Another sex crisis: the consumption of porn


By Zac Crippen - Contributing Columnist



Each new revelation since the first reports of the Harvey Weinstein scandal adds to the discussion about how to deal with sexual harassment and sexual violence in American society. And yet nobody is talking about what could be one of the most effective ways to attack the problem: Recognizing that pornography consumption is a public health crisis.

In 1969, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Robert Stanley, a Georgia man charged with possession of pornographic material. “If the First Amendment means anything,” Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, “it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.” After Stanley vs. Georgia, President Lyndon Johnson established a commission to study pornography’s effects. The commission (which was 90 percent male and admitted to a paucity of data) concluded that “established patterns of sexual behavior … (are) not altered substantially by exposure to erotica.” The data now show that this understanding is wrong.

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy who died in September, convinced generations of young men that the ideal female is large-breasted, young, airbrushed and exists for their pleasure. Porn powerfully imparts these lessons and more. According to Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, porn is a particularly effective teacher precisely because learning is more permanent when our sympathetic nervous system is aroused, when what is being taught is reinforced through biological rewards, and when we see role models performing the behavior. Porn does all of those things, stimulating its aroused viewers with dopamine surges while they watch actors engaging in sexual behavior on screen.

What else is porn teaching us? There is evidence that, as one researcher put it, “the heavy use of pornography skews the users’ perception of what is normal” in sex, and interferes with relationships. Even more troubling: A late-2015 meta-analysis of the literature on sexual violence and pornography concluded that “pornography consumption (is) associated with an increased probability of the use or threat of force to obtain sex,” and that both violent and nonviolent porn are implicated.

The connection to assault is at least partly circular: We have a sexual violence problem because we have a porn problem, and vice versa. But at least one study suggests that the porn often comes first: In 2009, researchers found that after controlling for prior tendencies, exposure to sexual media increased sexual aggressiveness in youth.

In addition to damaging intimacy and driving sexual aggression, the evidence is mounting that porn is addictive. A 2014 study looked at the brain function of men with compulsive sexual behavior: When they watched pornographic videos their brain activity in some ways mirrored that of drug addicts. Another study released earlier this year found that the brains of compulsive porn consumers reflected neural and behavioral changes “similar to what is observed in substance and gambling addictions.”

Statistics from the popular website Pornhub corroborate the addiction thesis. Visitors to the site last year streamed 99 gigabytes of video every second and viewed almost 92 billion videos in total, streaming 4.6 billion hours of porn. According to the website-ranking firm Alexa, Pornhub ranks ahead of Google and Netflix in the daily time each visitor spends on the site.

We can address the dangers of porn just as we do other public health scourges, from smoking to HIV. Once ubiquitous, the cigarette is disappearing from American public life, and the tobacco user who wants to quit can find hundreds of helpful resources by visiting SmokeFree.gov or by downloading government-sponsored smartphone apps. HIV.gov and MentalHealth.gov, both run by the Department of Health and Human Services, similarly promote sexual and mental health initiatives for U.S. citizens. A “NoPorn.gov” could educate visitors about porn’s link to sexual violence and to its tendency harm relationships, as well as connecting visitors to psychologists who can help end a porn habit.

Even without a concerted governmental response to the problem, others are sounding the alarm. A Reddit group dedicated to porn-consumption cessation has 263,000 members who encourage each other’s efforts through web forums and memes. The organization Fight the New Drug has reached more than half a million people through presentations to young people across America.

We should not downplay the role of agency in sexual assault, or suggest that solving our sexual assault problem is simply a matter of not watching porn. Perpetrators of sexual violence have no one and nothing but themselves to blame for their actions, and they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But conversations about sexual violence must acknowledge the role of porn. We can’t spend hours watching strangers engage in the most intimate of acts — often depicted without love or consent — and remain unchanged in the way that we look at and treat others.

In Stanley vs. Georgia, Marshall bristled at the thought of government intrusion into our bedrooms: “Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.” But in an age when the internet can invade every private minute and space, we may be giving porn the power to control our minds. That is just as dangerous.

By Zac Crippen

Contributing Columnist

Zac Crippen is the host (with his wife, Sally) of Vernacular Podcast. He is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. @ZacCrippen. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Zac Crippen is the host (with his wife, Sally) of Vernacular Podcast. He is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. @ZacCrippen. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.