There was a time when, if you wanted to get your hands on an x-rated video or magazine, you would have to physically go out and buy it. You would have to wait anxiously while the cashier quickly shoved it into a brown paper bag. Rush home and hope that no one would notice the suspicious looking parcel. Hide it under your mattress just as soon as you’d given it a quick preliminary perusal.
These days, such delightful ‘smut’ is just a click away. Pornography constitutes about 25% of all search-engine requests on the Internet and is apparently the 4th most common reason that people give for logging onto the Internet. So we can safely say that a lot of people are watching pornography online, a lot of the time. It is also safe to assume that the majority of these people are probably men. But, don’t fool yourself into thinking that women cant or don’t enjoy pornography.
Every individual is entitled to his or her own view on pornography. Many people may openly enjoy it. Even more people seem to secretly enjoy it. Others may hold strong moral objections to it. These are preferences that every individual is entitled to. As a therapist, I have found that it can be very useful in encouraging couples to explore their ability to enjoy their own bodies as freely as possible. There are some clear therapeutic and recreational rewards to viewing pornography. However, to speak about pornography as if it was one kind of thing is like talking about vegetables as one thing. I might like carrots but I may not like cucumber. There are many genres of pornography that are unhealthy for both the participants and the viewers. The most obvious of which being child pornography.
One major concern is for how women tend to be portrayed in pornography. Porn has historically been made by men, for men. It is predominantly shot from the male point of view, often depicting women as passive recipients of male domination and humiliation. Cindy Gallop, a producer of porn for women, believes that women haven’t been great consumers of porn because they have never been the target audience. Women like Cindy are also concerned for the poor education that men are getting from mainstream pornography. She cautions that they are being mislead about what a woman does and doesn’t like sexually. So, if you are a man watching porn, you might want to ask yourself if you are comfortable with the way that women are being portrayed in the pornography you are enjoying. You might even want to ask yourself if you are being misled regarding what women, in the real world, might want sexually? Similarly, if you are a woman watching porn, you might for instance, want to ask if you are being misled about the male penis as this every-ready-long-lasting-always-erect instrument. We could even ask ourselves questions about how the physical body is portrayed in porn. Or if its a good idea to maybe even talk while having sex, rather than just moan and yelp. But, the gender politics and ethics of pornography are not my main interest in this article.
My work has taught me that there is a very common but secret risk to the regular enjoyment of porn. Porn addiction has a way of gradually sneaking its way into your life without you even noticing it. There is increasing neurological evidence that porn acts like a drug. Many people watching porn develop a need for an increased “dosage” of porn in order to become stimulated and, over time, lose control of their compulsions to view it. It is believed that a neurotransmitter, dopamine, acts as the reward system in the brain. It is what motivates us to pursue and enjoy certain behaviours, like sex. The more time you spend watching porn the more dopamine potentially becomes active, therefore, encouraging the behaviour. You might find yourself thinking about porn more and more, even when you are not watching it, or when you are having real life intimacy. As your tolerance for the visual dose of it increases (as with tolerance to addictive drugs) your need for greater doses increases. This is often matched by a growing loss of feeling stimulated by other, every day activities – including real life intimacy. The risk is increased by the fact that porn no longer comes in a brown paper bag: it is just a click away from your fingertips. For a great illustration of this see The Science of Pornography Addiction.
We are, however, not just simple lab rats like the ones used in dopamine research. Our susceptibility to porn addiction is much more complicated than the role of dopamine in the brain. Some people seem to access a satisfying dose of porn, from time to time, without becoming hooked on it. The psychology of porn addiction seems to be linked to our emotional needs at the time. I believe in the premise that: No behaviour is repeated unless it serves a function. Excessive porn use may be encouraged by a need to escape certain anxieties, a difficulty connecting with others or avoiding the risk of facing ones own perceived sexual inadequacies. So, here is every porn enthusiasts safety guide to porn:
- Am I becoming less and less aroused by the porn I am watching?
- Am I needing more and more of it?
- Does it need to be more extreme or strange for me to feel stimulated by it?
- Do I feel a bit uncomfortable with the kind of pornography that I am starting to enjoy?
- Am I watching it in complete secrecy, hiding it from my partner?
- Do I sometimes watch it even though I have more important things to do?
- Do I find myself saying I am just going to quickly watch it for 15minutes and find myself watching it for much more time than I had originally planned?
- Do I find excuses to watch it?
- Has it lead to a difficulty finding or sustaining real life intimacy?
- Do I find myself watching it even when I don’t feel that stimulated by it anymore?
- Am I becoming more and more socially withdrawn and isolated?
- Do I have a tendency to “tune out” of life and find refuge in porn?
- Are there difficulties that I am having that porn helps me to numb?
- Do I feel increasingly lonely and disconnected from other people?
If you answer yes to any one of these questions at any time, then you are in a danger zone with porn. Porn may have become your “fix” that you are using to “medicate” a frustration or issue in your life. The best way forwards would be to acknowledge that the addiction has snuck into your life, bring it out of its secret hiding place and talk openly about it with someone. Go “cold turkey” while you allow the dopamine in your brain to simmer down and you address any underlying issues the porn has been helping you numb.
[Originally written for a disability magazine Rolling Inspiration September/October Issue, 2014]