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Holly’s Letter from America: Porn is not a harmless pastime

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The psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple once pointed out how concepts progress in our society: first the unthinkable becomes thinkable, and then it becomes so commonplace that no one remembers that anyone ever thought differently.

This, if anything, is the progression of the porn culture. Once considered morally reprehensible and a shameful habit, porn is now everywhere. No longer a clandestine pursuit, it is increasingly considered to be an inevitable part of relationships, or indeed of a child’s sex education. If as a partner or a parent you object, you are considered either extremely naïve or extremely controlling.

So the porn culture marches on, and demands that we march along, too – without questions, without concerns. After all, this is ‘freedom’ we are talking about: the freedom to pursue our appetites and passions as we please, with no moralizing, no judging.

The problem is that porn is not some harmless pastime – not for men, or for women.

Scientific studies have shown that a porn addict’s brain looks exactly like a drug addict’s brain. As the website Fight the New Drug explains, this is because, like drugs, exposure to porn releases unnaturally high levels of the chemical dopamine, which goes straight to the reward center of the brain and causes a ‘high’. As a porn user gets addicted to that high, physical changes happen in his brain such that he needs more and more exposure to porn to get the same kind of high as before, just like a drug addict needs more and more drugs to get high.

But that need for more exposure to porn is devastating to a relationship. What it means is that the porn user needs ‘constant newness’ in order to get sexually aroused. According to GQ magazine, in a survey of porn users, those who were addicted to porn experienced a decline in arousal with the same mate, while those who ‘regularly found different mates were able to continue their arousal’. No surprise, then, that regular porn users report an increasing disinterest in sex with their partner, which leads to relationship breakdown.

The need for ‘constant newness’, however, goes further – so often regular porn users are driven to seek more deviant forms of porn in order to get aroused. These more deviant forms portray violence and humiliating, abusive behavior as sexually exciting.

However, a warning: before we start feeling complacent with a distinction between ‘regular porn’ and something far worse,Fight the New Drug argues that violence in porn is not just relegated to the more deviant kind. A few years ago a study was done of the 50 most popular porn films, and it was found that of the 304 scenes the movies contained, 88 per cent of them contained physical violence.

To make matters worse, in 95 per cent of these violent scenes, the target of this violence was almost always a woman, and she had either a neutral response to the violence, or responded with pleasure!

In effect, porn is training the appetites of a whole generation of men and women to be oriented toward violent sex – with the expectation that women will be the happy recipients of this violence.

Not only does porn give the user an appetite for unhealthy sex, it also distorts the user’s view of relationships. Porn portrays an unrealistic world where surgically enhanced, or digitally doctored images of people ‘enjoy’ dangerous sex acts. That fantasy world sets up some sort of bizarre standard against which porn users judge their partner.

Thus, studies show that porn users are more critical of and dissatisfied with their partner’s appearance, sexual curiosity and sexual performance. They also report being less in love with their partner. They are more cynical about romantic love and marriage.

Porn trains the user to see sex as a performance with objects, instead of understanding it as something that happens with a real person, who has thoughts and feelings and an imperfect body. The experience of sexual pleasure takes place, increasingly, in an isolated, virtual world which gives us nothing in return.

So this is freedom, unrestrained – the freedom of porn. It destroys character, relationships and families. Not least of all, women bear the brunt of it, in terms of how they are perceived, and how they are treated.

If, as western democratic societies, we want our freedom to have any meaning, we have to understand the distinction between freedom tempered by morality, and freedom as licentiousness. The first is an indispensable part of the good life, the second destroys it.

So let’s not defend porn in the name of freedom. And I can’t think of any other way to defend it.

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Holly Hamilton-Bleakleyhttp://philosophyforparents.com/
Holly is a mother of six, now living in the United States. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History & Political Thought from Newnham College, Cambridge. She blogs at Philosophy for Parents. Tim is her husband and a former RAF officer.

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