National Edition

Ubiquitous assailant: The dangerous unasked questions surrounding pornography

Published: Saturday, July 6 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

Researchers have also found a correlation between early pornography use and early sexual behavior as well as links between the type of pornography consumed and the increased sexual aggression of the viewers. There’s also evidence pornography is damaging relationships: At a meeting in 2003 of the American Academy of Matrimonial lawyers, two-thirds of the attorneys present said that compulsive Internet use played a significant role in divorces that year, and that in 56 percent of those cases one partner had an obsessive interest in online pornography.

"This is a public health crisis — the fact that porn is now the major form of sex education in the western world," says Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, and author of "Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.” "The fashion industry shapes the way we dress, the food industry shapes the way we eat, how would it be possible that the sex industry is the only industry that didn't shape human behavior? How it shapes it is complicated … but you cannot walk away from those images unchanged. That's not how we operate."

Addiction chemistry

More than 1,200 miles away from Las Vegas, 25-year-old Gabe Deem sits in the back of the YMCA bus as it rumbles through a suburb of Dallas.

He's surrounded by high school students on their way to the local Y to get help on homework and hang out in a safe place until their parents can pick them up.

Most of the kids have their cellphones in hand, texting and tweeting as they talk.

During a lull, Deem glances across the aisle where a 12-year-old boy and his friend are scrolling through Instragram pictures on their iPhones. All of a sudden, there's a picture of a stripper.

"You gotta get rid of this," Deem tells the kid as he snatches the phone and quickly scrolls past the image. He tries to explain how looking at stuff like that will mess you up, but the boy shrugs it off. He's seen worse.

"There's nothing more frustrating when you're trying to give something up than having the whole society encourage it and say it's not a big deal," Deem says.

Deem’s curiosity with pornography began at age 8 when he found a magazine in the woods near his house. His interest grew when his family bought cable two years later. By the time he was 12 and they got high-speed Internet, he was hooked.

"My parents didn't put any blocks on," Deem says. "They had no clue I'd be doing that, and I was good at hiding it. I saw everything there was to see by the time I was out of middle school."

While there’s no scientific consensus on how porn affects the brain, there is a growing body of research on the subject. One of the most prominent voices on the topic is Gary Wilson, a former science teacher who started a website called YourBrainOnPorn. Wilson believes that viewing and masturbating to pornography can become addictive because that act produces dopamine, the brain’s natural reward for engaging in survival behaviors like mating, eating or conquering.

In animals, a male rat will mate two or three times with a female rat before his dopamine receptors are full and his sex drive is exhausted. However, scientists note that if the male rat meets a new female partner every few minutes, he'll try to mate until he nearly dies of exhaustion — the "Coolidge effect."

Pornography, Wilson believes, has a similar effect on the brain, tricking it into thinking sex is possible with an unlimited number of mates, releasing continual bursts of dopamine and causing a buildup of a learning-related protein in the brain called DeltaFosB. Animal studies show that when subjects engage in overconsumption, whether it's drugs, food or sex, DeltaFosB increases in cells in the brain's pathways, altering the brain's reward system, increasing incentive for the reward and serving as an indicator that addictive behavior is taking place.

“Sexuality is the most powerful natural reward our brain has, in terms of producing a dopamine spike,” says Donald Hilton, a neurosurgeon in Texas who has studied the effects of pornography use on the brain. “Critics who deny the existence of sexual addiction simply don’t understand the brain.”

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