Do you view Internet pornography? It's estimated that 70% of men and 30% of women view such porn. One in five mobile searches is for porn, and 69% of the pay-per-view Internet market is for pornography. It's thought that 12% of all websites, roughly 25 million sites, are pornographic. Pornography is no longer a dirty secret in a dingy liquor store; it's on everyone's phone and even difficult to avoid.
It might seem normal and acceptable to do what so many other people are doing. There's nothing normal about watching strangers having sex, though. As a therapist who has seen many marriages wither after exposure to the toxin of Internet pornography, I'm convinced of its pernicious effect. Viewing porn changes how we view others and respond to them sexually. Paul warned the Corinthian Christians: "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body" (1 Corinthians 6:18). Far from a harmless diversion, pornography is a form of sexual immorality that damages its viewers.
It's hard to prove scientifically that porn harms us, but evidence is accumulating that it is associated with negative effects on our brains, our sexuality, and our relationships. One study, conducted by Cambridge University neuropsychiatrist Valerie Voon and colleagues, compared heterosexual men who viewed pornography compulsively with a control group of men who viewed pornography only occasionally or not at all. Of the 19 compulsive viewers, 16 reported that their pornography consumption had damaged intimate relationships or negatively influenced other social activities. Of this group, 11 had experienced diminished sexual desire or erectile dysfunction.
Interestingly, impaired sexual function occurred not when viewing porn but in physical relationships with women. Perhaps real women, whose bodies aren't airbrushed and nymph-like and for whom sexual desire is tied to the complexity of human emotions and interactions, seem no match for the illusions of physical perfection and boundless libidos projected on porn stars. Perhaps men used to solo sexual activity are less prepared to interact with a real person. In any event, it's easy to see how porn viewing and impaired sexual intimacy could become a vicious cycle; men having difficulty in real-life relationships retreat more and more into apparently trouble-free virtual ones.
When the participants in the Cambridge University study were shown explicit videos, both compulsive viewers and the no-or low-porn group had activation in pleasure-processing areas of the brain that also are active in substance abuse. This activation was greatest in compulsive viewers. Also, when viewing pornography, the compulsive viewers' reports of how much they felt sexual desire seemed disassociated with how much they actually liked what they were seeing. Thus, porn could elicit in these men craving or desire even for sexual stimuli they didn't like. The same phenomenon occurs in substance abuse; addicts crave drugs and continue to use them even when the pleasure associated with them has faded. In either case, the end result is compulsive users who continue the addictive behavior even though they've lost the capacity to enjoy what they are doing.
Compulsive porn viewers and their mates may despair about ever leaving the realm of porn and returning to healthy sexual functioning in a loving relationship. The process of withdrawal may be difficult and residual effects may persist, but, with determination, the support of others, faith in God, and sometimes also psychotherapy, recovery is possible.
The first step, though, is to see the problem for what it is. Viewing Internet pornography is not only wrong but also damages the viewer and those for whom he or she cares. It's an addictive behavior like so many other addictive behaviors, one that probably masks deeper issues. The first step is to admit that it's not OK.
The second step is getting help. Maybe that's accountability and transparency with your partner or a friend. Maybe that's some conversation with a professional who has walked this road with others. In any case, there is a path to freedom, but only you can walk it. Take steps in the right direction today.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra