“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love.” (Proverbs 5: 18-19, NKJV)
Researchers are noticing an interesting phenomena that is relatively recent in its development. That is, a dramatic rise of sexual dysfunction among a previously low risk population–men under 40 (Park, Wilson, Berger, Christman, Reina, Bishop, Klam, & Doan, 2016). For example, in the year 2002, sexual dysfunction according to a meta-analysis of 13,618 men from 29 nations found erectile dysfunction to occur in approximately 2% of males under 40 using the Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behavior .
In 2011, the rate of erectile dysfunction in men between the ages of 18 and 40 (using the same research tool as the study in 2002) was noted to be 14-28% according to a study of 2737 men from three nations (Park et al., 2016)!!! This change reflects a rate increase from 1 in 50 males experiencing dysfunction to a rate of greater than 1 in 4 males in just a 9 year period!!!
How is this happening? Men in their 20’s and 30’s are to be at the height of their reproductive health and sexual prowess! What has changed–and so fast–within just nine years time? Is it the food we eat? Toxins in the environment? Obesity, smoking, alcohol use, and general health status? Or is it something else? What does research say?
Changes in health statuses of young men do not explain the increase
In my post “Maximize Your Health, Maximize Your Pleasure!,” I explore the research on various lifestyle habits, nutritional factors, exercise frequency, and other factors as they relate to sexual satisfaction and performance. To enjoy maximal sexual performance and fulfillment, various psychological, neurological, hormonal, and vascular health factors need to be optimized. In other words, overall health status has a significant impact on sexual health factors.
However, the health status of the general population did not change to such a radical extent in just a 9 year period between 2002 and 2011 as to explain that sharp increase in sexual dysfunction (Park et al., 2016). What did change? In 2006, the first “porn-tube sites” providing rapid, widely available access to pornographic videos made their internet debut (Park et al., 2016).
Research globally suggests a link between pornography and increasing sexual dysfunction
Some researchers have challenged the notion of pornography negatively impacting sexual health and desire. One review noting research between two studies of Croatian men showed conflicting results and minimal effects of pornography use on sexual desire or function (Landripet & Stulhofer, 2015). Support for the notion of internet video pornography negatively impacting the sexual health of young men, however, continues to mount in studies conducted around the globe.
In 2012, a Swiss study of males aged 18 to 24 using the International Index of Erectile Function-5 tool found erectile dysfunction rates of 30%…among males aged 18 to 24!!!!! (Mialon, Berchtold, Michaud, Gmel, & Suris, 2012 as cited in Park et al., 2016). A study in Italy conducted in 2013 found younger men under 40 with higher rates of erectile dysfunction than men over 40 (Capogrosso et al., 2013 as cited in Park et al., 2016). Interestingly, younger men tend to be more frequent consumers of video streaming internet porn (Dwulit & Rzymski, 2019).
Research in Canada found more than half of males between the age of 16 and 21 reported sexual problems, with more than 1 in 4 reporting erectile dysfunction, and nearly 1 in 4 experiencing a low sex drive, among other issues (O’Sullivan, Brotto, Byers, Majerovich, & Wuest, 2014 as cited in Park et al., 2016). These rates of low sex drive, low sexual satisfaction, and erectile dysfunction rose to nearly 50% in a second study of 16-21 year olds in 2016 by the same authors!! (Park et al., 2016). The United States fared no better, with rates of erectile dysfunction among armed forces service members doubling in 2013 when compared to research conducted in 2003!!!
The numbers are actually pretty shocking. The studies go on–beyond just those I listed! Look at the ages of the individuals affected! The timing of this mass global shift is pretty clear–and matches the increasing prevalence of video pornography consumption. Lest you think that these findings only apply to those that spend hours locked in their bedroom watching porn all day long, the research has noted substantial impacts on performance and satisfaction in those that use internet porn as INFREQUENTLY as once every 3 months!!! (Park et al., 2016). But if pornography is having such a profoundly negative impact on male sexual health, the question has to arise…why? And why now?
Porn usage has increased over the past several decades
Thanks to the anonymous, affordable, and readily accessible nature of internet pornography, usage has increased over the past several decades (Perry & Schleifer, 2018). With the advent of smartphones, portability can be added to the list of enablers. Indeed, 50-70% of men in both developing nations and first world nations routinely use porn.
As many as 1 in 3 women also use porn regularly (Dwulit & Rzymski, 2019). Compare the ease of use of the smart phones now versus back in the day where people had to subscribe to magazines, or venture in to adult stores or theaters to view such material. Indeed, the rate of porn consumption increase has far outpaced the usual risk factors for sexual dysfunction, such as obesity, drug use, smoking, and other factors–some of these risk factors such as smoking have actually decreased! (Park et al., 2016).
So research shows porn can undermine your sex life, but how/ why?
porn can decrease your responsiveness to real world stimuli
Porn video consumption decreases responsiveness to real world stimuli over time (Park et al., 2016). Indeed, desensitization has been noted to occur in those that routinely consume porn, causing consumers to seek out more extreme varieties of pornography just to achieve arousal that historically occurred with far less stimuli (Dwulit & Rzymski, 2019; Park et al., 2016). In other words, the threshold is raised just to achieve stimulation and satisfaction.
As the potpourri variety available in video streams is not readily replicated in real life (for the general population), people fail to gain arousal during real world encounters. This leads to performance anxiety, further increasing dependence on pornography over a partner for sexual performance and release (Park et al., 2016). For example, a study in 2015 showed that among the most frequent porn consumers, 71% of them experienced sexual dysfunction with 1 in 3 experiencing difficulties in achieving orgasm (Sutton, Stratton, Pytyck, Kolla, & Cantor, 2015, as cited in Park et al., 2016). Sexual difficulties may occur in partnered sex as opposed to during porn, but may progress–occurring even during stimulation from progressively more extreme forms of pornography (Park et al., 2016).
Porn consumption is associated with seeking out novelty at the risk of health and relationships
Consistent with the desensitization as described above, regular porn consumption has been linked to increases in one night stands, number of sex partners, infidelity, and divorce (Rasmussen, Millar, & Trenchuk, 2019). This makes sense. As people find arousal and performance more difficult to achieve, they may find the problem to be their relationship or spouse as opposed to their over exposure to novel stimuli. Thus, they may seek temporary solutions to achieve novel stimuli.
Researchers note that societal messaging and cues can influence the sexual “scripts” in our mind. These scripts impact our arousal and sexual interests (Rasmussen et al., 2019). The scripts found to be most common in pornographic videos involve frequently simulated situations of infidelity and casual sex to a far greater extent than featuring simulations of sex within committed relationships (Rasmussen et al., 2019). The message reinforced to consumers is that sexual gratification is found in these kinds of experiences as opposed to committed relationship experiences. It is no surprise then, that sexually transmitted disease rates are climbing significantly, with great costs and risks to individuals and society (CDC, 2019).
Porn activates areas of the brain associated with addiction, produces dependencies, and down regulates pleasure ability
Fascinating research into neuroplasticity has demonstrated that our brains change and reshape themselves continuously according to our lifestyle, habits, and even thought patterns (Love, Laier, Brand, Hatch, & Hajela, 2015). Like substance addictions, the novel excitement provided by internet pornography causes surges of dopamine in the brain, creating cravings for future releases. Partnered sex can not compete in terms of the amount of dopamine provided by the endless array of internet porn variety (Love et al., 2015).
As such, both seeking out of pornography and escalation in viewing explicit/ graphic content commonly occurs–similar to an addict requiring more substance yet failing to achieve their initial high (Love et al., 2015). Desensitization can be seen in terms of physical brain structure changes and functional changes as viewed in functional MRI’s. For example, the more porn a person used on average during a week’s time period, the smaller the amount of gray matter noted in the right caudate nucleas–the area of the brain associated with romantic love (Park et al., 2016), and less reactivity in the putamen region in response to sexual images–an area normally stimulated when a person becomes aroused (Love et al., 2015). Researchers concluded “This is in line with the hypothesis that intense exposure to pornographic stimuli results in a downregulation of the natural neural response to sexual stimuli” (Love et al., 2015, pp 21-22, para 5, 1).
Its not just about sex, or even your relationships–porn down regulates your ability to respond to normal rewards / cues
The high definition, always available, and powerfully stimulating video porn stimulus represents an artificial stimulus that hijacks our natural dopamine rewards center leading to unnaturally high and repeated surges of dopamine due to constant sexual novelty (Love et al., 2015; Park et al., 2016). These unnatural and repeated surges, similar to surges experienced by illicit drug users in terms of areas of the brain stimulated, leads to withdrawal phenomena and dysregulation of neurotransmitters and receptor activity (Love et al., 2015; Park et al., 2016). The dysregulation in turn raises the threshold required for a person to respond to rewarding stimuli (making it harder for a person to enjoy otherwise enjoyable moments), and increases the presence of NEGATIVE emotions such as anxiety, depression, irritability and a general sense of dissatisfaction (dysphoria) (Love et al., 2015). In other words, if wrecking your sex life and potentially negatively impacting your relationships is not bad enough, porn like other addictions can wreck your mood states and quality of life as well!!
Modern internet pornography consumption, even if relatively infrequent, introduces an artificial stimulus that becomes increasingly difficult to match in partnered relationships. This artificial stimulus causes changes within the brain that can be objectively measured with the use of MRI technology, corresponds with desensitization to pleasurable stimuli, and produces a need for escalating stimuli. This is similar to experiences of those that abuse substances.
These changes lead to floods of dopamine followed by dysregulation within the brain. Such changes adversely impact our mood states, our ability to respond to our partner sexually, and in some cases, stimulates behaviors that jeopardize our health and relationships. Given these considerations, those that desire to maximize their sexual health, relationship health, and perhaps even their mental health have research backed reasons to kick the porn habit and avoid pornography consumption at any frequency!
Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post informative! Feel free to leave a comment, share with a friend, and/ or sign-up on my e-mail list to receive notice when I post new articles!!! Live well!! – Donovan
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). New CDC Report: STDs Continue to Rise in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2019/2018-STD-surveillance-report-press-release.html
Dwulit, A. D., & Rzymski, P. (2019). The Potential Associations of Pornography Use with Sexual Dysfunctions: An Integrative Literature Review of Observational Studies. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(7), 914. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8070914
Landripet, I., & Stulhofer, A. (2015). Is Pornography use associated with sexual difficulties and dysfunctions among younger heterosexual men? The journal of sexual medicine, 12(5), 1136 – 1139. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12853
Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update. Behavioral Sciences (2076-328X), 5(3), 388–433. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.3390/bs5030388
Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017
Perry, S. L., & Schleifer, C. (2018). Are the Sanctified Becoming the Pornified? Religious Conservatism, Commitment, and Pornography Use, 1984–2016*. Social Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell), 99(5), 1614–1626. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/ssqu.12524
Rasmussen, K. R., Millar, D., & Trenchuk, J. (2019). Relationships and Infidelity in Pornography: An Analysis of Pornography Streaming Websites. Sexuality & Culture, 23(2), 571–584. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s12119-018-9574-7