Is pornography driving men crazy?
June 30th, 2011
02:28 PM ET

Is pornography driving men crazy?

Editor's Note: Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries. For more by Wolf, check out Project Syndicate and visit it on Facebook and Twitter.

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 desensitizing these men sexually. Indeed, hardcore pornography’s effectiveness in achieving rapid desensitization in subjects has led to its frequent use in training doctors and military teams to deal with very shocking or sensitive situations.

Given the desensitization 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 desensitizing 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 desensitization may be affecting women consumers of pornography as well.)

Read: No 'boys' or 'girls' at gender neutral preschool in Sweden.

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.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Naomi Wolf. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011. You can read more by  at Project Syndicate.

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Topics: Culture • Sex

soundoff (1,050 Responses)
  1. Shiloh

    It's not just men.
    If you do similar research with rats, you'll have a similar effect.
    In fact, I bet that if you had women instead of men, you'd have a similar effect. Now as to whether this effect is significant in terms of statistical evaluation remains open to question. Whether the study is valid or not is open to question.
    This is what Naomi fails to provide in her thesis and says a lot about her approach to this topic. She is attempting to make her brand of feminism relevant and fails because she insults the intelligence of the average male (and female).
    Don't we have other pressing things to worry about other than what a feminist has-been thinks?

    July 10, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
  2. Reason

    Is Wolfie still banging on with this "sexual desire is bad and drives us to oppress each other" nonsense? Has she still decided not to grow up and accept the fact that libido is a necessary drive for the species? Where does her understanding of reproductive sociobiology come from? Spongebob? Cinderella?

    I have a solution for Wolfe and all those horribly misguided (90+% of) males out there who have decided that women have not provided them with a sexual outlet interesting, consistent and fun enough for their tastes: GO HAVE SEX WITH THEM!!!

    Of course, that will never happen.

    Not only has Wolfie ridiculously stamped her seal of approval on the insistence on the part of most American women to find most guys not good enough for their incredibly selective mating decisions, she conveniently decides that the way around the unfilled desire that this creates is to mandate that they become psychological eunuchs!

    What a sad and boring world we would be left with. All that excess libido running around out there is a very scary thing to would be Biologist-In-Chief Naomi Wolfe.

    July 10, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  3. person

    what an idiot.

    thank you church lady.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  4. Been there done that

    This is such an empty, non-ground breaking fluffer piece.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Reply
  5. dragon

    I find this article very difficult to masturbate to.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  6. Connor Young

    This article is trash; religious "values" groups have been trying to trot out this junk "science" for years now in efforts to censor porn, with the occasional misguided feminist jumping into the discussion. Endorphins are released not just when you watch porn, but also when you shop, eat, watch football, etc. Do some people do these activities compulsively? Yes. Some people can't stop shopping. Some can't stop eating chocolate. Do you hear anyone making these kinds of claims against chocolate or football? Maybe that's next up. We know shopping will never be discouraged in this country. Compulsive behavior will exist. Because society has been, at least in the past, conditioned to believe porn is evil or harmful, editorials like this one from Ms. Wolf just compound the ignorance.

    July 11, 2011 at 2:28 am | Reply
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  9. Wastrel

    Rule 34 says there's Naomi Wolf pron out there, too.

    July 16, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  10. JulianCA

    The men in the old days doing this stuff were not more discrete, there just wasn't the technology back then to prove they were doing this stuff so it stayed at the level of rumor and people were more reticent about making claims without the proof. Now there are permanent photographic and electronic records that can be quickly disseminated to the public.

    July 16, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  11. scir91onYouTube

    i "use" p0rn daily and i love it. 100% free. i get to choose the type of girl i want to see that day. no risk of disease. she is always willing. and if i have nasty fetishes, i don't have to worry about what someone thinks about me because of that. i can freely watch it all legally in my home (thank you america). i mean, how can you beat this? now compare this to a real girl. first you have to convince her to go out. then you have to get dressed and put on a show. then you pay for dinner, car ride, etc. then you gamble and hope that she comes to your place at night. and what if she does? maybe she stinks down there. or she has some type of STD or doesn't like the 69 position. all this for what? end result is orgasm with a hot chick. stick to p0rn guys. it will save you money, expsoure from disease, and it is always available and ready for you whenever you need it.

    July 17, 2011 at 11:09 am | Reply
  12. Rabid Dust-bunny

    Naomi Wolf actualy gets paid to write this drivel?

    July 17, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  13. Edgar Friendly

    Hm. No data. Why am I not surprised?

    CNN is awful.

    July 22, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  14. Charrick

    I really think we should abolish the "romance movie" (romantic comedy, etc). Many women seem to be addicted to them. They relish viewing videos of people falling in love. What's wrong with them? If they don't get enough love at home with their husband, then there is something very wrong with them. How dare they go elsewhere for their romantic stimulation!

    There is a way out of this cycle of addition, though, ladies (or "wymyn" or whatever you'd like to be called). Forego the adulation of romance movies. Push them out of your life. Do not view even one more, so long as you live, no matter how powerful your desire. You have to be strong. Rid yourselves of their negative influence, and then take those romantic feelings and give them exclusively to your husband, who is no doubt most deserving of them. If not, you're a horrible human being without control over your body.

    July 29, 2011 at 7:52 am | Reply
  15. afkbrad

    I work around many single/divorced middle aged men. They are all well educated, work hard, stay away from drugs, and a fair amount of assets. Of the 70+ men I work with over half travel outside the US to meet women. These men travel to South America, Asia, and Eastern Europe because they can't stand American women. Some of these guys are not attractive whatsoever but the Brazilian's and Phillipina's can't get enough of them. The ones that have gotten married to women overseas have found drop dead gorgeous stunningly beautiful women. Most of these women are degreed professionals as well! Talk about a lucky catch!

    Why should guys chase American women with all their problems? Go overseas guys and you'll find all the things you've ever dreamed a woman could be. Beauty, brains, ambition, self discipline, and not complete psycho nut jobs who respect their men.

    August 1, 2011 at 4:45 am | Reply
  16. John

    Sin will do that to a person. It takes hold of your life and demands more from you than you initially want to give but eventually you can't help it anymore. The only cure is a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Only through our reliance on Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit can we ever have hope of defeating sin. Jesus loves us so much He died on a cross so that we would no longer be slaves to sin, but servants of righteousness. He offers that gift freely for those who will believe.

    August 1, 2011 at 6:47 am | Reply
  17. Karl Magnus

    A handful of highly publicized political sleazebags is the only thing driving this argument.
    I posit that while THEY might represent "weirdly disinhibited decision-making", it is not the norm or a male trait.
    Analogies here and there do not a logical conclusion make.


    August 1, 2011 at 6:58 am | Reply
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