Let’s be real. Pornography is a problem. It pops up on your computer. It is available on your phone. If you watch TV, it’s almost impossible to escape the stream of images that are borderline pornographic. If your television subscription offers more than the basic channels, it’s likely that you, your spouse, and your children have easy access to pornography on your big screen. In truth, porn might keep your spouse in the bathroom a bit too long. It might interfere with your sex life. It might change the way you view your partner. It might make you think that it’s so much easier to have a relationship with a porn image instead of a real life partner.
Given that porn is so common, many people say, "What’s the big deal? It’s just sex. It’s just the human body. It’s just real life." Here’s the truth: Pornography is a BIG deal. The negative effects of pornography eat away at relationships like termites eat at wood—silently destructive. Like termites, porn creeps in undetected, yet serious problems are created in the long run. If pornography is not harming your life, it’s likely that porn is secretly destroying the relationships of people you know.
These anti-porn concerns aren’t based upon judging sexuality or being prudish about the human body. In fact, as a woman, wife, and psychologist, I readily admit to loving the human form. Young, old, trim, or plump, I find the human body an incredible work of art. In the same way, I also find great beauty in sexuality.
We are sexual creatures, and that’s a simple fact. How, then, is it that sexuality can go so awry that a loving person turns away from a partner and looks for sexual satisfaction in pornography? Why is such behavior so alarming and destructive? Because pornography use changes our brains. It changes the way we view sexuality. Porn changes our desire for—and ability to engage in—true, bonding sexual intimacy. Pornography changes the way we see and value other human beings. In essence, if we become accustomed to seeing people (especially women) as disposable objects, it becomes easier over time to be disrespectful and devaluing of people in general. These issues add up to what I have come to term a "pornographic attitude." Whether a person is actively using porn or not, a pornographic attitude promotes the idea that people are things to be used for personal satisfaction.
My vocation as a clinical psychologist has given me the opportunity to work deeply with a variety of issues including sexuality. Indeed, much of my work has focused on helping sexual offenders and sexual addicts move into healthy behaviors. In working with clients on these deeply personal issues, I’ve noted various common themes. The regular use of pornography is one of the key issues that routinely affects healthy sexuality. As well, many clients acknowledge that an early childhood exposure to pornography affected their sense of relationships and human sexuality.
Another common factor is resistance to—or fear of—interpersonal sexual intimacy. Poor impulse control—sometimes coined an "addictive personality"—is often an additional issue. Finally, the objectification of other people is a key component for those who turn to pornography. Although many other themes arise when working with pornography issues, these factors are a few of the most important.
With this background information, let’s get down to seven of the simple, dirty truths of what makes pornography use so dangerous and damaging:
Exposure to erotic images can begin innocently enough in childhood. A photo of an attractive girl or guy can cause hormones to surge. Maybe the first strong sexual image was viewed in a sexy magazine or even a snapshot of the hot girl or guy in school. Sometimes this brief exposure takes hold, and there’s a desire to view the image again. This is normal—for a curious young teen. However, some people don’t grow out of this behavior.
They might grow up to take photos of unsuspecting strangers. They may look at people in public with a voyeuristic eye. They might take to holding onto erotic mental images and use these images for private sexual satisfaction. In such cases, the image is devoid of a personal connection and is simply an object. That image is an impersonal, unidimensional representation of a fantasy. There is no relationship, only a one-sided connection to a static mental image. The sole purpose of the image or images is to serve selfish inner needs or desires.
This is the danger of objectification; there is no real relationship that allows for dialogue, bonding, intimacy, or growth. Pornography takes objectification to another level. The person or persons being viewed are mindless, soulless creatures to be used for the viewer’s pleasure. At the touch of a button, these objects—devoid of personalities, personal histories, and real-life characteristics—become toys. The viewer doesn’t know (or care) if the "actor"* is married or single, childless or with five kids at home, addicted or clean, fighting depression, living on the street, or suffering in other ways. The "actor" is an object that has been air-brushed, captured in time, and is about as real-life as Barbie or GI Joe. See the problem?
“This is the danger of objectification; there is no real relationship that allows for dialogue, bonding, intimacy, or growth.”
Sex vs. Sexual Intimacy
Our culture has come to accept anonymous sex as normal and routine. This mentality allows people to be treated as disposable sexual partners. This mindset paves the way for an attitude that blurs a very important line: the line between sex and sexual intimacy. Sex is an act that any healthy, equipped animal can engage in; the sex act does not require emotional intelligence or emotional maturity. Sexual intimacy is another issue entirely. Sexual intimacy requires the desire and ability to bond with another person. Sexual intimacy requires that partners be interested in more than using another person (or their image) for selfish, personal pleasure.
Pornography erodes the desire to create healthy bonds. On a neurochemical level, the brain becomes accustomed to the rush of feel-good chemicals that arises from "quickies." The brain learns to say, "This is fun and easy! Why complicate things?" This mindset—and the neurobiology underneath it—eats away at the idea of intimacy. When, and if, an intimate relationship is ever desired, the brain’s hardwired patterns balk at the idea of bonding and intimacy.
In addition to emotional concerns, these hardwired patterns can create physiological issues; premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction may occur as a result of chronic pornography use. Sex for the sake of a quick orgasm changes the way the brain and body learn to function. Although this issue is often ignored and may seem counter-intuitive, sexual dysfunction often results from chronic pornography use.
“Sexual intimacy requires that partners be interested in more than using another person (or their image) for selfish, personal pleasure.”
Selfishness vs. Consideration
Pornography promotes sex as a selfish, one-sided act. Rather than nourishing the desire to please one’s partner, pornography creates a lopsided, "it’s all about me" attitude. In healthy sexual intimacy, consideration for one’s partner deepens the relationship emotionally and physically. Consideration for one’s partner naturally takes more energy and attention than a self-oriented sex life. Pornography capitalizes on a selfish attitude. The porn viewer doesn’t need to care about pleasing or loving the other person. Sex becomes easy, mindless, and egocentric. When a selfish mindset is at work, it becomes easy to move away from one’s partner and completely avoid sex or to turn to other sexual outlets such as pornography. Pornography feeds selfishness.
A pornographic attitude can promote infidelity by reducing the level of commitment in intimate relationships. Studies show that pornography users are more likely to cheat on their partners. When selfishness, objectification, and the idea of disposable partners becomes "normal," the glue of commitment begins to deteriorate. The ease of pornography use promotes the idea that committed relationships are "too difficult" and even unnecessary. Indeed, when the brain becomes trained to treat even the most sacred relationships as disposable, healthy committed relationships are pushed aside. Sadly, those stuck in these unhealthy cycles of behavior are often extremely lonely and isolated. A pornographic attitude creates greater loneliness and isolation over time.
“Pornography feeds selfishness.”
Pornography is highly addictive. Even those who never believed they were in the "addictive personality" realm can be readily captured in the arms of pornography use. Porn sites are expertly designed to keep viewers coming back again and again. Once drawn in, their addictive strength is frighteningly powerful. On a neurobiological level, the "high" received from porn exposure often exceeds that experienced in hard drug use. The pleasure hormones that would normally arise during human-to-human sexual contact are no longer triggered through sexual intimacy. Instead, these pleasure hormones are triggered quickly and repeatedly through one-sided sexual experiences.
As with most addictions, the brain builds a tolerance to the experience, and the viewer craves—and needs—more and more porn to experience the same high. As the addictive behavior is repeated, the brain becomes hardwired with these new patterns. More and more porn is needed to create the same level of pleasure. Although some people claim that pornography use alleviates stress, anxiety, depression, or boredom, porn use doesn’t cure any underlying issues. Just as indiscriminate sex does nothing but temporarily fill a void—often creating a deeper sense of internal emptiness—porn use only amplifies existing problems. The draw to porn often increases when life’s challenges arise, and the vicious cycle of addition ultimately makes the pornography user feel even worse.
The images displayed in erotic magazines and through porn sites are not "real" in many ways. The models and actors are airbrushed, staged, and held in the ageless time capsule of static images. A pornographic image that looks to be 22-years-old may well be 15 or—if the image is dated—45. Yet, the brain takes in the image as if it is an accessible, actual real-time person. Just as the brain holds the unspoiled image of a high school love at the age of 17, the brain holds onto the erotic images portrayed in porn as if they are real, ageless, and able to be molded into whatever sex object might feel right.
This concept has an incredibly damaging effect on one’s natural attraction to real-life people—especially one’s partner. The static porn images don’t age, don’t sweat, don’t smell, and don’t need anything. Their breasts are near perfect, and their penises are hard and large. With so much porn available, viewers can click through to find just the right size, shape, and style of porn that feels good in the moment. How can a real-life partner begin to compare to this surreal, unnatural realm of porn? (What real-life partner would want to?)
Pornography emphasizes that it’s a body type or size that matters most. Sex then becomes focused on physical attributes. In pornography use, the relationship aspect of sexuality is completely missing. The impact on a committed relationship is clear; if one’s partner does not look like that the coveted image in the photo or video, physical attraction dissolves. As your partner ages and bodily changes result, this naturally beautiful process can become repugnant rather than wonderful. If the brain has been wired to believe that only a trim, 20-year-old body is attractive, then one’s real-life spouse is simply no longer appealing.
“ The static porn images don’t age, don’t sweat, don’t smell, and don’t need anything.”
Bigger and Better
Over time, a pornographic attitude creates a monster in the brain. Beautiful sexual intimacy with a single partner is no longer enough. Bonded, caring sexuality becomes boring. No longer is sexual intimacy a luxurious, caring interlude between two people; it becomes a fast event with the means to an end: orgasm. Libido for one’s partner disappears as the sex addict needs a bigger and better rush each time. Monogamy seems far too ordinary for the brain that is addicted to having an endless array of sex partners who perform increasingly bizarre sexual acts. Loving intimacy is no longer interesting when provocative, anonymous sex acts become the norm. As the brain’s pleasure centers become increasingly accustomed to sexual acts that are violent and degrading, elevated levels of these warped versions of sexuality become the new norm. This mindset creates a most dangerous, insatiable monster: enough is never enough.
Given that pornography is powerful business (some reports note that it is the seventh-largest industry in the United States), the push to normalize its presence is strong. As with most issues, awareness and vigilance are key. If you or someone close to you is questioning the negative effects of pornography, the following question often brings clarity: Does pornography use negatively affect your relationships at home, in society, or at work? If the answer is "Yes," then it’s time for action.
On the other hand, some couples note that they enjoy adding pornographic images to their sex lives. It’s difficult to comment on this practice, for what occurs sexually between two consenting adults is that couple’s decision. However, one can’t escape the truth that an often-exploited "third party"* has entered the sexual realm when pornography is utilized. Once a couple is aware of the possible pitfalls that this aspect may bring to their own lives and their relationship, the choice is theirs. In general, however, if porn use is negatively impacting your relationships or other aspects of your life, it’s time to seek help!
As a psychologist, clients have come to me to heal from the negative effects of pornography. Whether propelled into therapy as a result of a court order, the prompting of a spouse, or the humiliation of being caught using porn on the job; I applaud my clients for seeking support. Like any addition or negative behavior, the downside is not apparent at the beginning of the road. Once stuck in the mud of pornography, it can be difficult to find a way out. However, the brain can change, and behaviors change along with it. Even those with a long history of addiction to mindless, quick porn and sex can find a way back to healthy, intimate behavior. Don’t let pornography ruin your life or the life of a loved one. Reach out for support. Reach out for love and connection.
*Author’s Note: This article does not focus on the very real abuse that many porn actors and porn models suffer. Many are horrifically exploited and are victims of long-term sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The violence and degrading treatment experienced by many of these women, men, and children is intolerable. Many actors or models involved in pornography appear to be in good emotional or physical health; remember that appearances can be very deceiving. In essence, those who view pornography ultimately subscribe to the mistreatment of their fellow humans.
References: Hilton DL, Watts C. Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective. Surg Neurol Int 21-Feb-2011, 2:19.
Lambert, M. N., Negash, S., Stillman, T. F., Olmstead, S. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A love that doesn't last: Pornography consumption and weakened commitment to one`s romantic partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 410-438.
Wilson, Gary (2014). Your brain on porn: Internet pornography and the emerging science of addiction. Richmond, VA: Commonwealth Publishing
As a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, Dr. Carla Marie Manly maintains a focus on helping clients transform their lives and their relationships. Using a body-mind-spirit approach that underscores the importance of overall wellness, Dr. Manly works with her clients on a highly individualized basis to uncover the core concerns that often manifest as psychological, behavioral, and somatic symptoms. Combining traditional depth psychotherapy with somatic therapy, Dr. Manly offers her clients a specialized approach to creating passionate, joy-filled lives. Working in both individual and group settings, she strives to promote change by increasing her clients’ personal self-awareness and insight. A devoted writer, speaker, and yoga instructor, Dr. Manly is dedicated to helping others create the lives of their dreams. California License: Psy25539. For more, visit www.drcarlagreco.com and follow her on Google+.