Teachers. Businessmen. Politicians. Every week there’s another headline about a seemingly upstanding citizen caught with child pornography. The natural assumption is that the man is a closet pedophile, hiding his deviant desires behind a façade of normalcy.

This pedophile assumption is sometimes right, and sometimes wrong. Either way, its circularity stymies deeper reflection. “He’s a pedophile so he seeks out child porn. Duh.” It is only if we step away from its micro-focus on the creep of the hour that we may detect something else going on here. Something bigger and more ominous. Something that should awaken our collective concern.

Many of us in the forensic trenches have glimpsed it: a seemingly normal guy who’s become so wrapped up in the online smorgasbord of sexual fantasy offerings that he spends all of his time frenetically downloading massive amounts of ever-more-deviant porn, as if trying to quench an insatiable thirst.

Medical doctors are seeing another facet: teenage boys and young men with enfeebled sexual desire, who cannot maintain erections or achieve orgasms. More than half of young men ages 16-21 in one study reported such sexual dysfunctions. Unlike with the elderly or infirm, nothing is physically amiss: The problem is all in their heads.

Karen Franklin / credit: screenshot
Source: Karen Franklin / credit: screenshot

These trends are developing so fast that they've caught us off guard. With the Internet so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget its recency. “Tube” channels streaming digital video content have only been around since the mid-2000s. But in the brief decade since their emergence, video porn sites have proliferated like mushrooms in a bog: One popular site boasts 91 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “b”) videos viewed just last year alone, or 12.5 videos per every person on earth!  

The popularity of internet porn is generally attributed to the “three A’s” – anonymity, availability and affordability. People can learn about sex and engage in experimentation without interpersonal vulnerability or fear of embarrassment. There is no responsibility for another’s satisfaction.

There seems to be no question that the rapid proliferation of internet porn is ushering in a sea change in sexuality, especially among digital natives – those in their teens and 20s who know of no other world. Porn viewing is near-universal among male youth throughout the Western world, with average first use steadily dropping to a current average of under 13 years of age. A connection between internet porn and the sudden, unprecedented surge in sexual dysfunction is also abundantly clear: Men seeking medical help for copulatory impotence report obsessive porn use and, just as telling, they quickly recover normal functioning if they can manage to curtail their porn viewing.

With the online porn explosion so new, medical researchers are just starting to catch up to its effects. But an emergent body of neurological research paints a disturbing picture of an oversatiated evolutionary system gone haywire.

The brain is a remarkably elastic organ that readily transmutes in response to environmental and behavioral input. Take the famous taxi driver study, which demonstrated that successfully navigating London’s byzantine streets causes the memory-processing hippocampus to bulk up like a pro wrestler’s biceps. In contrast to this example of plasticity’s utility, the evidence suggests that brain plasticity is maladaptive in the case of heavy porn use.

Wearing out the reward circuitry

 Discover Magazine
Source: Credit: Discover Magazine

Evolution has hard-wired humans to feel pleasure from activities like eating and sex that increase our chances of species survival. But because the brain is not evolutionarily prepared for incessant, artificial sex, constant masturbation to video porn overstimulates the pleasure-seeking circuitry and causes both structural and functional damage. Preliminary neuroimaging research indicates that the ventral striatum (the brain’s so-called “reward center”) shrinks in size. The neurotransmitter dopamine – the “feel-good” chemical that helps animals remember experiences both good and bad – reduces its signaling. Perhaps most alarmingly, the frontal cortex -- responsible for higher-order thinking and planning -- loses grey matter. It’s as if, says researcher Simone Kuhn of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the heavy porn user is actually wearing out his brain’s reward circuitry.

Psychologically, heavy porn use may foster a vicious cycle of avoidance and poor skills for coping with stress, much like that found in heavy drug users. People may use porn to escape their real-world stressors and anxieties, zoning out in a fantasy realm millions of miles away. Over time, this becomes a preferred strategy that is relied upon for handling stress. Experimental research suggests that such habitual pursuit of immediate sexual pleasure reduces one’s capacity to delay gratification for long-term benefit. The user becomes increasingly impulsive, spending more and more time sitting in front of his computer in a disinhibited state of chronic sexual arousal. As plans and goals are sidetracked, he feels worse about himself, leading to depression that – you guessed it – creates an even stronger urge to escape reality.

Meanwhile, habituation makes it harder and harder to achieve gratification. What was once new and exciting becomes stale and boring. To achieve the sexual release that was once so easy, the consumer must frenetically search for ever-more-exotic and novel stimuli. Today’s porn users, report the ever-helpful statisticians at the popular porn site PornHub, are no longer satisfied with “vanilla” erotica or the old “in-out, in-out”; they are searching for wilder and wilder fantasy.

With an endless menu of novel sexual stimuli available via the mere click of a mouse, this process of habituation sends heavy consumers spiraling down a rabbit hole, sampling ever-more-hardcore themes, from bestiality and bondage to myriad fetishes and – heedless of the legal risk – child pornography. About half of male porn users report that they have found themselves searching for content that they formerly considered disgusting or unappealing. Given what we know about habituation, it is not surprising that this progression to more deviant themes is predicted by the amount of time spent online, the quantity of videos viewed and the age of first porn use.

But the progression to culturally taboo fetishes is also promoted by the industry itself, which uses the allure of the forbidden to increase its profits. Indeed, it is rather ironic – even perverse – that the very culture that condemns child pornography as the twisted fantasies of the deviant pedophile engages in the widespread eroticization of children to sell products. As British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes points out, the titillation of mass audiences via sexualized images of children can be seen as “the soft end” of a culturally pervasive continuum that at its extreme features hard-core child pornography. 

Jewkes and her colleague Maggie Wykes go so far as to call the current moral panic over child pornography a "smokescreen" that serves to divert attention from the real sexual harm to children in patriarchal societies. After all, the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse occurs within the home and is committed by a male family member, not a teacher, doctor or even a priest.

In fact, the very term “child pornography” distracts from the incestuous nature of much of the sexual violence depicted, in which fathers callously videotape the abuse of their young daughters for profit and status within their deviant subculture.

“The images found on computers [have] led to calls for an international database of missing children, thus ignoring the evidence that most children are abused at home and so are not ‘missing,’ ” they point out. “The power of moral panic lies not in what it does address but in what it doesn’t.”

The irony doesn’t end there. In our current climate of “paranoid parenting,” in which parents are charged with neglect for letting their kids walk home from a suburban park without adult supervision, the fear of digital child images is making everyone see the world through the lens of the pedophile, thereby colluding with commercial sexual exploitation by fetishizing youthful bodies.

But what about risk?

Broader cultural discourses aside, on an immediate practical level the questions for forensic psychologists revolve around risk: If a man is caught with illegal child pornography, what is his risk for molesting an actual child? And what is his risk of reoffending by downloading more child pornography?

The fact that reported child sexual abuse has continued to plummet in recent years despite the meteoric rise in child pornography argues against any direct causal link between child porn and hands-on offending. But direct research on child porn consumers is tricky, because such people are less than keen to reveal themselves. This has forced researchers to focus on those who have been apprehended, likely skewing data toward the more deviant and criminally-oriented.

Despite this limitation, the cumulative data bring good tidings: Overall, men who have been arrested and/or convicted for child pornography offending pose a very low risk to the public.

Aggregating nine extant studies on reoffense risk using meta-analytic methods, prominent pedophilia researcher Michael Seto and colleagues found that, on average, a man who has been caught with child porn has about a 3.4% chance of committing another non-contact offense. The risk he will actually molest a child is even lower, around 2%.

These extremely low risk levels -- especially for child pornography offenders with no known history of hands-on offending -- is further evidence that much of their misconduct is driven by curiosity and internet-enhanced impulsivity. Once caught, all but the most deviant learn their lesson and apparently refrain from further misconduct. 

In any body of scientific research, of course, there is always that pesky outlier. In this case, there is one loner study that reached markedly different findings from the pack (and got a substantial amount of attention in the process). That article, based on convicted offenders at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, is regarded as an unreliable anomaly. Prisoners at the facility said they were coerced into falsely claiming that they had molested children under threat of being expelled from the treatment program and shipped off to more dangerous penitentiaries. Further, they were never informed that they were part of a research project, and did not give their consent (which if true would be a violation of the Nuremberg Code). Federal judges have been harshly critical of the study. Based on its multiple identified problems, there is even an effort underway to get the Journal of Family Violence to issue a retraction.

The first big wave of child pornography prosecutions caught forensic psychologists off guard. With little extant research and no established tools to assess risk in this emergent criminal class, some practitioners turned to instruments like the Static-99 that were designed to assess reoffense risk among hands-on sex offenders. Not surprisingly, given the obvious differences between sexual assault and online pornography viewing, these instruments turned out to greatly overestimate the risk to the public posed by pornography-only offenders.

Michael Seto has been on the forefront of trying to rectify this situation. He and his colleagues have developed a new instrument to try to distinguish between the garden-variety child pornography offender and the tiny fraction who pose a greater risk to the public. The risk factors on his Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool, or CPORT, are largely common-sensical: Men at greater risk are those with more entrenched pedophilic and/or criminal propensities, as indicated by such factors as prior criminal history or contact sex offending against minors. 

Additionally, it is sometimes possible to distinguish men with primary pedophilic attractions from those who were sucked down the rabbit hole by analyzing the totality of their downloaded images. The pedophiles will tend to have a preponderance of child images, often quite well organized, whereas those without fixed sexual interests in children will have a wider variety of images, including those of adults and other themes such as bestiality, bondage and the like, with child photos in the minority.

Criminologist Jewkes is correct that the current obsession with prosecuting child porn cases distracts from the bigger picture. It not only encourages a warped and ineffective approach to child sexual abuse prevention, but it also sidelines critical analysis of legal adult porn. Because it is legal and its harm is more subtle (albeit far more pervasive), adult porn doesn't generate the moral outrage of child pornography. But just as child porn promotes distorted beliefs about children and child sexuality, much mainstream adult porn promotes destructive messages about women – what they like, and how they should be treated. It fosters objectification, and legitimates violence and abuse.

Whither this social experiment?

Zooming even further out, online porn -- whether legal or illegal -- can be viewed as just one facet of a massive social experiment into completely uncharted waters.

 Access AI
Source: Credit: Access AI

Echoing the Sci-Fi movie Ex Machina (kind of an isolationist Stepford Wives for the 21st century), the market in sex dolls and robots is booming, as “fembots” and “sexbots” become ever-more realistic in appearance and feel; they're now even being programmed with "personalities" (sexual, shy, naive, brainy, etc.). As Europe’s first android brothel opens its doors in Barcelona, some predict we are on the brink of a sex-robot tourist industry. Others go so far as to predict that “sex with humans could soon be a thing of the past.”   

In trend-setting Japan, there is government hand-wringing over the steadily growing proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds who remain single and virgins. Whether porn’s ubiquity is a cause versus a symptom of these larger, global sea changes in sexuality and family life remains an open question. But it is certainly safe to say that online pornography will do nothing to make it easier for people to reach out and connect, either sexually or socially.

After all, there is mounting evidence that porn contributes to young people’s insecurity about their physical adequacy and attractiveness. Heavy porn consumption also weakens men’s commitment to romantic relationships. Real-life partners are mundane and flawed in comparison, incapable of living up to the idealized fantasy model. And, unlike sex-bots, they do not always obey.

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror (my episode rankings are HERE), but in this era of increasing social isolation and alienation it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to envision a dystopic future in which people wall themselves off in lonely cubicles, growing old alone as they desperately scour digital media for satisfaction and companionship that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

People Watch Porn That Turns Them On is a reply by David J Ley Ph.D.

About the Author

Karen Franklin, Ph.D.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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