Is porn rewiring men's brains?

Online porn is increasingly pervasive and, as new film 'Don Jon' explores, an addiction to it can affect users' relationships.

Don Jon 2.JPG
Everyone does it: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a young man addicted to porn, and Scarlett Johansson in a scene from new film ‘Don Jon’

The trailer for new film Don Jon opens with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt declaring there are only a few things he cares about in life: His body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls . . . and porn.

In fact, as it turns out, he cares about porn quite a lot, so much so that it starts to cause a problem with his on-screen girlfriend played by Scarlett Johansson. That's right, we're talking about a guy who's happier spending time with his laptop than with Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive.

But according to Don Jon, it's okay because "everybody watches porn".

It's a difficult statement to dismiss. Studies suggest that 70pc of men and 30pc of women watch pornography and almost a third of all data transferred across the web is porn. But does that mean it's not a problem?

Sex therapist and psychotherapist Teresa Bergin says it depends on the individual. "The availability of porn affects men in different ways," she explains. "Some will be wise 'consumers' and although they enjoy what they're watching, will be aware that what they're watching bears no resemblance to a real sexual experience between two people. For others, what they watch can become their 'sexual script'."

And research suggests that the younger a man is when he begins to watch pornography the greater potential influence it exerts on his sexual expectations. With the glut of readily available adult material on the web, 11 is now cited as the average age at which many children will have seen adult sexual content.

"It's very clear it's pervasive and something that needs monitoring," says John Buckley, Youth Engagement Officer at Spunout.ie.

"A few years ago a study by UNICEF found that, after school and peers, the internet was the third main place young people go to find out about sex. As an organisation, we're very concerned about making sure young people understand that porn only illustrates a type of sex – it isn't real."

In Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt's character mocks his girlfriend for believing in the romance depicted in her favourite, soppy 1950s movies but it quickly becomes clear that his own viewing preferences are interfering with his real life.

Teresa Bergin says this is a growing problem. "I see some young male clients who, because they have watched a lot of pornography, find it difficult to become aroused and gain erections through interaction with another person.

"For some men, this is because their brain has become 'hardwired' to associate sexual arousal with online material, not necessarily with human contact, and it's inhibiting how they function sexually.

"These issues tend to affect young male clients rather than older men, who may have experienced how sex functions within a relationship and have a more balanced view of sexuality."

However, if watching porn turns into an addiction, it's rarely just about the content.

Teresa Bergin explains: "There might be links to childhood experiences, relationships or events or the porn use may be a way of managing other life stresses and distresses. If the pornography use is problematic then an important part of therapy is gaining an understanding of why."

Twenty-four-year-old Ronan (name changed) from Co Laois says he's concerned that his 23-year-old friend may have a problem with porn.

"When we were in our early teens it was just a fact of life that we watched porn and talked about it afterwards, it's what young boys do, but as we got into our 20s I noticed my interest dwindled but his stayed active as ever," he explains.

"Now all he does is drink, have sex and watch porn. He's finished college now and (is) back home living with his parents with even less opportunities to go out on the pull, but if he doesn't have sex then he'll pay for it or watch porn.

"I'm worried he doesn't view it as a problem – when it clearly is. He has absolutely no respect for women and never makes the effort to get to know a girl unless he thinks he'll get sex from her. It worries me but if I try and say something to him he says everyone is at it, it's just normal."

He adds: "I think porn is normal to a certain extent and can be a good expression of sexuality, particularly in a couple environment, but it's definitely a case of all things in moderation."

Several celebrities, including many women, have been vocal about the benefits of porn.

Cameron Diaz isn't shy about her love of viewing adult movies in hotel rooms and Scarlett Johansson recently revealed: "I think porn, like anything else, can be enjoyed. It can be productive for both men and women."

Teresa Bergin agrees: "If a couple watch porn together it can sometimes enhance pleasure and be part of their sexual repertoire, allowing them to develop their sexual repertoire.

"But there needs to be honest communication and mutual respect. When couples seek therapy it is generally because the porn use has been secretive and hidden and can feel like a betrayal of trust. On occasions one of them feels under pressure to watch porn or perform some of the acts depicted."

"This is one of our main concerns about young people and porn – that it doesn't illustrate respect towards women and displays certain sex acts as 'the norm' when in reality the vast majority of women don't enjoy them," adds John Buckley.

A new report by the Children's Commissioner in the UK drew worrying parallels between porn and sexual violence towards females among young people.

It's a finding that the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is increasingly concerned about. "In pornography consent is never present, in so far as everyone is always up for it," says spokeswoman Cliona Saidlear. "One of the most important and harmful 'teachings' of pornography is that consent doesn't need to be negotiated and can be assumed in all but exceptional circumstance."

There's also concern that porn sends out negative messages about body image and sexual protection.

"There's never a condom used, men tend to have six packs and women have big boobs," says John Buckley.

"We're never going to make porn disappear, but it's vitally important that we counter it by providing young people with good-quality information about sex and ensuring they understand that what they see on screen isn't real," he adds.

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