Pornography 'grips you with claws'

Published: Monday, Sept. 20 2010 10:00 p.m. MDT

This is the third article in a series on pornography and its impact on families.

William's wife didn't have a chance.

It didn't matter how attractive she was. William wanted her blonder, taller, thinner and to have a larger bust. He wanted her to resemble the kind of women he had become used to since his elementary school days, when he first discovered his parents' stash of pornography.

The child may have struggled to understand his fourth-grade geometry, but he had memorized intimate angles of a woman's body.

It didn't matter that the porn he was perusing was old-school — pages of conservatively posed Playmates. He didn't need the high-definition sex videos that would saturate the Web decades later.

A few glossy pages on occasion were enough to hook him — for the next 40-plus years of his life.

"It grips you with claws like you can't imagine," said William, now a 50-year-old Salt Lake City man who spoke about his sex addiction on the condition of partial anonymity.

For the next 15 years of his adolescent life, his "occasional" exposure to pornography programmed in him a particular understanding of what sex is, as well as a clear impression about its perceived roles: Her role is passive, ever ready and always wanting more. His role is to show up.

Such modern pornographic conditioning is leaving women to wonder if they can ever satisfy the kind of sexual appetite millions of men are learning to anticipate during days, months and years of pornographic education, often while they're young.

If you ask American feminist Naomi Wolf, "They can't compete, and they know it. For how can a real women — with pores and her own breasts and even sexual needs of her own ... — possibly compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who (is) utterly submissive and tailored to the customer's least specification?" she wrote in a 2003 New York magazine essay.

Wolf claims the onslaught of porn "is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women and leading men to see fewer women as 'porn worthy.' " The power and allure of modern pornography, she suggests, has actually superseded real-life nudity: "Today, real naked women are just bad porn."

Although research disagrees — a majority of surveyed men still say they prefer sex to pornography — only a third of college students consider it a "poor substitute" for sex, according to research by Leland Elliott and Cynthia Brantley.

If the survey defined sex to include intimate foreplay, considered a "given" by most women but often a "give-in" for many men, psychotherapist Phillip Hodson isn't so sure a greater part of men would still choose reality over a "no-hassle" solution to such a biological impulse.

Porn is making "sex-lazy men even sex-lazier," he told a British newspaper, the Independent, in 2006.

And when Jennifer Schneider, an internal doctor based in Tucson, Ariz., studied a group of 94 women whose partners and husbands were involved in pornography, more than half reported that their partners were no longer sexually interested in them; one-third of the women lost interest in their partners after discovering their addiction.

It's a terrifying thought for soon-to-be brides like Kristi, a 24-year-old college student from southeastern Idaho, who requested anonymity.

"It's always in the back of my mind," she said.

She said she hasn't talked to her fiancé about pornography because it would be "way too awkward," even "accusatory."

However, a different young woman had that kind of chat with her fiancé.

Now, instead of using her time deciding whether to frost her wedding cake with fondant or Viennese buttercream, she's learning to deal with a broken engagement in therapy sessions with Dr. Bernell Christensen, co-founder of Candeo, a Utah-based website for fighting sexual addiction anonymously, CandeoCan.com.

"Her life had turned into a nightmare of fear, confusion and doubt," Bernell said about the young woman's profound feelings of betrayal and rejection when she found out he was addicted to pornography. Her now ex-fiancé had gone from a caring, spiritual guy, to a blaming one, Christensen said. He would get angry when she didn't allow him to take the relationship to new physical levels before marriage.

Those same feelings, a common byproduct of being in a relationship with someone who seems to care as much about porn as his partner, may be more common in the future. College-age women are increasingly accepting of pornography, according to Larry Nelson, a BYU professor who surveyed 813 students from six campuses across the United States about pornography with researchers from BYU and East Coast colleges Loyola and McDaniel.

"By way of comparison, emerging adults were much more accepting of pornography than their parents were, with daughters even reporting more acceptance (48.7 percent) than their fathers," Nelson said.

William didn't talk to his wife about his pornographic past before they got married. In fact, a spiritual leader suggested maybe he shouldn't, because he had confessed and completed a repentance process.

So, he didn't tell her.

It's a decision he regrets deeply today.

He blames himself for not being honest up front, because he says he believes if his wife had known, she could have recognized future behavioral signs and pushed him into getting help sooner.

"At the time, I thought getting married would cure me," he said. "Oh no! ... I couldn't have been more wrong."

In the first five years of marriage, William pressured his wife to get breast enhancements, wear shorter skirts and higher heels.

That wasn't enough — it never was. Not for him. He was used to experiencing new stimulating erotica as fast as he could turn a page or click a mouse.

"She became vanilla," he said.

In a desperate attempt for more sexual excitement, William concentrated his efforts on introducing her to his world of pornographic training. Perhaps then — finally — she would learn sex etiquette ... her exact role.

For years, William said he tried to "groom" his wife to watch pornography by arguing it would make them a closer, more intimate couple.

He started visiting strip clubs behind her back and eventually had a long-term affair to feed his insatiable, still-secret addiction.

One evening, though, after paying for sex at a massage parlor, enough guilt seeped through a decades-old callus on his heart, and he decided to tell his wife. That night, he returned home, sat her down and broke her heart

"All that time, my wife had become an object for my enjoyment," said William, who's now nearing the completion of his first year in sex addiction therapy.

But it doesn't take a sex addict, nor a completely nude female for men to think of women's bodies as objects, according to research by Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton.

Fiske showed that men regularly objectify provocatively dressed women in less than a single second. When viewed under a brain scan, the area of a man's brain associated with performing actions and handling tools routinely lit up when researchers quickly flashed images of women in bikinis. There was a lack of activation in the social cognition area, a place were people ponder other's intentions. Fiske said her study explored how men think of women — in the context of near nudity — as a means to an end.

"It's fulfillment of a bodily biological drive rather than anything to do with a relational state," Jennings Bryant told the Deseret News. "It's like the Tina Turner song, 'What's love got to do with it.' "

Bryant has spent the last three decades in and out of labs, publishing research on the devastating effects of pornography, especially on young, mostly unmarried emerging adults. Using a large sample of both female and male applicants, Bryant discovered that watching just six hours of pornography (one hour each week for six weeks) was enough to significantly reduce a person's satisfaction with their present relationship, both with their partner's sexuality and appearance. Participants, who were surveyed before and after the study, also reported that being faithful to their partner was less important by study's end; and their view of sex without emotional involvement rose in favor.

If six hours of pornography can measurably decrease real-life sexual satisfaction and rotate a person's moral compass a few degrees, many researchers like Bryant wonder the long-term effects of the multigenerational group of teens and young adults who are going out of their way to educate themselves with dozens or hundreds of hours by the time they get married.

Last year, UK teens watched an average of 87 hours of pornography, according to CyberSenitnel.co.uk., a British computer software company that collects data while allowing parents to monitor their children's browsing history.

In the United States, 9 out of 10 emerging adults (18-26) are viewing pornography monthly, half of them at least a couple times a week, and many daily, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Research, published by BYU's Nelson and his associates.

"Is it destructive? Absolutely," said Dr. Don Hilton, a practicing neurologist based out of San Antonio, Texas, and author of "He Restoreth My Soul," a blend of scientific and spiritual advice for overcoming a pornography addiction. "Current social science in terms of peer-reviewed, published literature uniformly shows that porn damages the ability of men and women to love each other, to relate to each other, to emotionally bond. It damages the ability of children, adolescents and young children to bond to each other, to view sexuality as a mutually beneficial experience."

Looking back on a "self-inflicted" difficult life — dragging his wife and kids through a divorce, making them deal with his embarrassing addiction and losing his church membership — William's advice is simple: "Tell someone, anyone: your dad, a friend, your spouse. Just don't let it keep growing in the shadows."

e-mail: jhancock@desnews.com

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