THE PARADOX OF PORN: Joe Kort on straight vs. gay approaches to porn

Recently, my partner Andy and I shared a barbecue dinner with three straight women in their 40s of various marital statuses — one married and cohabiting, one married but living apart for work reasons, the other not married but cohabiting. It was a wide-ranging adult conversation, and I got up the nerve to pose a question I’d never dared to ask a group of women: how much time do you spend looking at porn? The woman in the long-distance relationship admitted that she sometimes looks at porn when she’s horny (she wouldn’t reveal what she looks at — we weren’t that friendly). The others said they virtually never look at porn, though one said her first exposure to porn came from accompanying friends to a gay bar. They all agreed that their men probably look at porn almost every day.

This conversation confirmed the basic thesis of gay sex therapist Joe Kort‘s recent article in the Huffington Post, “Porn Is Not a Public Health Crisis for Gay Men: Then Why Is It for Straight People?” Kort asserts that men tend to view porn matter-of-factly, as a ready source of healthy sexual stimulation. In relationships between two men, it’s assumed that both partners look at porn on a regular basis and it’s not a problem, whereas in relationships between men and women there is often tension about the men’s porn-watching, which is seen as tantamount to infidelity. It’s a very interesting and complicated topic, which Kort covers with considerable nuance.

Porn typing on the white keyboard. Online porn concept

He says, among other things, “The real public health crisis is a lack of sexual education. A step in the right direction could be having a conversation about gay men and lesbians who watch porn and are not in crisis over it. It would be better if all children in schools could receive a proper sex education that included balanced representation of porn and all the ways that exist to be sexual that are not primarily and only heterosexual. There is no sex education in schools for gay boys, and so they have to turn to porn to get it. Discovering gay pornography is almost a rite of passage for young gay men. For sexually fluid men, or sexually repressed men, watching porn can begin to connect them to who they really are sexually.

“Sex is messy, politically incorrect, taboo on so many levels. Porn is not what we would do in real life. Just like in watching movies, it is fantasy. Straight people need to learn what porn means to men. Men objectify more than women, who are more relational. And it is a scare tactic to say that watching porn leads to infidelity, as some have said. In fact, it is often way of not engaging in infidelity, an outlet that allows them to vicariously enjoy an act that they cannot do, like watching football—they can’t play it but boy to they enjoy watching it. Some may say, ‘see what porn did to you?’ but my belief is that they are discovering something already alive within them, and can begin to move toward more authentic sexuality.”

Check out the whole article online here and let me know what you think.

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?

THE PARADOX OF PORN: the Internet as sex educator

The New York Times recently reported that a woman in Los Angeles sat down at her desk at the end of a long day and discovered that the search history on the family computer included “child porn.” A couple of days later, her 13-year-old son admitted that he had typed in that search. “He said he was looking for porn made for children,” the mother said. “He explained, embarrassed, that he just wanted to know what his body was supposed to look like at his age.”

I can relate to that. Can’t you? Kids are insatiably curious about bodies, their own and others’, especially in that time of life when their bodies are changing. And as advice columnists routinely attest, the #1 concern they field from readers boils down to “Am I normal?” The paradox of pornography is that it puts naked bodies on full display in all their voluptuous glory – a godsend to anyone who’s curious and in the dark about such things. At the same time, the kinds of bodies you see in pornography often convey a distorted picture of what constitutes “normal.” Not all the time, but a lot of the time the women’s boobs are enormous, the men’s dicks are gigantic, the crotches are shaved and hairless, and the skin is smooth, white, and waxy. And the paradox for kids is that we live in an era when any naked pictures of humans under the age of 18, even cartoon drawings, can be construed not just as pornography but as grounds for serious legal prosecution. The agony of hormonally activated adolescents starving and literally dying for lack of information about sex was the subject of Frank Wedekind’s deeply wild, long-suppressed 1891 play Spring Awakening, as well as the terrific 2006 Broadway musical based on the play. These days when kids go looking for a little bit of sex education online, they’re more likely to end up with TMI.

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It would be great if we all grew up in body-positive households where nakedness occurred casually and appropriately from an early age, not necessarily equated with sex or something “dirty.” I was impressed to visit Iceland, where virtually everyone sits in hot tubs almost every day, and to note that the dressing rooms mandated the strictly enforced hygienic protocol that every person shower completely naked – and not in separate curtained-off cubicles but in open (sex-segregated) gang showers. Kids grow up seeing all sizes and shapes and ages of naked bodies, displayed in all their beautiful specificity yet with a community ethos of respectful modesty and mutual acceptance. Korean spas convey a similar healthy openness. It would be great to be exposed early and often to the notion that what you see in the mirror reflects exactly what you’re supposed to look like. If you don’t grow up in that kind of culture, how do you satisfy your curiosity? “Playing doctor” used to be the way kids explored seeing each other’s naked bodies. Nowadays it’s Doctor Google who holds all the answers.

You can be a lot older than 13 and still turn to online porn with the same questions: am I normal? What is my body supposed to look like? The Internet is kind of like the Bible – with enough persistent clicking around, you can find whatever you want there, to support any theory you want. Fretful parents can absolutely find scary images. Gender-queer explorers can find kindred spirits. Diversity hounds can find an XXX-rated Noah’s ark. People with crippling qualms about their own bodies can find evidence to support harsh self-judgments. “Over-exposure to porn, especially idealized body types, has led to disappointment with normal guys and a need to fantasize to achieve orgasm,” D.R. told me. “It’s also led to an unhealthy view of and disappointment in my own size and output.” (The word “output” is his modest way of voicing what I’ve heard from other men – porn can instill a sense of inferiority not just about the size of your dick but also the amount of jizz you shoot.)

Yet for every guy who feels shamed and intimidated by the invidious comparisons that online porn facilitates, someone else sees past the imperfections and experiences liberation. “Internet porn and social media is so great,” enthused S.A. “It’s making me 100% confident there are tons of guys who share my interests in various things to various degrees, some a lot more than me. I really think looking at naked guys, their genitals, butts, seeing all their curves and what used to be sort of weird-looking parts, so many variations in bodies, is very helpful to my emotional, psychological, social, and even physical health.”

It’s not easy being totally honest about sex, about bodies, about pornography, about curiosity. But I think it’s worth pursuing. What do you think?

 

 

THE PARADOX OF PORN: penis dimensions

THE PARADOX OF PORN

Perception: the more I look at porn, the smaller I think my dick is.

Reality: “While most models are presented in poses that make them appear to be massive brutes, most of them are really, really short. There’s a reason for it. While gay male mythology makes a great deal of noise about various cock sizes and the ways you’re supposed to be able to discern them — big feet, big ears, et al — the truth is that most dicks are about the same length and width. There are variations but, for the most part, the differences between various dicks are slight. Thus, if you have a perfectly average penis on a very short man, it looks huge. But the same cock on a very tall man, and it will look small. The munchkins win out in the model sweepstake. Knowing all this makes it difficult to believe that the mean-looking biker on the cover of Drummer is really anything more than a gym bunny who stands only as tall as my tits.” — John Preston, My Life as a Pornographer

Man measuring his penis size