Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Internet Porn: Its Problems, Perils, and Pitfalls

Today's hyper-stimulating erotica and porn pose substantial addictive risks.

Till now, in my 12-part series on human sexual desire I’ve confined myself to discussing our richly varied carnal appetites and how the porn industry seeks to satisfy them. In this final post, I’ll offer a perspective on what, practically, all this means for porn consumers—and those near them. And, overall, the picture is somewhat disturbing.

Not that I see anything intrinsically wrong or unethical about erotica or pornography. Such contrived titillation does in fact serve some useful purposes. As in offering people a brief respite from stress or boredom; or a mini-vacation from the tasks, obligations, and responsibilities of everyday life. Porn can also help individuals with a low libido become more sexually aroused. And in certain instances it can actually improve sexual sophistication and performance. Additionally, couples sometimes report that porn adds spice and novelty to their sex life. Moreover, generally research hasn’t supported the common claim that porn involvement leads to increased violence against women, contributing to rape as well as chauvinistic or cavalier attitudes toward rape. In fact, many of the familiar moralistic attacks against pornography have failed to receive much empirical support.

Still, what the accumulating literature on the subject has been demonstrating is, frankly, rather scary. (As in, “Be afraid . . . be very afraid.”) If erotica and porn are used cautiously and in moderation—vs. exclusively or excessively—and as only one of several activities to engage in during one’s “down-time,” it will probably be free of harmful consequences.That is, if it’s not abused. Still, given how we humans (particularly males) are “wired,” few things in life have more addictive potential than turning on to porn on a daily basis. And as psychological and neuro-scientific studies on this so-controversial subject become evermore abundant, the hazards of porn are becoming increasingly difficult to deny.

Consider also the fact that producers of porn, to survive financially in a highly competitive, multi-billion dollar industry, are compelled to make their product as addicting as possible. As in the junk food industry, where the goal is—through giving patrons a particularly “savory” experience—to get them to repeatedly come back for more, these entrepreneurs’ primary objective has to be to deliberately create craving. All of which should give you a better sense of how difficult it can be for many people not to eventually fall into the quagmire of porn abuse . . . then dependency . . . then, finally, full-blown addiction. They may start out capable of controlling this euphoria-inducing activity. But at some point that control is lost, their better judgment seriously impaired by a now hijacked brain. And once hooked, they’re no longer able to resist the enormous temptation that porn has become for them.

It’s something akin to trying to lose weight but yet keeping a giant brownie at hand. Sooner or later, it’s virtually guaranteed that the availability of the sweet will doom all efforts to avoid such self-defeating indulgence. And with porn the situation is much worse in that most of us use our computer for various things, so it’s on most of the time—and an “appetizing” porn site is just a click or two away.

In my last post I highlighted a miscellany of relatively recent erotic illusions and went into the neurological, mental, and emotional reasons for their popularity. For they add potent visual cues (for men) or beguiling psychological cues (for women), craftily calculated to accentuate the viewer’s, or reader’s, arousal. Such highly seductive “refinements” on conventional porn increase the likelihood that more porn users than ever will get snared by its lure. Which is why I felt I needed to end this protracted series on a cautionary note. However unknowingly, many people who enter the path of pornography find themselves traveling down a slippery slope. Unless they’re able to put on the breaks and turn away in time, they’re apt to lose their balance altogether. And, as this post will suggest, regaining control can be every bit as difficult and challenging as overcoming other addictions routinely viewed as more dangerous.

Although I’d like to focus my attention on porn addiction, first it may be best to enumerate some problems associated with porn use independent of whether the individual actually gets addicted to it. None of these are to be taken lightly.

Many researchers, cultural critics, and mental health professionals have pointed out that porn raises expectations for males counter to what real life can offer. Women are regularly portrayed as ready, willing, and able to do whatever their (beefcake) lover might choose (and that includes welcoming “facials”—and, hopefully, I don’t need to explain what that involves). Naomi Wolf, in an article published in New York Magazine (2003), notes that “in the end, porn doesn’t whet men’s appetites—it turns them off [to] the real thing . . . leading them to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy’.” The typically reported result of such a jaded perspective is that more and more males are deciding that the best solution to their arousal problems is to replace the real, 3-dimensional thing (now linked to reduced libido) with the “superior” 2-dimensional erotic turn-ons easily accessible through the Net.

Closely tied to this phenomenon is men’s lessened ability (i.e., under the influence of porn) to forge a truly erotic union with a woman. The hard-earned intimacy of a relationship grounded in affection, love, acceptance, and emotional commitment (rather than simply sex) eludes them as porn makes them more prone than ever to see women as sex objects. And they can’t help but perceive the actual women in their life as somehow inferior sex objects—certainly as compared to the porn models they’ve grown accustomed to watching, who now represent their “norm.” Sadly, taking the line of least resistance, they can substitute pseudo-intimacy for the genuine intimacy achievable only with a real-life partner. Which, I think we’d all agree, offers a far more fulfilling experience. Fantasized intimacy may facilitate orgasm, but it can also leave the individual feeling empty and disconnected afterwards.

If continued exposure to porn inclines men to see real women as less physically appealing, and to experience sexual relations as less than satisfying, where does all this leave women? For one thing, they may complain that when they’re having sex with their porn-abusing partner, they can tell that his closed eyes are inwardly focusing on something other than themselves. In other words, these males just aren’t with them; they’re outside looking in (or within)—truly “missing in action.”

And there are other problems as well. Women tend to be much more concerned—and self-conscious—about their appearance than men. Recognizing that as imperfect beings they can’t possibly match up with the cyberspace beauties that men, however vicariously, may be “devouring” daily on the Web, their insecurity and self-doubt can become magnified. Beyond this, many women report that men seem to show less interest in foreplay and turning them on. Rather, taking their lead from innumerable Internet examples, they can be almost obsessed with employing female bodies to maximize their own lustful pleasure—or at least to reach climax. And in the end such alienated sex fosters not greater emotional closeness but a less-than-involved detachment, or loneliness—and for both parties.

Women’s frustrations can hardly be viewed as exceeding men’s. For therapists have been reporting more men (particularly young men, even teenagers) coming in with porn-related sexual dysfunctions. Just as women negatively compare themselves to their more ideally proportioned Web counterparts, these males compare themselves to the super studs they regularly see on their computers. Spectating on their own real-life “porn sessions” (because, ironically, they’ve come to perceive sexual acts as porn sites falsely model them), they emotionally distance themselves from their partner as— anxiously—they rate their performance on the basis of some imagined, far-fetched standard of masculine virility.

And the fact is that too much porn—or, more accurately, too much masturbating to porn—can diminish sexual performance. In itself, a surfeit of orgasms can lower libido. But more than this, the real thing—which takes place not on a monitor screen but in an actual relationship—doesn’t usually lend itself to the kind of erotic hyper-stimulation which chronic porn watchers have grown used to. So at the same time that men are being super-sensitized to cyber-representations of sex, they’re desensitized to the real thing. Masturbating regularly to sexual stimuli that’s most arousing to them, they may find themselves going limp in actual flesh-and-blood encounters.

And so, increasingly, even youthful males with normal testosterone levels can be afflicted with erectile dysfunction, unable to perform with real-life partners. Confused and humiliated by such incapacity, their self-esteem can take a serious hit. For they’re beset with self-doubts not that dissimilar to young women, who also suffer psychologically as a result of their partner’s impotence (which is difficult for them not to take personally).

To this point, I’ve been describing some of the personal and interpersonal problems of heavy or habitual Internet porn involvement . But the consequence of actual porn addiction are considerably worse. It’s been estimated that in the U.S. alone more than 60 million men, women, and adolescents may now be struggling with excessive porn use (see Kastleman, 2009). Which is a powerful indication of how easy it is to get so immersed in porn that your whole life is thrown off balance.

So how, exactly, does this come about? One of the most forceful characterizations of what happens when we lose our footing and tumble down the slippery slope of porn addiction is from practitioner Bernell Christensen’s “Giving Up Everything for Porn—It’s in Your DNA!”:

“Research shows that many of the same neuro-chemicals, biological and emotional processes activated during [actual] physical sex are also triggered by porn viewing—in other words, the brain behaves like it’s having a real sexual encounter. . . . Porn viewing switches on one of the most basic human survival mechanisms—the urge to continue one’s own species. Along with that comes the attraction, bonding, euphoria, intense focus, etc. that was intended by nature to push us to the mating process.

“Porn viewing releases many of the same chemicals triggered by street drug use. Over time, these chemicals change the brain in significant ways. Basically, the frontal lobes shrink and become increasingly handicapped. This is the part of the brain that controls reasoning, logic, values, goals, self-discipline, self-restraint and willpower. At the same time, the Limbic System of the brain is hyper-activated and becomes dominant. This part of the brain has one narrow focus—the intense pursuit of instant pleasure and reward at the cost of everything else. . . . Bent on getting the pleasure rush of porn . . . this is what the Limbic System says to the Frontal Lobes—‘I don’t care if you lose your job, your marriage, your future or anything else! I want what I want and I want it NOW!’

“Under the influence of powerful neuro-chemicals, porn viewing plunges the individual into a very ‘narrow funnel’ where all logic, reason, consequences, etc. are blocked out. . . .”

One complementary explanation of this deteriorative, addictive process is offered by Gary Wilson, who hosts a website called “Your Brain on Porn.” In his sobering piece, “Why Do I Find Porn More Exciting Than a Partner?”, he, too, discusses how the overstimulation of Internet porn alters the brain, emphasizing that you’re less responsive to previously pleasurable stimuli, while becoming hyper-responsive to porn. Another way of stating this is that you become desensitized to pleasure in general, but sensitized to the various cues that your brain associates with the titillations of porn. And the Internet offers such an abundance of opportunities to discover ever new sexual stimuli that it’s all too easy to overly incite your brain. Dopamine—the neurochemical released when your reward system is activated—equates with feelings of desire, anticipation, elation, craving: the entire ritual surrounding your porn-seeking (or really, euphoria-seeking) behavior. And this is precisely why dopamine generally has come to be know as “the master molecule of addiction.”

But excessive stimulation causes your brain to protect itself by decreasing dopamine sensitivity—or your very ability to feel pleasure. Driven to re-energize these now resistant pleasure circuits and counteract their temporary numbness, you may dive even deeper into porn. Eventually, however, your brain adapts to your increased efforts through yet further decreases in dopamine signaling. Your overall satisfaction level declines, as your response to what in the past would have felt exciting goes flat. And this even includes having sex with someone you may have regarded as really “hot.” Your erections become sluggish, your mood lethargic: in effect, you’re suffering from marked dopamine deficiency.

Now only porn can turn you on. So, clearly addicted to it, you’re all the more dependent on it for feeling good. Ironically, what desensitized you to pleasure in the first place is what you’re compelled to pursue to generate some satisfaction, some pleasure in your life. And, as Wilson puts it, “Over time, this dual-edged mechanism has your reward circuitry buzzing at the hint of porn use, but less than enthused when presented with the real deal.”

Kind of scary, isn’t it?—and pretty much this same description could be used to illuminate other addictions as well. Moreover, all addictions end up impairing higher neocortical functioning. Whenever the most primitive, purely appetitive part of your brain takes over the reins, your best judgment is seriously compromised. So under the influence of the “porn drug,” you’re liable to take risks that can jeopardize your education, career, relationships, and family—as well as fail to achieve your goals, take advantage of opportunities, and even forsake your core values and ideals. Needless to say, if you’re obsessed with pornography, you’ll also end up losing precious time, sleep, and energy—and endanger your physical and emotional health and well-being.

So it’s wise to keep in mind that if you do use Internet porn—as a way of lowering stress, generating pleasure, or increasing feelings of excitement in your life—that you make sure you’re able to set limits on the amount of time and energy you’ll devote to it. Similar to alcohol, fatty/surgary foods, marijuana, video games, gambling, and so many other gratifying substances and activities readily available today, porn can be highly addictive. And withdrawing—and ultimately recovering—from any addiction can be a slow and painful process.

So, yes, if you wish, feel free to enjoy your favorite porn sites. Or, for that matter, romance novels (which, for women, can also get out of control and become addictive). But take heed to do so in moderation. For too much of a good thing can wind up being a really bad thing.

NOTE 1: Titles for my earlier writings on the subject of the Internet and human sexual desire (based on Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s A Billion Wicked Thoughts, 2011) include the following—and I’ve provided connecting links to all of them:

NOTE 2: If you found this “advisory” post informative, I hope you’ll consider passing it on to others—who might also learn something practical about the subject.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

----I invite readers to connect with me on Facebook—as well as to follow my psychological and philosophical musings on Twitter.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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