Sex and Self-destruction

By Naomi Wolf

It is hard to ignore how many highly visible men in recent years (indeed, months) have behaved in sexually self-destructive ways. Some powerful men have long been sexually voracious; unlike today, though, they were far more discreet and generally used much better judgment in order to cover their tracks.

Of course, the heightened technological ability nowadays to expose private behavior is part of the reason for this change. But that is precisely the point: so many of the men caught up in sex-tinged scandals of late have exposed themselves – sometimes literally – through their own willing embrace of text messages, Twitter, and other indiscreet media.

What is driving this weirdly disinhibited decision-making? Could the widespread availability and consumption of pornography in recent years actually be rewiring the male brain, affecting men’s judgment about sex and causing them to have more difficulty controlling their impulses?

There is an increasing body of scientific evidence to support this idea. Six years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Porn Myth,” which pointed out that therapists and sexual counselors were anecdotally connecting the rise in pornography consumption among young men with an increase in impotence and premature ejaculation among the same population. These were healthy young men who had no organic or psychological pathology that would disrupt normal sexual function.

The hypothesis among the experts was that pornography was progressively desensitising these men sexually. Indeed, hardcore pornography’s effectiveness in achieving rapid desensitisation in subjects has led to its frequent use in training doctors and military teams to deal with very shocking or sensitive situations.

Given the desensitisation effect on most male subjects, researchers found that they quickly required higher levels of stimulation to achieve the same level of arousal. The experts I interviewed at the time were speculating that porn use was desensitising healthy young men to the erotic appeal of their own partners.

Since then, a great deal of data on the brain’s reward system has accumulated to explain this rewiring more concretely. We now know that porn delivers rewards to the male brain in the form of a short-term dopamine boost, which, for an hour or two afterwards, lifts men’s mood and makes them feel good in general. The neural circuitry is identical to that for other addictive triggers, such as gambling or cocaine.

The addictive potential is also identical: just as gamblers and cocaine users can become compulsive, needing to gamble or snort more and more to get the same dopamine boost, so can men consuming pornography become hooked. As with these other reward triggers, after the dopamine burst wears off, the consumer feels a letdown – irritable, anxious, and longing for the next fix. (There is some new evidence, uncovered by Jim Pfaus at Concordia University in Canada, that desensitisation may be affecting women consumers of pornography as well.)

This dopamine effect explains why pornography tends to become more and more extreme over time: ordinary sexual images eventually lose their power, leading consumers to need images that break other taboos in other kinds of ways, in order to feel as good. Moreover, some men (and women) have a “dopamine hole” – their brains’ reward systems are less efficient – making them more likely to become addicted to more extreme porn more easily.

As with any addiction, it is very difficult, for neurochemical reasons, for an addict to stop doing things – even very self-destructive things – that enable him to get that next hit of dopamine. Could this be why men who in the past could take time-delayed steps to conduct affairs behind closed doors now can’t resist the impulse to send a self-incriminating text message? If so, such men might not be demons or moral ciphers, but rather addicts who are no longer entirely in control of themselves.

This is not to say that they are not responsible for their behavior. But I would argue that it is a different kind of responsibility: the responsibility to understand the powerfully addictive potential of pornography use, and to seek counseling and medication if the addiction starts to affect one’s spouse, family, professional life, or judgment.

By now, there is an effective and detailed model for weaning porn-addicted men and restoring them to a more balanced mental state, one less at the mercy of their compulsions. Understanding how pornography affects the brain and wreaks havoc on male virility permits people to make better-informed choices – rather than engage in pointless self-loathing or reactive collective judgments – in a world that has become more and more addictively hardcore.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.
A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

About Michaela

I am a wanderer and a wonderer, like you are. I love our journey and to walk in the company of friends – to learn, experience, share, laugh, cry and above all I simply love this marvelous, magical, mysterious life. I have no plan (cannot believe I am saying this) and my only intention is to be truthful to myself and others.
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9 Responses to Sex and Self-destruction

  1. Pingback: Sex Porn: The maternal gaze and pornography, part 3 « pornalysis

  2. fatima says:

    Interesting article. While I tend to agree with many of her points about the socially destructive effect, almost epidemic, of readily available pornography on the internet, I wonder about the connection with the apparent increase of public sex scandals with porn especially the ones that involve actual sex.

    I think that the apparent increase is related to our burgeoning technology, call it the “stupidity factor” and all the culprits share that. Even Robert Kennedy’s extra marital sex only become public knowledge through the historical record. He and we were spared the public circus. I think, and she even acknowledges, that what is “Oh so schocking” is not at all a new phenomena and it is connected to the common wisdom – “power corrupts’. Power can lead to arrogance, a sense of infallibility and entitlement – a kind of “Whatever I want, its okay for me to want it, not only that, I deserve it. Because I am ___ and I am great.”

    “The stupidity factor”. “Duh…How could you think you could get away with that?” Its like their so called intelligence is still in the early 20th century and just can’t grasp the speed of the forces at work now. Something like that.

    Recently I was surprised by an interview with Larry Flint, Hustler magazine on this very topic. I was surprised that I agreed with everything he said. Or maybe that he said everything I agreed with. I was surprised that I actually noticed that I felt a strong sympathy toward him. I was really surprised and touched that, although he was quite blunt and unflattering in his description of the behaviors in question, he exempted one Republican Southern Governor because, in he words “He’s not like the rest. He fell in love.” Larry Flint would not be budged on that point. He was soft on ‘love’.

  3. fatima says:

    I love the ‘roots’ of things…..everything. Anyone interested in ‘roots’, would I think, find this discussion interesting…glimpsing the roots of pornography and glimpsing its effect on the fabric of society.

  4. Dreamfable says:

    Is porno purely a men’s challenge?

  5. fatima says:

    I for one, don’t know, There are plenty of women in the industry though.

  6. pornonimous says:

    Porno is every bodies challenge–and every ‘bodies’ temptation. The real challenge is warporn.We do not view images of men’s bodies being used in the image of warrior, or the image of ball player, etc. as pornographic–as co-options of our true identities. The equation of naked women with sex has fundamentally undermined men being seen as sexual, by both men and women.
    But to many if not most of the warporn culture, piles of dead men, piles of wounded men; and in imagery of feminist ideology ‘men with their balls torn off’ is in fact a bestial, primal, sexual imagery of men that turns the alphas of both genders on.

    How do we let them get into our minds and bodies and wage wars that kill? The very definition of pornography gives us a clue: it precludes the idea that men dying, or willing to die; men competing, and wanting to win is in fact a pornographic co-option.

  7. Dreamfable says:

    Had to google for warporn because I never heard of it.. 🙂

    I don’t want sound old-fashioned but to me it seems kind of sick to enjoy seeing people being shot and things like that.

    • pornonimous says:

      Hi Roefa: The idea isn’t to enjoy warporn–which is why, ironically enough–sexual pornography floods the internet, which is a distraction by design away from dead babies, crying mothers, and piles of burned men’s bodies.It is the opposite of enjoyment; it is sexual porns counter balance, and the debates about sex poirn are a distraction by design away from the larger, more deadly effects of warporn.

      However as we saw with Abu Ghraib, the powerful are quite pleased indeed when images of men being raped, and sexually abused as true captives in prisons( unlike much of what we hear about sexual slavery–there are actual bars in prisons, and actual system-paid tormenters) are contained, rather than examined.

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