Measuring Porn's Effects: What About the Users?

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An open letter to Simon Lajeunesse

Adult Entertainment: Disrobing an American Idol film

Dear Professor Lajeunesse,

I've just read about your conclusion that porn is harmless. I'm wondering if it might be worth redesigning your questionnaire. I've been witnessing (secondhand) a lot of harm from porn, as well as some surprising benefits from leaving it behind. What I'm learning suggests that you would have to ask very different questions of your subjects if you want to measure the dangers of Internet porn use.

It does not surprise me that the immediate risk to third parties from porn users is minimal. I'm more concerned about the risk to the users themselves.

I have a unique perspective because my website tends to attract a lot of men who are hooked on porn and desperate to stop. (For why, see Unexpected Lessons from Porn Users.) When they do manage to unhook—generally after a severe trial—they report a decrease in social anxiety, increased confidence, greater attraction to real potential partners, and more enjoyment from life's subtler pleasures. Many of their experiences are collected in a chapter called The Road to Excess.

Just to clarify where I'm coming from, I don't think the chief danger from porn has much to do with sex directly. It comes from the effect of intense stimulation on the reward circuitry of the brain. If you're not familiar with this part of the brain, its role in driving our behaviors, its part in addictions, or the role of the neurochemical dopamine in these processes, I would be happy to suggest some reading material. Here's a short article by a neuroscientist that will give you some idea of what I'm talking about.

The risk I'd like to see experts address also exists for video game users.  It's inherent in any activity (or substance) that can become compulsive because of the effects of dopamine in the brain's primitive reward circuitry. "Novelty-on-demand" is so enticing for this primitive part of the brain, that compulsion is a very real risk. Could this be part of the reason you couldn't find a porn-free control group for your study? (Without a control group, it's tough to conclude that porn use has no ill effects.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to masturbation to sexually explicit materials, our society tends to get lost in debates about free speech, content, sexual repression, and harm to third parties. This veils the important issue of the brain's vulnerable reward circuitry. This part of the brain evolved to value highly not only novelty-on-demand, but also the genetic bonanza of sex with a novel partner. Therefore, today's supranormal sexual stimuli, which offer new partners moaning for ejaculate at each click of a mouse, register as so beneficial that the brain easily rewires itself to focus more and more attention on such "valuable" experiences.

A clear understanding of the reward circuitry reveals why your analogy that "vodka ads are to alcoholism what porn is to porn addiction" may not be the best analogy. Porn users use porn images to masturbate, thus reinforcing the wiring of their brains with the neurochemical blast of orgasm. Vodka ads won't get anyone high. Porn is the addiction; pictures of vodka are not.

'Porn Addiction in Progress' sign

This rewiring process can swiftly reorder the user's priorities..

The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. ... [Porn users are] seduced into pornographic training sessions that [meet] all the conditions required for plastic change of brain maps ... [namely,] rapt attention, [reinforcement, and dopamine consolidation of new neural connections]. p. 108-9 The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (2007)

Some users begin to substitute porn for friendly interaction, intimate relationships, learning life skills, and so forth. Their reward circuitry does not perceive the latter as worthwhile.

Compulsive masturbation sounds like fun, but trust me it's not. As with any addiction, too much intense stimulation dysregulates dopamine. Results include becoming desensitized to life's subtler pleasures, such as the charms of normal partners, and, at the same time, becoming extremely hypersensitive to any cues the brain has rewired itself to associate with "relief." The user's brain constantly scans the environment for any sign of sexual stimuli that would facilitate, in this case, masturbation to orgasm. Tolerance builds, making the pursuit of more stimulating materials mandatory to relieve the misery of withdrawal.

This combination of effects can make the world look gray. It is quite normal for men caught in this cycle to feel social anxiety around others, depression, despair, apathy, and so forth. Until they "reboot" their brains, life seems meaningless, but for the single-minded pursuit of hotter stimuli. Ironically, porn does not even ease sexual frustration, except in the very short-term...sometimes. It's not uncommon for users to binge with orgasm after orgasm because they simply cannot scratch their itch successfully. (Intense highs cause intense lows, and a desire for more.)

Often users don't realize they are hooked or what they're passing up until they unhook from frequent porn use and give their brains a chance to return to equilibrium. The lengthy withdrawal required to achieve this can be so agonizing (shakes, insomnia, despair, cravings) that many feel trapped.

Adult Entertainment: Disrobing an American Idol film I suspect compulsive porn use is more widespread than recognized, and increasing. I think the validity of my observation will become evident if you design a study around the method used by the author of The Great Porn-Off . Find out if your porn-using study participants can go for a few weeks without watching porn. (Of nearly 100 porn users, 70% could not go without it for two weeks in the Great Porn-Off.) Also, track their moods during the time they are without it.

Incidentally, Internet porn appears to entail a special risk. Here's what one man posted on my forum today:

With the magazines porn was a few times a week and I could basically regulate it. Cos it wasn't really that 'special'. But when I entered the murky world of internet porn, my brain had found something it just wanted more and more of.... I was out of control in less than 6 months. Years of mags, no problems. A few months of online porn...hooked.

That said, another man pointed out that masturbation became compulsive for him even though he never liked porn (pre-Internet) and never felt guilty about masturbating. So obviously, reward circuitry sensitivity varies.

I said above that I'm most concerned about the harm to porn users themselves. The truth is that I'm deeply concerned for us all. I think a planet where computer literate men run a high risk of compulsive porn use is likely to be a very unhappy planet. Imagine all those princes trapped in frog costumes, futilely attempting to ease their intense cravings for more and more stimulation, with little time, sensitivity or resolve left for creativity, good causes, relationships, or nature's pleasures.

Here are the recent posts of two men who are returning to balance:

I feel again. I feel emotions again. Having cut way back on porn viewing, I notice I find it less stimulating every time I see it. I actually fell asleep during an adult movie the other night! My interest in women has heightened, my confidence is up and gives me motivation again. I'm 28 now and until the last couple of years I felt I had the maturity of a 15 year old. But as I heal and recover from this addiction, I've felt emotions I've never had to deal with before. It has helped me grow up.

I am more at ease with myself and can look people in the eye, with kindness and a superhuman confidence. I had two women introduce themselves to me yesterday, shake my hand and HOLD IT. Wow. I was so comfortable talking to everyone—not my usual chicanery of waiting to speak or trying to hustle someone with what they think is a cool guy. I have the beginnings of a resolve now, and my groin feels solid and "peaceful"? I wrote two pages of a script that went in an even deeper direction than I was aiming for. Exercising is through the roof.

I hope you can find a way to measure such subtleties, because happy, healthy men are a precious resource. In any event, I wish you the very best with your research.

Kind regards,

NOTE: If you are hooked and want to stop using porn compulsievely, try this technique for rewiring the brain.


[Comments of a biology professor on this article]

Excellent! The idea that all excessive stimulations of the reward circuitry of the brain that are not tied to the behaviors for which the circuitry originally evolved are problematic is so important. And while this has become appreciated for drug addiction such as cocaine (and for issues relating to food), it is not yet appreciated for porn. So you really have the potential to change more than the world's love-making habits. You are in the forefront of those changing the way the world thinks about who we are as a species and why we have self-control problems. It is essential that people come to appreciate that this is another manifestation of "mismatch," the phenomenon of our modern world deviating from the world to which we became adapted over evolutionary time.

You make your point beautifully when you say: "Porn is the addiction; pictures of vodka are not."

Porn and masturbation addiction

Porn watching seems harmless, at least at the first sight. It seems harmless to many women as well, because female gender does not get as exited watching porn. In her book, “Peace between the Sheets” [now updated as Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationship], Marnia Robinson has explained beautifully why “normal” love making can provoke mood disorders, social anxiety, hostility and distance between the partners, especially in men!

Conventional sex is good only for producing children, but are we using it only for that purpose? No, of course, and we should not. Sex and love ought to merge if we want to call ourselves Homo sapiens – sentient beings. Love making has levels, and they “end” somewhere in the endless eternity of our Selves. Nowadays science rediscovers the universal truths hidden in the ancient experience of many systems for self development – yoga, tantra, dao, so on. Science rediscovers those practical truths using all this rigorous and objective methodology of the scientific research. The Tibetan “drops” and “winds” are translated into scientific language into neurotransmitters, hormonal reactions, neural nets changes and neural system signals transmissions.

During my studies in psychology and cognitive science I realized that one should not accept someone’s opinion just because he/ she has some titles before his name. Being a professor and PhD sometimes demonstrates only long a term of serving some University – no more, no less. But, of course, when the common person sees the title "Professor," his inborn herd instinct makes him believe unquestionably in the leading authority.

Why I am writing this? Let us see how the land lies. The young teen boy undergoes tremendous hormonal/ biochemical changes, wakening his libido. Our hypothetical youngster lives in the social context of widespread free porn broadcasting – 24/7.

The official authorities who guide him through his sexual, but also love, maturation, i.e. the doctors, say: “masturbation is perfectly harmless, just do it, it is completely normal, there is no evidence it causes any harm or weakness!”

The young boy has already watched porn since his early childhood – porn is now available since having the first desktop or laptop, which happens at earlier and earlier age. So far, so good.

In psychology know well the stages of psychosexual development – till about seven years of age, there is normal child masturbation. But from seven till 13-14 years the child passes thru the so called "latent stage" and has no sexual appetites at all – unless they are artificially roused prematurely. But the child is not ready for that – neither its mind, nor its brain and hormones.

Today the child watches the porn anyway, and tries to masturbate, performs hours of frictions in front of the computer monitor at this very fragile age. At this age, between 7 and 14, kid must also establish his social and intersexual values, norms, to form his mental constitution, beliefs and character.

The computer and porn watching, which seize the young and unprepared consciousness, becomes a third parent, even more influential than the two biological ones. The child forms the beliefs that the other gender and the world itself are made for unscrupulous narcistic, egocentric use.

The computer does not put any norms, standards and guidelines in front of the developing psyche. Combined with the games and films, full of aggression and killing, the picture of the contemporary kid becomes clear. We just have to observe the behavior of the children at very young age around us and we can not be blind to all the vulgarity and violence, growing together with the kids. But they are not guilty – they do not produce and allow all this pornographic abundance, game and movie violence.

The real disaster commence in the puberty. Let us trace the life of our young boy. He steps into his teen years and of course, undergoes immense hormonal explosions. He has computer and unlimited free access to live porn movies – directly online, without need of downloadings – just one click away… And of course, his mind, and the brain behind it are being mightily confined to sexual images.

All men know how powerful is sexual desire in the teen years – and of course, masturbation is normal to some extent. But with the help of contemporary technology and with the blessings of the experts and governments, this otherwise normal teen masturbation every now and then becomes uncontrollable. It is like giving free heroin to drug addicted. Every teen boy is very susceptible to any sexual stimuli.

In a normal society, teen years would be used for channeling the sexual energy, so it can work for the benefits of the person himself, and for the whole society around him/her. After all, the sexual force is the same force behind love, volition and happiness, but in its raw state. It needs to be transformed, channeled.

Always, through the course of time, teen years have been the time for exaggerated masturbation. But nowadays the masturbation in the teen years is not only prolonged and made more frequent – it is practiced to the point of complete exhaustion, directly overstimulated through intensely arousing pornographic movies.

This early sexual overstimulation causes earlier start of the sexual life – even at 12 and less years of age. Although it sounds bad, those youngsters who begin their sexual life earlier, have better chances for psychological stability and therefore, for social and professional realization in the long run, if they learn how to channel their sexual desire for greater ends – most of all the boys, of course, because they are far more affected by the pornographic bum.

The others just get hooked to their drug – masturbation in front of the next porn movie. And not just porn – one can watch fetishes, grandmothers, children, violence and so on - explicit sexual intercourse. For a man, this is worse than a drug – it just grabs the brain and squeezes it to the last neurochemical drop. It squeezes the life of the compulsive masturbator as well.

Now, let us say that our teen boy is a fully grown man. He has finished some university, works at something, maybe he even has relationship… But despite his honest and severe efforts, he can not cut off his masturbation habits, and touches himself and ejaculates every convenient time. He has tried millions of times to overcome his addiction – but it is so strong and so deeply engraved in his brain circuits, that he is helpless.

The hormonal pendulum has had great impact on his character shaping and tosses him from irritability, anger and hostility to withdrawal and challenge avoidance. He thinks that this is his normal self and his normal character – but such a man does not even know himself. He has just been a victim of porn. And overcoming this dependency requires enormous efforts and inspiration – the best way, of course, is sacred sexuality. It heals the hormonal wounds and thus the character and social, professional and interpersonal interactions. Of course, all I have written above is very general – one can write a novel on the subject!

My brief message is: do not believe in the experts' titles. Trust honest science, your own experience and the experience of those who have already been on the same track – since ancient times until now!

Orlin Baev, psychologist and psychotherapist
Bulgaria, Sofia

Be Healthy!!!

Thanks, Orlin

Welcome back. Thanks for sharing your expertise and suggestions. I wish you'd expand on this section, as I had never thought about it in these terms:

This early sexual overstimulation causes earlier start of the sexual life – even at 12 and less years of age. Although it sounds bad, those youngsters who begin their sexual life earlier, have better chances for psychological stability and therefore, for social and professional realization in the long run, if they learn how to channel their sexual desire for greater ends – most of all the boys, of course, because they are far more affected by the pornographic bum.

I would love to see a society where kids were taught early on how to channel their sexual energy for higher ends, with no scary prohibitions, but lots of wisdom about their options.

I also like your suggestion that sacred sexuality is a good solution for those who are hooked by the current problem. It certainly has worked well for myself and my husband.

Also, please read through your piece again and correct anything you wish. I edited it a bit to make it easier for us lazy American's to read , and I may have "fixed" some things that weren't broken. Wink

Define Porn

Heilsan Allir!!! (Health all)
I noticed while reading the posts on this subject that there is a confusion between what is considered to be Porn (given that, that is subjective) and what is Adult Entertainment.

There is a vast difference in IMHO between the two...what I'm more curious about is the underlying energy behind the pathologising of a behaviour...and the inherent criticism of a form of entertainment.

How could anyone other than the person observing the event and having the experience know what that person is make that assumption is and of itself abusive.

I would respectfully suggest staying with your own experience Orlin and from what I have both experienced and notice Science is unable to explain or support me in my experience it is after all theory.

Johan Nielsen

Gothi in training

Sessrúmnir Kindred

CEO and CFO of The Valhalla Project

What would you consider to

What would you consider to be just "adult entertainment" and not porn ? I think it is something that will not be easy to define. What some may say is hardcore porn may be soft to others. What is that saying. I can not tell you what porn is but I know it when I see it. I think there is a lot of grey area around porn. I think getting caught up in what is porn or not porn is the wrong way to go about it. I think it would be better to think about how the "old brain" can be manipulated. There are many ads and shows and games and many other things that are designed to set off this part of the brain (and others). There is so much to over stimulate the brain out there right now that I hardly think it matters what the definition of porn is.

I have been watching a tv show. I am still struggling with my addiction so it has been hard to watch. It is really good though. It does have sex scenes from time to time(yes there is nudity during the scenes). I just have to close my eyes and not think about it during that time. Yes I do close my eyes. Do I consider this show "porn"? no I do not. Could these scenes be used for acting out. yes they can. So what do we define this as? Just adult entertainment ? I do not think there is a definition for that either.

It is more what sets off that part of the brain you have little control over. People experiences in life can influence this.
So I think you trying to define porn and adult entertainment is the wrong way to look at this. I agree looking at the person is also important. Each person is different and unique. Some people can drink and stop and not have a problem with it some can not. Or smoking or meth those can be addictive to some just after one try. It changes the brain and you are hooked.

After all of that there can still be some things that would be hard to argue against being "porn". I could give you links but I am not going to do that :). I am just saying again there is a lot of grey area here. I do not like the idea of categorizing it. I also do not like the idea of trying to blame the person. You have to take responsibility for your own actions I agree. I just do not want to start blaming people for getting caught in "porn" addiction. Our brains are programmed to get addicted to it. The porn industry and other ad companies and shows and what ever know this. They make sure to aim for that programming. Once you can see it you can start to deal with it. It is hard to see. You have read on here. The people on here admit to problems. How many people out there are hooked on "porn" or adult entertainment or what ever you want to call it. It does not matter. We need to people to see how they are being manipulated by that old brain system of theirs. It is not just porn it is games, tv, ads and news all of it is just one big mind game.

OK hope at least some of that makes sense.

Very interesting discussion.

Very interesting discussion. I'm 55 and have been an occassional consumer of adult erotica since I was old enough to purchase it. By then I had already discovered masturbation has developed a pretty significant "fantacy world" for about 3 years. Frankly, I was first drawn to porn as an adolescent out of curiosity.... for knowledge. Short of being fortunate enough to be introduced to sex by another warm body, there was simply no other place to see "what sex looked like". And there was so much peer related cultural negativity attached to sex, and I don't mean by the Catholic Church. For example: How do you insult someone? You call them a prick, dick, penis, cunt...someone who "sucks". Guys were constantly trying to "score with chicks", "get it on", "get some". It was very depressing. Believe it or not erotica, for me, was an escape from that. Sure...some stuff was "rough" and mysogynistic but most of that was easy to avoid with a little hunting around. A curious kid could find plenty of explicit material that looked like great ("normal" to the average 20 year old male) sex. Probably not the healthiest thing to do but what was the alternative: National Geographic? By the time I lost my virginity at 20 I felt porn had taught a few things I couldn't learn from Mom Dad or Sis. I always had positive feelings towards woman's bodies even if they weren't "perfect" (which they never are. Perfection is such a Nazi idea anyway) I had a wonderful passionate 18 month relationship that ended right around when (I understand this now) "habituation" set in and had the film "Annie Hall" (itself a perfect study in Cupid's poisoned arrow) to guide me through it. Erotica was alway an occassional accessory to masturbation but my taste never evolved to rougher material and it never seemed to interfere with ongoing relationships I did fall into a short internet porn habit a couple of years ago in an misguided anxious overreaction to age related lost labido and difficulty in climaxing due, I'm sure, to taking Prozac for a time.
My point is not to defend porn but to note that not every user is the same and develops the same intense habit over time or for the same reasons. People who find themselves consuming it should be mindful of how very habit forming and problomatic it habit can become. It can become like overly palatable food. Having said this, I'd like to add that I've pretty much given watching porn for the last 4 months. Cupid's Poisoned Arrow has given me a new perspective on the nature of physical intimacy and at my age the overly stimulating and goal oriented thrust of erotic material just doesn't provide me with anything useful anymore.
By the way, if you're looking for good karezza / pair bonding "porn" I'd like to suggest the film "Bright Star".

Yeah I some times get

Yeah I some times get defensive about porn now. Well I do not think that will change any time soon. It just has cause so much pain for me. Well I did it too myself really if you look at it one way. The porn did not help. It is a hard thing to deal with sometimes. To look back at what I did to myself. I can blame porn but that is not the whole story. Porn should be blamed. It is bad I believe that completely. I see nothing good about it. Not attacking you but people learned how to have sex before porn or erotica :). I know I am about the last person to talk about sex though never having had sex. It is just I have experienced how much damage porn can cause. I think it is going to really be a bigger problem in the very near future. If I had access to the internet when I was 10 I fear to think about what I would have become by the time I was 20. The mags and few videos I had before the internet was bad enough. I was in my 20s when I started with internet porn and I was no match for it. It nearly destroyed me. Well it did for a long time. Had It been earlier I just do not know. All of the kids out there now are really going to be hurting soon and some are now. I am hearing stories of 20 year old guys with ED. If you go to other boards you are starting to see girls and women with porn problems like the guys. I think before long you will have almost as many girls and women viewing and using porn as guys. They are getting stimulated by it now at an early age too. It is starting to effect both male and female. The porn industry is catching on to this. They will make porn that will addict girls and women as much as boys and men have been addicted in the past. It scares me to think where things are headed.

I just think porn is bad. I think it is causing many problems right now. I think it is going to get much worse. I have no idea what it is going to do to this generation and the next that is just getting on the net. I have seen 4 and 5 year old kids that know how to use the net better than their parents. I know they are being exposed to porn right now at that age. What the @#@# is that going to do to them ? It scares the hell out of me. I know what it did to me and I was an adult (well kind of) when I started internet porn. As I said I was not even close to a match for it. What about a 5 year old. Just think about it. If that does not scare and bother you.

OK sorry I will stop my rant there. like I said I get defensive about porn. I see nothing but a lot of pain coming from it.

Be Safe

Thanks for sharing your experience, Pete

Welcome! That's a nice story, and probably typical of many people around your age. Erotic can indeed be beautiful and inspiring. In any case, your past gives you a solid base from which to see when "too much is just too much."

But imagine if you had started in on today's rather extreme, very stimulating, rapidly escalating porn. You wouldn't know any other way of managing your sexual energy, and if porn became compelling, you wouldn't even be in a position to see your situation was abnormal. After all, all of your buddies would be doing the same thing. And everyone's telling each other it's harmless. Men can go for years before ED or frighteningly bizarre new tastes overtake them. By the time they figure out they have a problem, the "rebooting" process can be agonizing.

Hope you find a sweetheart soon. It would be great to hear your experience with the Cupid ideas.

(I trust that's not your real name. Wink )

some info I found

Warning some of this may be a trigger to some. I know with me reading about women in sexual situations is a bit of a trigger. The 6 page article does mention things that may trigger some. The link and overall article are safe. Just thought I would warn.

I know we have a section on dealing with a partner caught in porn but it focuses more I think on the man using porn and the women being the partner dealing with it. With these numbers in this article I think maybe shifting the wording a bit might be needed. Cause men are going to be dealing with women caught in porn and having to deal with how that makes them feel. Just an observation not trying to point fingers or anything. I am just worried about how bad this could get overall.