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Does Pornography "Mess With Your Manhood?"

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Originally posted on April 26, 2016.

The April 11, 2016 TIME cover story on “Porn and the Threat to Virility” was replete with anecdotes of young men’s real-life sexual responsiveness being depleted by excessive pornography consumption.

Really? I wondered. Is men’s capacity for arousal and orgasm with real partners reduced by their habituating (desensitizing) to the variety of streaming explicit sexuality? Is compulsive pornography-viewing literally a downer? Does it contribute to erectile dysfunction (ED)? If so, this is news worth reporting by us textbook authors, and would be a practical, nonmoral reason for encouraging boys and men to limit their hours in online fantasyland.

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Knowing that the plural of anecdote is not evidence, I turned to PsychINFO and found surprisingly little confirmation—and little research—on this socially important question. One new study of 434 Belgian university men found that “problematic” online sex viewing (and associated sexual self-gratification) predicted “lower erectile function.” This correlational study, though a good beginning, did not specify the viewing–dysfunction causal relationship. Call me a skeptic.

But now the Skeptic Society has published an article by my esteemed friend Philip Zimbardo, with Gary Wilson, summarizing their respective new books, Man Interrupted (2016) and Your Brain on Porn (2016). Their arguments:

1)  Over time, online porn leads to ED. The explosion in easily available streaming online porn has been followed by a soaring rate of young male erectile dysfunction—from 1 percent of men under age 25 back in Kinsey’s 1950 era to one in four today.

2)  Across individuals, online porn leads to ED. Seven studies document an association “between online porn use in young men and ED, anorgasmia, low sexual desire, delayed ejaculation, and lower brain activation to sexual images.”

3)  Desensitization and conditioning explains it. The waning of real-life male sexuality occurs as preteens, teens, and young men become desensitized by compulsive pornography consumption. Like addicts, they come to need more stimulation and variety of the sort that a real sex partner “cannot compete with.” While masturbating, their sexual arousal becomes associated with pornography.

4)  But the effects are reversible. Benefits follow stopping use, including “clearer thinking and better memory, more motivation, increased charisma, deeper relationships, and better real life sex.”

The debate has only begun. Skeptic Marty Klein, despite sharing “reasonable concerns about young people marinating in Internet porn,” finds their conclusions lacking empirical support. In response, Zimbardo and Wilson vigorously defend their conclusions. Surely the “porn messes with your manhood” claims will trigger much-needed further research that seeks to replicate or extend these findings (including to women viewers), and to control for confounding factors. Stay tuned.

(For David Myers' other weekly essays, visit www.TalkPsych.com)

About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.