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Guest Blog by Rhonda, editor of Perks Magazine.
Guest Blog by Rhonda, editor of Perks Magazine.
People make a lot of claims about the impact of using pornography, particularly internet pornography. The internet provides users with greater accessibility, affordability, anonymity and a sense of community, which can have significant benefits, such as normalising a greater variety of sexual interests, reducing isolation for sexual minorities and enabling individuals, particularly women, to explore their sexuality free from public scrutiny and shame.
Others claim these same factors can have negative effects, for instance, that pornography use creates unrealistic expectations about our bodieswhich has resulted in an increase in demand for cosmetic alterations like labiaplasty, breast augmentation and anal bleaching. Individuals report feeling pressured to engage in extreme and sometimes unsafe sexual activities to imitate what they see in porn, while others blame hardcore pornography for an increase in antisocial attitudes and behaviours, particularly towards women.
Recently articles have begun to appear about the negative impact of porn on younger men, who have had a high level of exposure to internet pornography from a very early age. Guys in their twenties report experiencing erectile dysfunction when porn is absent and that they feel disconnected from and dissatisfied with their real-life partners. Others claim to use internet pornography compulsively, which is often called porn addiction.
While a basis might exist for some (or all) of these claims, sifting through the social commentary and peer-reviewed literature is problematic. Multiple reports on the same issue, or its appearance on a number of online forums, suggests a social phenomenon, but it is difficult to know because when a topic exists in the media it tends to fuel further articles about the same subject. Similarly when people discuss an issue on a forum or ask a question in an advice column, it tends to inspire questions and responses from others around the same theme, which can create a false impression that the problem is quite widespread. When it comes to scientific studies and academic papers, the same is true. One study sparks further studies along the same lines, potentially creating the illusion that something has greater importance or prevalence than warranted.
Finding quality clinical evidence in this area is also difficult because many studies into the use of internet pornography rely upon convenience samples. Studies typically collect data from college students who volunteer to take part in online surveys for extra credit. Others focus on problem populations, such as convicted sex-offenders or couples and individuals seeking treatment for perceived porn addiction. This means their findings can’t be considered representative of the wider population and can give a distorted impression of reality.
In addition, studies into pornography use tend to consider populations at a point-in-time, so while researchers have been able to draw correlations between internet pornography use and positive or negative outcomes, they have not demonstrated cause and effect between the different variables. One such study found an association between women’s use of pornography and greater sexual satisfaction for couples. This could be the result of cognitive and emotional changes from exposure to pornography, or it could be that women who use pornography have more liberal attitudes to sex, higher sex drives and/or greater sexual agency. Similarly, men who used pornography more often reported being critical of their partners and engaging in sex less frequently, however their increased use of pornography could be a symptom of underlying dissatisfaction, not the other way around. The association alone does not give insight into cause and effect.
We know porn offers a sensory escape in the way some people turn to alcohol or gambling, yet where studies link excessive internet pornography use to anxiety and depression, pornography use is often seen as the primary presenting problem rather than a secondary symptom of someone who already suffers from anxiety and depression. Cause and effect has not been established and so studies of these populations may have skewed results.
Another claim commonly made in the media is that frequent pornography users need to escalate to more and more extreme material to get the same hit, that ‘overuse can deaden the subtlety of our sexual palates’ leaving users (typically men) dissatisfied and even dysfunctional when it comes to real-world sex. Clinically, however, we know very little about what material people choose to use, what material they come back to or move on from, and whether claims of escalation and lower partner satisfaction resulting from porn use have any basis.
To truly understand the impact of internet pornography use we need to consider more than these associations and anecdotal observations. We need to know what motivates people to use it, what material they choose to use, how they interpret that material cognitively and emotionally and whether this alters their attitudes and behaviour as individuals and in relationships over time.
While in the media we know that ‘evidence doesn’t generate as many clicks as hyperbole’, getting decent studies into internet pornography use funded, peer-reviewed and published in scientific and academic circles can be just as difficult. Attempts to study the impact of pornography use in a non-negative way can meet significant backlash. Finding participants for studies can also be difficult in a sex-negative culture if individuals aren’t comfortable disclosing the amount and type of pornography they consume. One study in the United States, for instance, found that twenty per cent of men who reported using pornography did not agree that its use was acceptable. This type of internal conflict could easily lead to distorted results in studies that rely on individuals self-reporting their pornography use.
So how should we treat the use of internet porn? In the absence of unbiased clinical evidence, we can only rely on logic, personal observation and judgement about what we use and how it makes us feel.
To combat dissatisfaction with reality, for instance, it might help to stay aware that porn is staged. Participants are actors performing particular scripts and much of what we see is equal to high-end stunts. Precautions such as enemas to remove all traces of faecal matter, vaccinations, STI screenings and clean-ups occur off-screen before the actors switch between anal, oral or vaginal intercourse for the camera. Sites like Make Love Not Porn go some way to providing a realistic perspective on porn, but ultimately it is up to us to keep in mind that what we view isn’t real, and not expect to emulate everything we see on-screen.
To counter the expectation that people look like what we see on-screen — cartoon-like creations with exaggerated features targeted to trigger particular psycho-sexual responses — it might help to become familiar with a variety of real-life body types and non-air-brushed genitalia.
Another logical suggestion to prevent porn dependence is not to rely on it exclusively for masturbation and to sometimes use only our imaginations.
For users experiencing disconnection from their partners, symptoms of erectile dysfunction when porn is absent, or who are otherwise worried about their porn use, the cold-turkey method of going without porn for six or so weeks is probably worth a try. Experts claim it can kick-start the brain to once again respond without extreme stimulation, which seems to make sense. And if it doesn’t work, at worst you will have missed out on six weeks’ worth of porn.
Lastly, be suitably sceptical of reports in the media and use your judgement about what works for you. Porn can have a valuable place for couples and individuals with many potential benefits, but without clinical evidence either way, it seems safest to experience porn mindfully, pleasurably, and in moderation.