My job requires me to be extremely open-minded and non-judgmental. As such, I have adopted the mantra of “to each their own”, holding firm to the understanding that a person’s right to choose for themselves trumps any value I may hold. This is the openness that generally guides my practice.
In the years since I’ve started counselling, there is one thing that, in spite of this openness I have formed a strong opinion about… pornography. While working in the University of Alberta Student Counselling Services, I encountered this issue a lot. At first, I remained neutral on the subject. I curbed any feminist or moral objections and operated from the position that using porn was considered normal, and in many ways healthy sexual behaviour. I trusted that my clients were capable of making decisions for themselves and held firmly to my position of non-judgment. This position became harder to hold as time went on.
Throughout my nearly two years at Student Counselling Services, it became clear that porn is a problem… a really big problem. The problems I’m talking about aren’t related to morality, feminism, or societal issues- those issues receive enough attention and I’m not qualified or interested in speaking to those arguments. The problems I noted, were psychological in nature. What I observed were healthy young adults – intelligent, ambitious, and capable – finding themselves consumed by pornography. I talked to these students, many of whom had normal upbringings, with intact families and strong support systems, and I saw how they suffered. I listened as they talked about how they couldn’t complete their schoolwork because they were distracted, or how their relationships were suffering because of their inability to experience intimacy without manufactured titillation, and how they felt hollow and disconnected from themselves and the people they cared about. I also noticed how unaware they were to the origins of these problems; how few of them were able to trace their difficulties to the source…their porn habit.
I didn’t know a lot about it, so I did some research and I stumbled upon a book by Pamela Paul, called “Pornified”. The book is an objective, qualitative examination of “how pornography is transforming our lives, our relationships, and our families,” but despite not taking a position on the issue, it shares an abundance of research and anecdotes that outline the deleterious impact pornography can have. This was a particularly illuminating read and I began to understand the implications of my observations.
But why is it bad? Why is it a problem? Well, it’s not a simple answer, but I’ll do my best to explain. First and foremost, it distorts perceptions of sexuality. Admittedly, the feminist in me is frustrated with the portrayals of women in porn – always hypersexualized, up for anything, with anyone, overly made up, offering exaggerated pleasure responses to what most certainly is not a pleasurable experience for them. But it is more than a feminist issue – it’s a psychological issue and the question is: “What do we learn from porn?”
We learn that sex is supposed to be over the top exciting. We learn that men are supposed to be able to have sex for a very long time and have very large penises. And we learn that women are easily pleased and exist for pleasure and immediate satisfaction. In short, porn (as well as mainstream media) sets unrealistic expectations. I’ve heard many clients lament how awkward and painful their first sexual encounters were – a far cry from the pleasured writhing’s of the porn star. I’ve heard women express frustration, blaming themselves, feeling inadequate or flawed for not enjoying sex or for not being “better at it”. I’ve talked to men who are shocked, confused, and disheartened that their skills aren’t sufficient or who are angry that their girlfriends aren’t quite as willing to experiment, as they would like. I’ve heard men and women alike express deep insecurity at not being bigger or better or skinnier or sexier.
This distorted view of sexuality also leads to bad sex. I’ve heard A LOT of people talk about “faking it”, offering dramatized groans in order to match a manufactured expectation of what sexual pleasure looks like, in lieu of working together to legitimately find it. I’ve heard complaints of disgust with sex, or sadness, embarrassment, guilt, and shame, all because of the misinformation we are fed through porn.
Porn is also destructive to a person’s natural sexual response. We are, by nature, sexual beings and as such, we are designed to want sex and respond to titillation. Porn is stimulating. The way cocaine is stimulating. It sets a new precedent for arousal that is hard to duplicate in real life situations, giving it the power to make real life sex feel uneventful or even boring. In this way, porn is also very addictive.
I’ve often heard clients talk about porn as an obsession – but it’s more than that, it’s an addiction. Watching porn causes the release of dopamine (“the happy neurotransmitter”) in the brain’s substantia nigra and the nucleus accumbens (the reward center of the brain associated with addictive behaviour). I’m not a neuroscientist and I don’t profess to be an expert on the details, but from what I gather, the brain literally rewires as it “pathologically pursues rewards”. Porn becomes an obsession and compulsion, and physiologically, it becomes a “need”. In this way, the addiction principle of tolerance also applies.
In my office I’ve had many conversations about tolerance. I remember one client who came to counselling because she had lost interest in having sex with her boyfriend. After several months of trying to help her figure out what to do with the relationship, I learned that she had a significant problem with porn. It turns out that this sweet girl, in a committed relationship with a loving and patient partner, had progressed to watching porn and masturbating about four times a day. What was once quite stimulating for her, she no longer found enticing, and so she upped the ante. She found more “hard core” porn to watch, increased the dose, and started having sex with strangers. In short, normal sex wasn’t working for her anymore. Sex had been paired with “illicit” and “dangerous” in her mind, and she had to continually seek new thrills in order to find even a small amount of satisfaction; the same as a person who drinks daily develops a tolerance to alcohol. She had lost the ability to enjoy sex, but she had also lost much more.
In the pursuit of simple, natural pleasures, she lost herself. We often talked about how “gross” she felt and she regularly used the words “guilty” and “shameful” to describe her feelings. She felt “hollow”, “worthless”, and “out of control”. Sadly, this is a common reaction and it has an unfortunate ripple effect that means more than low self-esteem. It also limits the ability to connect with others.
I personally feel that one of the biggest problems with porn comes down to the impact it has on relationships. First of all, porn is generally a solo sport – it is an inherently lonely activity. We all know the cliché of the middle-aged man who spends his evenings alone, downloading porn on the computer instead of going on dates. Or the woman in a relationship that chooses to satisfy her needs with porn, rather than having sex with a committed partner. Or the family man who spends his evenings alone in his study, ignoring his children and alienating his wife. But there’s more to the problem then people masturbating in private. There’s also the fact that porn is a time consuming hobby and as mentioned above, it can be an obsession. It becomes the lens through which one sees the world – everything relates back to porn and pornoholics are continually distracted and distant, obsessed with accessing their next dose of stimulation.
But the most significant problem is that porn removes the need of finding real connection with other human beings. We are hard wired to want sex – it’s in our nature and it serves an important evolutionary purpose. The desire for sex stimulates us to reach out for other people, to form a connection or a relationship in order to meet these needs. Porn has a different end. Porn objectifies people, erasing their humanity. It trains its viewers to separate the act of sex from the participants, removing the humanness from a primal human activity – making sex solely about gratification and not about a human connection. And then there’s the sadness. A person, who feels worthless and shameful, will have a difficult time accepting love from others. A part of them shuts down and closes off to the people in their life,continually trying to sate a need synthetically, while abandoning or losing their ability to really connect. This is where the biggest problem lies. Sex is not intimacy- although it can be intimate. Porn is never intimate.
I would like to be clear, this article is not a war cry of condemnation for the porn industry, nor is it designed to make the reader feel guilty, shameful, or defensive regarding their personal views on porn. Like I said, I am not coming from a political or religious perspective and I understand that porn might not be this destructive for everyone and that some find a comfortable and moderate usage. I might even believe that it could have a reasonable and possibly positive place in people’s lives. That being said, I have never seen it. What I have seen is people badly hurt by pornography.
Tami-lee Duncan, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist