The sky is falling. It’s raining porn, and we all need to be afraid—very afraid. Porn, and in particular, high-speed Internet porn, is supposedly destroying lives, causing impotence, and my personal favorite, irrevocably changing people’s brains. But it’s not.
One overarching issue is that these claims, that pornography affects your brain, often exaggerate research findings, attempting to apply it to pornography and sex, in what I call Valley Girl Science—it's real because it's like this other thing that is real. Secondly, the studies and research cited are typically very poor science—a great example is the Italian “study” that was trumpeted last year, as showing impotence caused by porn. That really wasn't a "study," but merely a survey, of dubious scientific construction, which has never been subjected to peer review and as a result, cannot be replicated—in science, if you can't replicate it, it ain't real. Thirdly, these statements and assertions are based upon a very naive understanding of the brain—it is in fact constantly changing. Anything we do repetitively changes aspects of the brain, whether it is watching lots of porn, or playing Scrabble. I'm playing Scrabble these days, on my phone, with friends around the world. And I'm getting better at it as I play. My brain is changing, increasing in its efficiency of recall, flexibility, etc. But I'm not addicted to Scrabble, and if I stop doing it, my brain will change in other ways—this is in the nature of our neurology. So, there is little ability of any of this research to distinguish porn-related change from any other brain changes that are constantly occurring.
People do have a strong response to video pornography. But women actually have a stronger physiological response than men; this actually raises a problem for the porn addict evangelists—based upon this research, women should be more addicted to pornography than men. But the overwhelming majority of the stories we hear about are men. Why is this? Because one part of this issue is an attack on aspects of male sexuality, including masturbation and use of pornography, that society fears.
One of the things that we know is that yes, porn can affect people, but it does not take them over or override their values. If someone watches porn showing something they find distasteful, it has no impact on their behavior or desires. But, if someone watches porn they are at least neutral about, then it does impact their desires, and make it slightly more likely that they would be interested - anal sex for instance. If I find it disgusting, watching anal pornography isn't going to change that. But, if I am neutral on it, then watching anal porn probably would slightly increase the chance that I would express a willingness to at least give it a try. But, there is the crux of the issue—the people who gravitate towards unhealthy, violent porn, are people who already have a disposition towards violence. So—the problem is not in the porn, but in the people. Regulating the porn really is going to make no impact on these people as they can (and do) find far more violent and graphic images in mainstream Hollywood films like "Saw."
Frankly, I am just a lowly clinical psychologist and writer, who gets baffled by the complexity of the brain. So, I have to look towards people who understand the brain far better than I do. And when I do, I find tremendous levels of disagreement, with some brain scientists asserting that porn does cause changes, while others assert equally well that it does not. Though Marnia quotes some scientists and policy people who assert that the brain is changing as a result of porn, she acknowledges that there are many reputable scientists out there who disagree.
But she is certain that there is an effect. That’s fine—but certainty of that flavor comes from a moral conviction—science talks about probability, and any time someone quotes science to support their certainty—get your umbrella, because the sky is falling. I’m a scientist—and to quote a colleague, as a result, I’m not certain about anything. In the '90's, people were just as convinced that crack cocaine was going to destroy society. We were told by convincing pseudo-scientists that crack was more addictive than regular cocaine, and laws were changed. Decades later? The crack baby epidemic never materialized. And the laws that imposed different penalties on crack users have been struck down, as laws that discriminated against the poor, and were based on moral panic, not science.
As a result, I believe that the best, most fair answer is that at this time, experts cannot truly state that we know whether there is a brain impact or not. And in that event, when even the experts are split, we must assume the null hypothesis of no effect to be true, until it is proven false. to do otherwise is to allow moral stampedes to drive us off a cliff, where society, and stigmatized groups, suffer.
Currently, attempts to identify neurochemical pathways for sexual or pornography addiction are, at best, “speculative not scientific,” according to brain researchers Reid, Carpenter, and Fong at UCLA and Brigham Young University. Further, the use of neurological arguments embedded in morally driven campaigns against the dangers of video games, pornography, and certain kinds of sex should be taken with large doses of salt—these arguments are typically expressed by advocates and nonscientists who exaggerate effects and simplify processes, presenting a cartoon version of neurochemistry to support their premises. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the brain remains a complex, multidetermined “black box” that we are just barely beginning to understand. The role of the brain in complex behaviors such as sex promises to be a riddle for many long years to come. When we solve the riddle, the answers will not be simple ones, as they will have to account for all factors, including the brain, human behavior, learning history, evolutionary influences, environment, free will, and sexual desire.