Porn, Novelty and Dissatisfaction

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Can Porn Make Your Mate Less Appealing?

If you’re married and using porn, “You da man!” At least in your genes’ estimation. First, your wedding vows increase the chances that your joint offspring will have two caregivers, thus improving the survival odds of gene packets (kids) you are pretty certain are yours.

Second, you’re servicing anyone on your computer screen desperate for your man seed, thus endeavoring to spread your genes even farther. At least that’s what a primitive part of your brain steadfastly believes. You see, it evolved when “hot” signaled “genuine fertilization opportunity.”

Being “da man” is great, except that today’s 24/7 Internet porn can stimulate the brain unlike anything your ancestors ever confronted during evolution. Like Mae West, most of us assume that more of a good thing is…even better. Maybe not. When free, streaming porn became available psychiatrist Norman Doidge noticed something unsettling among his porn-using patients:

They reported increasing difficulty in being turned on by their actual sexual partners, spouses or girlfriends, though they still considered them objectively attractive. When I asked if this phenomenon had any relationship to viewing pornography, they answered that it initially helped them get more excited during sex but over time had the opposite effect. Now, instead of using their senses to enjoy being in bed, in the present, with their partners, lovemaking increasingly required them to fantasize that they were part of a porn script. The Brain That Changes Itself, p. 104

Said an insightful porn user:

I saw a program about porn star prostitutes. They said they could tell the chronic porn users because nothing they did could "inspire" the man to get it up. Think about it, even girls professionally trained in fulfilling male sex fantasy are unable to match the stimulation of pornography, including some girls who are actually in pornography. Regular women who just want our affections don't stand a chance.

How could today’s super-porn dampen your sexual responsiveness to your mate? By overactivating three brain mechanisms:

  1. An ancient biological program runs in the brains of all mammals. It overrides natural satiety when there are lots of mates begging to be sexed. Think mating season. And it perceives each new vixen (or hot whatever) on your screen as a valuable genetic opportunity.
  2. Too much stimulation can numb the pleasure response of the brain for a time—pumping up cravings for more novel stimuli. A familiar mate appears less and less enticing.
  3. Research suggests that too much stimulation of the brain’s sex/mating circuitry obstructs the mammalian pair-bonding mechanism.

Result? Indifference.

Meet the Coolidge Effect

Consider what happens when you drop a male rat into a cage with a receptive female rat. First, there's a sexual frenzy. Half a dozen copulations later the fireworks fizzle. Even if she wants more, he’s not interested. His brain chemistry whispers, “Roll over and snore.” However, if a new female shows up, his exhaustion will miraculously fade long enough for him to gallantly attempt his fertilization duties. You can repeat this process with fresh females until the male nearly dies of exhaustion.

His renewable virility is not indicative of an insatiable libido. Nor does it increase his wellbeing—although it may look (and temporarily feel to him) that way. He goes after each new female because of surges of dopamine in his brain. They command him to leave no willing female unfertilized.

Scientists know this biological program as the "Coolidge Effect." It shows up in female animals, too, which have been observed to flirt more with new guys. Not only do our genes like to clamber aboard as many boats as possible to sail into the future, they also like genetic diversity among our offspring.

Genes never sleep. Instead of a blissful “they got married and lived happily ever after,” gene fairy tales end with offspring and more offspring—any way the genes can get them—Burnham and Phelan, authors of Mean Genes

Dopamine is the "Gotta get it!" neurochemical behind all motivation. Without it we mammals wouldn’t bother to court, pursue climax, or even eat. When dopamine drops so does motivation. Yawn.

It’s also the key to the Coolidge Effect. The more the rat copulates with the same female, the less dopamine he gets for his efforts—until he heads for the recliner, toting the remote. Provided no new female shows up.

Consider this graph. The fifth time a ram copulates with the same female, it takes him 17 minutes to get off. But if he keeps switching to novel females…he can do his duty in less than two minutes, five times in a row.

Ram brains light up for novelty so they leave no females unfertilized

Unlike rams, humans are pair bonders. We’re wired, on average, to raise offspring together. So, does this mean we’re impervious to the Coolidge Effect? Nope. This ancient program lurks in us, too. One man said,

I watched a documentary on guys with extremely expensive "love dolls." One guy had so many that he was running out of room in his home. Even though these were dolls, he had already started to see them as girls he had spent enough time with. Probably why guys collect so much porn. I thought I was amassing some wonderful database of pleasure. But I can't remember ever actually going back. The compelling part is the NEW image, the novel image...the novel love doll.

The uniqueness of Internet porn can goad a user relentlessly, as it possesses all the elements that keep dopamine surging. The excitement of the hunt for the perfect image releases dopamine. Moreover, there’s always something new, always something kinkier. Dopamine is released when something is more arousing than anticipated, causing nerve cells to fire like crazy.

In contrast, sex with your spouse is not always better than expected. Nor does it offer endless variety. This can cause problems because a primitive part of your brain assumes quantity of dopamine equals value of activity—even when it doesn’t.

Indeed, porn’s dopamine fireworks can produce a drug-like high that is more compelling than sex with a familiar mate. In a Playboy interview last year, musician John Mayer admitted he’d rather jerk off to images than have sex. He explained,

Internet pornography has absolutely changed my generation's expectations. How could you be constantly synthesizing an orgasm [with a person] based on dozens of shots? You're looking for the one ... out of 100 you swear is going to be the one you finish to, and you still don't finish. Twenty seconds ago you thought that photo was the hottest thing you ever saw, but you throw it back and continue your shot hunt and continue to make yourself late for work. How does that not affect the psychology of having a relationship with somebody? It's got to.

Mayer is slave to the Coolidge Effect. His brain lashes him with dopamine each time he clicks to a novel “mate.” Keep in mind that dopamine is the hook in all addictions. Cocaine, for instance, also floods the brain with excess dopamine (by blocking its reabsorption).

“Why isn’t my spouse doing it for me?”

Lack of desire was a factor in the failure of my marriage, and the failure of a relationship subsequent to that. I am in my late 30's, have used porn heavily since my teens, and have blamed my problems on partners (“I'm just not attracted to you”/“I wish you were more responsive”), the newness of partners (“I need to give my body time to catch up to my brain”/“I need to get over my ex”), fitness levels, diet, age, stress, performance anxiety...

Like a lot of men, I went to a doctor, got a physical that ruled out any serious medical conditions, and got Viagra. Once my marriage failed, and I was single again, porn use went into overdrive—at least once a day and often two or three times. But when I realized I could no longer even masturbate to orgasm without porn, something clicked. Cause and effect seem blindingly obvious now, of course.

I'm with a new partner to whom I am very attracted and with whom I am very comfortable sexually—but I still cannot perform. Thankfully she is open to frank discussions about this stuff.

Why does your beloved start to look to you like cold oatmeal, even if others see her as homemade pumpkin pie? One factor may be the degree of abnormal stimulation of Internet porn. Too much stimulation can actually numb the pleasure response of your brain, producing a variety symptoms. We know this from recent research on gamblers, overeaters, and, of course, drug users. The brain starts to respond more weakly to whatever dopamine is around—such as that produced by your spouse’s, “Honey, it’s Date Night.”

Dopamine is the gas for your desire engine. Blunted sensitivity means that even if you have plenty of gas, your V-8 is only running on four cylinders. Your numbed brain simply doesn’t respond to her as it did before.

Ironically, even if sex with your spouse isn’t calling to you, you may feel intense cravings for something hyperstimulating (novel, risky). You keep slamming down that dopamine accelerator because your brain desperately wants to feel good again. As comedian Bill Maher quipped, "Hugh Grant had Elizabeth Hurley at home, and he wanted Marvin Hagler in a wig."

So, why would we have evolved to be more dissatisfied after particularly intense stimulation? It may be that this mechanism drove our ancestors to override their natural satiety during mating season, or when high calorie food was around. Think Coolidge Effect on twin turbos.

For example, when a guinea pig broke into a cage of females, he managed to father forty-two pups. (When apprehended, he slept for two days straight. Brains need time to recover from such intense stimulation.) When we flood our brain with too many visuals of mates begging for our sexual favors, our brain perceives a similar genetic bonanza and obligingly drives us to binge by subtly numbing our pleasure response.

Unless you understand this hidden brain mechanism, which urges you to step on the gas even when you’ve had more than enough, it's hard to connect an insatiable libido with a less responsive brain. After all, it feels like your libido is getting stronger. The reality is that neurochemically induced dissatisfaction deep in the brain is urging you to seek more stimulation.

Clues that your libido thermostat has been readjusted would be: you feel restless and dissatisfied more of the time; want kinkier sex with your mate; find your mate less attractive/compelling than the Internet; need more extreme material, and so forth. Experts call this effect “tolerance.” It can indicate an addiction process at work in the brain.

I’ve started speaking to my ex again. I explained that I wasn’t distant because I found her sexually uninteresting, but because I had been watching so much Internet porn that she’d have needed to be juggling with her feet, sucking off a horse, and rimming a [transsexual] for me to be fully engaged during lovemaking.

How Can Porn Interfere with Pair Bonding?

If pair bonding benefits us and our offspring, then why are we so vulnerable to becoming hooked on the dopamine rush of novel cyber “mates?” Paradoxically, it’s partly because we possess the brain mechanisms to fall in love. This ability to pair bond is completely dependent on blasts of dopamine goosing our love circuits. In the 97% of mammals that are promiscuous, these brain circuits for lasting bonds are missing.

When scientists compared the socially monogamous prairie vole with its promiscuous cousin, the montane vole, they discovered two curious things.

  1. Animals that form pair bonds, or fall in “love,” are more prone to addiction. They get a bigger dopamine blast from addictive substances. Is this why many of us are easily lured by dopamine-producing substances and activities such as Internet porn and gambling?
  2. Even more telling is what didn’t happen when scientists artificially flooded the pair bonders’ brains with chemical stimulation. These naturally monogamous animals no longer formed a preference for one partner. The artificial stimulation had hijacked their dopamine-dependant bonding machinery, leaving them just like regular (promiscuous) mammals.

Having a brain that’s sensitive to the high of falling in love supports your pair bond. You get somewhat “hooked” on your mate, provided there’s no scientist drugging you. Ideally, you stick around snuggling just as you evolved to do—because there isn't a lot of other temptation. (Of course, if temptation falls in your lap, your genes may crack their dopamine whip.)

It’s evident, however, that the same sensitivity that urges you to fall in love becomes a vulnerability when you're saturated with hyperstimulating sexual goodies. Suddenly, the circuitry on which your pair bond depends is inundated with dopamine associated with stimuli other than your mate. It can make a mate uninteresting, and override your normal satiation mechanisms.

Far from just “rubbing off,” we chronic masturbators generally engage in a practice we call “edging”: bringing ourselves to the brink of orgasm repeatedly, without ejaculation. [Thanks to the unending novelty of Internet porn,] we can sustain extremely high levels of sexual arousal literally for hours. I am an active participant in several masturbation-focused Internet groups, and moderator of one.

Many of us go so far as to abandon partner-sex, even while the partner remains available and willing. We’ve also coined the term “copulatory impotence” for the common phenomenon of being able to get it up to Internet porn, but not for a partner.

Does this mean everyone who views porn will give up on his marriage? Of course not. However, support for the hypothesis that supernormal stimulation—even in less stimulating versions than Internet porn supplies—interferes with human pair bonds has already shown up in research.

According to a 2007 study, mere exposure to a series of images of sexy females causes a man to devalue his real-life partner. He rates her lower not only on attractiveness, but also on warmth and intelligence. Also, after pornography consumption, male and female subjects in a 2006 study reported less satisfaction with their intimate partner—including the partner’s affection, appearance, sexual curiosity and performance. Moreover, they assigned increased importance to sex without emotional involvement.

Obviously, if you want to stay married in reasonable contentment, you make your task easier by choosing not to trigger perception shifts that cause your partner to look like Hamburger Helper.

So, what’s in it for the contented pair bonder? Aside from only having the expense of maintaining one household, he gains health benefits. For example, research shows that intercourse has more beneficial effects on the body than masturbation. It releases neurochemicals that reduce stress better, and the benefits linger for days. Also, daily warm touch between couples benefits men by lowering blood pressure.

 The Internet can’t do that. As one man observed,

In the long run, fantasy based on pornography creates stress. Craving the unattainable is just hollow and unsatisfying.

In contrast, relaxed intimacy with the emphasis on affectionate touch not only soothes, but also automatically strengthens bonds.

During the middle years of our marriage, I quit worshiping my wife. Instead there was plenty of yoni to worship courtesy of the porn industry. Always young. Always beautiful. Always horny. Always new. Always able to get an orgasm. And never fulfilling. I recently unplugged totally from porn, and I have returned my wife to her pedestal. Our marriage has come out of a long stale period and is rejuvenated. We are closer than we have been for years, in bed and throughout the day. I am really enjoying the long, slow non-goal-oriented lovemaking that never really ends—we just take a break and start again the next day. I feel better, and my libido seems to be present more continuously.

Want the Magic Back?

You can re-link your sexual arousal to your spouse. Stop climaxing to stimuli that produce more dopamine than she does. Remember, a primitive mechanism in your brain always urges you to focus on the option that releases the most dopamine. It doesn’t care what best eases your stress, protects your health, or sustains your relationship. When an e-babe beckons, your brain assumes you’re in the gene-spreading business—a top priority.

Now that you understand how today’s extreme stimulation can innocently tarnish your appreciation of your spouse by messing with some atavistic programming in your brain, it’s up to you.

Since I stopped masturbating to porn a couple of weeks ago things are changing. When I see a woman with long hair walk by in a nice skirt or dress, I get that physical rush of energy. Used to be I needed a stronger pornographic fantasy from the Internet to get any type of arousal.

In another few weeks even his wife will give him a rush.

For more on understanding erectile health, see Gary's Erectile Dysfunction and Porn slide show.


Growing scientific evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (studies)

Studies on the overlap between sex and drugs in the brain    

Comments

this article (posted on "The Good Men Project"):

This article was something of a revelation. I thought I stumbled upon a straight men's site this AM via Thomas Matlock's NYT article, "Man I Need a Good Cuddle" and thus this article. I cannot speak for all gay men... only myself, but I observe my gay compadres as WAY behind the curve in understanding and responding to internet porn. It is a STAPLE of many gay men's sex lives with no real understanding about how this might affect ability to connect with other men for intimate relationship. I don't care to cry victim, but with little (albeit, growing) support of gay marriage, the deleterious affects of porn go unnoticed. Suddenly I am aware that we gay men, in our enthusiastic embrace of being "sex positive," can be stuck in a bit of a dopamine swirl for much of our lives. Thanks for this honest exposure to some facts to add to the discussion!