Love and Sex in the Digital Age

Technology and the intimate relationship

Is Male Porn Use Ruining Sex?

Are men becoming totally out of sync with real-world romantic relationships?

The Digital Free-For-All

Since day one the online universe has been driven, at least in part, by sexual content. Digital devices currently provide erotic images and videos of every ilk imaginable to anyone who’s interested, 24/7/365. Just about anything that can turn a person on is readily available in virtually unlimited quantities—easily, instantly, and anonymously accessed. Recent statistics show that approximately 12 percent of all websites are porn-related, 25 percent of all search engine requests are sex-related, and 35 percent of all Internet downloads are pornographic, so porn is pretty darn ubiquitous. And these numbers don’t even count all the user-generated (amateur) stuff that is posted and viewed on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

These facts may or may not be alarming, depending on your point of view. If you’re a teenaged boy driven by adolescent hormones, this may sound just fine and thank you Internet! If, however, you’re the parent of that young man, then maybe you’re not so jazzed. And if you’re a 40-year-old man with a loving wife and two children and you’re spending hours every night looking at and masturbating to online porn instead of spending time with your family, getting needed sleep, prepping for that big presentation at work tomorrow morning, or whatever else it is that you really should be doing, then online porn may be bad news indeed. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, there is no denying that digital technology has greatly increased the accessibility, affordability, and anonymity of porn use. The million dollar question, of course, is what all this porn is doing to the people who are using it.

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Porn and Young Men

In their recent TED talk turned eBook, The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, Phillip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan talk about the “technology enchantment” that is adversely affecting today’s young males. They write, “From the earliest ages, guys are seduced into excessive and mostly isolated viewing and involvement with texting, tweeting, blogging, online chatting, emailing, and watching sports on TV or laptops. Most of all, though, they’re burying themselves in video games and…pornography.” The fear, of course, is that adolescent boys are no longer learning what it takes to evolve healthy romantic partnerships, that they are using online porn as their model for real-world sexual relationships. And this may well be a legitimate concern since online porn typically has no storyline, no emotional connection, no buildup to the sexual performance, and no concern for physical or emotional safety. There is no talking, no negotiating, no seducing, no romancing, and no tenderness. Usually kissing and foreplay are totally absent. All that’s there is an endless stream of idealized body parts and sexual acts. Zimbardo and Duncan assert that because of this boys’ brains are being rewired to demand unrealistic levels of novelty, stimulation, and excitement, and, as a result, they are becoming totally out of sync with real-world romantic relationships.

This does in fact appear to be happening with some young men. In fact, according to the results of two large-scale surveys in Japan, one in 2008, the other in 2010, the issue is not only more prevalent than one might expect, but growing. For instance, the 2008 survey found that 17.5 percent of males aged 16 to 19 stated they had no interest in or an outright aversion to sex with another person. Two years later, this percentage had more than doubled, to 36.1 percent. For males aged 20 to 24 the percentage increase was similar, up from 11.8 percent in 2008 to 21.5 percent in 2010. This rising disinterest in real-world physical intimacy coincides directly with the online porn explosion, which began in earnest right around 2008. So it appears the new reality for at least some young men is that, thanks to online porn, they are less motivated than their predecessors to seek traditional forms of in-the-flesh sexuality. And why would we expect any different when online porn guarantees young males exactly what they’re looking for in terms of intensity, distraction, control, and a nonexistent risk of rejection?

Porn and Sexual Dysfunction

Even males who are fully grown and either already in or desirous of real-world relationships can struggle with the negative effects of pornography. One increasingly documented issue is that of sexual dysfunction—both erectile dysfunction (ED) and delayed ejaculation (DE). Simply put, growing numbers of men, including many males in their sexual prime, now suffer from sexual dysfunction, and their dysfunction appears to be directly related to their use of online pornography. Interestingly, this issue is not entirely due to the frequency of masturbation and orgasm outside a primary relationship (i.e., the need for a sexual refractory period in which males “reload,” so to speak). In reality, the problem is increasingly related to the fact that when a guy spends 70, 80, or even 90 percent of his sex life masturbating to online porn—endless images of sexy, exciting, constantly changing partners and experiences—he is, over time, likely to find his real-world partner less stimulating than the visuals parading through his mind. In other words, the digital porn explosion has created in some men an emotional disconnection that is manifesting physically as sexual dysfunction with real-world partners.

Possible signs of porn-induced sexual dysfunction include:

  • A man is able to achieve erections and orgasms with pornography, but he struggles with one or both when he’s with an in-person partner.
  • A man is able to have sex and achieve orgasm with partners, but reaching orgasm takes a long time and his partners complain that he seems disengaged.
  • A man is able to maintain an erection with real-world partners, but he can only achieve orgasm by replaying porn clips in his mind.
  • A man increasingly prefers porn to real-world sex, finding it more intense and more engaging.
  • A man keeps porn-related secrets from his real-life partners (time spent looking at porn, types of porn viewed, etc.)
  • A man’s real-life partners complain that they feel like “the other woman.”

The simple, sad truth here is that thanks to heavy porn use growing numbers of men are suffering from sexual dysfunction, be it ED, DE, or both. Even worse, male sexual dysfunction affects not just men, but their romantic partners. After all, if a guy can’t get it up, keep it up, or reach orgasm, then his partner’s sexual pleasure is also likely to be diminished. Obviously, there are times when sexual dysfunction is physical rather than mental/emotional in origin. As such, doctors should always look for physical causes first. However, a man who complains about ED with his real-life partner but says he has no erectile issues when looking at porn probably does not have a physical problem. For him, Viagra isn’t the answer. Instead, he has an intimacy issue that will need to be addressed.

Adverse Effects on a Partner’s Self-Esteem

It’s not just male sexual dysfunction that affects the partners of male porn users. Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that a man’s porn use can adversely affect the self-esteem of his girlfriend or wife (or male partner if he is gay), and research is now backing this up. One study found that women whose husbands or boyfriends look at pornography frequently (in the woman’s estimation) are less happy in their relationships than women whose male partners either infrequently use porn or don’t look at it all (to the woman’s knowledge). Essentially, the study found that as a male partner’s porn use increases, his female partner’s self-esteem and relationship happiness decreases. The most common complaint by women whose male partners frequently use porn is feeling like they don’t (and can’t) measure up to the unrealistic perfection of online images. Unfortunately, this study did not attempt to find out if the male partners’ porn use caused the women’s self-esteem to drop, or if women who have low self-esteem to begin with are picking and sticking with less-available (porn-using) male partners. Either way, it is clear that the repeated use of porn by men in otherwise committed relationships can and often does adversely affect partners.

Is Porn the New Normal?

Given the above, it might seem as if partner sex is about to disappear completely in our society. In reality, this is very unlikely. The truth is that most male porn users, regardless of age, go through phases where porn seems really great, but over time, if they are emotionally healthy, they find themselves less interested in porn than in the fulfillment that only real-world intimate relationships can bring. The good news is that even if excessive porn use does rewire some men’s minds and cause them to lose interest in real-world partner sex, their brains (and therefore their libidos) can eventually recover. For proof, we need only to look at the brains of recovering drug addicts. After all, it is well known that chronic use of addictive drugs like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin cause significant changes to the brain; this neurobiological rewiring is what makes stopping drug use so difficult and relapse so common among those who do try to quit. However, numerous studies have shown that if an alcoholic or drug addict can remain sober for six months to a year, the brain nearly always returns to a near-baseline state. In other words, six months to a year of clean-time will reboot the brain, and from then on staying sober becomes much, much easier.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that brain function and recovery is similar with behavioral addictions - including compulsive use of pornography. It is believed that within six months to a year the brains of even the heaviest porn users can repair and reboot, allowing these men to once again be turned on by real-world sexual encounters. Essentially, turning off the porn will in most cases allow the brain to reset itself, restoring sexual rewards circuits to something approaching normal. And the longer a porn abuser stays away sexual imagery, the better his results will be. (Heavy alcohol or drug use that continues after a man quits porn is likely to slow or even halt this process.)

For more information on the intersection of digital technology, sexuality, and modern life, you may want to order my latest book, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider. My other recent book, Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction, might also be of interest.

 

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. 

Robert Weiss is the author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships.

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