Monday 26 June 2017

Teens beware: 'Watching porn can lead to addiction and erectile dysfunction'

There is a concern over the increased risk of porn addiction for teenagers. Photo posed
There is a concern over the increased risk of porn addiction for teenagers. Photo posed

Patricia Casey

Adolescent curiosity about sexuality is a normal and healthy aspect of human development. Until about 20 years ago, sexual exploration involved sneak peaks at 'naughty' post cards, or looking a underwear advertisements in catalogues. Young people had to work at finding pornography hidden under their older brother's bed or in grimy adult stores.

Then, with the internet explosion, even the person with the most rudimentary knowledge of computers could access the vilest of material.

Currently, pornography is much more that the Page 3 topless models, or unclad 'come hither' women sitting in the lithotomy position.

A piece written by Mia Doring for HeadStuff called 'We Need To Talk Porn' details the findings of her search on Pornhub. The most popular porn search term was 'teen' and followed by 'step-daddy daughter'.

For some, there is a debate, particularly about soft porn and whether it is simply part of adolescent curiosity that dissipates with maturity or whether it leaves longer last damage in its wake. However, it is no longer just people on the 'religious right' who are concerned about the impact, but scientists and feminists too.

Among the latter are well-known names such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. They view all pornography, even the 'soft' variety, as exploitative.

On the other side are a group known as 'sex-positive feminists' who see pornography as enriching individuals in their exploration of all aspects of sexuality.

The believe that most pornography is focussed on the pleasure it accords men, ignoring its relevance in the lives of women. Associated with this group are feminist writers such as Gayle Rubin and Kathy Acker. These theoretical arguments are, for the most part, not relevant to the person on the street.

More important for the parent with a teenager is whether pornography use has lasting long-term effects on the child and on their relationships.

What is the impact of this on how we view others and how we act toward them? One route to answering this question is through brain studies, and we now have the technology to examine this. Until recently, scientists believed that our brains were fixed, their circuits formed and 'hardwired' in childhood.

Now, we know the brain is 'neuroplastic': in other words, its structure can change in response to repeated mental experience.

Cambridge University neuropsychiatrist Dr Valerie Voon, in 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. 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, gives 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 and the release of dopamine. The images get reinforced, altering the user's sexual tastes. Eventually, this neurochemical is only released under these conditions, making sexual activity in non-pornographic setting problematic.

Pornography-induced erectile dysfunction is now recognised as a consequence of this behaviour.

Further proof of the impact of porn on sexual behaviour comes in a study from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin in 2014 (published in JAMA Psychiatry), which showed 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 to increasing pornography consumption to achieve the same amount of reward. Thus, 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 of both sexes watch porn, their immature brains are even more plastic and malleable than those of older people. This raises the possibility that there will 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 these changes will they be seen for what they are: evidence of hitherto dangerous activities being driven by altered brain functioning and changing forever how we relate as men and women to each other.

And this is even before we begin to address the exploitation, misogyny and abuse that is inherent in pornography.

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