Thursday 23 February 2017

Seismic shift in use of pornography could fuel increase in addiction

Patricia Casey

It is estimated that 50pc of all internet traffic is related to sex
It is estimated that 50pc of all internet traffic is related to sex

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has called for a national debate about pornography and its potentially deleterious effects on young people. Surprisingly, this is one of those thorny issues about which there has been scanty conversation in Ireland.

The image of lads' mags on the top shelf of the local store is often the butt of jokes and seems more like harmless fun than a serious national issue. Indeed, it has not been the subject of much debate internationally either until recently. This is a surprise, as it is estimated that 50pc of all internet traffic is related to sex.

Pornography is often seen as nothing more than a lifestyle choice, in which busybodies, often of a religious and puritanical disposition, have been interfering. That at least was the viewpoint from the 1960s through to the 1990s.

But there has been a seismic shift in the use of pornography in the last three decades, as each new phase of our access to the internet has intensified. The internet itself led to the ready availability of online images of any type. They could range from Playboy-like pictures to child porn and other vile forms such as bestiality, rape porn or snuff movies.

Then, with the near-ubiquitous availability of high-speed broadband, these sites could be viewed intensively and unremittingly at the click of a mouse, and with rapidly escalating grossness and degeneracy of the content, often on the one page.

Then with YouTube, action rather than static images became the norm. Finally, mobiles with access to the internet made pornography freely accessible to anybody, anywhere.

What is the impact of this on how we view others and how we act towards them? We have to begin by examining the effects of pornographic images on our brain.

Until recently, scientists believed that our brains were fixed, their circuits formed and finalised in childhood; they were 'hardwired'. Now we know the brain is 'neuroplastic', and not only can it change, but we know that it works by changing its structure in response to repeated mental experience.

Cambridge University neuropsychiatrist Dr Valerie Voon, in a study published in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed journal in 2014 (and the subject of a documentary Porn on the Brain) has shown that men who describe themselves as addicted to porn (and who lost relationships because of it) develop changes in the same brain area - the reward centre - as do drug addicts. Compulsive porn users craved porn (greater wanting), but did not have higher sexual desire (liking) than controls. This is the pattern found in drug addicts also. The study also found that over 50pc of subjects (average age 25) had difficulty achieving erections with real partners, yet could achieve erections with porn.

A brain chemical, dopamine, is released, giving the thrill that goes with accomplishment. Since dopamine is secreted at moments of sexual excitement and novelty, porn scenes, filled with novel sexual 'partners', fire the reward centre. The images get reinforced, altering the user's sexual tastes.

A further study from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin in 2014 (published in Jama Psychiatry) found that men who watch large amounts of sexually explicit material have brains with smaller reward systems which, according to the authors led by Simone Kuhn, leads them to increasing their porn consumption to achieve the same amount of reward.

This is known as tolerance. The existing psychological research on this suggests that porn addicts seek out new and more extreme sex games. Since then, there has been a cascade of similar studies.

The worry is now that, as teens - male and female, whose immature brains are even more plastic and malleable than those of older people - increasingly watch porn, there is likely to be an increase in porn addiction and a consequent change from the normative sexual behaviours of the past.

Will these sexual behaviours be lauded as 'modern', showing evidence of previous sexual 'repression'? Hopefully they will they be seen for what they are: evidence of hitherto dangerous activities being driven by altered brain functioning. And this is even before we begin to address exploitation, misogyny and abuse.

There is no reliable data from Ireland, but in its hardcore form, pornography is now accessed in the UK by an estimated 33pc of all internet users. These are monumental figures if accurate, and should indeed induce, rather than quell, moral panic.

Pornography is no longer the slightly smutty victimless oddity that it was cast as in the past.

Instead, it seems to be a corrosive, destructive, dangerous and potentially mainstream feature of our increasingly individualistic life that says "whatever is right to me".

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