- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A growing body of research shows that online pornography is warping men’s brains, diminishing their sex drives and producing addictive behaviors commonly found among drug abusers, as porn producers experiment with technologies to make the viewing experience more compelling.

Advances in neuroscience have helped support the findings: At least 25 major studies published since 2011, 16 of which were released within the last two years, link habitual use of erotic videos with deleterious developments in brain structure, often mirroring those of drug addicts.

The studies catalog a raft of maladies including compulsive behavior, desensitization, loss of motivation — even erectile dysfunction in men younger than 25.

Neuroscientists increasingly agree that pornography on the web fits the established model of what constitutes addiction, said Todd Love, a psychotherapist who studies and treats pornography and other internet-based addictions, such as online gambling and gaming.

“There’s a growing consensus among the top addiction neuroscientists worldwide that internet porn use alters some users’ brains in some of the same ways substance abuse does, and that these brain changes are consistent with the established addiction model,” Mr. Love said.

The most recent addition to the literature, a review published July 28 by researchers from Cambridge and Yale universities, found that “compulsive sexual behavior” had several neurological parallels to substance abuse disorders.

A 2014 study published by Cambridge researchers revealed a neurological disassociation between wanting and liking pornographic material and diagnosis of compulsive behavior, a hallmark trait in drug addiction. In other words, addicts may be unable to stop watching pornography even if they don’t necessarily enjoy it.

A study published in 2014 by German neuroscientists found pornography use is associated with brain shrinkage in the areas controlling motivation and impulse, which could contribute to impaired impulse control and desensitization to sexual reward.

Pornography has existed perhaps as long as man has, but how people consume it has changed drastically with technology. Previous generations were comparatively limited by availability and variety, with the differences between a Playboy magazine and an erotic ancient Grecian vase paling in comparison with what is available today on smartphones.

A study commissioned by the Barna Group titled “The Porn Phenomenon” found online video to be the most popular medium through which pornography is accessed among all age groups. Among respondents ages 13 to 24 who actively sought out pornography, 85 percent said they did so through online videos.

Body image, brain scans

Meanwhile, several porn-producing companies are experimenting with ways to adapt graphic content to emerging virtual reality technologies, as the industry strives to make the user experience even more immersive.

In addition to explicit videos, pornographers have made extensive use of live-camera feeds, online streaming and other “interactive” technologies.

Studies suggest these new media, in addition to being especially addicting, may be more harmful than their predecessors. Several studies have indicated that continued internet pornography consumption may make it difficult to carry on healthy sexual relationships away from computer screens.

Research published in 2015 by Cambridge scientists, for instance, found that individuals exhibiting compulsive sexual behavior became bored sexually more easily and craved novelty more often, which Mr. Love said “might help to explain why so many users [of pornography] report they need more extreme material over time.”

Pornography use among men correlates with being more critical of a partner’s body and less interested in having actual sex, according to a 2008 study conducted at the University of Southern California. Women who watched erotic films reported more negative body images and increased pressure from partners to perform acts seen in films.

An observation not lost on many young men is that the internet pornography boom coincides with a rise in reported cases of erectile dysfunction. Although teasing out causation is difficult, evidence suggests that pornography may be playing a role in the rise of erectile dysfunction.

For instance, nearly six in 10 users who went to an online erectile dysfunction forum and reported their age said they were 25 or younger. Researchers found that one of the most common words used in online ED forums was “porn.”

Among 19 men with compulsive sexual behavior whose brains were scanned for traces of addiction, 11 reported experiencing “diminished libido or erectile function specifically in physical relationships with women (although not in relationship to the sexually explicit material).” Their average age was 25.

Feminists have long been critical of pornography for promoting objectification of and sexually aggressive behavior toward women, and a 2015 meta-analysis of 22 studies from seven countries seems to corroborate those claims. Researchers found pornography consumption positively correlates with sexually aggressive behavior, suggesting that “violent content may be an exacerbating factor” for those with predispositions toward abuse.

Pointing to the younger ages at which children are exposed to pornography today, Haley Halverson, director of communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said viewing erotic films often serves as an early and deleterious form of sex education.

“This might be what they first learn about sex,” Ms. Halverson said at the Family Research Council last week. “And that is that it is violent, and that women like it. That women like to be slapped, to be forcibly penetrated, to be kicked, to be gagged. That women think that violence is sexy is what pornography teaches.”

‘Return of the repressed’

Among the most vocal critics of the emerging consensus on pornography, Nicole Prause and James Pfaus, published a 2015 study showing that consumption of internet pornography correlates with increased sexual responsiveness, not erectile dysfunction.

Ms. Prause, founder of the Hollywood-based research center Liberos LLC, said research suggesting that pornography consumption is harmful shows only correlation, not causation. She said such research also fails to disclose countervailing benefits associated with pornography use.

“I think overwhelmingly the literature tends to only ask about negative effects, and there certainly are some,” Ms. Prause said. “But the literature that does ask about positive effects, and especially when it asks about both, tends to find only overwhelmingly positive effects.”

Mr. Pfaus, a professor of psychology at Concordia University, said the reported link between pornography and erectile dysfunction has more to do with societally imposed stigmas on sex than with the content of the videos themselves.

Invoking Sigmund Freud’s “return of the repressed,” he said religious sexual mores lead to stress that can inhibit proper sexual functioning.

“A lot of these guys don’t want to be caught downloading porn during a relationship — that may not be looked upon favorably by the partner — or, worse, they actually feel guilty about doing it in and of itself,” Mr. Pfaus said. “There is evidence that people who suffer [from erectile dysfunction] often have a history of being very religious, being very conservative sexually, feel that pornography is bad, but they do it anyway.”

Ms. Prause suggested that a financial motivation could be behind the swell of research questioning whether internet pornography is healthy. She pointed out that many of the studies are conducted by those who counsel patients for sex addiction.

“It’s very sexy to blame porn for stuff these days, and that’s what people are doing,” she said.

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