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Trauma and recovery: 2 couples claw back from porn addiction

Published: Tuesday, July 9 2013 11:40 p.m. MDT

The cycle went on for 14 years, and it hurt worse each time.

A hipper world

But did it have to?

There is a younger, hipper world out there, one steeped in Shades of Grey and Sex in the City — a world where the Huffington Post reports that sadomasochists are surprisingly well-adjusted, Oprah guests encourage wives to embrace their husband’s porn, and youngsters wear “future porn star” t-shirts.

Pamela Paul explored this world for her 2006 book, Pornified, interviewing over 100 users and their partners to uncover porn’s role in post-Internet America. Now the editor of the New York Times Review of Books, Paul found that often the woman’s answer to her partner’s porn was to join in or look the other way. Surveys show that only about 30 percent of American women view any porn use by their partner as cheating. Couldn’t Megan simply free Tom of his guilt?

Torn apart

Whether porn is objectively harmful is a question that has sharply split professional and public opinion. Even feminists are flummoxed. Widespread use among seemingly healthy people offers a patina of legitimacy, and every obscure state college seems to employ a “sexologist” who is casually confident that it’s all good.

But hard data and solid clinical research are hard to come by, and beneath the widespread acceptance of pornography are lurking questions.

The gold standard of human research is the “randomized controlled trial” that assigns untainted subjects to “treatment” groups or “control” groups. In the early 1980s Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant, prominent media effects researchers at the University of Alabama, conducted several such experiments to see how porn affects perceptions and preferences.

Those studies could not be repeated today — partly because human subjects committees won’t allow researchers to do potentialy harmful projects anymore, but also because it would be difficult to find a big enough control group that hasn't been exposed to porn. A 2008 study, for example, found that 86 percent of male college students had viewed pornography in the past year, and 48 percent viewed it at least weekly.

But in the early 1980s, when porn came in brown wrappers in the mail or required a trip to an adult video store, blank slate control groups could still be found.

In one study, published in 1988, Zillman and Bryant showed 160 randomly chosen subjects one hour of mainstream porn per week, stretched over six weeks, for a total of six hours. The films invovled a semblance of plot, so the actual sexual content was 4 hours and 48 minutes.

The researchers called it "massive exposure" at the time, an indication of how things have changed. Today, the American Society of Addiction Medicine marks pornography addiction at 11 hours per week.

The results of the study were striking. The treatment group expressed views markedly more hostile toward children, marriage, relationship trust and women in general, compared to a control group that watched sitcoms.

The porn group was 47 percent more tolerant of extramarital affairs, 47 percent more likely to think other people’s spouses were unfaithful, and 48 percent more inclined to take or tolerate sexual liberties in their own relationships.

Sixty percent of the sitcom control group saw marriage as a vital institution, against just 39 percent of the porn group. The porn group was 41 percent less likely to want their own biological children. And women in the porn group were 65 percent less likely to want a daughter, a finding that caught the researchers completely off guard.

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