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The Dangers of Pornography Use – Imposing Morality or Scientific Truth?

Much has been said in these pages [1] and [2] others [3] about the ways in which pornography use has a detrimental impact on a person’s relationships.  Pornography use obstructs one’s ability to relate with others, to form and sustain personal and interpersonal commitments, and to find joy in the most fundamental aspect of human functioning in intimate, close – emotional or physical – bonds. 

The theological, moral, and religious reasons for abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage (including pornography) are known and compelling for many, but not for all.  Therefore, I wish to primarily reflect here on biological and psychological arguments against pornography use.  While evidence has clearly indicated for some time that pornography consumption – in lieu of or as a proposed enhancement to genuine intimate relationships  – produces distance and dissatisfaction [4] rather than increased intimacy and improved sexual relations, more recent evidence has accumulated regarding the negative impact on the individual’s psychology and brain chemistry.

Pornography, A More Personal Problem

Scintillating images and pursuit of sexual arousal outside marriage have always existed, yet aside from religious and social prohibitions, many people consider pornography use as either a simple, common, and even harmless activity or perhaps a “rite of passage” for adolescents.   More recently, however, research has clarified its detrimental impact on its viewers, their brain chemistry, and their related emotional and psychological functioning. 

In an October, 2013 article in Public Discourse [5], Morgan Bennett reviews the evidence and makes the case that pornography is “as potently addictive as heroin or cocaine.”  Lest this be understood as hyperbole, support is cited from William M. Struthers, Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College1 who asserts that pornography works through the same neural circuit, has the same effects with respect to tolerance and withdrawal, and has every other hallmark of an addiction, because the same parts of the brain react to both illegal substances and sexual arousal.  Dopamine, the chemical triggered by sexual arousal and orgasm, is also the chemical that triggers addiction pathways in the brain.  What is new here is an assertion from neurological research that, as disruptive as ‘old-fashioned magazine’ pornography had been to relationships, the newest and most common practice–internet porn– is more captivating (some estimate that 20-40 times more people are hooked than there are cocaine or heroin addicts).  This finding is not surprising, if you consider that this craved biochemical reaction can be accessed 1) for free 2) at most times and places and 3) anonymously. 

Gone are the days of shame-inducing disguises of hats, sunglasses, trenchcoats, and crosstown trips in hopes of finding indecent materials – now one simply points and clicks from the privacy of home.  The consequences [6] for our culture are enormous, in terms of increased divorce rates [2], lost productivity in the workplace, increased tolerance for sexual promiscuity and aggression, heightened feelings of emptiness and depression.

The Science

Bennett reviews the work of psychiatrists, neurosurgeons, and psychologists in relating the steadily-growing body of research that points to the enduring impact of prolonged pornography use.  Because the same parts of the brain react to both euphoria-producing drugs and sexual arousal, exposure to pornographic material, particularly in such instantaneous and rapid manner as occurs on the web, has similar effects.  The brain’s neurons create a pathway that shape how a person can become sexually stimulated.  Among the more concerning findings is that such exposure particularly impacts our sexuality and sets the stage for addiction.  Once an addiction process has begun, as with any drug, “tolerance” can develop in which the user needs either more or more-varied exposure to attain the same degree of pleasure.  

Herein lies another concern: while pornography creates a great deal of pleasure-inducing chemical reactions, it does not generate the chemicals that make us feel satisfied, as typically occurs in sexual relations between spouses.  Instead, the failure to experience the anticipated satisfaction following climax causes the person to pursue more and more pornography.  Furthermore, because of the multiple pathways involved (visual, motor, sensory, neuronal), pornography is far from the passive experience many suppose, and the changes it reprograms in the brain and nervous system have real consequences for how the person experiences themselves and others. 

 A Conclusion of Hope

Pornography is often couched in positive language, such as the freedom of speech or expression or a healthy release of sexual tension, yet there are few forms of written or spoken material that can convey such damage to the human body as well as to interpersonal relationships.  And, of course, for those who will credit the notion, the damage rendered by pornography to the human soul cuts even more deeply.  Fortunately, this emergent evidence, while disturbing for those currently caught in the mire of pornography use, creates a new opportunity for those who have long known of its danger: persons in our culture can now undertake a much-needed and long-overdue conversation about the gravity of the problem in order to reshape our culture into one that is respectful of the dignity of each human life.

1Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain
 

Human Sexuality
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While evidence has clearly indicated for some time that pornography consumption produces distance and dissatisfaction rather than increased intimacy and improved sexual relations, more recent evidence has accumulated regarding the negative impact on the individual’s psychology and brain chemistry…
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