Measuring Porn's Effects: What About the Users?
An open letter to Simon Louis Lajeunesse
Dear Professor Lajeunesse,
I've just read about your conclusion that porn is harmless. I'm wondering if it might be worth redesigning your questionnaire. I've been witnessing (secondhand) a lot of harm from porn, as well as some surprising benefits from leaving it behind. What I'm learning suggests that you would have to ask very different questions of your subjects if you want to measure the dangers of Internet porn use.
It does not surprise me that the immediate risk to third parties from porn users is minimal. I'm more concerned about the risk to the users themselves.
I have a unique perspective because my website tends to attract a lot of men who are hooked on porn and desperate to stop. (For why, see What Porn Users Taught Me.) When they do manage to unhook—generally after a severe trial—they report a decrease in social anxiety, increased confidence, greater attraction to real potential partners, and more enjoyment from life's subtler pleasures. Many of their experiences are collected in a chapter called The Road to Excess.
Just to clarify where I'm coming from, I don't think the chief danger from porn has much to do with sex directly. It comes from the effect of intense stimulation on the reward circuitry of the brain. If you're not familiar with this part of the brain, its role in driving our behaviors, its part in addictions, or the role of the neurochemical dopamine in these processes, I would be happy to suggest some reading material. Here's a short article by a neuroscientist that will give you some idea of what I'm talking about.
The risk I'd like to see experts address also exists for video game users. It's inherent in any activity (or substance) that can become compulsive because of the effects of dopamine in the brain's primitive reward circuitry. "Novelty-on-demand" is so enticing for this primitive part of the brain, that compulsion is a very real risk. Could this be part of the reason you couldn't find a porn-free control group for your study? (Without a control group, it's tough to conclude that porn use has no ill effects.)
Unfortunately, when it comes to masturbation to sexually explicit materials, our society tends to get lost in debates about free speech, content, sexual repression, and harm to third parties. This veils the important issue of the brain's vulnerable reward circuitry. This part of the brain evolved to value highly not only novelty-on-demand, but also the genetic bonanza of sex with a novel partner. Therefore, today's supranormal sexual stimuli, which offer new partners moaning for ejaculate at each click of a mouse, register as so beneficial that the brain easily rewires itself to focus more and more attention on such "valuable" experiences.
A clear understanding of the reward circuitry reveals why your analogy that "vodka ads are to alcoholism what porn is to porn addiction" may not be the best analogy. Porn users use porn images to masturbate, thus reinforcing the wiring of their brains with the neurochemical blast of orgasm. Vodka ads won't get anyone high. Porn is the addiction; pictures of vodka are not.
This rewiring process can swiftly reorder the user's priorities.
The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. ... [Porn users are] seduced into pornographic training sessions that [meet] all the conditions required for plastic change of brain maps ... [namely,] rapt attention, [reinforcement, and dopamine consolidation of new neural connections]. p. 108-9 The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (2007)
Some users begin to substitute porn for friendly interaction, intimate relationships, learning life skills, and so forth. Their reward circuitry no longer perceives the latter as worth the effort.
Compulsive masturbation sounds like fun, but trust me it's not. As with any addiction, too much intense stimulation dysregulates dopamine. Results include becoming desensitized to life's subtler pleasures, such as the charms of normal partners, and, at the same time, becoming extremely hypersensitive to any cues the brain has rewired itself to associate with "relief." The user's brain constantly scans the environment for any sign of sexual stimuli that would facilitate, in this case, masturbation to orgasm. Tolerance builds, making the pursuit of more stimulating materials mandatory to relieve the misery of withdrawal.
This combination of effects can make the world look gray. It is quite normal for men caught in this cycle to feel social anxiety around others, depression, despair, apathy, and so forth. Until they "reboot" their brains, life seems meaningless, but for the single-minded pursuit of hotter stimuli. Ironically, porn does not even ease sexual frustration, except in the very short-term...sometimes. It's not uncommon for users to binge with orgasm after orgasm because they simply cannot scratch their itch successfully. (Intense highs cause intense lows, and a desire for more.)
Often users don't realize they are hooked or what they're passing up until they unhook from frequent porn use and give their brains a chance to return to equilibrium. The lengthy withdrawal required to achieve this can be so agonizing (shakes, insomnia, despair, cravings) that many feel trapped.
I suspect compulsive porn use is more widespread than recognized, and increasing. I think the validity of my observation will become evident if you design a study around the method used by the author of The Great Porn-Off . Find out if your porn-using study participants can go for a few weeks without watching porn. (Of nearly 100 porn users, 70% could not go without it for two weeks in the Great Porn-Off.) Also, track their moods during the time they are without it.
Incidentally, Internet porn appears to entail a special risk. Here's what one man posted on my forum today:
With the magazines porn was a few times a week and I could basically regulate it. Cos it wasn't really that 'special'. But when I entered the murky world of internet porn, my brain had found something it just wanted more and more of.... I was out of control in less than 6 months. Years of mags, no problems. A few months of online porn...hooked.
That said, another man pointed out that masturbation became compulsive for him even though he never liked porn (pre-Internet) and never felt guilty about masturbating. So obviously, reward circuitry sensitivity varies.
I said above that I'm most concerned about the harm to porn users themselves. The truth is that I'm deeply concerned for us all. I think a planet where computer literate men run a high risk of compulsive porn use is likely to be a very unhappy planet. Imagine all those princes trapped in frog costumes, futilely attempting to ease their intense cravings for more and more stimulation, with little time, sensitivity or resolve left for creativity, good causes, relationships, or nature's pleasures.
Here are the recent posts of two men who are returning to balance:
I feel again. I feel emotions again. Having cut way back on porn viewing, I notice I find it less stimulating every time I see it. I actually fell asleep during an adult movie the other night! My interest in women has heightened, my confidence is up and gives me motivation again. I'm 28 now and until the last couple of years I felt I had the maturity of a 15 year old. But as I heal and recover from this addiction, I've felt emotions I've never had to deal with before. It has helped me grow up.
I am more at ease with myself and can look people in the eye, with kindness and a superhuman confidence. I had two women introduce themselves to me yesterday, shake my hand and HOLD IT. Wow. I was so comfortable talking to everyone—not my usual chicanery of waiting to speak or trying to hustle someone with what they think is a cool guy. I have the beginnings of a resolve now, and my groin feels solid and "peaceful"? I wrote two pages of a script that went in an even deeper direction than I was aiming for. Exercising is through the roof.
I hope you can find a way to measure such subtleties, because happy, healthy men are a precious resource. In any event, I wish you the very best with your research.