I spend the bulk of my working hours surfing the Web to listen to the chatter about porn. Addicts, wives of addicts, parents of addicts, porn stars and pastors and priests, the tempted and the tried: many people are talking about how habitual pornography viewing has affected them and those they love.
Still there are some widespread myths about pornography in the world, and in our culture. Those myths can be, at times, crippling to those who watch pornography without reservation.
Myth #1: Pornography is harmless entertainment
Entertainment, by definition, is amusement or diversion provided especially by performers; something diverting or engaging. Pornography is certainly entertainment by this definition: for many it is amusing; it offers a diversion from the ordinariness of life; hired performers create an atmosphere and setting that is designed to engage with our sexuality. It has long been touted by relationship therapists that a little pornography can spice up our boring sex lives.
The myth is in the word “harmless.” Harm is injury brought to someone, either mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. When we turn to the advice of physicians and mental health experts, we find a growing opinion among them that habitual pornography viewing is harmful. We’ll explore this as the other Myths unfold.
Myth #2: Pornography is a healthy way to stimulate ourselves sexually
Let’s examine this myth by asking an imperative question: What is real sexual health?
Better sex, some say, is a function of better orgasms. All things being equal, what is the optimal sexual experience? In a culture saturated with sexual stimulus (as much of Western culture is) it seems natural to give a pleasure-oriented answer: bigger and longer times of arousal.
But healthy sexuality is primarily an integrated sexuality; we are sexual beings and our sexuality touches many aspects of our personality, our identity and our relationships. Better sex is not pleasure-oriented but intimacy-oriented. Our sexuality is ultimately designed to connect us in deeper ways to the other person and create what only sex can create: family.
Pornography teaches us a different picture of great sex. Right before the explosion of the Internet porn industry, the Journal of Sex Research reported that in pornography “depictions of other basic aspects of human sexuality—such as communication between sexual partners, expressions of affection or emotion (except fear or lust) . . . and concerns about . . . the sexual consequences of sexual activities—are minimized.” Today, the Internet delivers that false message at high speeds into our homes.
Gary R. Brooks, Ph.D., describes what he observes as a “pervasive disorder” linked to the consumption of even soft-core pornography like Playboy. Returning to porn again and again produces a disorder of “voyeurism”—an obsession with looking at women rather than interacting with them. The more we drink of the “sexuality-on-tap” in the media around us, the more the pleasure chemicals in our brains reward us for simply “seeing.” This disorder trains us toward objectification, an attitude by which we rate others by size, shape and harmony of body parts. Soon we are wired to emotionally respond only to certain images. Brooks says, this all leads to emotional unavailability, dissatisfaction and a fear of true intimacy.
In the end, pornography leads to impotence, it doesn’t solve it. By impotence I don’t mean an inability-to-be-turned-on impotence, but an intimacy disorder. Dr. MaryAnne Layden writes so poignantly, “I have also seen in my clinical experience that pornography damages the sexual performance of the viewers. Pornography viewers tend to have problems with premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. Having spent so much time in unnatural sexual experiences with paper, celluloid and cyberspace, they seem to find it difficult to have sex with a real human being. Pornography is raising their expectation and demand for types and amounts of sexual experiences at the same time it is reducing their ability to experience sex.”
Myth #3: Pornography is not addictive
Pornography is a powerful form of sexual education. Not only does it drastically shape our beliefs about sex, but it does so by tapping pleasure chemicals in our brain to reinforce those beliefs.
Dr. Jeffrey Satinover writes that “modern science allows us to understand that the underlying nature of an addiction to pornography is chemically nearly identical to a heroin addiction.” When we return to porn again and again these pleasure chemicals in our brains pave a neuro-pathway that make us more and more dependent on the sexual stimulus. Just like a drug addiction, it is more toxic the more we consume. Just like a drug addiction, it leads us to crave greater varieties and amounts of the stimulus. It is very common to find pornography viewers moving from soft-core to hardcore, to other outlets such as phone sex, cyber-sex and other forms of acting out.
Myth #4: Pornography is healthy for couples to watch together
Many couples do watch pornography together as a part of their love-making. Many do not report any problems with this habit, so this myth can appear to be true on the surface.
Without trying to sound like I have an inside look at every couple’s relationship dynamics, I am willing to admit that if a couple’s use of porn is minimal, there may be no perceived negative effects. In the grand scheme of things, pornography use may be the last concern on their radar.
Still, perceived effects and actual effects are often different things. Just because a porn-watching couple still has sex often and still enjoys it does not mean that the sex is all it could be.
When a couple relies on porn to create “better” sex, does this foster real intimacy? Again, I won’t pretend to to know you, reader; I won’t pretend that I’ve been in your bedroom (nor do I want to pretend). However, I would have you ask some searching questions on this matter. When you watch porn with your partner, is it the porn that stimulates you or the connection you have with your lover? Is your partner becoming nothing more than a means of masturbation? When you make love, do you need to close your eyes, turn your head and imagine a fresh pornographic scene in order to bring you to orgasm? Does the porn facilitate a deeper appreciation of your partner, or do you find yourself wishing he or she were more like the porn fantasies you’ve built up in your head?
Interesting fact: at a 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, two thirds of the 350 divorce lawyers who attended said the Internet played a significant role in divorces, with excessive interest in online porn contributing to more than half such cases. Why is this? Because pornography has a powerful psychological effect on the habitual viewer: it reshapes belief systems about sex and intimacy and this ultimately boils down to how we relate to our spouses.
Neurobiologist Peter Milner writes, “Most stimuli become less attractive . . . as they become familiar and predictable,” such as intercourse between familiar couples. “Thus, novelty has an effect similar to that of reward.” Pornography offers a virtually endless reservoir of sexual novelty. Any type of person you can picture, any position, any situation, any setting. The presentation of sexual novelty naturally makes our bodies respond to the familiar partner with less excitement. Is this the way we really want to wire our brains? Is this what our marital relationships really need?
Myth #5: Pornography is a good form of sexual education for the inexperienced
If we can see the effects of habitual porn viewing on adult populations, the effects are even more problematic for younger minds.
Certainly, most people would agree that we need to keep our young children away from pornography. There is something we know intuitively about the potential negative effects of this. Yet, for the very same reasons, when adolescents are exposed to pornography again and again, this can interrupt natural sexual development of teenage years.
The largest group of viewers of Internet porn is children between ages 12 and 17. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, prolonged exposure to pornography leads to:
- Diminished trust between intimate couples
- The abandonment of the hope of sexual monogamy
- Belief that promiscuity is the natural state
- Cynicism about love or the need for affection between sexual partners
- Belief that marriage is sexually confining
- Lack of attraction to family and child-raising
Pornography is dangerous for teens not just because it shows too much, but because it shows too little. There is no context for the sex they see. No displays of lasting commitment, love, devotion, or a the perseverance of lifelong love through good times and bad, arguments and diaper changes, sickness and health, richer and poorer.
Myth #6: Pornography has been around since cavemen drew on walls, so there is no sense in turning it into a recent sexual problem
I would agree that pornography has been around a long time. However, the last 50 years, and in particular the last 15 years (since Internet developments), has seen a huge culture shift in the mainstreaming of porn.
The year 1953 is a significant year for the porn industry: the year the first issue of Playboy was released. Until this time pornography was a cultural taboo, an underground industry, but with Playboy came the first example of pornography distributed through the main channels of American capitalism.
This was the commercial genius of Playboy. Hugh Hefner created a “lifestyle” magazine for the upwardly mobile men of the 50s. He created an identity for them: the image of the playboy. It was a consumer’s magazine. The first few editions of Playboy offered articles on the best ice-buckets on the market and the best recipes for chicken and rice . . . And very few images of women. The images of women were meant to be the sort of high class, very beautiful women one could merit if they took Hefner’s advice. He carved out the soft-core industry.
In 1969 Penthouse came along and became the first real competitor to the Playboy market. Penthouse was willing to push the limits of what was acceptable (to the public and to the advertisers who made these magazines possible). Then the hardcore of Hustler hit the market. And the list goes on.
Then you have the adult video market. In 1990, a little over 1,340 hardcore pornographic titles were released in the U.S. Market. In 2005, that number was 13,588: a growth of over 900 percent in 16 years.
And magazines and VHS tapes were only the beginning. Pornography and the growth of certain technologies go hand-in-hand. Certain technological advancements help consumers get their porn closer to home and protect their anonymity; thus, pornographers implement major investments in the advancement of their products. From the camera to video recording devices to the Internet, the adult industry was always a major contributor to the advancement of technology in the 20th century.
The Internet is unquestionably the most rapidly expanding segment of the adult entertainment market today. The Internet brings in about $3 billion a year online. Pornography pioneered technologies such as streaming audio and video, flash, the pop-up window, high speed Internet connections, and security improvements for ala cart pay services.
Today, we have a mutli-billion dollar worldwide porn industry. Pornography production and distribution is done by businesses that run like Fortune 500 companies. Pornography isn’t just a haphazard collection of images that kids find through scrambled cable channels and websites run by perverts living in their parents’ basements. No. Pornography is a business, and a pretty successful one at that. About 20 large U.S. companies are responsible for at least 70% of the hundreds of millions of pornography images online.
And why is this a problem? Up until recently those more likely to be predisposed to sexual addiction were those who had subconscious motives to act out sexually, such as victims of physical or sexual abuse. Now the Internet has changed that statistic greatly. Thirty years ago, when Patrick Carnes studied the neurochemistry of sex addiction, he was testing in a pre-Internet world. Carnes says today, “There are now people struggling with sexual compulsivity who never would have been if not for the Internet.”
We must take our heads out of the sand. Cavemen may have used cave walls as their pornographic canvas, but there are no limits to the canvas of the Internet.