This post is in response to Why Are These Men Downloading Child Pornography? by Karen Franklin
via Pixabay
Source: via Pixabay

Karen Frankin, Ph.D., recently published a blog post where she suggests that easy access to pornography, and the wide diversity of Internet pornography, is leading to men pursuing child pornography, when these men did not have pre-existing pedophilic sexual arousal. Franklin reports that as a forensic psychologist, she is seeing more and more “normal guys” in the legal system, for child porn-related charges. She goes on to argue that “wearing out the reward circuitry” of the brain is at root of these problems, and that the explosion of online porn is contributing to a rise in relationship problems, rejection of partnered sex, and to men searching for “content that they formerly considered disgusting or unappealing.”

Franklin’s theses are interesting, but are based on poorly supported arguments. Here are just a few of the challenges to her arguments:

Franklin’s main thesis is the idea that excessive porn use and availability leads to porn users progressively seeking more “novel” material. This is an implicit assumption of the “tolerance” effect of the addiction models wherein users of substances require greater quantities of the substance, in order to achieve the “same” sensation. Unfortunately, this argument is inappropriate when applied to sexuality. First, the course of sexual development over a lifespan leads to increased desensitization. When we are hormonal adolescents, almost anything can turn us on. As geriatric adults, achieving sexual arousal takes a lot more work. This is normal, and there has never been a study which attempts to distinguish this “tolerance effect” from the changes involved in normal sexual development.

via Pixabay
Source: via Pixabay

Secondly, the assumption that people seek more novel erotic stimuli online is challenged by data presented by researchers Ogas and Gaddam, in their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts. There, after analyzing untold numbers of people’s searches for porn, the authors found that people are actually quite boring, searching for the same types of porn and stimuli, time after time. There was no evidence of a “slippery slope” (presumably coated in KY Jelly) that leads people’s sexual interests to change through exposure.

Finally, Franklin’s premise of the effects of exposure rests on an assumption that people’s sexual arousals can actually change, or be morphed, through exposure to online stimuli. This belief is actually at the root of those who engage in conversion therapy, attempting to forcibly alter the homosexual arousals of individuals, changing them to be heterosexual. Unfortunately, there’s little to no evidence such changes are possible, and strong evidence that such changes are impermanent at best. In an infamous study at Tulane, electrodes were implanted in the brain of a homosexual man, stimulating the pleasure centers of his cortex, while he watched heterosexual porn, and then had heterosexual sex with a sex worker. But, once the electrodes were removed, subject B-19 later returned to homosexuality. Even with pedophiles, there is growing evidence that their arousal emerges from predisposing neurological characteristics, and that while the men can be taught to constrain or alter their behaviors, their underlying sexual arousal patterns may be irrevocably fixed.

As people watch porn, they become more accepting of sexual diversity, in themselves and others. They become less religious, and more egalitarian in their gender values. Are they then more likely to be willing to explore sexual desires they previously thought "disgusting"? Yes, because that disgust was a reflection of a moral conflict between their desires, and what they had been taught about sexuality. As they've watched porn, they've learned that sex is not inherently scary, bad or destructive, and that their desires are not unique nor sinful.  

A few other glaring errors and odd assumptions in Franklin’s arguments stand out:

She describes dopamine as a “feel-good” chemical, and refers to research suggesting porn and masturbation can alter the brain structure. Unfortunately, dopamine is not a “feel-good” chemical, but one that enhances learning, and is not actually associated with pleasure. Secondly, the research on neurological effects of porn has no evidence of causality, and there is greater research suggesting that these brain characteristics predispose individuals to engage in high levels of sensation-seeking, including porn use. In other words, the brain characteristics come first.

Franklin describes the high levels of sexual dysfunction in young males, and infers these are related to porn use. In contrast, recent research actually finds that porn users have better sexual knowledge than non-users of erotic material. Indeed, research with young males with erectile dysfunction finds that the predictors are personal characteristics such as anxiety, drug use, smoking, obesity and limited sexual experience. Not porn.

Franklin blithely suggests that porn use is causing relationship problems. Unfortunately, all the developing research in this area indicates that pre-existing relationships and moral problems/conflicts predict increased porn use, and that men use porn and masturbation as ways to cope with, and compensate for, sexual problems in relationships. Indeed, research finds that for many couples, porn use is positive for the relationship.

Franklin assumes, a priori, that porn represents a unique form of media with uniquely disproportionate effects. This is a common assumption, but untested and unproven. There’s no evidence that porn has a differential learning effect compared to say soap operas. We can assume it might, because porn involves sex, and involves masturbation. It MIGHT have greater effect. But it might not. The average American consumes about seven minutes of porn at a time, on average, a few times a week. In contrast, the average American consumes over five hours of television a day. Which medium is more likely to have an effect on people’s values and behaviors?

via Pixabay
Source: via Pixabay

Finally, I find it interesting that Franklin is so focused on male users of porn. Research by Chivers and others finds that females are actually more physiologically responsive to porn, compared to males and that women are less often aware of their sexual arousal to these material. If anyone watching internet porn were at risk for problems or changes from their use, it would be women. When in fact, women watch porn at increasing rates, and search for “rough sex” porn at three times the rate of men. Not because porn made them that way, but because they can use porn to seek out material that fulfills the interests they’ve been taught to fear or be ashamed of. Online porn offers safe, private ways to explore sexual interests outside what women have been taught that “nice girls” like.

Franklin responsibly points out that online child porn consumption is unlikely to reflect a greater risk to engage in sex offending. But, she argues that the increase in watching child-porn reflects the effect of the wide array of porn available. In doing so, she ignores data that the amount of child porn a person has, is a better indicator of pedophilia than a person’s behaviors (including sexual abuse of multiple children). In other words, the porn people watch reflects their pre-existing sexual dispositions. We can best understand peoples’ sexuality, by understanding what they watch, because they watch what turns them on.

Porn is not changing society, men, relationships, or sexuality. Access to online porn reveals what peoples’ sexual interests actually are, apart from what we would like them to be. Dealing with those conflicts means dealing with people themselves, not getting distracted by blaming porn.

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

Child Porn Redux is a reply by Karen Franklin Ph.D.

You are reading

Women Who Stray

Sex Addiction Summer Camp or Toxic Masculinity?

Harvey Weinstein joins long list of men who flee to sex addiction treatment.

Why You Need a CyberBuddy

Finding safety online involves overcoming isolation.

Coping With Outrage Fatigue

Are you exhausted with being upset? You're not alone.