-porn: “Philosophically, I’ve got all sorts of problems with porn.” But as a scientist, he says, “this idea that consumption of pornography causes cortical atrophy that leads to negative consequences? We haven’t seen that.”10

Even stronger in his conviction is Bruce Carpenter, a researcher at Brigham Young University who is morally opposed to pornography because he suspects “that pornography has larger deleterious effects upon individuals, family, and society.” Nevertheless, he admits: “Now to the evidence, there is none…There is not a single study of pornography use showing brain damage or even brain changes.”11

Dr. Barry Komisaruk, a Rutgers University psychologist who has done groundbreaking neuroscience research on the brain during orgasm, also says that there are no studies demonstrating that porn’s effect on the brain resembles addiction.12

For an article about the use and impacts of pornography, there is, oddly, very little mention of masturbation—which of course accompanies most porn watching. The authors don’t seem to consider that an increase in the number of times per week, or minutes per week, spent masturbating can account for some of the changes they allege—particularly dissatisfaction (or dysfunction) with partner sex. Many sex therapists are currently discussing the possibility that young men may becoming increasingly accustomed to the special (and rather strong) grip of their own hand, making a partner’s vagina, mouth, or hand less enjoyable in comparison. This would be true, of course, whether masturbation involves porn, mental fantasy, or watching the Food Network.

When men give up pornography for a period of time (say, via the NoFap movement), the positive effects they describe are generally attributed to the lack of porn. They could just as easily be attributed to the lack of masturbation. Certainly when a young man has trouble not looking at porn for a month, the reason his resolve may weaken is the yearning to masturbate or ejaculate far more than the desire to look at sexy videos.

The article does note that porn users may experience decreased participation in offline life. In fact, it says that by 2005 “online sexual activities were also already beginning to displace normal relationship development, learned courtship, and romantic behaviors in college students.” I agree, and have been asked about this across the country when I lecture. While the authors describe this watershed as resulting from enhanced speed (and therefore availability) of porn, I propose a different explanation: widespread use of then-new smartphones (the term “CrackBerry” became popular in 2006), and the cultural norms that have placed them in the center of our lives. This is one of the most important recent developments in American society; porn is only part of this bigger story.

As a sex therapist, I am very concerned by how much trouble young people of both genders are having enjoying sex. Because of the new digital ways of relating—constantly multi-tasking, not learning to listen as carefully, not expecting as much engagement from others, diminished experiential learning about non-verbal cues—they’re not as emotionally present during two-person interactions, which makes sex hard to enjoy at any age. Given the choice of texting, young people even find the real-time give-and-take of a telephone conversation too taxing. The performative culture of selfies, sexting, Instagram and live-Tweeting encourages people to think of sex as one more performance, undermining authentic self-expression.

It isn’t simply that real sex can’t compete with porn; real sex can’t compete with the novelty and stimulation-on-demand (and mutual emotional separation) that smart phones and the Internet provide. Most young people don’t date and practice relationship skills, they “hang out” and text their respective friends while sitting near each other.

I agree with the article’s concern about “arousal addiction” (although I think that wording is unhelpful); I just think that Zimbardo, Wilson, and Coulombe have located its locus incorrectly. It isn’t porn; it’s the internet/smart-phone/asynchronous communication nexus.

It’s easy for everyone—young people, researchers, critics—to blame porn, because virtually every young person having trouble with courtship looks at porn, or is involved with someone who does. But they also all own smartphones and occupy huge amounts of their time on them, spending less time learning to relate to others in ways that would eventually facilitate sexual connection. They spend less time making out (“French kissing”); instead, things go rather quickly to fellatio (often joyless for both parties), which typically doesn’t lead to closeness or erotic self-confidence for either party.

Putting aside the rare instances of people watching three hours of porn every night (a clearly self-destructive behavior that’s often more about the internet than about porn), there are reasonable concerns about young people marinating in Internet porn. For starters, most porn leaves out most of what makes sex worthwhile (kissing, laughing, caressing, feeling connected). Porn rarely shows all the off-camera preparation that makes certain depicted activities possible. It devotes a lot of attention to activities that people rarely do in real life. And it shows women as wildly orgasmic from intercourse, which most women aren’t.

Porn consumers (of all ages) need to remember that they’re watching fiction, not a documentary. Real sex does not look like the sex in porn; indeed, real sex usually doesn’t feel like the sex in porn seems to feel (that’s what actors do—they act out feelings). Attempting to re-create what’s seen in porn with a live partner generally leads to dissatisfaction for both.

That said, many of the problems young people face in launching their sexual lives are not unique to the 21st century: as in the 20th century (and before that), young people actually don’t know what’s sexually “normal,” but fear they’re not; young people want to feel desired and special, even though sexual experimentation increasingly takes place in anonymous settings (fueled by alcohol); young people want to feel sexually competent, but lack the communication skills (and often the motivation) to learn about their partners’ sexual interests and subjective experience.

So we don’t need to imagine porn-induced neurological changes or sexual dysfunction in order to be concerned about young men watching a lot of porn. And we don’t need to imagine that they have to abstain in order to “recover” from these allegedly profound effects. Finally, we shouldn’t imagine that without porn, young men will go back to some mythical pre-Internet time when their ideas about sex were realistic, their erections were always firm, and their desire always high. I was a teen way before the Internet, and life wasn’t like that at all: teen boys had distorted ideas about sex, many were terrified of “impotence,” and desire was, for a substantial minority, contingent or sporadic. Back then these young men were called “shy” or “late bloomers.”

One further way Zimbardo, Wilson, and Coulombe shortchange us in their discussion: Talking about the detrimental effects of porn without talking about sex education or parental involvement is as short-sighted as talking about reducing abortion without talking about birth control. The state of Utah has recently declared pornography a public health crisis.13 They also recently voted down science-based school sex education.14 This shows that they’re more interested in condemning porn than in supporting the healthy sexuality of their young people. It also helps explain why Utah has the highest per capita use of porn in the country, and one of the highest rates of unwanted pregnancy.

That said, most non-violent porn (i.e., the vast majority of it) also shows sex as being about pleasure, and it shows women as having desire, even if it’s sometimes depicted unrealistically (“Thanks for delivering the pizza, Joe—how about sex instead of payment?”). It frequently shows the importance of the clitoris as a sex organ, and more often than not it shows that both men and women can touch their own genitalia during partner sex. It’s dishonest to talk about porn without acknowledging all of this.

And what exactly are people watching when they watch porn? According to PornHub, the largest porn aggregator site on the internet, the most common search terms are quite consistent across age and geography: “Lesbian” is the runaway favorite, followed by “teen,” “stepsister” and “ebony.” “Torture,” “humiliation,” “female pain” “misogyny” and others suggested by dystopian anti-porn activists like Gail Dines don’t even come close.15 And, contrary to the ugly, manipulative myths driven by activists like Pamela Paul, Rebecca Whisnant, and Melissa Farley, the rate of sexual violence in the United States has steadily decreased since broadband Internet porn began to flood the country in 2000.16,17 So the idea that porn consumption leads to rape is flatly refuted by federal crime statistics.18

Young men may be getting some wrong ideas about sex from porn, but they’re not seeking out images that reflect hatred of women or lead to hatred of women. That, in addition to the lack of evidence that porn changes brains, should hearten policymakers and concerned citizens everywhere. END

About the Author

Dr. Marty Klein has been a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist for over thirty years. Honored by groups such as the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex and the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists, he is one of the country’s leading experts on pornography. He testifies on sexual issues in state, federal, and international courts, and is frequently quoted by The New York Times, National Public Radio, and other media. He is the author of seven books including: Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want from Sex—and How to Get it, America’s War on Sex: The Continuing Attack on Law, Lust, and Liberty, His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic with Honest Talk about Sex, and the DVD Enhancing Porn Literacy in Young People. He recently gave two Congressional briefings on sex education.

References
  1. Boyd, Dana. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  2. http://bit.ly/1c9adDV
  3. Kimmel, Michael. 2009. Guyland: The Perilous World in Which Boys Become Men. New York: Harper Perennial.
  4. Bogle, Kathleen. 2008. Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. New York: NYU Press.
  5. Sollman, M. 2010. “Detection of Feigned ADHD in College Students,” Psychological Assessment, Vol. 22 No. 2, 325-335.
  6. Voon, Mole, Banca, et al. 2014. “Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity In Individuals With and Without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors.” PLoS ONE 9:7, 1-10.
  7. Kraus, Shane W., Valerie Voon, and Marc N. Potenza. 2016. “Should compulsive sexual behavior be considered an addiction?” Addiction, 18 Feb. DOI: 10.1111/add.13297
  8. Prause, N. and J. Pfaus. 2015. “Viewing sexual stimuli associated with greater sexual responsiveness, not erectile dysfunction.” J Sex Med. Doi:10.1002/sm2.58
  9. Landripet I. and A. Stulhofer A. 2015. “Is pornography use associated with sexual difficulties and dysfunctions among younger heterosexual men?” J Sex Med. 12:1136-1139.
  10. http://bit.ly/1NkmXtw
  11. http://bit.ly/1NkmXtw
  12. http://bit.ly/1NkmXtw
  13. http://bit.ly/1VgGJca
  14. http://bit.ly/1TBaqSH
  15. http://bit.ly/1TFZOC5
  16. http://1.usa.gov/1qWtUqE
  17. http://1.usa.gov/1LCBEDE
  18. Rape, of course, is an under-reported crime. Not only is there no data suggesting it is more under-reported now than before 2000, if anything it is less under-reported now—that is, more accurately reported now than 20 years ago. This makes the decline in reported rape even more impressive.
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