Quantcast

A Few Hard Truths about Porn and Erectile Dysfunction

Kris Taylor

Here's why the hysteria around pornography and hard-ons doesn’t really hold up.

Working as a researcher on porn, I've noticed growing concern that pornography is killing our erections. The slide into pliability, headlines shout, is apparently due to a single factor: our easy access to internet smut. 

Last week, broadcaster Alison Mau claimed one unlucky lad had "essentially destroyed the nerve pathways from his brain to his penis". It sounds alarming, except that my understanding is that the only way masturbating to pornography could have destroyed these 'nerves' is if he had ripped his penis off of his own body. "Porn dependency should be treated as a health issue," the headline claimed. But is there such a thing as porn dependence, and has any substantial research actually linked it to erectile dysfunction?

It goes something like this: guys are jerking off too much to unrealistic porn, ergo they can't or won't 'perform' in a 'real life' sexual experience. But the best research we have so far simply doesn't support the claims.

When you initially think about the link between pornography use and erectile dysfunction there seems to be a nice, common-sense line of thought. It goes something like this: guys are jerking off too much to unrealistic porn, ergo they can't or won't 'perform' in a 'real life' sexual experience. But the best research we have so far simply doesn't support the claims. For example, a 2015 cross-sectional online study of 3,948 Croatian, Norwegian, and Portuguese men published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine indicated that "contrary to raising public concerns, pornography does not seem to be a significant risk factor for younger men's desire, erectile, or orgasmic difficulties." Another 2015 study, this time of 208 non-treatment seeking American men indicated that viewing pornography was "unlikely to negatively impact sexual functioning, given that responses actually were stronger in those who viewed more [pornography]". 

This doesn't stop the flow of headlines concerned porn is destroying men's sexual abilities. "Hooked on porn: Prepare for a tsunami of damaged people," warned the Herald last year. They quote Brisbane based sexologist Liz Walker, saying "before the internet appeared, erectile dysfunction in males under 40 was reported as being about 2-5 per cent, now that figure has jumped to between 27 and 33 per cent." But when you try to find the research she's citing, thing get murkier. Her source is this paper, which in turn gives numbers sourced from two papers - neither of which reference pornography as causative. Not to mention that the second author of the paper is Gary Wilson, a well-known porn addiction campaigner and founder of Your Brain on Porn. 

Maybe part of the issue is a failed erection never happens in porn. Young men look on wide eyed as penises perform pneumatically, ceaselessly pumping away.

While searching in vain for research that supported the position that pornography causes erectile dysfunction, I found a variety of the most common causes of erectile dysfunction. Pornography is not among them. These included depression, anxiety, nervousness, taking certain medications, smoking, alcohol and illicit drug use, as well as other health factors like diabetes and heart disease. Even riding a bike for too long can be linked temporary erectile dysfunction if the bike seat compresses nerves in the perineum. By some estimates erectile 'dysfunction' may occur for about half of all men, and 1 in 4 men seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction will be under 40.

Maybe part of the issue is a failed erection never happens in porn. Young men look on wide eyed as penises perform pneumatically, ceaselessly pumping away. "This is how I do sex" is what these onlookers apparently internalise. In turn, countless think pieces, articles, and talk shows rebuke them for arriving at that conclusion. Questions about how we fail to educate young men on pleasure, respect, and sexual communication seem to have been replaced by suggesting that "women don't want to be pumped away at like a bicycle tyre boys! But all of us are worried about your penises not getting hard enough, and you should be worried too!" What is another term for failing to rally the soldier? Performance anxiety. It strikes me as odd that the articles worried about erectile dysfunction are at the same time suggesting that men basically have a singular sexual function: to get hard and stick it in. 

Considering we have no conclusive evidence that erectile dysfunction is greater than it has been before, why don't we turn our attention to the aspects of pornography that do warrant critique?

Is erectile dysfunction among young men ballooning to frightening, never-seen-before levels of limpness? I doubt it. This fear that pornography will interfere with people's ability to stick one particular body part inside another echoes the centuries-old concern that excessive masturbation would wipe out the human race because no one would be having sex anymore. Considering we have no conclusive evidence that erectile dysfunction is greater than it has been before, why don't we turn our attention to the aspects of pornography that do warrant critique? For example, how do porn users interpret the content of pornography? What are the conditions for performers and employees within the industry? And why has pornography become the default source of sexual education for young people today?

Kris Taylor is a doctoral student at University of Auckland studying men's experiences of using pornography and understandings of pornography addiction.

A previous version of this article described Gary Wilson as a fervent anti-pornography campaigner. Wilson is a porn-addiction campaigner.