Teen use of internet porn. When is it time to panic?

The ubiquity of pornography has got to be one of the biggest changes in society in my lifetime.  An acquaintance asked me what I thought the long-term effects of total access to porn would be for shaping the sexuality of kids growing up today and I really had no idea how to answer.  There is much heat and little light on the subject because sexuality in general and kids' sexuality in particular is such a fraught topic.  

On the one hand, today's nearly unlimited access to pornography via the internet is part of the demystification of sexuality which has been building steam over the last one hundred years.  It is connected -- at least in a six-degrees-of-fornication kind of way -- to changes which I view as absolute social goods, like decriminalizing miscegenation and homosexuality, allowing women (and everybody) a greater degree of control over reproduction and generally removing some of the shame from sexuality for everyone, male, female, gay, straight etc.  It is worth remembering that lynchings of non-white men for sex with white women, death by back-alley abortion and 'curbing' of gay people are pieces of North American history that happened within living memory (and are practices some would like us to return to).  The impulse to curb sexual freedom, including the freedom to view porn, can be an instrument of sexual repression and shame.  A lot of the conversation about pornography and young people -- any sexual topic and young people for that matter -- seems to smack of a old-person's cocktail of wistfulness and resentment ie. "If I can't have lots of crazy sex, then nobody should."  

On the other hand, pornography has to own some of the criticisms made of it; it is hugely male-oriented and at least some significant portion is downright anti-women.  It seems pretty intuitive that a barrage of woman-degrading porn would do anybody's developing sexuality harm.  More generally, porn is, by definition, commercial sexual objectification.  Young men and women who grow up viewing sexuality (and we are talking largely about women's sexuality) as an object for purchase or trade, rather than a subjective experience seem more likely to generalize some of those lessons to non-porn sex.  These are both arguments that can be made about any type of pornography.  There is also a particular techno-bent to some anti-porn writing that makes the argument that a quantitative difference of the internet makes for a qualitative difference. 

What happens when you drop a male rat into a cage with a receptive female rat? First, you see a frenzy of copulation. Then, progressively, the male tires of that particular female. Even if she wants more, he has had enough. However, replace the original female with a fresh one, and the male immediately revives and gallantly struggles to fertilize her.
You can repeat this process with fresh females until he is completely wiped out.
This is called the Coolidge effect—the automatic response to novel mates. It’s what started you down the road to getting hooked on Internet porn.
— http://yourbrainonporn.com/doing-what-you-evolved-to-do

Digression:  Perhaps 2014 should be the year that nobody says "The area of the brain that lights up when..."  Regular readers will know that I am sceptical of some of the claims of 'brain science'.  The next post on "Your brain on porn" has fMRI images showing how sections of the brain "light up" when exposed to porn which proves that the subjects of the brain scans are addicted much as people get addicted to heroin. ( A primer on fMRI goofiness. )  Here is a picture of a dead fish in a fMRI with its brain lighting up when asked to imagine humans in social situations.

fmri-salmon.jpg

End digression:  There is a growing set of men who say that they are addicted to internet porn and/or incapable of erections with actual humans as a result of using porn regularly.  This is a tough claim to verify since it is so subjective.  Men may experience less frequent erections and attribute that to the use of porn; that doesn't necessarily mean that was the primary cause.  That is what is known as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  It does seem to make intuitive sense that if you don't masturbate for a long time you are more likely to experience an erection in a particular circumstance.  It also seems like it would be pretty hard to look at a lot of porn and avoid masturbating, so the two do go hand in glove (as it were). There is a whole online Nofap community where people, mostly men, pledge to stop masturbating and/or viewing porn.  They support one another to achieve goals in days.  When does this shade over into shaming a normal and healthy sexual behaviour that has already been the target of a lot of shame?  I wrote a blog post a while ago about Marty Klein's argument that the term "sex addiction" is a way for people living in a sex negative culture not to address their sexual desires about which they feel incredible shame. 

There are a couple of things I am pretty confident about in all of this. 

1.  The whole "erectile dysfunction" piece of the conversation about porn and masturbation needs to get scaled way back.  Men are easily goaded into thinking that a rock hard penis is the only legitimate route to sex.  That's false and it isn't good for men's sexuality (or for their partners).  Start having sex without an erection and you may get one.  Keep having sex after an erection goes away, and it may come back.  But if you make having and maintaining an erection a prerequisite, that can mean a lot of heart ache.  Paradoxically, lots of porn and lots of nofap both seem to perpetuate the myth of no sex without an erection. 

2.  Porn is not sex education.  Teens need to know that what they will see in porn is not what happens between most people's sheets. Talking to teens about what porn is and isn't is part of the job description of every parent, and that needs to go beyond telling them it's bad or women-hating.  Porn:Human Sex::2Fast2Furious:Driving.  A fantasy. 

3. Teens will try to make their own porn.  Not every teen but plenty of them.  Maybe not your kid but plenty of kids your kid knows.  As Dan Savage has pointed out, smart phones are -- among other things -- mobile porn production and distribution suites.  And parents hand them over to kids without thinking about or talking about that.  If you must give your teen a smart phone, disable the camera.  Tell your kids you will search through the contents of their phones and then follow through.  Millions of adult Americans use their phones this way, should we expect teens to act any more maturely? 

Your therapist, Ron Swanson?

Men often fear that therapy is stacked against them.  Whether it is couple, family or individual therapy, they think that they are entering a domain where their skills and strengths will be counted as liabilities and they will be asked to do things that aren't just difficult or scary but unbecoming.  That isn't a man problem.  That's a therapy problem.  I was talking recently with another male therapist, Dr. Darrell Johnson, a friend and mentor.  I mentioned this campaign to him... (Okay, it isn't Ron Swanson but a Ron Swanson knock-off.)

It is from the Office of Suicide Prevention of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.  It's geared at connecting with men, particularly working-age 25-54 men who are twice as likely to commit suicide as any other age group according to the white paper that was used to develop the Mantherapy campaign (US stats).  Darrell and I talked about the idea that men are typically more resistant to therapy (part of what accounts for their higher suicide rates than women).  I joked that soon it would be possible for therapists to use cookies to give different design templates to their websites so that women and men would be presented with different web sites that are gender specific since too much "feelings" language might be off-putting for men, essentially presenting themselves as Rick Mahogany when men click through.  But the Colorado campaign doesn't seem to have been a raging success despite the high production values.  The Richard Mahogany video that has the most views on YouTube is at around 8,000.  Maybe those are 8,000 saved lives and if so, great, but I don't imagine that therapy's problem with men has been touched much.  I think the character seems inauthentic, not just playfully unreal, and for men or women authenticity in therapy is important. 

There were a few things in the white paper that I thought were really interesting for therapists to consider about working with men, things that hadn't occurred to me despite having worked with boys and men a lot.  One is the value men often place on fixing something themselves and how to make therapy an exercise in 'solving it myself (or ourselves) with help'.  One man said to the researchers of the white paper, "Show me how to stitch up my own wound like Rambo."  Okay, that's some pretty serious hyper-masculinity but the point is that therapy can benefit from emphasizing the client's efficacy in problem-solving with the therapist as trusted assistant. 

The other thing that I thought was really wonderful was the importance some men place on giving back.  I was in Hawaii last year.  A companion and I went kayaking.  We visited a small island and had a great time but when we went to get back in our kayak, we got hit by several waves in succession and my companion got knocked over in the surf and couldn't get up.  I watched, barely able to keep myself afloat trapped on the other side of the kayak thinking I might very well see this strong, capable person drown before my eyes in three and half feet of water.  But before that could happen two kayakers (much more capable than us) grabbed our kayak and my companion, hoisting him out of the water.  I thanked them.  They said, "That's what we do."  They viewed helping as part and parcel of who they were.  I, on the other hand, felt grateful but unsatisfied as they paddled away.  I couldn't pay back the debt I owed them.  Therapy is a uni-directional process as far as help goes; codes of ethics forbid outside relationships so it is very hard for a client to pay his debt with his skills through labour exchange or barter.  I never thought about how important it can be for some clients to be able to show their competency and mastery to a therapist by doing meaningful work or sharing their own products, to give help for help received, and that men might feel that more acutely.  The report points out how central the idea of repaying a debt is to AA, for instance.  Now I am considering requiring clients in some circumstances to agree to pay part of the cost of therapy by "paying forward" to others using their own strengths and capabilities (see the Milwaukee African Violet Queen).  Ron, would like the idea of paying off your therapy by carving duck decoys with kids in an after-school program? 

"I'm a a bit fearful that we are verging on what I call 'feelings territory.'"