THE PARADOX OF PORN: “Your Brain On Porn”

In his 2012 TED Talk “The Great Porn Experiment,” physiology professor Gary Wilson addresses the impact of watching online porn on the brains and sexual functioning of young heterosexual men. “Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse found that most boys seek pornography by age 10, driven by a brain that is suddenly fascinated by sex. Now, users perceive internet porn as far more compelling than porn of the past. Why is that? Unending novelty. With internet porn, a guy can see more hot babes in 10 minutes than his ancestors could see in several lifetimes. The problem is he has a hunter-gather brain. A heavy-user brain rewires itself to this genetic bonanza so it carefully becomes associated with this porn harem. Such behaviors that are associated with this are being alone, voyeurism, clicking, searching, multiple tabs fast-forwarding, constant novelty, shock, and surprise.” These habits develop in contrast to and sometimes to the exclusion of the behaviors involved in real sex, such as  “courtship, touching, being touched, smells, pheromones, emotional connection, interaction with a real person.”

How does watching porn become addictive? Wilson talks about the “reward circuit” in the human brain that evolved to drive us towards natural rewards such as sex, bonding, and food. “Extreme versions of natural rewards have a unique ability to capture us. For example: high-calorie foods or hot novel babes give us extra dopamine. Too much dopamine, though, can override our natural satiation mechanisms.

“For example: give rats unlimited access to junk food and almost all of them will binge to obesity. This is also why 4 out of 5 Americans are overweight and about half of those are obese. That is, addicted to food. In contrast to the natural rewards, drugs such as cocaine or alcohol only hook about 10% of users whether they are rats or humans. This binge mechanism for food or sex was once an evolutionary advantage. But what if mating season never ends? All those hits of dopamine can tell your brain to kick in a molecular switch called Delta-FosB, which starts to accumulate in the brain’s reward circuit. Now, with excess chronic consumption of drugs or natural rewards, this buildup of Delta-FosB starts to alter the brain and promote the cycle of binging and craving. If the binging continues, the Delta-FosB builds up and it can lead to brain changes seen in all addicts. So the dominoes are: excess consumption, excess dopamine, Delta-FosB, brain changes.


“One of the first changes is a numbed pleasure response. It kicks in so everyday pleasures really don’t satisfy a porn addict. At the same time other physical changes in the brain make the brain hyper-reactive to porn. Everything else in a porn user’s life is sort of boring, but porn is super-exciting. Finally, his willpower erodes as his frontal cortex changes.”

It’s possible to reverse these changes in the brain, says Wilson, but only by giving up looking at porn.  “Probably you want to know why any porn-loving guy in his right mind would give it up. Two words: erectile dysfunction. Internet porn is killing young men’s sexual performance. Young guys are flaming out with women. Sexual enhancement drugs often stop working for these guys, if they ever did, because the problem isn’t below the belt where Viagra works. Nor is their problem really psychological. It’s due to physical changes in the brain. Their numb brains are sending weaker and weaker signals to their bananas. As Dr. Carlo Foresta says: ‘It starts with lower reactions to porn’s sites. Then there is a general drop in libido, and in the end it becomes impossible to get an erection.’

“There are three takeaways from this. First, Foresta is describing a classic addiction process — gradual desensitization. Second, internet porn is qualitatively different from Playboy. Widespread youthful ED has never been seen before. And finally ED is often the only symptom that gets these guys’ attention. The question is what lesser symptoms are they missing? Most don’t figure that out until after they quit.”

In response to the physical changes caused by obsessive-compulsive porn consumption, some young men have taken it upon themselves to launch a movement called NoFap to encourage and support each other in breaking an unhealthy, addictive attachment to masturbating to porn. The trademarked website NoFap.com hosts short- and long-term challenges in which participants abstain from porn and masturbation (for a week, a month, a year, a lifetime) with the clearly stated intentions to “recover from porn-induced sexual dysfunction, stop objectifying and establish meaningful connections, improve your interpersonal relationships, and live a more fulfilling life.”

Wilson notes that guys in their early twenties aren’t regaining their erectile health as quickly as older guys. Even though older guys have been using porn longer, they didn’t start on today’s internet porn. Research indicates that older guys didn’t start having sexual problems until after they got high-speed internet. “Today’s young teens start on high-speed internet when their brains are at their peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity. This is also when they are the most vulnerable to addiction, but there is another risk. By adulthood, teens strengthen heavily-used circuits and prune back unused ones. So, by age 22 or so a guy’s sexual taste can be like deep roots in his brain. This can cause panic if a guy has escalated to extreme porn or porn that no longer matches his sexual orientation. Fortunately, brains are plastic so his taste can revert once he quits porn. As a guy returns to normal sensitivity his brain looks around for the rewards it evolves to see, such as friendly interaction and of course real mates.”

(You can watch Wilson’s TED Talk online here. If you’re curious to know more, you can buy his e-book Your Brain On Porn here.)

Other commentators have questioned the scientific validity of studying sexual behavior the same way that as drug and alcohol addictions. In an article republished online by Psychology Today, clinical psychologist David J. Ley argues that the high levels of brain activity that anti-porn advocates pathologize as addiction could also signal healthy adults with high libidos. I have tended to side with those who prefer not to apply the terminology of addiction to sexual behavior, partly for semantic reasons — alcohol and drug dependencies can be quantitatively measured and treated — and partly because I’m aware that what constitutes normal/acceptable/healthy sexual behavior relies heavily on the values of the observer. Wilson’s talk and the studies he cites deal exclusively with heterosexual men and so have nothing to say about the ways that pornography has historically played an important role in validating the desires and experience of non-heterosexual men.

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In contrast to Wilson’s research, the refreshingly colloquial British gay publication FS (published by the health charity Gay Men Fighting AIDS) conducted an admittedly unscientific study of gay men’s porn habits. More than 1000 readers responded, 87% of whom watched porn at least once a week. One in four watched porn every day. Although the report acknowledged that some men felt out of control with their porn-viewing, the study reflected more concern about the impact of bareback porn on gay men’s sexual behavior offline than with issues of addiction.

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That being said, it’s undeniable that there are plenty of people whose social and sexual functioning has undeniably been damaged by excessive porn-watching. And I am always impressed, inspired, and moved by anyone who chooses to sacrifice short-term pleasures for long-term mental and physical well-being. It takes tremendous courage and self-compassion — not to mention support from others — to stop drinking, to stop doing drugs, or to make a profound change in sexual behavior, including looking at pornography. I want to be a resource and a champion for anyone for whom that’s a good choice to make.

Have you ever found that looking at pornography has become a problem for you? Did you ever try to stop? Did it work for you? Have you ever found that you were spending too much time on hook-up websites and/or mobile apps? Have you tried deleting those apps or taking a break for a while? How did that go for you?

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MEDIA: interview online with filmmaker Brian Fender about “DICK: The Documentary”

When I met Brian Fender many years ago, he had completed one short film about LGBT youth (xyQ), and he was just beginning the process of making a documentary about men talking about their penises. I heard from him occasionally over the years and knew that he’d been diagnosed with ALS, a seriously debilitating illness. So I was pleased to read this EdgeMedia article online by my friend Killian Melloy to learn that a) Brian has completed his new film, DICK: A Documentary and that b) he is hanging in there, despite all the difficulties of living with ALS. In this interview, you can see a trailer for film, read about the making of it, watch xyQ in its entirety, and learn about the nonprofit organization Brian is funneling his energy into called Artists Lend Support.

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MEDIA: Matt Alber’s “Handsome Man” video is a 4-minute primer on gay male intimacy

One of the paradoxes of gay male porn is that it shows all the juicy explicit details of sexual intimacy while rarely giving the slightest hint of emotional or social intimacy — such as what people say in order to get into sexual situations and what they say after everybody orgasms. So guys who watch a lot of porn, especially younger guys, guys who are in the closet, late bloomers, and the sexually inexperienced, can get lulled into thinking that’s all there is and forget or never learn how to conduct the simplest forms of interpersonal socializing.  Because if you’ve never seen it, how are you supposed to know what it looks like?

The new video by Texan gay singer-songwriter Matt Alber (which debuted today on AccidentalBear.com) represents a perfect antidote or companion to a steady diet of porn. In just 4 minutes and 44 seconds, it captures a multitude of glimpses of gay male intimacy that hardly ever show up even in full-length films and TV shows about gay life.

Two good-looking guys who aren’t kids, who have facial hair, geeky glasses, and imperfect bodies — 39-year-old Alber and his buddy Alan — wake up in bed together. They get up slowly, nuzzling and smooching. They have breakfast, they go back to bed, they take pictures of each other. They share a book. One writes a secret note on the back of a strip of photo-booth shots they’d obviously taken recently. The other one reads it after the guy leaves, and you see emotion surge into his eyes.

As these scenes play out, we hear the song “Handsome Man,” which kicks off Alber’s recently released EP Wind Sand Stars. The lyric conveys some of the simple thoughts and questions that emerge when you’re Getting to Know Someone:

Hey handsome man what’d ya do last night?
Did you have a good time? Was the music all right?
Did you wear that jacket with the deep blue jeans?
Bet the boys went crazy, bet you caused a scene.
Cuz everybody smiles when a handsome man walks by

Say handsome man, where you off to now?
Are you out in the garden or off to town?
Are there any new songs that you’re listening to?
I’m gonna take ya dancing when I come to see you

Handsome man, can I ask you this?
I know we’ve both been loved and we’ve both been kissed
But when the hounds are sleeping and the night is deep
Will you tell me the story of you and me?

I love that Matt Alber prizes these tiny mundane touches of gay male affection and interest and that he’s willing to model them, to be a kind of teacher of gay intimacy. Check out the video and let me know what you think. And if you haven’t ever seen it, be sure to check out the video that put Alber on the map, “End of the World,” an even more romantic four-minute fairy tale with the kind of happy ending you don’t see in porn.

MEDIA: “Has Porn Ruined Our Sex Lives?”

Reporter Jill Hamilton interviewed me (by e-mail) for an article she wrote for the online magazine Dame recently. The magazine primarily addresses itself to a heterosexual female audience (“For Women Who Know Better”), and the article definitely skews in that direction, leaning heavily on commentary by Dr. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and founding member of Stop Porn Culture. Hamilton contacted me because she wanted to get some perspective from a male sex therapist. I personally choose to pitch conversations and pronouncements about pornography in a way that acknowledges and honors sexual pleasure, and I try to combat the sex-negativity that can creep into anti-porn arguments. But I absolutely believe that the ways gay men consume pornography and the ways it affects gay male behavior and relationships — for better and for worse — are distinctly different from the ways that pornography affects dealings between hetero men and women. So I read Hamilton’s article with a lot of interest. It reminded me of the smart, cogent, and well-considered objections that observers like Dr. Dines have about the culture of porn. The article is called “Has Porn Ruined Our Sex Lives?” Check it out here and let me know what you think.

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MEDIA: “James Broughton Gave Me a Pearl Necklace”

The latest issue of RFD, the reader-written journal of the Radical Faerie community, is devoted to the late great poet and filmmaker James Broughton, the subject of recent documentary film by Stephen Silha and Eric Slade called BIG JOY. When I was younger and had a lot more hair, I had the pleasure of meeting Broughton in 1991 at the Gay Spirit Visions conference in North Carolina, and my brief remembrance of that occasion appears in RFD and below:

Joel Silver, James Broughton, and Don Shewey

Joel Silver, James Broughton, and Don Shewey

JAMES BROUGHTON GAVE ME A PEARL NECKLACE

I met James Broughton in September, 1991, when he graced the second annual Gay Spirit Visions conference in North Carolina as keynote speaker. Before that event, I knew he was a poet – his pithy, often humorous, often lightweight verses led some to consider him the contemporary gay incarnation of Rumi – and somehow I had absorbed the information that he had been married once upon a time to the legendary film critic Pauline Kael, of all people. But only in person did the full force of Broughton emerge.

He was elderly then, 77 and snowy-haired, a little frail but in pretty good health and attended by his loving companion Joel Silver. He was friendly and approachable, though of course he was also a showman. He knew how to attract and hold an audience, not so much by being loud and ostentatious but by radiating an amused intimacy and the elfin twinkle of someone who has marinated his epiphanies in joy rather than solemnity. He wore the mask of an airy-fairy gentle sprite, but when he opened his mouth to speak the hardcore metaphysical prankster revealed himself. Joseph Kramer, the visionary founder of the Body Electric School, also attended the conference as a guest speaker, and I vividly recall his rapturous attention as Broughton held forth on what he called “The Holy Trinity” – the phallus, the anus, and the perineum. Raven Wolfdancer, a beloved Atlanta faerie (later murdered on his doorstep by an unknown intruder, but that’s another story), introduced Broughton to the conference as “my bliss mentor, my ecstasy mentor. He taught me to parade my peculiar.”

For his keynote address, Broughton delivered a talk he had apparently given more than once, alternately titled “The Sexual Holiness of Men” and “The Sexuality of Spirit.” It was a kind of sermon, a dharma talk, a benediction dense with the distilled wisdom of a lifetime. You can find the verbatim text online, but in my diary I took notes, and looking at them now they contain one jewel after another. I realize that in the hour he was speaking I became a disciple, because the sentences that leapt out at me have stuck with me ever since.

Since this is a spiritual conference, I begin with a blessing: Hail Mary, quite contrary…

I’m a poet – do not expect reasoned argument.

I take my text from Novalis: “There is only one temple in the world, and that is the human body.” And the only proper activity in a temple is worship.

Churches exist to make you feel miserable.

Buddha is down on desire. Broughton is very up on desire.

Your brains have been washed with the detergent of guilt too long.

The penis is the exposed tip of the heart, the wand of the soul.

I was born to love my own kind, not compete with or acquire them.

Most communication is made of sneers and complaints. One of my mottoes is “Reach, touch, connect.”

At the baths, each cock was a bead in my rosary. Sexual loving is the true practice of religion. Put lovemaking before moneymaking and troublemaking. Teach it in schools. Holding hands, okay. Hug, yes, but with your whole body. I would add kissing. Practice this lifesaving on your neighbors. Love the living as much as the dying.

Stop thinking of yourselves as outcasts. You are meridians, raising consciousness, not babies. You can be and not beget. You may be outside of society’s mainstream but in the mainstream of wisdom.

I’d rather be kissed than stamped with approval.

MEDIA: “An Eye for an Eye”

I frequently bemoan the dearth of images of explicit physical affection that doesn’t resemble commercial pornography, so I’m delighted to call attention to this beautiful short film by Polish visual artist Artur Żmijewski.

As the website for his gallery explains, “The film features people with disabilities, who suffer from severe difficulties in their everyday lives as a result of amputations. A temporary relief in their struggle with daily activities is brought by healthy people, who lend them parts of their own bodies. In order to make up for the deficiencies of the body with disability, they lock with it in an uncanny embrace. However, offering a healthy limb requires breaking the barriers of intimacy, i.e. touching the scar – the most sensitive part of the body after amputation. Thus, Żmijewski’s film becomes a story of intimacy and ways of overcoming the mechanisms of exclusion.”

Artur Zmijewski – An Eye for An Eye, 1998 from Hurford Center on Vimeo.

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MEDIA: “The Gift of Desire”

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Last month I gave a talk at Living Soulfully, the monthly gathering the Center in New York City for friends and associates of Easton Mountain Retreat Center, where I’ve taught for many years. I adapted the talk into an article which has been published by the online gay newspaper EDGE. The gist of the article is this:

As a gay sex therapist, I spend a lot of my working hours listening to people talk about the nitty-gritty details of their sex lives. I meet a lot of smart, soulful, intelligent men frustrated at their inability to find love and connection. One of the themes that comes up again and again has to do with asking for what you want.

“Ask for what you want” is advice that’s easy to give but often strangely difficult to practice. What gets in the way of identifying our desires and sharing them with others? Growing up gay, we probably learned early on to view our deepest desires as shameful, socially unacceptable, or at the very least subject to other people’s negative judgments. No wonder we’re a little gun-shy when it comes to letting others know what we want, especially in the realm of love and erotic play.

You can read the whole article online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.