Jarryd Bartle’s article “Relax Folks! Pornography is Not the End of Civilisation” cherry picks a few random studies and cites a one-page letter to the editor to support claims, while simultaneously ignoring the vast preponderance of evidence. Bartle is employed by the “The Eros Association“, which calls itself – Australia’s adults-only industry association.
For easy access to the current state of porn research I have provided here a few lists of studies that directly or indirectly falsify Bartle’s claims:
- Porn/sex addiction? This page lists 40 neuroscience-based studies (MRI, fMRI, EEG, neuropsychological, hormonal). They provide strong support for the addiction model as their findings mirror the neurological findings reported in substance addiction studies.
- The real experts’ opinions on porn/sex addiction? This list contains 18 recent literature reviews & commentaries by some of the top neuroscientists in the world. All support the addiction model.
- Signs of addiction and escalation to more extreme material? Over 30 studies reporting findings consistent with escalation of porn use (tolerance), habituation to porn, and even withdrawal symptoms (all signs and symptoms associated with addiction).
- An official diagnosis? The world’s most widely used medical diagnostic manual, The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), contains a new diagnosis suitable for porn addiction: “Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder.”
- Debunking the unsupported talking point that “high sexual desire” explains away porn or sex addiction: At least 25 studies falsify the claim that sex & porn addicts “just have high sexual desire”
- Porn and sexual problems? This list contains 27 studies linking porn use/porn addiction to sexual problems and lower arousal to sexual stimuli. The first 5 studies in the list demonstrate causation, as participants eliminated porn use and healed chronic sexual dysfunctions.
- Porn’s effects on relationships? Almost 60 studies link porn use to less sexual and relationship satisfaction. (As far as we know all studies involving males have reported more porn use linked to poorer sexual or relationship satisfaction.)
- Porn use affecting emotional and mental health? Over 55 studies link porn use to poorer mental-emotional health & poorer cognitive outcomes.
- Porn use affecting beliefs, attitudes and behaviors? Check out individual studies – over 25 studies link porn use to “un-egalitarian attitudes” toward women and sexist views – or the summary from this 2016 meta-analysis: Media and Sexualization: State of Empirical Research, 1995–2015. Excerpt:
The goal of this review was to synthesize empirical investigations testing effects of media sexualization. The focus was on research published in peer-reviewed, English-language journals between 1995 and 2015. A total of 109 publications that contained 135 studies were reviewed. The findings provided consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.
- What about sexual aggression and porn use? Another meta-analysis: A Meta‐Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies (2015). Excerpt:
22 studies from 7 different countries were analyzed. Consumption was associated with sexual aggression in the United States and internationally, among males and females, and in cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Associations were stronger for verbal than physical sexual aggression, although both were significant. The general pattern of results suggested that violent content may be an exacerbating factor.
Below I address a few of Jarryd Bartle’s claims:
BARTLE STATED: Panic purveyor Porn Harms Kids warns us that porn causes ‘similar neurological processes to those observed in substance addiction’. Unsurprisingly so does sugar, or believing in God or sex — which seems pretty relevant!
Bartle takes the excerpt out of context. The article by Porn Harms Kids is actually saying that porn addiction leads to the same brain changes as seen in drug addicts. All the neurologically studies published to date support this assertion.
Four major brain changes are involved with both drug and behavioral addictions, as outlined in this paper published this year in The New England Journal of Medicine: “Neurobiologic Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction (2016)”. This landmark review by the Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) George F. Koob, and the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Nora D. Volkow, not only outlines the brain changes involved in addiction, it also states in its opening paragraph that sex addiction exists:
“We conclude that neuroscience continues to support the brain disease model of addiction. Neuroscience research in this area not only offers new opportunities for the prevention and treatment of substance addictions and related behavioral addictions (e.g., to food, sex, and gambling)….”
In simple, and very broad, terms the major fundamental addiction-caused brain changes are: 1) Sensitization, 2) Desensitization, 3) Dysfunctional prefrontal circuits (hypofrontality), 4) Dysfunctional stress circuits. All 4 of these brain changes have been identified among the over 3 dozen neuroscience-based studies on frequent porn users & sex addicts:
- Sensitization (cue-reactivity & cravings): Brain circuits involved in motivation and reward seeking become hyper-sensitive to memories or cues related to the addictive behavior. This results in increased “wanting” or craving while liking or pleasure diminishes. For example, cues, such as turning on the computer, seeing a pop-up, or being alone, trigger intense hard to ignore cravings for porn. Some describe a sensitized porn response as ‘entering a tunnel that has only one escape: porn’. Maybe you feel a rush, rapid heartbeat, even trembling, and all you can think about is logging onto your favorite tube site. Studies reporting sensitization or cue-reactivity in porn users/sex addicts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.
- Desensitization (decreased reward sensitivity & tolerance): This involves long-term chemical and structural changes that leave the individual less sensitive to pleasure. Desensitization often manifests as tolerance, which is the need for a higher dose or greater stimulation to achieve the same response. Some porn users spend more time online, prolonging sessions through edging, watching when not masturbating, or searching for the perfect video to end with. Desensitization can also take the form of escalating to new genres, sometimes harder and stranger, or even disturbing. This is because shock, surprise or anxiety can all elevate dopamine and waning sexual arousal. Some studies use the term “habituation” — which may involve learning mechanisms or addiction mechanisms. Studies reporting desensitization or habituation in porn users/sex addicts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
- Dysfunctional prefrontal circuits (weakened willpower + hyper-reactivity to cues): Dysfunctional prefrontal cortex functioning or alterations in the connections between the reward system and the prefrontal cortex lead to reduced impulse control, yet greater cravings to use. Dysfunctional prefrontal circuits manifests as the feeling that two parts of your brain are engaged in a tug-of-war. The sensitized addiction pathways are screaming ‘Yes!’ while your ‘higher brain’ is saying, ‘No, not again!’ While the executive-control portions of your brain are in a weakened condition the addiction pathways usually win. Studies reporting poorer executive functioning (hypofrontality) or altered prefrontal activity in porn users/sex addicts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.
- Malfunctioning stress system (greater cravings & withdrawal symptoms): Some addiction experts view addiction a stress disorder, as chronic use induces multiple alterations in the brain’s stress system, and also affect circulating stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline). A malfunctioning stress system results in even minor stress leading to cravings and relapse because it activates powerful sensitized pathways. In addition, quitting an addiction activates the brain’s stress systems leading to many of withdrawal symptoms common to all addictions, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability and mood swings. Finally, an over-active stress response inhibits the prefrontal cortex and executive functions, including impulse control and the ability fully comprehend the consequences of our actions. Studies indicating a dysfunctional stress system in porn users/sex addicts: 1, 2, 3.
In addition to the above studies, there are now 18 recent literature reviews & commentaries by some of the top neuroscientists in the world, supporting the porn addiction model. Here are two reviews from 2017:
- Neuroscientific Approaches to Online Pornography Addiction (2017) — Excerpt: In the last two decades, several studies with neuroscientific approaches, especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), were conducted to explore the neural correlates of watching pornography under experimental conditions and the neural correlates of excessive pornography use. Given previous results, excessive pornography consumption can be connected to already known neurobiological mechanisms underlying the development of substance-related addictions.
- Is excessive sexual behaviour an addictive disorder? (2017) — Excerpts: Research into the neurobiology of compulsive sexual behaviour disorder has generated findings relating to attentional biases, incentive salience attributions, and brain-based cue reactivity that suggest substantial similarities with addictions. We believe that classification of compulsive sexual behaviour disorder as an addictive disorder is consistent with recent data and might benefit clinicians, researchers, and individuals suffering from and personally affected by this disorder.
BARTLE STATED: Even if ‘porn addiction’ exists as a phenomena, nobody — outside a small group of Certificate-level self-declared ‘sexual wellbeing experts’ — actually believes it is widespread.
This is patently false. First, The World Health Organization appears poised recognize sex and porn addiction under the umbrella term “compulsive sexual behavior disorder” (several neurological studies on porn addicts have employed this term). The next edition of the ICD is due out in 2018. The beta draft of the new ICD-11 includes a diagnosis for “Compulsive sexual behavior disorder” as well as one for “Disorders due to addictive behaviors”. By the way, a newly created behavioral addiction category appears in the new DSM-5, with “Internet gaming disorder” set for inclusion.
The DSM-5 (published back in 2013) ultimately rejected “Hypersexuality Disorder” over the recommendations of the relevant Work Group, but never formally evaluated “pornography addiction” as a diagnosis. In the interim, healthcare givers diagnose sufferers using ‘other sexual dysfunction’ diagnoses in both the current ICD-10 and the current DSM-5 (“Diagnosis of hypersexual or compulsive sexual behavior can be made using ICD-10 and DSM-5 despite rejection of this diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association)
In addition to the upcoming ICD-11, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) have stated that “Sexual behavior addictions” exist!’ The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) hammered what should have been the final nail in the porn-addiction debate coffin in August, 2011. America’s top addiction experts at ASAM released their sweeping new definition of addiction. The new definition echoes the major points made on the YourBrainOnPorn website. Foremost, behavioral addictions affect the brain in the same fundamental ways as drugs do. In other words, addiction is one disease (condition), not many.
For all practical purposes, this new definition ended the debate over whether sex and porn addictions are “real addictions.” ASAM explicitly states that sexual behavior addictions exist and must be caused by the same fundamental brain changes found in substance addictions. From the ASAM FAQs:
QUESTION: This new definition of addiction refers to addiction involving gambling, food, and sexual behaviors. Does ASAM really believe that food and sex are addicting?
ANSWER: The new ASAM definition makes a departure from equating addiction with just substance dependence, by describing how addiction is also related to behaviors that are rewarding. … This definition says that addiction is about functioning and brain circuitry and how the structure and function of the brains of persons with addiction differ from the structure and function of the brains of persons who do not have addiction. … Food and sexual behaviors and gambling behaviors can be associated with the ‘pathological pursuit of rewards’ described in this new definition of addiction.
BARTLE STATED: So widespread is the myth of porn addiction that a recent op-ed in the Journal of Sexual Medicine was simply titled “Pornography Viewing: Keep Calm and Carry On
It’s quite telling that Bartle could only muster a 1-page letter to the editor to support his assertion that porn addiction doesn’t exist. Even more telling is that the “op-ed” said nothing about porn or sex addiction, revealing that Bartle failed to read or understand what he cited.
Instead, Taylor Kohut used his “op-ed” to incorrectly assert that the research is “quite mixed” on the effects of porn on relationships and sexual functioning. Here’s the reality:
There are now 28 studies linking porn use/sex addiction to sexual problems and lower arousal to sexual stimuli. The debate about the existence porn-induced sexual dysfunctions is over, as the first 5 studies in the list demonstrate causation, as patients eliminated porn use and healed chronic sexual dysfunctions.
As documented in this peer-reviewed paper involving 7 US Navy doctors — Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports (2016), studies assessing young male sexuality since 2010 report historic levels of sexual dysfunctions, and startling rates of a new scourge: low libido.
Prior to the advent of free streaming porn (2006), cross-sectional studies and meta-analysis consistently reported erectile dysfunction rates of 2–5% in men under 40. Erectile dysfunction rates in 8 studies range from 14% to 35%, while rates for low libido (hypo-sexuality) range from 16% to 37%. That’s nearly a 1000% increase in youthful ED rates in the last 10–15 years. What variable has changed in the last 15 years that could account for this astronomical rise?
In addition to the above 28 studies, this page contains articles and videos by over 120 experts (urology professors, urologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, sexologists, MDs) who acknowledge and have successfully treated porn-induced ED and porn-induced loss of sexual desire. Urologists have twice presented evidence of porn-induced sexual dysfunctions at annual conferences of the American Urological Association. (Watch Dr. Pacha’s presentation on YouTube.)
What about porn’s effects on relationships? There are now over 55 studies linking porn use to less sexual and relationship satisfaction. An excerpt from a recent meta-analysis which examined all the relevant studies (Pornography Consumption and Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis, 2017):
However, pornography consumption was associated with lower interpersonal satisfaction outcomes in cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal surveys, and experiments. Associations between pornography consumption and reduced interpersonal satisfaction outcomes were not moderated by their year of release or their publication status.
What was Taylor Kohut’s primary evidence to support his claims? His very own 2016 study: Perceived Effects of Pornography on the Couple Relationship: Initial Findings of Open-Ended, Participant-Informed, “Bottom-Up” Research.
Two glaring methodical flaws produced meaningless results in his study:
- The study does not contain a representative sample. Whereas most studies show that a tiny minority of porn users’ female partners regularly use porn, in this study 95% of the women used porn on their own. And 85% of the women had used porn since the beginning of the relationship (in some cases for years). Those rates of use are higher than in college-aged men! In other words, the researchers appear to have skewed their sample to produce the results they were seeking.
- Reality: Cross-sectional data from the largest US survey (General Social Survey) reported that only 2.6% of women had visited a “pornographic website” in the last month. Data from 2000, 2002, 2004. For more see — Pornography and Marriage (2014)
- The study used “open ended” questions where the subject could ramble on and on about porn. Then the researchers read the ramblings and decided, after the fact, what answers were “important,” and how to present (spin?) them in their paper. Then the researchers had the gall to suggest that all the other studies on porn and relationships, which employed more established, scientific methodology and straightforward questions about porn’s effects were flawed. How is this method justified?
Despite these fatal flaws some couples reported significant negative effects from porn use, such as:
- Pornography is easier, more interesting, more arousing, more desirable, or more gratifying than sex with a partner
- Pornography use is desensitizing, decreases the ability to achieve or maintain sexual arousal, or to achieve orgasm.
- Some said that specifically described desensitization as the effect of pornography use
- Some were concerned a loss of intimacy or love.
- It was suggested that pornography makes real sex more boring, more routine, less exiting, or less enjoyable
Taylor Kohut’s new website and his attempt at fundraising suggest that he just may have an agenda. Kohut has a history of publishing ‘creative’ studies designed to find little or no problems arising from the use of porn. For example, Kohut’s 2016 paper, “Making Hate to Women”? Pornography Users Hold More Gender Egalitarian Attitudes Than Nonusers in a Representative American Sample”.
Kohut framed egalitarianism as support for Feminist identification, Women holding positions of power, Women working outside home, Abortion. Here’s the key: Secular populations, which tend to be more liberal, have far higher rates of porn use than religious populations. By choosing these criteria and ignoring endless other variables, lead author Taylor Kohut knew he would end up with porn users scoring higher on his study’s carefully chosen selection of what constitutes “egalitarianism.” Then he chose a title that spun it all.
Reality: almost all studies report opposing results. Here are 25 studies linking porn use to sexist attitudes, objectification and less egalitarianism.
BARTLE STATED: In an Australian survey published this year, only 4% of men and 1% of women said that they were ‘addicted’ to pornography.
The study’s abstract was quite misleading as it omitted high rates of negative effects in those 30 and under — the ones that grew up using internet porn.
According to Table 5 in the study, 17% of males & females aged 16–30 group reported that using pornography had a bad effect on them. (In contrast, among people 60–69, only 7.2% thought porn had a bad effect.)
How different would the headlines from this study have been if the authors had emphasized their finding that nearly 1 in 5 young people believed that porn use had a “bad effect on them”? Why did they attempt to downplay this finding by ignoring it and focusing on cross-sectional results — rather than the group most at risk for internet problems?
When you look past the deceptive abstract, we find many reasons to question this study:
- This was a cross-sectional representative study spanning age groups 16–69, males and females. It’s well established that young men are the primary users of internet porn. So, 25% of the men and 60% of the women had not viewed porn at least once in the last 12 months. Thus the statistics gathered minimize the problem by veiling the at-risk users.
- The single question, which asked participants if they had used porn in the last 12 months, doesn’t meaningfully quantify porn use. For example, a person who bumped into a porn site pop-up is considered no different from someone who masturbates 3 times a day to hardcore porn.
- However, when the survey inquired of those who “had ever viewed porn” which ones had viewed porn in the past year, the highest percentage was the teen group. 93.4% of them had viewed in the last year, with 20–29 year olds just behind them at 88.6.
- Data was gathered between October 2012 and November 2013. Things have changed a lot in the last 5 years, thanks to smartphone penetration — especially in younger users.
- Questions were asked in computer-assisted telephone interviews. It’s human nature to be more forthcoming in completely anonymous interviews, especially when interviews are about sensitive subjects such as porn use and porn addiction.
- The questions are based purely upon self-perception. Keep in mind that addicts rarely see themselves as addicted. In fact, most internet porn users are unlikely to connect their symptoms to porn use unless they quit for an extended period.
- The study did not employ standardized questionnaires (given anonymously), which would more accurately have assessed both porn addiction and porn’s effects on the users.
Once again, few regular porn users realize how porn has affected them until well after they cease using. Often ex-users need several months to fully recognize the negative effects. Thus, a study like this one has major limitations.
What about recent anonymous surveys of internet users?
Addiction rates vary, depending upon study parameters, but if you want to understand the true situation, it’s important to focus on at-risk users (as opposed to relying on population-wide studies that include grandmothers). In 2016, two groups of researchers (one from Europe, one from the States) assessed or questioned male porn users. Both groups reported that 28% of their subjects either met the test for problematic use (“Clinical Characteristics of Men Interested in Seeking Treatment for Use of Pornography”) or were concerned about their porn use (“Online sexual activities: An exploratory study of problematic and non-problematic usage patterns in a sample of men”). In 2017, academics also assessed US college students (some of whom were not porn users) for porn addiction. Results indicated that 19% of the male students and 4% of the female students met the test for addiction (“Cybersex Addiction Among College Students: A Prevalence Study”).
Note: Addiction rates don’t tell the whole story. Some young men with porn-induced sexual dysfunctions are not addicts, and would not meet any formal “addiction” threshold. Nevertheless, they sometimes need months to recover from low arousal and other dysfunctions during partnered sex, such as difficulty climaxing and sustaining erections.