porn

Let’s do a little experiment. To begin, sit still and try not to think about a pink elephant. Don’t picture it. Don’t even let the words “pink” and “elephant” combine in your mind. And for the next minute, keep track of how many times you think of a pink elephant.

Did you do it?

It’s hard, right?!

When I first tried this, I couldn’t stop thinking about pink elephants. I’m not sure if I had ever thought about them before, but the minute I was not supposed to, my mind became a pink elephant nature reserve.

Scientists call this phenomenon the “ironic process theory.” They have observed that the more you try to suppress a thought, the more likely you are to think about it.

Now, pink elephants aren’t too troublesome, but what about something a little more serious?

What about *gasp* sex?

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian religion, I had extremely conservative views on sexuality. I believed that sex was explicitly for heterosexual marriage and that physical intimacy outside that narrow context was not only unworthy, but would in fact unravel the very fabric of our society.

Not only did I completely abstain from watching porn in my 25 years of church life (a fact few are able to believe), I also avoided anything that was “immodest” or contained innuendo. 

I had never attended sex ed classes and the closest thing I got to “the talk” was overhearing what I’m now certain were wildly exaggerated conversations in the middle school locker room. So with the pink elephant experiment in mind, I’m sure you can imagine what it was like for me as a pubescent teen trying madly to repress sexual thoughts and activity! The more I tried to avoid it, the more prevalent it became. 

I soon developed a McCarthy-level paranoia about pornography. It seemed that the filth was lurking in every novel, in every film and on every website, just waiting to entrap me with its enticing chains.

I was certain that if I gave in just once, I would be overtaken by full-blown addiction that would inevitably destroy my relationships and self-worth. I walked out of movies, I closed books, and more than once I lost my progress on a school assignment because I had to quickly shut down the computer to avoid temptation.

Now fast forward a few years.

I had left the religion of my youth and had begun the arduous process of reassessing all my values. In a wave of nihilistic to-hell-with-it-ness, I decided to face my lifelong fear; I deliberately watched porn. And over the span of a couple months, I watched it with some regularity.

As expected, I found it quite stimulating. But I also found it somewhat troubling. I had no intrinsic moral qualm with the basic concept — if consenting adults wanted to film themselves performing sexual acts, and other people wanted to watch, it didn’t hurt me — but I didn’t appreciate what I perceived as prevalent misogyny. 

Eventually, I decided that I didn’t want to watch it anymore. It wasn’t because it was undermining all my relationships or my career. It wasn’t because I had lost my self-esteem or because I was turning into an addicted sex criminal. And it certainly wasn’t because I believed porn was pushing God to the brink of destroying the world with fire and brimstone.

I stopped because I wanted to. I didn’t feel any guilt or shame about it. It just wasn’t something I needed or wanted in my life. And that was it.

I found walking away a relatively easy task. Granted, I had only been viewing for a couple months, so my usage was only barely considered habitual. But even so, it demonstrated that the not-even-once anxiety of my youth was unfounded.

Surprised by the ease of my withdrawal, I began doing some research. And what I found completely contradicted the myths I had been taught growing up.

The culture I was raised in treated porn like a drug and equated even minimal porn use with addiction. My research proved this assessment to be both unscientific and even harmful.

Physical addictions, like those occasionally experienced by drug users, are “a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a drug so that drug no longer has the same effect,” according to Psychology Today.

Porn can’t be a “new drug” because it’s not a drug at all. When a person views porn, there is no foreign chemical on which the body develops a dependence. In that sense, there is no such thing as a “porn addiction.”

Porn doesn’t even affect the brain the same way other addictive substances do.

Dr. Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, studied cerebral responses to sexual stimuli by people who struggle to regulate their porn consumption. Where an alcoholic would have significant spikes in a neural reaction called P300, the porn users showed none. “Our findings don’t make them look at all like addicts,” said Prause.

What most people mean when they say “addiction” is actually compulsive behavior, a psychological phenomenon where a habitual emotional release becomes so irresistibly consuming that it interferes with normal life.Though the phenomenon is real, it’s not as prevalent as the puritans parrot.

Here’s a simple fact: almost all men watch porn (including Christian men who consume just as much as secular men). Imagine if every one of them were actually “addicted.” There would be almost no functioning members of society. But that’s not the case.

Normal usage is far from compulsive. The average person spends only about 20 minutes a week watching porn. This can easily be done without incurring unnecessary financial stress or taking significant time away from personal or professional obligations.

Of course, there IS a small minority of people whose porn usage is compulsive. However, it is incorrect to infer that it is the porn causing the compulsion.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom actually demonstrated that men who are unable to resist online porn might already be predisposed to compulsive problems in general.

So blaming compulsion on porn is like blaming binge-eating disorders on food or hoarding habits on possessions. Like any emotional release, it’s not necessarily about the substance, but the individual.

And this is where misinformation by the anti-porn movement becomes potentially harmful.

At the root of most compulsive behaviors is an emotional release from other problems, such as loneliness, depression, anxiety or stress. By portraying a relatively normal action as pure evil, misguided anti-porn rhetoric creates unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame, which are in turn relieved by — you guessed it — watching more porn.

The result is a cycle of shame and depression that perpetuates the very problems the anti-porn movement wants to eradicate.

The problem is further exacerbated when the cycle is referred to as an addiction. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that “a person’s own feeling of being addicted to online pornography drives mental health distress, not the pornography itself.”

“It doesn’t seem to be the pornography itself that is causing folks problems, it’s how they feel about it,” said one of the researchers, Joshua Grubbs. “Perceived addiction involves a negative interpretation of your own behavior, thinking about yourself like, ‘I have no power over this’… We know from many studies that thinking something has control over you leads to psychological distress.”

The evidence demonstrates that the emotional issues sometimes associated with porn are only as bad as a person believes they should be. It’s all a matter of subjective perspective, not intrinsic reality. Take away the belief that porn makes you depressed and addicted and you find it much less depressing and addictive.

This applies also to relationships. The slogan “porn kills love” is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Porn doesn’t kill love. Negative perception does.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Destin Stewart and Dr. Dawn Szymanski, found that females who had negative perceptions of their boyfriends’ porn usage, experienced “lower self-esteem, poorer relationship quality and lower sexual satisfaction.”

Compare that to the study which found that women who watch porn actually experience greater sexual satisfaction and intimacy. This interesting because women are much more likely to view porn with their partner, implying a positive perception. So it seems that without unnecessary guilt or shame, porn can actually be beneficial relationships!

When Utah Senator Todd Weiler says porn “lowers self worth, leads to unhealthy views of sex and relationships, increases the odds of infidelity and is a major cause of divorce, among other problems,” he is forgetting that it’s only the negative perception of porn that causes those things.

Now, I’m not saying everybody should immediately get a subscription to a porn site. Like anything, there are definitely side effects and circumstances that should be considered. I myself choose not to watch it.

What I’m advocating is a more rational approach to porn. I’m calling for less fear-mongering and more facts. If we could just discuss the issues rationally without black-and-white judgments, the decision to NOT watch porn could be so much easier for everyone.

Remember the pink elephant experiment? So much of the anti-porn movement is about avoiding the pink elephant. What it doesn’t realize is that by doing so, it makes it harder and harder to avoid.

The truth is: porn has been around forever and it’s not going away soon. People will always watch it. So, we can continue fighting monsters of our own make in the futile battle for eradication, or we can figure out effective solutions to mitigate the damage associated with it.

If you are concerned with prevalent misogyny, good! Raise awareness about feminist porn! If you’re worried about abuse and exploitation, awesome! Drive consumer traffic to makers of ethical porn! If you’re worried about teenagers learning about sex from a webcam, then talk about ways to improve our public sex education resources.

And most of all, if you’re worried about porn causing depression and destroying relationships, then stop treating it like an addictive, dangerous drug. Remember: porn doesn’t kill love; shame does.



Richard R. Lyman
Richard R. Lyman
Well-dressed and down for a good time, Richard R. Lyman was the most recent apostle to be excommunicated. The poor guy actually believed what Brigham Young said about only polygamists being in the Celestial Kingdom. I guess you're only allowed to take "spiritual wives" when you're President of the Church. Follow on Twitter: @tgilliland789
  • A Beautiful World

    Oh I think you’re ignoring the elephant in the room here. I don’t have evidence of this at my fingertips but I would estimate that almost all pornography viewing is accompanied by masturbation. Or why else would it be used? Very little would be about sex education. Therefore, when you say pornography is not linked to any drug-like conditions, it most certainly is. The chemical bath from an orgasm is exactly like a drug. This article is seriously lacking when you fail to mention pornography’s connection to masturbation. You’ve totally overlooked it. And that’s where marital sexual problems occur – the woman especially can be made to feel unnecessary.

    • Paul_Bunyan

      Where did you learn this “fact”? Source please.

      • A Beautiful World

        Not sure why you’ve put “fact” in quotes. I self-admitted it was my estimation. I think you’ll have a serious uphill battle if you’re about to say porn is not used for masturbation. Let me guess: porn is an art, right? It’s like looking at a beautiful garden or a sunset with all its subtlety of colors. Yup, that’s why people look up porn.

    • And masturbation is a bad thing?

      • A Beautiful World

        Nah, I don’t think so. Not strictly anyway. But it very commonly does become a problem in relationships. As I said above, the partner can be made to feel unnecessary.

        I remember reading a very candid and honest account from a guy who discovered an inadvertent masturbation problem. The problem came where, when he was in the habit of masturbation, his wife felt like she was not enough for him. He couldn’t orgasm, or if he did, it took quite some effort and it lacked sensitivity. She equated that with not being attractive and it affected her. He even said he didn’t feel inclined to help around the house and felt disconnected from his children and to him his wife just felt like a good friend. He decided to put this to the test. He gave up porn and masturbation. He instantly felt so much more connected. He felt like helping around the house, playing with the kids and the bedroom was like fireworks and his wife felt attractive again. Porn and masturbation had desensitised him.

        But that may not be the same in all cases.

    • There is a veritable herd of elephants in the room—all of them going completely unnoticed:

      Sex involving more than one person, more often than not, becomes commoditized. It becomes currency in the psycho-social marketplace that is marriage. Allowing a super-cheap-but-good-enough competitor like Internet porn into the market can drive overpriced under-performing providers out of business. Steep tariffs, such as bans on porn and/or relegating its “use” to the status of a disease or disorder, are needed to maintain the value of the locally produced product.

      What if one or more parties to a marriage have become unpleasantly plump, or jowly or saggy? Their value as a sexual commodity may have become devalued to the point that is no longer salable even in the complete absence of alternative suppliers. This sort of situation is rarely discussed in anyone’s studies or pronouncements, but is extremely common nowadays.

      There might even be situations where a relationship has morphed over the years into a solely platonic affair that is serviceable and satisfying in every way but sexually. If any of the parties are still interested in sex and can can get their jollies on the Internet rather than running off with the pool boy or their administrative assistant, porn might actually be ultimately beneficial to the familial infrastructure, like the odd mistress or paramour of old used to be, but available nowadays to anybody with a smart-phone.

      Marital sex becomes so sacralized by religious leaders and psychologists and social scientists, that almost no one will look at it see it for what it actually is. We’re all a bunch of elephant lovers at heart.

  • SCB

    I appreciate the attempt this article made to be nuanced about porn (what a breath of fresh air!), but feel that it could have been more nuanced about the anti-porn movement. The ‘anti-porn’ movement is not monolithic. Yes, part of the anti-porn movement are religious conservatives. But, there are also radical feminists who oppose porn because of its link to exploitation and trafficking. There’s the “your brain on porn” contingent, which is made up of mostly men who have experienced desensitization and possibly erectile dysfunction. There are therapists, educators and mental health professionals who have observed the negative impact it’s having on relationships. Heck, there are socialists who object to porn because it turns sex into a consumer good. This article launches into a full-scale critique of the ‘anti-porn’ movement without clarifying which contigent of the anti-porn movement they’re talking about and without providing clear examples of what the movement is doing wrong.

    As a woman who has had a very negative experience with a partner’s porn use, I’m frustrated by this article’s misinterpretation of the study about women’s perceptions of a partner’s porn use. To be clear, that study found that *across the board,* women’s relationship quality suffered with frequency of a male partner’s porn use, regardless of the woman’s perceptions. Additionally, negative perceptions about porn correlated with lower self-esteem, lower relationship quality and sexual satisfaction. However, and this is an important however, the longer the relationship, the less the woman’s perception mattered in predicting sexual dissatisfaction. So no, it not “only the negative perception of porn that causes those things.” ‘Frequency of male porn use’ and ‘length of relationship’ were also predictive variables. For the love of God, can we stop gaslighting women by implying that if they just changed their perceptions (of an industry the author acknowledges is misogynistic) and started watching porn, all would be well!

    Still though, I thought this article made some good points about how trying to simply avoid porn is a losing strategy and how rational, fact-based discussion is the way to go. I suspect that the oversights that I mentioned above are largely because this is a complex and difficult topic and it’s hard to be all things for all people in a single blog post.

    • A Beautiful World

      That seems to correlate with the story I shared above. Good to hear some confirmation of it

  • You can’t suppress a thought without thinking it. That’s why the gahroos of old gave you a mantra to think instead of any other thoughts. Some people thought that the mantra was a magical word selected especially for them. Nope. The only thing magical about the mantra is how unmagical it is. You simply go back to it every time you find yourself thinking anything besides it. It’s supposed to be neutral and meaningless. It’s where to stand during the shit storm of your mind so you don’t get any on you.

    This isn’t a blog where I am going to chime in with amusing anecdotes from my own experience, but I agree with pretty much your entire take on the subject. For what it is or isn’t worth, I am absolutely sure that I have spent more time in my life reading and listening to ExMo podcasts than I have looking at internet porn. Talk about an obsession!

  • Allyson FrostRaven

    I appreciate the clear and well-explained distinction between “addiction” and compulsive behavior; my former spouse was, in fact, diagnosed with behavioral disorders during our marriage and had issues with sexual compulsive behaviors, including porn.
    What is not true is the claim that porn doesn’t destroy marriages, and the assertion that porn improves them. That’s not always the case. Research shows that it can harm dyadic relationships in three important ways:
    1) It can heavily influence a man’s sexual behavior with his partner in negative ways, as Chyng Sun and colleagues note in the May 2016 issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior. Their study of 487 men ages 18-29 concluded that, “Results showed the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image. Further, higher pornography use was negatively associated with enjoying sexually intimate behaviors with a partner.”
    2) Female marital satisfaction (and the amount of marital sex) decreases when men view porn. Doran and Price’s 2014 study surveys earlier work, including Stewart and Syzmanski in 2012 and Albright’s 2008 study of over 15,000 respondents, Maddox in 2011 and Yucel and Gassanov in 2010. All concurred that the amount of marital sex, sexual satisfaction, and dedication to one’s partner were negatively correlated with regular porn viewing by the male partner. Based on the preponderance of evidence available in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, it appears that most couples are not finding that porn improves their sex lives.
    3) Even if men are not engaged in compulsive behavior, women are not happy when porn-viewing men are less aroused by, less interested in, and less able to have satisfying sex with their real-life female partners, as documented by Bridges et al in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2003) and Lambert et al in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (2012), among others. One 2016 study from Computers in Human Behavior found that “the following characteristics are associated with problematic use of OSAs [online sexual activities): (a) partnered-arousal activities (e.g., sex chat) and solitary-arousal activities (e.g., pornography); (b) anonymous fantasizing and mood regulation motives; and (c) higher sexual desire, lower overall sexual satisfaction, and lower erectile function.” There is no evidence that occasional couple viewing ameliorates these responses; in fact, a Jan 2016 study in Archives of Sexual Behavior notes, “Results generally suggest that discrepancies in pornography use at the couple level are related to negative couple outcomes. Specifically, pornography differences may alter specific couple interaction processes which, in turn, may influence relationship satisfaction and stability.” Men who are into porn will still view alone, creating such discrepancies.

    Independent of religious ideology and shame, consistent neural stimulation (and that rush of dopamine) creates new neural pathways that reinforce response to porn. These physical and mental responses, as research indicates, do not improve sex with live partners but instead create a new cycle of preferential response.

    Yes, women are likely to notice this, and it doesn’t often work out well.

    • Aaron

      If memory serves me correctly, where porn has improved marriages is with couples who watch porn together and talk about what they like and don’t like about the movies. If a man watches porn alone, especially without the knowledge or approval of his spouse, then it will lead to major marital problems down the road. I think the author wasn’t saying, “No marriages are destroyed by porn,” but rather some marriages are actually enhanced by porn.

  • Vintagemodern63

    Kinda reminds me of an incident during my senior year of high school in Northern California, regarding the advisory to not think about pink elephants. We were on a field trip to watch a Shakesperean play at a theater in San Francisco. We were crossing the bay and coming into The City via the Oakland Bay Bridge when an MG convertible sports car came along the left side bus going just fast enough to take 15-20 seconds to pass us. There where two occupants in the open topped vehicle, both men. The passenger had his johnson out and was choking the life out of it. One of the teacher chaperones (and one of the few in that initial moment who saw the spectacle) got up and yelled down the bus’ aisle, “Don’t anyone look out of the left side of the bus!” The bus just about flipped over onto its left side from the shift of center of gravity.

  • Caleb T

    Call me crazy, but when an addiction begins to interfere with your life, then perhaps we should identify the true addictions…
    Did porn ever require you to volunteer two of your best years to recruit other people into the cause?
    Do you find yourself overburdened by the numerous porn meetings you are required to attend throughout the week?
    Do you find that you need to devote yourself to a few minutes of porn every day so you don’t forget about the value it brings into your life?
    Have you ever born testimony to others of how much better and more meaningful your life is because of porn?

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