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To View or Not to View? That Is the Question

Good or bad? It's a matter of motivation and moderation.

Lucky Business/Shutterstock
Source: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

Seventy-five percent of men and 41 percent of women have viewed and/or downloaded pornography in their lifetime. It's estimated that in the United States more than 60 million people are dealing with issues involving excessive porn use.

Why pornography?

Pornography is specifically created to hook viewers by adding strong visual and psychological cues. Reasons for pornography use are not limited to masturbation. Reasons given by young adults for viewing Internet pornography were: 1) sexual excitement (30%); 2) sexual satisfaction (29%); 3) convenience (20%); 4) curiosity (19%); and 5) anonymity (16%). In addition, researchers have classified young adults' motivation for using Internet pornography into four categories: 1) relationship oriented – something to do with your boyfriend or girlfriend; 2) mood changes – to relieve stress; 3) habitual use; and 4) fantasy aid.

While there are indeed psychological and social motivations for use of pornography, there are also neurochemical processes which may drive and reinforce it. The neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays an important role in sexual behavior, may also help mediate reward and reinforcement in sexual functioning. Dopamine is intimately involved in addictive behaviors and is involved in feelings of elation, craving, desire, and anticipation. It is interesting that excessive stimulation actually decreases dopamine sensitivity in the brain. If your dopamine levels stayed constant, your overall satisfaction would decline, almost as if you had a dopamine deficiency. Thus, you require even greater stimulation to release even more dopamine. This is how addiction starts.

The hormone oxytocin is secreted in the blood before orgasm to smooth muscle contractions during the sexual response cycle. Prolactin, released from the brain after orgasm, is associated with sexual satiation. Norepinephrine levels in both plasma and cerebrospinal fluid were increased while watching erotic films. Many of these chemicals are also intimately involved in our reward and pleasure centers, predominantly the limbic system. These neurochemicals are associated with pornography use. These same neurochemicals are increased by street drug use.

Pornography is a problem

While there are several reasons that porn may be detrimental to your emotional and psychological health, early claims that viewing pornography leads to violence against women and an increase in rape have not been well supported in the literature. That being said, what are the negative consequences of porn? There is a volume of research on excessive pornography and its link to psychological illness. Unfortunately, most of these studies are correlational and do not answer the question of causation. For example, does excessive pornography use cause psychological illness, or do individuals with psychological illness tend to use pornography excessively?

Females typically have reported more negative consequences regarding pornography use, such as lower body image, increasing pressure to perform sexual acts as seen in pornography, and engaging in sex less frequently with their partner. Men may become more critical of their partner's body and less interested in sex. Of 1913 young adults, 13% of men reported some psychological issues with Internet sexual use, although only 5% had serious problems. Only 5% of women reported some negative issues with online sexual behavior and only 2% admitted that these were serious. A recent study by Tracy Tylka, published in Psychology of Men and Masculinity, shows that women are not alone in their negative body image. Men's frequency of pornography use was associated with having a negative body image (muscularity and body fat dissatisfaction), anxiety, avoidance of romantic relationships, and poorer emotional well-being. Lower self-esteem results in self-doubt, poorer performance, and perhaps sexual dysfunction.

A number of studies have found that excessive pornography use can harm romantic relationships. Viewing pornography may decrease emotional bonding with your partner or lead to social isolation; it may even be seen as an act of betrayal or deception. One study analyzed 100 letters written by women who discovered their husband’s use of pornography. Women viewed their husband's behavior as degrading, which made them feel sexually undesirable. Further, there is a positive correlation in the relationship between sexual arousal while viewing pornography and self-reported sexual problems in daily life. At-risk users, who invest an inordinate amount of finances, energy, and time into Internet pornography often suffer psychological ills such as depression, anxiety, and lack of fulfillment.

These individuals pursue an unattainable "perfect" sexual relationship and therefore find themselves in a constant state of disappointment, which negatively impacts their relationship with any real partner. Herein lies the risk of addiction as porn viewers replace real relationships with 2D viewing. Yet in the end they are left dissatisfied and unable to attain a loving, affectionate, emotional relationship. If porn models become the “normal standard,” real women may fail to live up to expectations and may be less physically appealing.

Pornography is not a problem

Can pornography also be good? Yes. Several studies have examined the positive benefits of pornography use on psychological well-being. Pornography use may relieve boredom, frustration, and stress. It can also serve as a mini-respite from the trials, tribulations, and responsibilities of daily life and work. For those with low libido, porn may improve sexual arousal. In addition, pornography may be an effective method of increasing sexual knowledge.

Men who reported using Internet pornography as an educational aid actually reported increased sexual activity with their partner, increased experimentation, and a decrease in solitary masturbation. Of course, the longer time spent viewing pornography, the more willing college students were to engage in a variety of different sexual behaviors.

The benefits of pornography are not limited to an increase in sexual prowess. A large survey of young adults suggested that viewing pornography had moderate positive effects on the attitude toward and perception of the opposite sex, as well as general quality of life. Of note, men reported slightly more negative effects in a recent study than women.

One of the neurochemicals released during the use of pornography, oxytocin–the tend-and-befriend hormone–is also associated with interpersonal bonding and relationship building.

What’s the answer?

Like many issues, it's a matter of motivation and moderation. For cybersex compulsives who spend an excessive amount of time, money, and energy pursuing Internet pornography, there are obvious and significant negative psychological risks as well as detrimental effects on families, finances, jobs, and relationships.

If your motivation is educational (i.e. enhancing a relationship with your partner) and your spouse or partner is involved in viewing pornography with you, there may be many sexual and life satisfaction benefits to viewing pornography in moderation. Viewing porn together may add a bit of spice and excitement to your sex life—in moderation. But this should not be the “go to” plan with your partner, or a daily activity.

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