Porn Identity (News)

Posted on April 2, 2013, in Addiction, Brain Science, News, Psychological

Publication Information

Title: Porn Identity
Publication: The Age
Author: Greg Callaghan
Date: 20130302

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Many strangers give Dr William Struthers a quizzical look when he tells them what he does for a living. Some women even turn their eyes away in embarrassment. The American biopsychologist studies sexual arousal, but specifically what parts of the human brain light up, and what chemicals are unleashed, when people watch porn. Neuroscience has not only confirmed the old adage that 90 per cent of sex is in the mind – the brain being the control switch for arousal and orgasm – but its research results have become ammunition in the combat zone that is the pornography debate.

It’s the pervasiveness of pornography today, says Struthers, that makes research like his especially relevant. Just 30 years ago, pornography was confined to seedy adult theatres, sex shops and copies of Penthouse tucked away behind newsagent counters. Back then, hardcore porn meant the graphic depiction of sexual intercourse in feature films and videos; softcore porn meant naked or topless pictures in Playboy. Now, hardcore means sadomasochism, gang bangs and body-punishing misogynistic sex, all available at the click of a mouse on the internet.

Meanwhile, graphic sex on cable-television shows like Game of Thrones and True Blood, and music videos featuring gyrating, scantily clad pop sirens like Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj, have become the new softcore porn – leading music legend Joni Mitchell to lament that to be a woman in pop music today, you need to be a porn star.

Struthers says that Gen Y-ers (the under 30s) are in the midst of a second sexual revolution created in part by the explosion in pornography, leaving parents feeling ineffective and powerless. Filtering software on your home PC is not going to stop your teenage son from downloading pornography on his mobile, nor will it prevent your teenage daughter from posting topless photos of herself on dating sites. It’s all part of a raunch culture in which body image and being sexy are paramount, in which casual hook-ups are replacing dating among the young, and the average age of first-time exposure to pornography is around 11.

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A committed Christian, Struthers says that even his fellow believers in the US are joining the anything-goes ethos, with “Pole Dancing for Jesus” classes catching on in some Southern states. “No woman should feel she needs to learn how to lap dance to keep her husband,” sighs Struthers, who arrives in Australia next week for a lecture tour.

Much of Struthers’ work has focused on mirror neurons, the so-called “monkey see, monkey do” neurons that were, funnily enough, first observed in lab monkeys in the early 1990s when their brains would light up like a Christmas tree when they saw a human eating peanuts. “When we see a behaviour, we silently mirror it in our cortex,” writes the 42-year-old in his book Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. “As a man watches a pornographic movie he can neurologically identify with the performers in the video and place himself into the HD signal.”

Pornography doesn’t so much give men bad ideas as help them get used to them: compulsive users need an ever-greater fix to be satisfied, thus eroding the initial disgust or “ick” response as they become aroused by an endless harem of sexual actions. Struthers believes up to 10 per cent of heavy internet users become hooked on online sex, a level that will disrupt or destroy their relationships.

“Not everyone who likes a drink becomes an alcoholic; not everyone who likes to bet becomes a problem gambler,” he says. But Struthers believes certain men are particularly at risk, such as those suffering from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, or those prone to social anxiety.

Indeed, Australia’s professional listeners – psychiatrists, psychologists and sex therapists – have been reporting a rising number of young men having difficulty being turned on by their wives, girlfriends and lovers because of their addiction to pornography. Sex-addict support groups have sprung up in most capital cities, and even divorce lawyers are noting that pornography is playing a role in marriage break-ups – a phenomenon unheard of 20 years ago. Later this month, the American Psychiatric Association will announce whether it will be including sex addiction or “hyper-sexual disorder” in the latest version of its bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – an unthinkable addition just a few years ago.

The core question about porn­ography is really about whether it incites men to commit violence against women or whether it does the reverse: lets them ventilate any aggressive sexual fantasies in a relatively harmless way. Commonsense would tell us it probably has the capacity to do a bit of both, but studies almost invariably roll in with diametrically opposite results: yes, pornography increases aggression in most males; or no, it has no little or no effect whatsoever. The suggestion that pornography has no impact at all is as improbable as the one telling us it turns all men into sex fiends.

While the avalanche of pornography in recent years has coincided with a drop in the levels of rape in Australia and the United States, several respected American studies have shown that the more porn men watch, the more they describe women in sexualised “Madonna-whore” stereotypes, and become more aroused by kinky sex.

“Twenty years ago most men would never have even thought of ejaculating on their partner’s face: now it’s almost a sexual norm,” says Struthers. Gonzo porn – short, “amateur” clips, often posted by average punters, but with hardcore action – is now the most common form of pornography on the web, making its boundary-testing sex seem even more “everyday”.

All addiction, whether it be to alcohol or drugs, can mean long-term neuroplastic change in the grey matter. Struthers, a father of three teenagers, believes that some young men become addicted to pornography because it becomes part of their reward system while their brain is still laying down neural circuits. “Males look at sexual images much more robustly than women, so their brains are more vulnerable to ‘imprinting’. They’re much more likely to reduce a naked woman to her body parts, while women will look at a naked man as a whole, and seek a context: ‘Who is this man?’ ”

Pornography is no longer just a guy thing, however, with one in three porn pages on the web now being accessed by women, suggesting that some, at least, don’t mind being objectified. But in this Age of Porn, Struthers believes we have lost something.

“We used to call it making love,” he says. “Now it’s more often called f…ing.”
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/technology/sci-tech/porn-identity-20130225-2f0ck.html#ixzz2PLNpS6bX

By Greg Callaghan, The Age

 

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