The Perils of Porn

As the internet boosts the use of pornography, there are fears that for some it can become a dangerous addiction, writes Jock Cheetham.

Porn is everywhere. While the excesses of child pornography grab headlines, images of sex, nudity and related activity are organically linked to many people’s sexual lives. Porn resides most famously on the internet, but has seeped throughout society – it sells in service stations, infiltrates mainstream advertising and profits stock exchange-listed companies.

But contradictory evidence about porn’s impact confuses the passionate debate for and against it. And as the internet boosts supply, an apparently growing minority of users suffers what some experts call porn addiction.

The 2003 Sex in Australia survey of 19,307 adults found nearly one in five men reported visiting an internet sex site in the previous year. Just one in 40 women admitted the same. Nearly four out of 10 men had watched an X-rated video, compared with less than half that many women. The internet porn use figures are likely to have increased with web use generally since then.

Some couples seek counselling when porn use exposes relationship troubles. More couples have visited the Melbourne sex therapist Dr Janet Hall for counselling over porn in the past three years. A typical scenario, says Hall, who wrote the book Sex-Life Solutions, involves a man viewing porn when he should be with his family, partner or at work.

“The internet has fuelled demand,” Hall says. “There is an insatiable appetite out there. You have that instant pleasure hit. But once you try to feed that appetite it starts to multiply.”

The porn user must take responsibility and not just say, “Everybody does it”, Hall says. He should listen to his partner and empathise with the distress. The relationship usually loses intimacy and trust; women feel disconnected, used and compared with porn actors, she says.

A study of US women whose partners regularly used porn found nearly two-thirds felt OK about it. The rest perceived a negative effect on their relationships, sex life and self-image, the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy reported. A quarter thought their partner’s porn use was like an affair.

The most common response to an affair, says Dr Bob Montgomery, director of communication at the Australian Psychological Society, is for the offended partner to say: “You see, that’s why we’re not having sex.”

“But it’s always the other way around,” Montgomery says. “People only start to get seriously sexually interested in someone outside their primary relationship when it is already going stale or flat. Security in a relationship is not locking your partner in a cupboard and throwing the key away. It’s making this so good that neither one of us would want to jeopardise it.”

Discovering an affair or secretive porn use initially shocks a partner, says Eric Hudson, western Sydney manager at the counselling network Relationships Australia. While many couples use porn without problems, Hudson says, honesty is the first step to recovery for those who have kept it secret.

“It’s important that the offended partner gets to a place where they don’t think it’s about them,” he says. Rebuilding trust is an important goal. “I try to help the offended partner move beyond seeing the pornography as sick or perverted to try to understand what purpose it might have been playing.”

Some research links habitual porn use to low self-esteem, stress relief and self-image issues in terms of masculinity.

In heterosexual porn, women are always ready for sex, never criticise or laugh at men and never tire. Porn users sense a power over women because there is no negotiating the emotional and intimate aspects of sex.

Most experts’ concerns focus on more extreme forms of porn, and some psychologists note the negative effect of demeaning and degrading language in porn on consumers. But the scale of the problem is difficult to specify.

The internet feeds porn use for the triple-A reasons: accessibility, anonymity and affordability, says Dr Michael Flood, research fellow at the Australia Institute and co-author of the report Youth and Pornography in Australia. And while a survey by the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity of 7000 US participants in online sexual activity found most people felt OK about their use, Flood says, 10 to 15 per cent had problematic use – including obsessive (constant thoughts) or compulsive (uncontrollable urges) use.

US anti-porn advocates like to call porn the crack cocaine of sexual addiction. The American Patrick Carnes helped pioneer the sex addiction field in the 1980s. His sexhelp.com website estimates 3 to 6 per cent of people are sex addicts. “Sexual addicts struggle to control their behaviours and experience despair over their constant failure to do so,” the site says. “Their loss of self-esteem grows, fuelling the need to escape even further into their addictive behaviours. A sense of powerlessness pervades the lives of addicts.”

Branches of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, a 12-step program based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, operate in Australia. But many Australian psychologists do not use the term addiction. “There is no way which is clear why the word addiction is being used for someone who is passionately interested in something,” says Juliet Richters, a researcher on Sex in Australiaand co-author of Doing it Down Under. “People do lots of things that get in the way of their lives – it doesn’t mean we diagnose that as an addiction.”

Who defines addiction and excess anyway? Some people might call weekly porn use excessive, or any masturbation bad, says Kath Albury, a researcher at the University of Sydney who wroteYes Means Yes: Getting Explicit About Heterosex. “Other people would say as long as you’re not losing any skin off your penis through chafing, your porn use is fine,” Albury says.

All porn is not the same, she says. “Some kinds of porn are pretty gross, where the people involved are not happy. And in some everyone is having a good time and the viewer can feel happy that the actors are exhibitionists and I’m a voyeur and I’m happy.”

Albury is co-chief investigator on the Understanding Pornography in Australia project with Dr Alan McKee, of Queensland University of Technology. McKee is also ambivalent about claims that porn is damaging. The project surveyed more than 1000 porn users, 87 per cent of them male. The unpublished results show 58.4 per cent felt porn had a positive effect and 6.8 per cent negative. Some other researchers say because the project’s sample is self-selected any ashamed porn users probably did not participate.

Disturbingly, some mainly middle-aged men replace real relationships with internet porn, says Professor James Ogloff, a clinical and forensic psychologist at Monash University. “We saw a 32-year-old who had spent 12 hours a day in his mother’s basement who had no real relationships. His biggest problem after stopping was: how do I now fill my days?”

Ogloff believes between 10 and 20 per cent of internet porn users access “not just pictures of women or men having sex” but “images that we would have been surprised at just a few years ago”. One client said any picture of a nude woman used to turn him on. Now he wanted more extreme material.

“If you’d have asked me two years ago how many people are interested in serious S&M, or who are bisexual or interested in children, we all would have grossly underestimated the numbers,” Ogloff says.

“It’s almost like we’re seeing a virtual sexual revolution. And the majority of people I’ve spoken to have not told another living human what their thoughts are, what their interests are.”

The drive to escalate use may have a chemical basis. Pornography stimulates masturbation. One aspect of orgasm is the pleasure/reward response, which involves the release of dopamine, says Dr Gemma O’Brien, a physiologist at the University of New England. Dopamine affects the mood mechanism in the brain, she says. Chocolate and cocaine also stimulate the dopamine pathways.

“When people stimulate the dopamine pathways frequently, all the dopamine gets released. Then when they try to stimulate themselves again, whether by drugs or sex or whatever, there’s not enough dopamine left in the nerves to release and give a nice response,” O’Brien says. “So they have to go to higher and higher doses, more and more intense stimulation.”

Whether such chemical desensitisation relates to seeking greater stimulation through more exotic porn use remains unclear. However, sexual violence in porn and any eroticising of rape worries Flood. “There’s an association between seeing violent pornography and developing more sexually aggressive attitudes and more tolerance for rape and sexual assault. And there’s an association between seeing violent pornography and being sexually violent yourself.”

But McKee says such correlational studies do not prove people who are exposed to violent porn will become violent, but rather that the kind of person who is violent towards women is also likely to enjoy violent porn.

Aggregate studies also draw McKee’s fire. Pro-porn advocates often invoke one Danish study suggesting sexual crimes decreased after porn’s legalisation there in the 1960s. But anti-porn advocates cite other aggregate studies such as one finding sexual assaults increased in South Australia after porn laws were liberalised in the ’60s, but were stable in Queensland where porn stayed illegal.

The data from such studies is “wildly contradictory”, McKee says. “Half the results seem to find that where there’s more pornography there’s more rape. The other half seems to find that where there’s more pornography there’s less rape. The problem is there are so many variables.” An objective position is thus impossible, McKee says. “The biggest problem is if we pretend we already know the answers.”

Bob Montgomery is not even convinced porn use has increased. In China and India some sexually explicit material is thousands of years old. “It was used then as it is now,” he says. “Repeated surveys show little change in men’s sexual behaviour at all.”

While the material is now more explicit, he says the solution is education about sex and porn. “The best place to learn is at home with parents discussing that,” he says.

And helping couples be sexually successful in long-term relationships benefits them and family stability, he says, while porn is only a threat for the ignorant and misinformed.

Women watch too, but don’t brag about it

For years, the assumption was that men liked sexually explicit material and women did not, says Dr Bob Montgomery, the Australian Psychological Society’s director of communications. Then “someone took physiological measures and found that the women were just as turned on as the men were, they were just less likely to say so”, he says.

It was “more acceptable for men to report being aroused by pornography than it was for women”, he says. Now sexually arousing books or videos are used in therapies to help women having problems achieving orgasm.

Kath Albury, a researcher at the University of Sydney, says while women generally don’t enjoy porn as much as men, that’s at least partly because porn is made for men. But porn made by women for women sells quickly from women’s sex shops, she says. “It doesn’t mean that it appeals to all women but it does definitely indicate that there is a sizeable market out there.”

Professor James Ogloff, of Monash University and Forensicare, says he hasn’t come across a single woman in Australia who was accessing the internet and obtaining illegal information, such as child porn. He says they are looking at pornography, but it doesn’t seem to be of the same nature as what men view. Ogloff says research shows women are more interested than men in the broader relationship – such as conversation, intimacy (other than physical), a more emotionally based relationship – not just the sexual stimulation.

Passion Plus Newsletter

Free tips to make your sex-life sensational.

Your sex-life is super important!

Boost your energy and give yourself pleasure.

We respect your privacy.