Photo by Megan Koester
It wasn’t that long ago that the world’s eager young wankers could happily jerk themselves into a state of exhaustion without a care in the world. But for some time now there's been a growing level of consciousness of something that should probably have been quite obvious to anyone whose blood hadn’t all been redirected away from their brains. Namely, that if you watch tons of videos of unlimited genres of depravity, you’re going to find it more difficult to get turned on by a living, breathing, naked human being who wants to do IRL sex stuff with you. If watching someone stick their big toe into someone’s arsehole feels normal to you, for instance, you might find making out kind of boring.
One of the people who can be credited for raising this point is Gary Wilson. His site, yourbrainonporn.com, has been at the forefront of efforts to understand what porn is doing to many of its users. Now, he's turned all his knowledge into a book, Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.
I called Gary to discuss his new book and the issue of porn addiction facing millions of young onanism enthusiasts around the world.
VICE: So the main premise of your book is that you can either watch porn or have sex, but you can't have both, right?
Gary Wilson: It is of course possible to have both. But for some guys it is difficult to have both. With internet porn some guys are having not only erectile dysfunction (ED) but they're also having other sexual symptoms such as inability to orgasm, delayed ejaculation, declining libido with real partners, loss of attraction to real partners and also very commonly their sexual tastes at least in porn have morphed into something which is strange and upsetting for them.
Can you watch some porn – not too much – and still have a healthy sex life? Is there a safe level?
Watching porn will always affect you. How much it will affect you is hard to say. So in other words we have seen guys who are terribly addicted, and it has deeply affected their sex lives. They need a year or more off porn in order to get a real erection with a real partner. So that’s an extreme occurrence. On the other end of the spectrum however you will have some guys with a girlfriend and they will watch porn a couple of times a week. But here’s the deal. You don’t know how much it affects you until you remove the variables. So these guys will just do a challenge and say, “OK I’ll stop watching porn”, and what they find is that they will still get benefits. And the benefits that they’ll get is that real sex is far more exiting. Their wife or girlfriend looks a lot better. They didn’t think that porn was affecting them but once they quit they found out that it was. Essentially porn has a broad spectrum of effects.
Porn has been around for generations in varying forms. What has caused this rise in issues such as ED? Is it simply a case of faster and faster internet speeds?
It’s definitely escalated over the past few years. Firstly the delivery system of the internet has caused this escalation. Secondly however adolescents as a result have complete access to hard-core streaming videos as soon as they desire it. But the question we have to ask is why the internet is so appealing? Think about Facebook. There are studies that show Facebook causes addiction. It can cause brain changes that mirror the brain changes that occur in drug addicts. In fact there are 70 internet-brain studies showing that. And what can occur with the internet is that it raises arousal and dopamine levels. Dopamine powers this reward circuit and the internet is unique in this sense.
Clicking on new pictures, new words, sending messages and receiving messages delivers novelty, which raises dopamine levels in the reward circuit. So do surprise, shock and anxiety. If you combine that with sexual stimulation, the highest natural arousal available, and put it in front of a teenager via a Tube site with hard-core videos, adolescents can maintain this kind of arousal and dopamine levels. You can train your brain to need that level of stimulation in order to be sexually exited. When you’re watching these videos of real people having so called “real” sex it completely replaces the imagination. You no longer imagine what it's like. You become a voyeur watching all this action rather than with a still picture imagining the action you can create.
In the book you discuss a disconnect between younger and older generations which translates into typically younger people being exposed to porn far more than say those who grew up with magazines. Is this simply a general rule or is there some crossover?
When you look at studies you get a completely different view. People aged 14-25 have a much higher use of porn than adults and of course the use goes down as the age goes up. A recent UK poll showed that the vast majority of teens believed watching porn has negative effects, so their view is based on their experience as say an 18 year old growing up over the past few years and seeing the effect it has had upon them.
What do you say to those sexologists who look to dismiss the argument that porn can cause ED?
Well, they’re wrong. Prominent urologists are starting to write articles about it. On top of that we’ve had two brain studies from Cambridge University and one from the Max Planck institute. The Cambridge one found the same kind of brain changes that occur with drug addicts and 60 percent of those subjects suffered from issues such as ED and loss of libido. The German study correlated the hours of porn use a week and the years of porn use with firstly the structure of the reward circuits. They found a correlation suggesting that those who watch porn actually have less grey matter.
In addition those who had been watching porn for years had less activation of the reward circuits. So their conclusion was that more porn use correlated with a decrease in grey matter and less sexual arousal. And these were non-addicts. Many sexologists claim that porn “addiction” (they don’t even refer to it as addiction) is caused by a high libido, which you are somehow born with. But these studies counter that and show that heavy porn users have lower sexual desire, causing, in turn, issues such as ED. So the science goes against that myth.
Gary's widely viewed TED talk
You talk about the need for more education in your conclusion regarding sex conditioning and the issue of porn addiction. Will education really stop people wanting to watch porn?
Will it stop people from watching porn? No. But what occurs is that many of the guys who eventually showed up on all these forums had no idea that porn use could cause the problems they had developed such as severe ED. This young generation sees porn use and masturbation as synonymous. They read articles claiming that masturbation is good and so they assume that must mean that porn is good. They never make the connection. So if there were education that makes the connection that would be good. What’s missing as well is that sexologists don’t make the connection between porn and the adolescent brain, which undergoes a process of rewiring in order to reproduce. A highly malleable adolescent brain has much higher surges of dopamine and is seeking thrills and novelty, which create a bigger buzz for them.
You discuss the idea of "rebooting" by not watching porn. How effective is this? Is it easy to stop your porn addiction?
Rebooting refers to removing all artificial sexual stimuli. There are different motivations such as ED and loss of sexual responsiveness. Some guys are doing it for other reasons. They notice friends on forums are quitting and ending up with far more motivation, confidence and concentration. So these guys have a different barometer of when they feel they are rebooted. Guys suffering from sexual dysfunction aged between 40 to 50 who grew up consuming porn through magazines are now developing ED having switched to Tube sites. Young guys often need much longer to reboot compared to older guys. Older guys can take eight to 12 weeks and be fine after that. Some of these young guys – aged 20 to 24 – however, take up to two years to fully recover. These guys are at their peak of health and levels of testosterone and they take a lot longer. This links back to the use of porn in adolescence when the brain is incredibly malleable.
Do the issues that guys experience from porn addiction transfer over to women?
Guys typically use porn far more often. By cycling through the usernames of people on forums such as NoFap, what we find is that women often simply don’t get exited by their partners. They needed porn to have an orgasm, they weren’t lubricating and they were addicted. So women do experience similar problems. The difference, however, is that men have a barometer, which is their penis. Women don’t. So many women grow up not relating these problems to porn use.
With the publishing of this book what stage do you feel we are now at when it comes to knowledge on the effect porn has on the brain?
There is a huge divide and actually a degree of animosity when it comes to studying the effects of porn addiction on the human brain. What we’ve learnt is that addiction, thanks to work of real neuroscientists, is by far the most studied mental condition. It’s been induced in animals for the last thirty years looking right down to the molecular and genetic level where brain changes occur. And we’ve compared it to the many types of addiction that occur in humans. So there is a huge body of evidence. On the other side you have the sexology groups who don’t study the mechanisms of the brain and who are sociologists primarily carrying out questionnaires. They have a model within which they don’t want porn addiction to be recognised, as they're afraid that if you say porn use has negative effects you'll be labelled as sex negative. And they don’t want any shame associated with sexuality. Conceptually that’s OK to a certain degree, but what they don’t acknowledge is that porn is now sex negative and screen positive.
What is your view on the existence of websites, which only contain “good porn” and filter out what is described as “bad” porn?
It’s a trend that really bothers me. It’s a trend that tries to teach people the difference between “good” porn and “bad” porn, as if there’s such a clear line. This idea is put forth by websites such as makelovenotporn.com and that’s fine except that you pay for it and of course no young person is ever going to pay for porn. But beyond that is the idea that some 15-year-old kid is going to say “Oh, I’ve been told that this website has good porn so I’ll just stay on this website.” Now that is ridiculous. That’s like taking a 15-year-old boy to the grocery store and saying “Buy whatever you want, just buy good food”. They’re not going to go and buy broccoli.
By the same token they are going to start clicking on the grossest and strangest stuff because that’s what teenage boys do. So of course it wouldn’t work. But on top of that what counts as “bad” porn? Is it BDSM, female domination or anal? That’s a never ending argument. It can never be solved and it doesn’t address the basic problem. Which is that young men and woman are training their sexual arousal to high speed internet, clicking and novelty. It’s the delivery system that really makes the difference in 2014.