Does Internet porn reveal our sexual desires—or alter them?
Fellow "Psychology Today" blogger Leon F. Seltzer recently completed a herculean 12-part blog series on the subject of the Internet and human sexual desire (based on Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s A Billion Wicked Thoughts, 2011). In his final segment, he did an excellent job of outlining the risks associated with Internet porn use.
However, I hope he will take another look at Ogas and Gaddam's assumptions and analysis in light of the perils of today's Internet porn. Specifically, I hope he will reconsider whether A Billion Wicked Thoughts actually delivers what he suggests it does, namely, the "unvarnished truth of [our] sexual preferences and desires."
It's quite possible that A Billion Wicked Thoughts delivers something quite different: a snapshot of a moving target of millions of users' random sexual tastes, many of whom are heavily under the influence of a neurobiological process that Ogas and Gaddam have not considered. That process is tolerance, a physiological process common to brains as they slip into addiction—whereby the user becomes increasingly numb to pleasure (desensitized) and therefore seeks more and more stimulation.
For example, some users search for one video for a few minutes a few times a week. Analyzing their results might yield some meaningful data about porn tastes across the population. Other users open 10+ tabs on a couple of screens and edge to video after video, primarily in search of novelty because the dopamine squirts from novelty produce a drug-like effect in the brain. Obviously, this group will be contributing disproportionately to the search statistics. Moreover, as we'll see in a moment, their tastes often quickly morph as they pursue novelty any way they can. This limits the value of their data when analyzing fundamental sexual desires across all users.
In other words, the lion's share of searches could well be coming from a disproportionately small number of users, and yet neither Ogas and Gaddam nor their readers seem to recognize this. The authors' attempt to draw far-reaching conclusions from the content of such searches is like analyzing a client's psychological make-up based on whether he became addicted to drugs via sniffing or shooting up. Incidentally, it's the novelty seekers who have the most serious problems from their porn use according to German researchers. This is consistent with the suggestion that addiction-related brain changes are at work in their brains.
No one knows how many of today's users are driven by tolerance, but it's likely the percentage is large enough that Ogas and Gaddam's data do not, in fact, reveal deep, meaningful patterns about human sexual desire.
I'm grateful to Seltzer for initiating this dialog. Ever since Wicked Thoughts came out, I've had reservations about its assumptions. My reply will be divided into two parts. This part addresses the tolerance issue. A subsequent post addresses the Wicked Thoughts' underlying assumption; namely, that sexual tastes are immutable.
Desensitization and morphing porn tastes
In his book on brain plasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself, psychiatrist Norman Doidge pointed out that,
Pornography seems, at first glance, to be a purely instinctual matter: sexually explicit pictures trigger instinctual responses, which are the product of millions of years of evolution. But if that were true, pornography would be unchanging. The same triggers, bodily parts and their proportions, that appealed to our ancestors would excite us. This is what pornographers would have us believe, for they claim they are battling sexual repression, taboo, and fear and that their goal is to liberate the natural, pent-up sexual instincts.
But in fact the content of pornography is a dynamic phenomenon that perfectly illustrates the progress of an acquired taste. ... The plastic influence of pornography on adults can ... be profound, and those who use it have no sense of the extent to which their brains are reshaped by it.
[I have] treated or assessed a number of men who all had essentially the same story. Each had acquired a taste for a kind of pornography that, to a greater or lesser degree, troubled or even disgusted him, had a disturbing effect on the pattern of his sexual excitement, and ultimately affected his relationships and sexual potency. ...
When pornographers boast that they are pushing the envelope by introducing new, harder themes, what they don't say is that they must, because their customers are building up a tolerance to the content. (emphasis added)
Thus, a heterosexual male might start with nude stills of a favorite movie star. Then, as his brain stops responding to those, he "progresses" to videos of solo sex, vanilla sex, lesbian action, insertions, gang bangs, transexual porn, gay porn, gross porn (however he defines that) and even minor porn. Gay porn users and female porn users report the same phenomenon, with progressions that are equally unsettling to them. A gay man shared this experience under an earlier post:
I believe I was born gay, my first fantasies were about men and men have always aroused me, whereas women have aroused me very little. I became addicted to internet porn in my late teens. Gay sex to me is very normal and natural. Yet I lost interest in it over time. I became interested in straight porn and found myself increasingly losing interest in the male anatomy and developing a fetish for female genitalia. I had no attraction to it before my porn viewing became excessive. New genres gradually replaced old ones in sexual appeal. To my shock, I started to think that I could potentially be bisexual, so I arranged a meeting with a female escort to test out this possibility. However, I did not experience much arousal and the situation felt wrong to me. It was completely different to porn.
I decided to stop watching pornography, and after being porn-free for quite some time I can happily say my fetish for women has gone. Gay sex has returned to the norm for me. I can also add that during my porn escalation, transexual porn never became arousing to me in the slightest, despite the fact pre-operative transwomen have a penis. It would be like asking a straight man if he would have sex with a man that had a vagina, which I have to add is something that did appeal to me at one time.
It's evident that this type of porn-related progression has little to do with users uncovering their "deepest urges and most uninhibited thoughts" (Ogas and Gaddam's words). The targets are moving too fast. Rare users even recognize the process while it's unfolding:
Porn binges for 4-6 hours the last couple days. On the plus side, it did become more obvious that the transsexual porn is unrelated to my sexuality. After spending 30+ hours over the past 5 days watching porn, transsexual porn started to become boring! I began searching for other more disgusting and shocking stuff.
So what's actually going on? Let's start by distinguishing desensitization from habituation. Satiety (habituation) and a desire for novelty are built right into the mammalian brain and are not pathological. You can't eat another bite of turkey (satiety), but you feel palpable enthusiasm for pumpkin pie (dopamine released for novel, high-calorie food). The process repeats itself the next day. Obviously, this natural process can leave porn users somewhat vulnerable to overconsuming novel erotica simply because novelty registers as "yes!"
Desensitization, in contrast, is a pathology arising from continued overconsumption. Measurable, physical brain changes (declines in D2 nerve cell receptors) indicate an addiction is in process. Unlike the transitory effects of habituation, desensitization takes time to reverse, in part because it is tied to other stubborn addiction-related brain changes.
Novelty = dopamine
In the case of Internet porn users, the appeal of overconsumption is that it allows the user to override his innate satiety-recovery window. Instead of waiting for his sexual appetite to return naturally he can click to enough stimulation to produce a rush of excitory neurochemicals (such as dopamine and norepinephrine). He achieves arousal that would otherwise be impossible, or more difficult.
Now, his brain perceives all porn that gets him aroused, regardless of content, as valuable because it releases "go get it" neurochemicals. Again, all he needs is novel, shocking material, whether or not it matches his fundamental sexual inclinations. The fallacy in Wicked Thoughts is that only our fundamental tastes can release enough dopamine in our brains to motivate porn use. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Dopamine is dopamine, however you trigger it.
Thus, escalation to bizarre porn is meaningful primarily because it is a major warning sign of addiction, not because it tells porn addicts (or anyone else) useful information about their innate sexual desires. The deeper one's addiction, the more desperate the need for this neurochemical relief, in part because normal pleasures are growing less satisfying and cravings more intense.
Worse yet, if a porn user climaxes to something that is not consistent with his underlying sexual orientation and fundamental inclinations, but it releases enough dopamine and norepinephrine in his brain (because it is exciting or even anxiety-producing), his brain will also wire the new stimulus up to his reward circuitry. The next time he encounters any cues related to it, he will find it mysteriously arousing—and today's therapists will often swiftly assure him he has discovered valuable information about his "deepest urges." Not so.
Of course, some porn users get their novelty fix by viewing new porn within their preferred genre (i.e., the genre that reflects their fundamental sexual desires). However, many of today's porn users report that their sexual tastes morph all over the place as their brains grow desensitized. That said, porn addiction dynamics may be somewhat different in men and women.
Those on the escalation treadmill are often horrified to discover that they can no longer climax to their former tastes. Sadly, the more distressing (to them) their new porn choices, the more compelling those choices can become, due to the excitory neurochemicals released by their anxiety about what they're watching.
Seldom do they figure out that their brain's desensitization would naturally reverse itself—thereby restoring their dopamine receptors and their responsiveness to their earlier tastes. Why? They dare not cease masturbating even for a few weeks, in part because when they try to stop their libido may drop off alarmingly and they don't realize it's a temporary effect of restoring their brains to balance. The word on the street is, "use it or lose it," and since many are already losing their mojo due to overconsumption, they're terrified to stop.
In short, the issue for these users is not freedom to pursue their deep desires, but rather alien tastes, which are primarily the product of avoidable neurochemical changes inadvertently brought on by the users themselves.
It's happening in part because of superficial analysis that is, frankly, dangerously misleading, not to mention potentially distressing, for porn users caught on this slippery slope:
- It wrongly implies that they have no control over their changing tastes.
- It misdirects their attention away from the scientific information about the neuroscience of addiction, which they need to understand their circumstances and steer for the results they want.
- It encourages them to ignore, or accept and pursue, their escalating tastes as healthy, when they are, for many of today's users, symptoms of a well established disease process: behavioral addiction.
One of the most helpful things that A Billion Wicked Thoughts accomplishes is normalizing many sexual preferences that to this point may have struck you (and maybe most people) as deviant. Obviously, the more widespread a predilection, the more difficult it is to simply dismiss it as “sick”—especially if there are psychological and biological causes that convincingly explain it.
What if some of these so-called 'deviant' tastes are solely due to addiction and tolerance (the need for stronger stimulation)? If enough people experience evidence of a pathology it may become the norm, but it doesn't mean their behavior isn't "sick."
Addiction epidemics have occurred before in humanity's history and they did not make the symptoms the addicts suffered "normal" in the sense of "free of pathology." For example, in the mid-18th century, parts of inner London suffered the world’s first mass epidemic of alcoholism. And in The Compass of Pleasure David Linden recounts a mass addiction to inhaling cheap ether in Ireland in the 1880s.
In the case of Internet porn, is it wise to assume that all we need to know is whether tastes are "normal" or "deviant"—basing our answer on statistics rather than physiology? Are we even framing the right question if we ignore the possibility that morphing porn tastes could be driven by a numbed reward circuitry in pursuit of a neurochemical buzz regardless of content?
Reversing engines: evidence that porn tastes are not innate
Most tellingly, users who stop all Internet porn and allow their brains to return to normal sensitivity generally discover that they weren't on a one-way street after all. Their porn tastes slowly begin to reverse themselves—curiously, in reverse order—all the way back to their earliest tastes. For example, real sex with their partners often becomes arousing (again).
The process is not easy. It generally entails nasty withdrawal symptoms, annoying flashbacks, and often a long period of "libido flatline." But, for many, it completely restores their true sexual desires, which their porn use no longer reflected. Said one man:
I used to get turned on by anything remotely feminine when I was 13, but that steadily changed as I watched more and more porn. I started to get anxious about my sexuality because I knew I was straight based on history, but at the same time I could not physically respond to the old cues. Sometimes when I was especially relaxed or drunk, I would respond as I did when younger. It was very confusing because I never had any homosexual fantasies or desires. Giving up masturbation to porn has completely eliminated any doubt, because now my libido is almost too much to handle. I'm more responsive to women, and responded to more by women.
Superficial analysis harms
The assumptions of Ogas and Gaddam rest on the mistaken conviction that all sexual tastes are unchanging and that no matter how porn is delivered to our brains, our tastes will conform to our innate, unchanging proclivities.
Given that chronic overstimulation via Internet porn is transforming viewers’ sexual tastes, the Ogas and Gaddam snapshot offers little genuine insight into human desire. The most useful application of their data might be to serve as a comparison with similar data from another era, so that the dynamic process of escalation can be measured across the population over time, and the data's true significance better understood.
The study of human desire will remain superficial and of little use to humans until experts integrate and teach the public how the brain works, how it learns, and how addictions can distort sexual tastes due to desensitization/tolerance.
In my next post I'll address the key assumption that underlies Ogas and Gaddam's work, namely, the claim that our sexual tastes are immutable.