Friday, April 18, 2014
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Is Pornography Driving Men Crazy?

NEW YORK – It is hard to ignore how many highly visible men in recent years (indeed, months) have behaved in sexually self-destructive ways. Some powerful men have long been sexually voracious; unlike today, though, they were far more discreet and generally used much better judgment in order to cover their tracks.

Of course, the heightened technological ability nowadays to expose private behavior is part of the reason for this change. But that is precisely the point: so many of the men caught up in sex-tinged scandals of late have exposed themselves – sometimes literally – through their own willing embrace of text messages, Twitter, and other indiscreet media.

What is driving this weirdly disinhibited decision-making? Could the widespread availability and consumption of pornography in recent years actually be rewiring the male brain, affecting men’s judgment about sex and causing them to have more difficulty controlling their impulses?

There is an increasing body of scientific evidence to support this idea. Six years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Porn Myth,” which pointed out that therapists and sexual counselors were anecdotally connecting the rise in pornography consumption among young men with an increase in impotence and premature ejaculation among the same population. These were healthy young men who had no organic or psychological pathology that would disrupt normal sexual function.

The hypothesis among the experts was that pornography was progressively desensitizing these men sexually. Indeed, hardcore pornography’s effectiveness in achieving rapid desensitization in subjects has led to its frequent use in training doctors and military teams to deal with very shocking or sensitive situations.

Given the desensitization effect on most male subjects, researchers found that they quickly required higher levels of stimulation to achieve the same level of arousal. The experts I interviewed at the time were speculating that porn use was desensitizing healthy young men to the erotic appeal of their own partners.

Since then, a great deal of data on the brain’s reward system has accumulated to explain this rewiring more concretely. We now know that porn delivers rewards to the male brain in the form of a short-term dopamine boost, which, for an hour or two afterwards, lifts men’s mood and makes them feel good in general. The neural circuitry is identical to that for other addictive triggers, such as gambling or cocaine.

The addictive potential is also identical: just as gamblers and cocaine users can become compulsive, needing to gamble or snort more and more to get the same dopamine boost, so can men consuming pornography become hooked. As with these other reward triggers, after the dopamine burst wears off, the consumer feels a letdown – irritable, anxious, and longing for the next fix. (There is some new evidence, uncovered by Jim Pfaus at Concordia University in Canada, that desensitization may be affecting women consumers of pornography as well.)

This dopamine effect explains why pornography tends to become more and more extreme over time: ordinary sexual images eventually lose their power, leading consumers to need images that break other taboos in other kinds of ways, in order to feel as good. Moreover, some men (and women) have a “dopamine hole” – their brains’ reward systems are less efficient – making them more likely to become addicted to more extreme porn more easily.

As with any addiction, it is very difficult, for neurochemical reasons, for an addict to stop doing things – even very self-destructive things – that enable him to get that next hit of dopamine. Could this be why men who in the past could take time-delayed steps to conduct affairs behind closed doors now can’t resist the impulse to send a self-incriminating text message? If so, such men might not be demons or moral ciphers, but rather addicts who are no longer entirely in control of themselves.

This is not to say that they are not responsible for their behavior. But I would argue that it is a different kind of responsibility: the responsibility to understand the powerfully addictive potential of pornography use, and to seek counseling and medication if the addiction starts to affect one’s spouse, family, professional life, or judgment.

By now, there is an effective and detailed model for weaning porn-addicted men and restoring them to a more balanced mental state, one less at the mercy of their compulsions. Understanding how pornography affects the brain and wreaks havoc on male virility permits people to make better-informed choices – rather than engage in pointless self-loathing or reactive collective judgments – in a world that has become more and more addictively hardcore.

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  1. CommentedCarlos Avendano

    Is Pornography Driving Women Kinkier? There you have it Ms Wolf: a heuristically-flawed, inconsistently-proven, vaguely-provocative title for -I guess- your next upcoming article. As Nassim Taleb would add with gusto: more skin in the game, please!

  2. CommentedStamatis Kavvadias

    "Could this be why men who in the past could take time-delayed steps to conduct affairs behind closed doors now can’t resist the impulse to send a self-incriminating text message?"

    A guess is not an interesting "idea", when it is not backed even with reasonable reflection on the way the guess is connected to the effect (powerful men not being discreet about their sexual voracity). Further, it is not subject for an article, especially one with such a loud title.

    Even in today's world, where the scientific study of phenomena on the basis of probability is accepted as an ...approximation of truth, this level of "approximation" is nothing more than something that crossed the author's mind. It does not seem anywhere near the truth to me.

    In addition, I would have something to ask the author. Why does she think that people "sexually voracious" by their nature should have to hide this fact when they get to powerful positions? Why should it be hidden from people that enjoy watching Nip/Tuck year after year? Is this just a demonstration of Naomi Wolf's conservatism? I would argue (at the same level of scholarship with the author) that the elevation of the view of the human body as a "tool" to an end, by extensive use of plastic surgery, and by serials as the one noted above, is much more relevant to her inquiry...

  3. CommentedAshok Rao

    It's quite appalling that there is NO conversation about contradictory "research" and "evidence" to the claim that all port desensitizes and is unhealthy for a relationship. When did journalism stop discussing the clear alternatives to a point of view.

    There are no links, and names are mentioned parenthetically. Very high quality research has, if not proven, at least engendered doubt on the point Naomi makes with such confidence.

    I have more detailed comments here: http://wp.me/px0E1-og

  4. CommentedAyse Tezcan

    one of the down sides of emergence of internet and gaming technology was to provide people with addictive tendencies a more convenient access to any addicting medium such as gaming and pornography (and in my case information :)). addiction seems to affect men disproportionately more than women. without public scrutiny, this behavior gets reenforced in young men until much more difficult to interfere and more severe damage is done. the consequences is pretty grim because we do not want to deem a part of 50% of the population as invalids. i believe these dangers are getting recognized by the research communities but public has not bought into it yet; hence, the funding for research and community efforts such as education and campaigns to help these children men is not there yet.

  5. CommentedRobert Taylor

    Conversely, could Internet erotica be allowing women who were once too embarrassed to access such materials to do so anonymously, thus getting in touch with their sexuality and get more joy out of life. Why is Naomi so sexist and negative?
    Also, where are her scientific citations? Why is anecdotal "evidence" laughably inadequate when it come from the mouth of Ronald Reagan, but to be taken seriously when used by Naomi Wolf? Is there a lower evidentiary standard for her than for politicians? That would surely be embarrassing!

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