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The physiological and psychological effects of modern day pornography

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With over 26 million sites dedicated to pornography and more being added every day, the Internet has opened up a new means by which people can access pornographic material. At any given moment, around 29,000 people around the world, 66 per cent of them male, are viewing pornography (Gallagher, 2010).{{more}}

If human illustrations of sexuality have been a part of almost all civilizations since the beginning of time, why is modern day pornography any different? There are several aspects to the answer for this question. Before the invention of the Internet, access to pornographic materials was limited by age, money, and availability. In order to acquire magazines and images, a person would need to physically go out and purchase it, or make a concerted effort to acquire it, as it was not easily accessible. Laws often required that a person be of a minimum age in order to purchase pornographic materials.

Doubtlessly, this did not always hold true, and minors most likely did get hold of pornographic materials. With Internet pornography, the only requirement to find pornographic content is to have a home computer or smart phone and the ability to mark a checkbox certifying that the user is above 18 years old. Another difference between modern day pornography and previous sexual depictions is the variety and novelty offered on the Internet. The availability of porn was limited by the size of the magazine and number of images. With Internet porn, the over 1.3 billion images ensure that there will always be porn available that the user has not seen before. This level of novelty and variety in porn is something that no one before the late 1990’s had access to.

The physiological effects of pornography:

Psychiatrist Norman Doidge argues that pornography has an actual physiological and psychological effect that makes it addictive. He reports how he noticed many male clients coming to his clinic with sexual problems that affected their relationships. None of these males were loners, or withdrawn from society. All were men in comfortable jobs in normal relationships or marriages. Doidge noticed that these men would report, often in passing, that although they considered their sexual partners attractive, they had increasing difficulty in becoming aroused. Upon further questioning, they admitted that pornography use was leading to less excitement during sex. Instead of enjoying the act of intercourse, they were forced to fantasize about being part of a porn script in order to become aroused. Many actively asked their partners to act like porn stars, to enact scenarios they had seen on the Internet – often scenes that involved violence. When questioned further about their own pornography use, they said that they needed more and more extreme porn in order to reach their previous level of arousal (Doidge, 2007).

From a physiological point of view, the brain is building up a tolerance to material it sees, just like the body builds up tolerance to drugs it uses. This explains why users of pornography report needing increasingly extreme videos in order to become aroused (Doidge, 2007). In the past, this would have been impossible to acquire, but with the Internet, escalation can happen with ease.

Psychological effects:

The biological change in the brain has very real psychological and social ramifications. In a study done to test the effect of pornography on relationship commitment, the results showed that adults who consumed higher levels of pornography were likely to show decreased commitment to their partners (Lambert, 2012). Besides increasing the likelihood of ending a relationship, usage of pornography has been linked to decreased satisfaction in a relationship. Men with an intense desire towards pornography, self-report finding less pleasure in sex with their partners, even when they don’t report a decrease in level of attractiveness of their partner (Philaretou, 2005). Many say that in order to become fully aroused and orgasm, they must mentally visualize porn scenes they had previously seen (Doidge, 2007).

Additionally, self-reports of men who admit they consume too much pornographic material show that a constant theme is the shift in approach to women. A study done at Yale shows that rather than objectifying women, exposure to porn makes man “animalify” women. Men exposed to pornography show an increased likelihood to treat women as though they lack the capacity for complex thinking and reasoning, while still treating them as capable of having strong emotional responses (Gray, 2011).

Not being psychologically prepared for the initiation of sex can have lasting adverse effects on the overall sexuality of an individual. Children are being sexualized earlier and earlier with widespread access to the Internet; it is therefore important that parents censor sexually explicit, information which can be potentially harmful.

Few tips to parent:

‘Preserving the innocence of our youths:’

o Know what your children are watching, playing and listening to and take advantage of teachable moments to discuss any inappropriate content or behaviours with them.

o Set and enforce limits around screen time.

o Make use of Internet filters and parental controls.

o Share your family’s values and expectations regarding sex and relationships.

o Talk to your child about media representations of sex, relationships and gender roles and teach them to question the accuracy and intent of the messages they receive.

o Model healthy, respectful relationships and self-worth.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

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