Not all addictions are to drugs, alcohol or gambling. Addiction to pornography can have profound consequences. People (men use pornography more than women) who use pornography regularly have little idea of how their brains are being physically reshaped by it, and what this can mean.
Following on from my two previous blogs, this information comes from Dr Norman Doidge’s international best-seller, The Brain That Changes Itself. There are many useful insights in this valuable book for everyone. (I’ll leave Norman alone after this week)
In short, the increasing Internet availability and escalation of hardcore pornography physically alters the sexual brain maps of pornography users. This can change sexual tastes, leading to problems in relationships.
Pornography may at first glance appear to satisfy instinctual evolutionary responses. However, Dr Doidge disagrees. If that was true, he explains, the explicit content of pornography wouldn’t be increasing. Hardcore pornography that shocked mainstream society 50 or more years ago is softer than 30 years ago, which is very different to the present.
Hardcore ‘porn’ has evolved to contain increasingly sadomasochistic themes of , ‘forced sex, ejaculations on women’s faces, and angry anal sex, all involving scripts fusing sex with hatred and humiliation. Hardcore pornography now explores the world of perversion, while softcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago.’ (Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself, p. 102)
From the mid 1990’s Dr Doidge, a psychiatrist, began to notice an increasing number of otherwise average young men who’d begun to be disgusted by their taste in pornography. This addiction affected the relationship with their partners and their sexual impotency. What initially helped these men to get excited during sex, in the long term had the opposite effect. They experienced an eventual decrease in pleasure in sex with their partners, despite still finding them attractive.
Frequent porn viewers develop new neural pathways in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. These pathways are strengthened by the release of dopamine in the brain during orgasm when viewing porn. As Norman Doidge says, neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that pathways are forged in our plastic brains when we do things repetitively. This is very useful for learning, overcoming brain traumas, and maintaining brain fitness.
The dark side of neuroplasticity is our ability to acquire addictions. Repeat exposure to explicit pornography reinforces pornographic pathways, changing an individual’s tolerance levels. Eventually, like drugs, higher and higher levels of stimulation are required for satisfaction. Pornography is powerful because it also hyperactivates the appetitive system, which controls the desire for food and sex, and promotes behaviours that give these rewards. For porn users, changes in brain maps for new exciting images increase at the expense of what they found a turn-on with their partners before.
Dr Doidge doesn’t just confine this change to a few people. He sees it as a ‘social shift’ in society, a danger that this higher tolerance for hardcore porn will carry over into relationships. In porn films, women are always eager and available ‘receptacles’. Doidge talks about college students who refer to women as ‘cum dumpsters’. (p.105, referring to American campus life in I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe)
Why have I written this blog? As a mother to daughters, I am concerned about women being devalued from the addictive and mind-altering power of hardcore pornography. I’d like the effects of hardcore and excessive use of pornography to be widely recognised as an addiction with detrimental side effects for women. On reading this, my 17 year old said, “Oh, I know all about that. We learnt about it in psychology at school.” Thankfully, she goes to a co-ed high school. Awareness is half the battle won, sometimes.
The good news? The same laws of neuroplasticity that enable insidious, addictive pathways to grow also allow these problematic neuronal networks to weaken when not used. A person’s appetite for porn can literally wither away when people go cold turkey. It’s a use it or lose it brain, even where sexual desire is concerned.
My thanks again to Dr Doidge for his research and insights. For more details on neuroplasticity please read his book, The Brain That Changes Itself.
Afterword – Soft porn literature for women
After months of resisting, I succumbed and read some current romantic erotica for women. Writing a romance novel, I need to know the parameters of the genre. It’s very popular, after all. Understandably, women are curious about sex and not discussing it openly can lead to ignorance, guilt from past social expectations, lack of assertion in relationships etc. Experimentation is learning.
I was surprised at my reaction to erotica (perhaps two books by different authors was too small a sample?) After my initial curiosity was sated, I quickly became desensitised to the sexual act, skimming over predictable, explicit descriptions and similes (talking to other women, I’m not the only one). My eyes glazed as female anatomy was described as various forms of sea molluscs, male anatomy described as often amusing (or is it just me?) phallic similes that would be sexier and more powerful if left unsaid. In short, there was nothing left to the reader’s imagination, like a child’s toy that offered little scope for play outside its limited parameters.
Judging by the sales of these books though, erotic fiction is here to stay and that’s a good thing for its audience. However, in literature as in everything else, there are horses for courses, prudes for dudes, charmers for farmers, vamps for champs etc.
I believe there’s still a place for ‘less is more’ in romantic fiction, especially if you have a healthy imagination. The image below is sensual even though they still have clothes on, they’re not even touching – yet!
In a crafted love story, there’s more room for the reader to imagine themselves in the story, to weave some personal magic into what is offered. I’m not saying to end at at kiss, too little IS too little. Sexual tension between well-developed characters can be more powerful than sexually explicit writing. It gives the story staying power. I hope Arafura has achieved that.