Friday, 25 May 2012

Is porn damaging your emotional health?

by Other (See all authors)

By Naomi Wolf in The Times, London

 

Andrea Dworkin, the anti-porn activist, rose to fame in the 1980s arguing that if we did not limit pornography most men would objectify women more intensively and treat them less as people than as porn stars. The floodgates would open; rape and other sexual transgressions would follow.

Since then the advent of the internet and, more importantly, broadband in most Western homes has meant that pornography has left the space that it once occupied of being a marginal, adult, private pursuit and has saturated a mainstream public arena. The whole world has become pornographised.

All this surfeit of cheap erotica is diluting sexual energy, especially for the young. The relationship between the multibillion-dollar porn industry, compulsiveness and sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, super-size portions and obesity. If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material it takes more junk to fill you up. Research is showing that porn is indeed addictive, especially to men, and that it damages their libido in the longterm. Experts on sexual dysfunction are seeing an epidemic today of healthy young men who cannot perform easily with their partners because they have been overexposed to pornography. With increased exposure to porn many men need higher and higher levels of stimulation, or more and more extreme situations, in order to become aroused. So it seems that people are not closer, erotically, because of porn but less sexually connected.

Porn deadens desire. The response I got when I said as much in New York magazine recently showed that this really struck a chord with men. A whole generation may be less able to connect erotically to real women. I have met men who care about their sexuality who have moved away from porn not for moral reasons but, rather, for physical and emotional-health ones; they want to protect their desire.

The data of this epidemic should not be surprising. After all, pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain. It is Pavlovian. An orgasm is one of the biggest reinforcers imaginable. If you associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what, over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex, that is what it will take to arouse you. The ubiquity of sexual images does not free the power of Eros but dilutes it.

Feminists have often misunderstood sexual prohibition. I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it.

In some cultures it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women physically interested in one another over time to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times”. These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that maintaining a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family.

I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. She had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a headscarf. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.” When she showed me the bedroom, draped in Middle-Eastern embroideries that she shares only with her husband – no kids allowed – the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private.

Compare that with a conversation I had with a student after I had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with, to get rid of the tension.”

“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”

“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

Naomi Wolf is the author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries (Simon & Schuster)