Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The price men pay for their addiction to porn

The technological revolution that has given us television, the internet and almost inexhaustible sources of image consumption has also, concomitantly, given viewers and internet users access to pornography on a scale almost unimaginable. But, as one should know by now, technology is a pharmakon – poison AND cure – and therefore it should come as no surprise that this technologically-mediated access to porn comes with a price in many respects, including the toll it is evidently taking on young men’s sexuality.

In a recent article, titled “Porn and the threat to virility” (TIME, April 18, 2016, pp. 32-39), Belinda Luscombe draws attention to this phenomenon, which manifests itself in the inability of young men – who have become used to “satisfying themselves” by masturbating while viewing pornographic images that are freely available on the internet – to engage in sex with women. Evidently this is the case even when they are strongly attracted to the young women concerned – they can’t function in the “normal” manner. In other words, much to their consternation, they are suddenly confronted by what is euphemistically known as ED – erectile dysfunction.

What interests me here is that, judging by the article, people do not really understand the reasons for such sexual malfunction on the part of these porn-addicted young men, even if some of their probings seem to be on the right track. In an age when few still value the insight afforded by psychoanalysis, it nevertheless enables one to understand why these unfortunate individuals suddenly, after spending many hours sating themselves on mediated sex, cannot enjoy “the real thing”, as it were.

In case you are wondering why I put “the real thing” in scare quotes, it is because its meaning requires careful specification, as I shall try to show. It casts doubt on whether one (man or woman) is ever really able to experience what is “real” – because, as Jacques Lacan argued regarding the human subject, fantasy always mediates (comes between us and) what is “real”, even in encounters with another human being instead of images on a screen.

AFP

AFP

But if fantasy always intervenes in what is called “sexual relations”, why do fantasies based on pornographic images have such a deleterious effect on male sexuality? (And on female sexually too, albeit in different ways, like being expected by their boyfriends to behave like porn stars; Luscombe, p. 34.) Let me start by quoting Luscombe (p. 34):

“Noah Church is a 26-year-old part-time wildland firefighter in Portland, Ore[gon]. When he was nine, he found naked pictures on the internet. He learned how to download explicit videos. When he was 15, streaming videos arrived, and he watched those. Often. Several times a day. Doing that which people often do while watching that genre by themselves.

“After a while, he says, those videos did not arouse him as much, so he moved on to different configurations, sometimes involving just women, sometimes one woman and several guys, sometimes even an unwilling woman. ‘I could find anything I imagined and a lot of stuff I couldn’t imagine,’ he says. After the appeal of those waned, he moved on to the next level, more intense, often more violent.

“In his senior year of high school, he had the opportunity to have actual sex, with a real partner. He was attracted to her and she to him, as demonstrated by the fact that she was naked in her bedroom in front of him. But his body didn’t seem to be interested. ‘There was a disconnect between what I wanted in my mind and how my body reacted,’ he says. He simply couldn’t get the necessary hydraulics going.

“He put it down to first-timers’ nerves, but six years went by, and no matter which woman he was with, his body was no more cooperative. It responded only to the sight of porn. Church came to believe that his adolescent internet indulgence had somehow caused his problems and that he had what some are calling porn-induced erectile malfunction.”

Noah is only one among an increasing number of young men who find themselves in this position, and it is significant that what they have in common is being exposed to a never-ending stream of pornographic images through electronic devices, which comes with the territory of living in the internet age. The other significant thing comes from something said by Alexander Rhodes who, like Noah, was a virtual porn addict by his late teens. He claims (Luscombe, p. 35) that when he was having sex with his girlfriend everything went well while he was fantasising about porn. But as soon as he started focusing on the girl, “his body lost interest”. Alexander has finally given up all porn watching, and is now running a website called “NoFap.com”, for support and counselling of men with the same problem. And he is not the only one who has done this because of his own negative experience with sex.

Although Luscombe provides a lot of statistics to show that there has been a huge rise in ED among young men from 1992 to the present, and quotes some medical doctors saying relevant things, she does not look in the right direction to understand the problem. Dr Ajay Nangia (quoted on p. 35), for instance, observes: “There’s a kind of desensitisation of these men, and they only reach the point of feeling stimulated when sex is like it is on a movie.” But so what? What does this imply regarding images and sexual pleasure? The insights offered by biologists like Professor Gary Wilson (p. 36) regarding ways in which the human brain is affected by dopamine-inducing pornographic images, also merely state the obvious, namely that the brain is trained in always expecting the same high dopamine (a neurotransmitter) releases, and nothing less (like “ordinary” sex) will do. All that brain researchers are doing is to report on the brain conditions corresponding to the porn-induced sexual experiences, instead of offering insight into WHY it is happening.

This is where Lacanian psychoanalysis can help. Very briefly, for Lacan, fantasy plays an indispensable role in sex, insofar as every subject has a personal “fantasy-formula” for sex to succeed with their lover(s). This is what he means by saying, notoriously, that “There is no sexual relationship” (for a revealing discussion of this, see Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (Granta Books 2011, Kindle edition, location 745 – 808). In simpler terms, this means that, if people were to allow themselves to be confronted head-on by all the nuts and bolts of sex – the mechanics involved, the blemishes on their lovers’ skins, their less-than-perfect figures, the hair in their nostrils, and even the smell of their skins (remember Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun … ”?) – sex would probably end disastrously every time. Hence people generally allow their sexual desire for their lovers to be filtered through a fantasy of sorts, BUT importantly, as it is embedded in the language individuals use between themselves and those they desire sexually.

Without language (the symbolic) embodying and embedding people’s fantasy, it would be located solely in the Lacanian imaginary order, which is the realm of images, like the porn images in question here. Where these function without speech passing between two people – the language (including “body-language”) in which their sexual desire for each other is expressed – the effects of this (presumably mutual) desire on the body is undermined, in the shape of ED in men, for example. To be sure, fantasy plays a role in viewing porn videos too, but there it is not “grafted” onto the lover’s body via symbolic exchange. Someone who has become accustomed to gaining sexual release through auto-eroticism while viewing pornographic image sequences, would find it difficult to adapt to a sexual encounter with a concrete, flesh-and-blood person.

Small wonder, then, that men who “trained” themselves, and their bodies, to respond to screen images, cannot respond to another person in the flesh, and have to resort to fantasising about those remembered images while they are having sex “with a woman”, but not “really” with her. Under those circumstances her body is merely an instrument taking the place of their hands. If they want to recover their “normal” sexuality – which is evidently becoming less “normal” by the day in our image-saturated society – they will have to take the time to learn the role of speech in sex. That is why it is called “love-making”.

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    • KarlyJames

      “there is not a single published study linking pornography and erectile dysfunction”

      https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-who-stray/201308/erectile-dysfunction-myth

      Searching PubMed or Wed of Science databases seems to confirm this.

      It is ethically questionable for an academic to present such strong arguments without checking if his central thesis is valid, especially when it could have real implications for many readers.

    • Bert Olivier

      Karly – I am not surprised by the absence of published studies regarding this phenomenon. Luscombe writes in a mainstream magazine, and although she does not claim that this connection exists, she does adduce plenty of evidence – in the form of testimony on the part of young men so affected – that there is a strong probability that it is the case. Moreover, I doubt whether you’ll find anything Lacanian where you searched; personally I put my trust in psychoanalysis in this instance, when it comes to grasping the grounds of the connection that the men involved point to. Besides, readers could only benefit, in my view, from Lacan’s insights, as I tried to show, by realising that humans, as speaking/linguistic beings, would be far better off living in accordance with this fundamental truth about themselves than to rely on the artificiality of techno-provided thrills which by-pass intimacy as mediated by language. Anybody is free to read the article by Luscombe and judge for themselves.

    • Human Behaviorist

      It’s amazing that people cannot see the logic in the TIME article. Many of the world’s behaviorists are recognizing excessive, unlimited porn as a significant link in the chain of the breakdown of satisfying, meaningful and long-lasting sexual relationships. There ARE studies that show that excessive masturbation may lead to eventual ED.

      Ergo, excessive porn leads to excessive masturbation….

      The article in TIME doesn’t point to porn causing a biological ED but rather a behavioral ED. Their research indicated that young men today were stating that after not being able to function with a “real partner” they were able to immediately function if they turned on pornography.

      What is so difficult to understand about that???

      Is there truth in this study? Ask the marriage counselors. There are serious issues afoot. These recent generations are struggling to sustain happy sexual relationships and hence, happy relationships.

    • May Beam

      I have briefly dated a porn-addict years ago. His addiction was unbeknownst to me at first, and our few physical encounters did not seem strikingly odd. What felt really odd was the emotional detachment, which is something that he did explain upon ending our brief relationship. After almost 20 years of seemingly serious porn addiction, he just could not form any emotional bond and could not avoid objectifying the partner to an extent that would not only end his relationship attempts, but also that would make him feel incredibly lonely and depressed.
      I found this experience quite depressing too, and not only because I did like the guy, but also because I felt incredibly sorry for him. It is such a pity to not being able to happily enjoy love. I suggested therapy of some sort, but it seems like the shame is as big as the addiction. Probably more men would feel better to speak about this with family and friends (and a therapist!) if there was less judgement.

    • KarlyJames

      Psychoanalysis is simply not a suitable method to if there is really a connection between pornography and ED. This is a problem for epidemiology, that seems obvious. Your article presents this connection as a medically established fact (by pointing to a non-peer reviewed article with anecdotal evidence). So here is an extreme hypothetical example of why this is unethical: a long-time smoker with ED (probably caused by smoking-related cardiovascular disease) reads the article and decides to stop using pornography, rather than stop smoking.

    • KarlyJames

      Anecdote is not data. Time is not a peer-reviewed medical journal.

    • Bert Olivier

      On the contrary, Karly – psychoanalysis is much more suitable here than epidemiology, because it has to do with the role of fantasy. Why medicalise everything? (Read Foucault about this.) In your hypothetical example the guy would at least benefit from giving up porn, but if he’s read my post properly, he’d go further than just giving up porn. ED is overdetermined as a phenomenon, anyway – as the behaviorist has indicated, below, porn-related ED would be a behavioral dysfunction, not an organic one.

    • jordanyutes

      Actually, there are several studies that have found relationships between porn use in young men and ED, anorgamsia, low sexual desire, delayed ejaculation and lower brain activation to sexual images. This page contains 12 such studies – http://www.yourbrainonporn.com/porn-induced-ed-media

      That page also contains articles and videos by about 65 experts (urology professors, urologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, sexologists, MDs) who acknowledge and have successfully treated porn-induced ED and porn-induced loss of sexual desire. In fact, here’s a presentation on porn-induced sexual dysfunctions delivered at the American Urologic Association annual conference May 6-10, 2016 – https://youtu.be/M9xqIIWkP8M

      PS; Please do not cite David Ley blog post again. He’s the same blogger who falsely claims there is no science behind porn addiction, when over 20 neuroscience-based studies (and 5 recent reviews) have been published supporting the porn addiction model. Link to studies – http://pornstudycritiques.com/current-list-of-brain-studies-on-porn-users/

    • jordanyutes

      The most suitable method for determining the existence porn-induced sexual dysfunctions is to remove porn use and see if (eventually) the dysfunction heals, That’s what thousands of men have been doing in an informal experiment (as described):

      1) Thousands of otherwise healthy young men (ages 16 -35), with only one variable in common: Years of masturbation to Internet porn.
      2) The subjects differ in backgrounds, ethnicity, diets, exercise regimens, religious beliefs, moral beliefs, country of origin, education, economic status, on & on.
      3) These young men cannot achieve an erection without porn use, and gradually, some can no longer achieve an erection with porn use.
      5) Many have seen multiple health-care practitioners and all have tried a number of approaches to cure their copulatory ED with no results.
      6) Most state that they cannot believe that porn use could have caused ED.
      7) The cause of their ED was not performance anxiety as they failed to achieve full erections while attempting to masturbate without porn

      The results:
      Nearly every subject reports a similar constellation of physical and
      psychological symptoms when they stop porn use/masturbation, and a similar time-frame for the appearance of symptoms such as agitation, cravings, complete loss of libido. Recovery times vary: Some only most only need 2-3 months, Some need 6-12 months or longer.

      The usual pattern of recovery is as follows:
      Subjects experience varying withdrawal symptoms that parallel drug/alcohol withdrawal, such as cravings, anxiety, lethargy, depression, brain fog, sleeping abnormalities, restlessness, agitation, aches, pains, etc.

      Within 1-2 weeks, most subjects experience what is called “the
      flatline”: low libido, perceived changes in genital sensation or size. The flatline slowly abates and libido gradually increases, morning
      erections and spontaneous erections often show up, attraction to real partners increases, etc. If the men stick to the regimen, nearly all regain erectile health.

      Summary:
      Young healthy men, with unexplained ED and only one variable in common (Internet porn use), attempt multiple regimens and treatments with no success. The subjects remove the one variable they have in common and almost all experience the same results – remission of their medical condition.

      This is the best empirical evidence available as no one has yet performed an experiment where men stopped using porn and monitored the results.

      Science is catching up as studies are finding relationships between porn uses and sexual dysfunctions and altered brain responses to sexual stimuli. Link – http://pornstudycritiques.com/studies-reporting-relationships-between-porn-use-in-young-men-and-ed-anorgamsia-low-sexual-desire-delayed-ejaculation-and-lower-brain-activation-to-sexual-images/

    • Human Behaviorist

      I concur.

      To add to that, as a worker on the ground, helping numerous people deal with these issues, I posit that the findings of yesteryear’s investigations into pornography addiction linked to ED, no longer apply. They were studies that dealt with addiction to pornography in magazines and video tape or dvd’s, prior to the existence of the internet. This fact must come into evidence to debunk findings of previous studies.

      The study into internet pornography is a relatively new study but due to the extremely high numbers of global users, so easily recorded, daily, monthly and yearly, it is a study that is drawing quick conclusions from it’s findings.

      It has been but recently, that behaviorists have recognized a possible ‘global epidemic’ affecting these new generations whose lives are steered by technology and who are addicted to unlimited internet pornography – from a much earlier age than the past generations.

      The effects of addiction to internet porn are far more concerning in other aspects of life than just ED. Concerns are placed on lack of sleep, attention and concentration impairment and huge relationship dysfunctions.

      The age old complaint of porn, that it portrays sex as something without the love component or respect for another human, has escalated exponentially, again due to the unlimited access and access at tender ages and is no longer a proposed problem but an actual existing issue.

      Where men were once berated for the objectifying of women, the moral respect for women is now becoming a thing of history among young teenagers. The effects on girls has also been equally alarming, giving them a dangerous model of what sex should be like in a long lasting relationship or marriage.

      A good easy read, containing a fair amount of data, is ‘Man (Dis)connected’ by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe. This is but one among several works of recent findings derived from investigations into behavior linked to internet pornography.

    • Human Behaviorist

      I concur.

      To add to that, as a worker on the ground, one who helps people deal with such issues, I posit that the studies of yesteryear concerning porn related to ED are no longer valid. Those studies were based upon addiction to porn in magazines, video tape and dvd’s, prior to the introduction of Internet porn. Therefore the findings of those studies must be debunked and the findings of new research entered into evidence.

      The studies of behavior affected by Internet usage and Internet porn is relatively new but findings are coming in much quicker because Internet usage is so high, globally by all ages, races and both sexes. It is no longer time consuming to make analysis on data received because websites record their number of users daily, monthly and yearly.

      So to say their are no studies published is moot, but it is true that the studies are not part of a peer-reviewed medical journal.

      However, these new studies show far greater porn related concerns than just ED – impaired concentration and attention, loss of social interaction and relationship dysfunction are the greater concerns. the findings have indicated alarming effects in both men and woman.

      If men were once berated for objectifying woman, now their moral respect for women is fast disappearing from before young boys come to manhood. Having been first introduced to porn from 12-13 on reaching 20, women have become just a sex object and relationships mean nothing. The age old complaint that pornography portrays sex to them as having no love or bonding component, has escalated exponentially.

      The concern is that young men are being bombarded with high definition, unlimited accessed pornography with new galleries and videos being introduced daily so the novelty never wears off!

      A good read for the layman is “Man (Dis)connected” by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe. Not sure how accurate all the research is but it seems like much was undertaken. The reader can judge.

      The point though, is that wards of growing boys should take caution to prepare them for their future world of technology and Internet pornography.