Is Porn Poison for the Brain?

Does porn actually damage the brain? Might sound far-fetched, but there is some very interesting research on this topic that might convince you that it does. This week, I plan to post each day on a different topic related to my new book, Sex & God at Yale. Chapter 2, entitled “The Great Porn Debate,” details a rip-roaring Oxford-style porn debate starring porn performer Ron Jeremy, which was held in New Haven during my junior year.

Just this morning, a current Yale student sent me this fascinating TEDx video, featuring a talk by physiologist Gary Wilson, host of www.yourbrainonporn.com. According to the video description, Wilson’s research “arose in response to a growing demand for solid scientific information by heavy Internet erotica users experiencing perplexing, unexpected effects: escalation to more extreme material, concentration difficulties, sexual performance problems, radical changes in sexual tastes, social anxiety, irritability, inability to stop, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.”

The video lasts about 15 min, but you can catch the main drift by watching only the first 5. Do so and I promise you’ll learn something:

Fascinating stuff, huh? Especially considering how extreme and how universal porn has become among youth in the internet age. It has shaped an entire generation already.

So what do you think? Is porn harmless, or is it poison for the brain?

  1. CoolHand
    Tom Lindholtz:

    Yeah, but porn has to be a lot less enjoyable with a cool hand.

    True enough.

    [edited for CoC]

    What I find so odd is how serious people are about porn.

    For the most part, I find porn to be amusing rather than anything to be taken seriously.

    Some porn is downright hilarious, sometimes unintentionally so, but hilarious none the less.

    I think maybe some folks are just too serious for their own good.

  2. tabula rasa
    Robert E. Lee

    tabula rasa:  Based on my reading on the subject and having dealt with some men with serious pornography problems, I am convinced that pornography (especially Internet pornography) is the single most insidious destroyer of marriages to emerge on the scene in the last 20 years. · 0 minutes ago

    Why in the last 20 years?  Pornography has been around throughout recorded human history.  In Pompeii they found pornographic paintings on the walls of bordellos, pornographic pictures have been around since the invention of the camera.

    Sexuality is hardwired into us.  There will always be some who take it to the extreme, take anything to the extreme.  Just like there will always be those who want to criminalize the behavior of others who enjoy things they themselves don’t like. ·

    The only reason I limited it to twenty years is that the ubiquity of porn on the Internet has been a game-changer.  It had to same problems before, but a man who would never be seen in a “dirty book store” or would never rent a porn video, no longer has those limitations placed upon him.  A few clicks of the computer, and there it is.

  3. KC Mulville

    We need to preserve the distinction between pornography and erotic art. It makes little sense to deny that the female figure is beautiful. Artistic renderings of beauty, including sexuality, are perfectly respectable, and may well be edifying in the correct sense. 

    But how can you tell the difference between erotic art and pornography? 

    This was the gospel at Mass yesterday

    “Hear me, all of you, and understand.

    Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;

    but the things that come out from within are what defile.  From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

    Seems like a practical answer, doesn’t it?

  4. Mimi

    I don’t even want to give you 15 minutes of my evening to watch your selected porn. It’s boring before it starts. 

  5. CoolHand

    Another thing I’d like to ask the people who swear that porn in a marriage is exactly the same as infidelity:  If the man were going to cheat, he’d have cheated.  Instead he sought a less harmful outlet for his sexual frustration.

    Everyone wants to pile on to the end result of him looking at porn and deride the guy as some kind of sicko, but nobody is addressing the actual cause of the porn use.

    WHY is the guy looking at porn when he’s married?  Is his wife holding out on him perhaps?  Or maybe dictating all the terms to him in a way that makes very unattractive?

    Continued . . .

  6. CoolHand

    As they say, it takes two to tango, and I am very unwilling to simply accept as fact the idea that men just gravitate to porn for no reason, and that it then rips their otherwise perfect marriage asunder.

    The reality is that for married men, porn is an escape or a release, and one has to ask the question of why the guy needs that escape.

    Could be he’s a tool box and there’s nothing wrong with the wife.  But could be that the wife has withheld sex for months or years in an effort to control the relationship.

    Every case will be different, which is why these kinds of studies are almost always found to be FOS.

  7. Red Feline
    tabula rasa:    … . A third aspect, that chronic pornography consumption is violation of the vow of fidelity, is critical.  Many, perhaps most, wives who find out that their husbands have been viewing pornography regularly have almost precisely the same feelings as wives who find out their husbands have had an affair.  In fact, many express it in precisely those terms.

    If we don’t care about loving, long-term relationships between husbands and wives, the stability of families, or the collateral damage to children, then pornography is just harmless entertainment.  If we do care about those things, we should recognize that it inverts the virtues that make a civilization strong.

    Before the advent of the internet, I had a friend who accidentally discovered her husband’s stash of porn. She divorced him, saying that he had violated her trust, and their relationship. She felt as if he had betrayed her, not with just one woman, but with many. She couldn’t bear him, nor could she stay with him. She felt his mind was suffering from a dreadful sickness and she didn’t want to be contaminated.

    This is only one example, but it bears out what you are saying TR.

  8. Mel Foil
    KC Mulville: We need to preserve the distinction between pornography and erotic art. It makes little sense to deny that the female figure is beautiful. Artistic renderings of beauty, including sexuality, are perfectly respectable, and may well be edifying in the correct sense. 

    But how can you tell the difference between erotic art and pornography? 

    This was the gospel at Mass yesterday

    “Hear me, all of you, and understand.

    Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;

    but the things that come out from within are what defile.  From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

    Seems like a practical answer, doesn’t it?

    Re: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person”

    But people that don’t want to get wet don’t run outside to stand in a downpour either. Actions reveal what’s on the inside.

  9. Lucy Pevensie
    CoolHand: As they say, it takes two to tango, and I am very unwilling to simply accept as fact the idea that men just gravitate to porn for no reason, and that it then rips their otherwise perfect marriage asunder.

    The reality is that for married men, porn is an escape or a release, and one has to ask the question of why the guy needs that escape.

    Could be he’s a tool box and there’s nothing wrong with the wife.  But could be that the wife has withheld sex for months or years in an effort to control the relationship.

    You’re not married if I remember correctly, so those of us who are married will have to excuse your misunderstanding of how marriage works, but love and fidelity in marriage are not conditional vows.  You don’t vow to be faithful to someone “as long as I’m happy with our sex life” or even “as long as she/he loves me.”  The traditional vow is “as long as we both shall live.” 

  10. Front Ranger

    While some in this thread have rightly pointed out that porn will always be with us, what seems new to me (other than the ease of access) is the expectation of non-judgment. I was at a luncheon recently, seated with younger guys who began talking proudly and in great detail about their porn predilections. I turned to the ringleader, a guy I’ve worked with often, and, paraphrasing Martin Amis, said “do you really think we all want to picture you on your back, strumming yourself like a Picasso guitar?”

    This brought great laughter and successfully changed the subject, but my question was meant to introduce a healthy amount of shame to the proceedings. A little shame, after all, is needed in this shameless age. I resist government solutions, but, at minimum, I’d like to deprive pornography of its newfound social legitimacy. (Although this will likely offend some in this thread, I’d like to do the same to tattoos, which, unlike porn, are harmless.)

    I’m not surprised to learn that porn is likely bad for one’s brain. I welcome the news as a way to chase porn back out the polite public square.

  11. Rocket City Dave

    One libertarian tick that I find annoying is when they equate moral disgust with calls for government regulation.

    I don’t like it when people fart on the bus. I’m not calling for the government to regulate it.

    Drug use along with pornography are potentially dangerous and corrupting. That doesn’t mean government has any role in protecting people from themselves.

  12. Red Feline
    KC Mulville: We need to preserve the distinction between pornography and erotic art. It makes little sense to deny that the female figure is beautiful. Artistic renderings of beauty, including sexuality, are perfectly respectable, and may well be edifying in the correct sense. 

    Human beings are primates, and as such, can’t compare for beauty of body with, say, the cats. Most women find suspect any depiction of the naked, air-brushed female body as “art”. Men rationalize it, but it is hard to believe that the pleasure they get is purely objective. Do they feel the same about the artistic depictions of the naked male body?

     Women know that men are visual primates, and that is all right. The human race wouldn’t have continued if this weren’t so. But let’s be honest about it. :-) 

  13. Robert E. Lee
    Red Feline  Women know that men are visual primates, and that is all right. The human race wouldn’t have continued if this weren’t so. But let’s be honest about it. :-)  · 8 minutes ago

    Yes.

  14. Astonishing
    Red Feline

    KC Mulville: We need to preserve the distinction between pornography and erotic art. It makes little sense to deny that the female figure is beautiful. Artistic renderings of beauty, including sexuality, are perfectly respectable, and may well be edifying in the correct sense. 

    Human beings are primates, and as such, can’t compare for beauty of body with, say, the cats. Most women find suspect any depiction of the naked, air-brushed female body as “art”. Men rationalize it, but it is hard to believe that the pleasure they get is purely objective. Do they feel the same about the artistic depictions of the naked male body? . . .

    The ratio is said to be 1000/1:

    Michelangelos_David.jpg

  15. CoolHand
    Lucy Pevensie

    You don’t vow to be faithful to someone “as long as I’m happy with our sex life” or even “as long as she/he loves me.”  The traditional vow is “as long as we both shall live.”

    So, do you take that as a license to torture your husband by denying him sex for long periods of time, secure in the knowledge that he won’t break his vows no matter how badly he’s treated?

    Would you be OK living the rest of your life in a relationship where your husband outright refused to be intimate with you (not just sex, but no intimacy at all)?

    Vows are all well and good, but they are not a crutch that can hold together a dysfunctional relationship forever.

    Something is causing the dysfunction, and unless it is addressed, you will both be miserable.

    Porn is a symptom, not the disease.

    Trying to do away with porn is like trying to treat a broken leg with Tylenol.

    Yes, a major symptom has abated somewhat, but the actual cause of the problem remains unaddressed.

  16. GirlWithAPearl

    Everyone, everyone, everyone knows how bad and how pervasive the porn problem is in western civilization. 

    The video is extremely well done. The information is communicated scientifically, frankly but without crudity, and in utterly persuasive fashion. I give the speaker the highest marks. The most heart stopping sentence is that scientists ‘were unable to find a control group.’

    Thank God for Nathan Harden. This is a conversation that must be driven and delivered by men, real men. And it appears that is beginning to happen. There is good news, after the catastrophic news. Men who have subjected themselves to this literal meat grinder of activity are voluntarily stopping by the tens of thousands, and they are speaking out and encouraging others to flee for their lives. My plea to all: please do not avert your eyes. This is important. 

    I’m ordering Harden’s book right now.

  17. CoolHand

    I don’t have any problem with people going back to not talking about their porn habits in public.  No problem at all (as was said, nobody wants to picture that).

    The problem I have is that for a great many social conservatives, their go-to mechanism for making this happen is govt.

    You can deny it all you like, but history is on my side with this one.

    Libertarians are leery of your motives when you talk about this stuff because of the track record of how you’ve dealt with these “problems” in the past.

  18. CoolHand
    Astonishing

    The ratio is said to be 1000/1

    As my late grandfather would say, “That feller’s fruit’s out in the wind.”

  19. KC Mulville
    Red Feline

    Most women find suspect any depiction of the naked, air-brushed female body as “art”. Men rationalize it, but it is hard to believe that the pleasure they get is purely objective. 

    These categories are unnecessarily limited. First, I wouldn’t argue that one derives pleasure from beauty “objectively.” Second, there’s no reason why art should affect men and women in exactly the same way.  I’m not turned on by the image of a male body because that’s not my sexuality. Art is a merger of subject and object, and there’s nothing wrong with subjectivity. Who says we all have to be the same?

    It isn’t rationalizing to include sexuality in the list of legitimate human concerns. Nor is it honest to assume that all men will use depictions of female beauty to demean and exploit women. Forgive me for admitting this, but I’m long past the point of seeing a naked woman and collapsing into blind sexual lust. 

    That’s why I refer to that gospel; mere nakedness is not enough to make something pornographic.

    Art reveals; it doesn’t put anything there that wasn’t there in the first place.

  20. tabula rasa
    CoolHand

    Porn is a symptom, not the disease.

    I disagree.  Go read the literature.  It may sometimes be a symptom of something else,  but far to often it is the disease.