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The Ugly Truth about Pornography

  • Emily Maust Wood Contributor
  • 2015 11 Aug
The Ugly Truth about Pornography

It's no secret that porn presents a problem for many families. The charged nature of the topic is evident in the widespread reaction, with advocates for and against it. While the defense of porn use may be well thought out, touting the virtues of personal freedom, it's hard to dismiss the hundreds of support groups, sex therapists, online forums, and hotlines that exist because someone abused porn. They speak of the ramifications just by existing. 

While many of us recognize the interpersonal and spiritual repercussions, if we want to truly treat the trauma left in its wake, we need to begin to understand the way that porn affects all of us, beneath the surface. 

Please note that some readers might find parts of this article  disturbing. 

Porn can be addictive.

Although not officially recognized as a disorder, sex addiction, in any form, actually can be more difficult to overcome than other addictions. This occurs because a sex addiction hijacks all three of the brain's pleasure pathways instead of just one, making it harder for the brain to return to its healthy, normally responsive state.

Our amazingly malleable brains adapt to whatever stimuli we introduce, so when the brain's reward centers are overrun by a particular stimulus, the brain develops a tolerance for it. Not unlike illegal drug addicts, people dependent on porn report needing new and novel inputs in order to get the same "high."

Even sex therapists who condone the use of porn have begun to be vocal about the harms of its overuse. Because of its potential to create dependence, false expectations, and impotence in real-life relationships, many people blame porn for the unprecedented amount of young men who've developed a reliance on Viagra. In short, they've been conditioned to find real women unexciting. 

Even if someone's use of pornography doesn't constitute addiction, the overuse of it still poses long-term neurochemical problems, especially for younger users, whose brains are still forming. The advent of new technology (like the tablet and smartphone) has made it possible for virtually anyone anywhere to view pornography. One article reported that 42 percent of children had accessed pornography in the year preceding the study -- and that 66 percent of those didn't want to. Some porn sites (not all) target children, disguising adult material beneath apparently child-friendly URLs. A recent online poll reports that 12 percent of preteen respondents fear that they are addicted to pornography. This isn't anywhere close to a clinical diagnosis, of course, but it does seem to indicate that young people are uncomfortable with the level of dependency they seem to be developing.

"Hardcore" porn today promotes violence.  

In order to appeal to desensitized viewers, producers stand out in the saturated market by creating edgier content. Although not all companies take this explicitly misogynistic route, a study of adult films in 2005 noted that 88 percent of films contained "physical aggression" and nearly half contained "verbal aggression,"  all but 6 percent of which was inflicted on women. 

Numerous studies have shown that the use of violent pornography is linked to higher rates of intimate partner violence, the purchasing of sex, and generally negative attitudes toward women. Even nonviolent pornography is correlated with higher rates of behavioral aggression, especially among people with pre-disposing risk factors.

One common defense of pornography is that it's not hurting anyone. Of course, therapists, broken families, and statistics on gender violence like those mentioned here attest that it does hurt us, albeit sometimes in unquantifiable ways -- but what about the actors themselves? 

Porn is harmful behind the scenes too. 

This issue is hard to study, since prostitution is illegal, sex trafficking is underground, and most actors don't speak out against the industry until they've left. Although we can only guess at the exact statistics about the destructive tendencies within the adult industry, the picture painted with the numbers we do know is grim. In fact, the more we know about it, the more it seems -- not glamorous or sexy -- but sad. Dozens of former actors have shared their accounts of the disease and self-harm,  abuse and drug dependence rampant within the adult industry. 

In one study of 854 prostituted women among nine countries, 49% of them attested that pornography had been made of them. An earlier study revealed that prostitutes who had had pornography made of them, even though they were upset by this, demonstrated severe symptoms of PTSD.  It's also becoming increasingly hard to ignore the fact that in countless cases of abhorrent abuse and sex trafficking, the victim has also been coerced into making pornography.  Perhaps the saddest part about their lives after their rescue and recovery is that the documentation of their abuse still lives on the internet, virtually irretrievable even after the perpetrator is caught. Most of us can't imagine how traumatic that is. 

I'm sure that most viewers, producers, and advocates of porn openly condemn trafficking and intimate partner violence and affirm the freedom of healthy, safe people who've chosen this lifestyle -- and are happy with that choice years later. The truth, though, is that it can be impossible to tell who's chosen this path and who has been forced or coerced, and what appears to be a mutual relationship can be anything but. One anti-prostitution poster aimed at potential buyers of sex in foreign destinations asks these questions: 

Are you sure she has not been: Deceived by a false job offer? Kidnapped? Sold like a slave? Raped? Forced into prostitution? 

Obviously, there's a huge gulf between viewing porn and buying sex, but there's enough of an overlap in the issues to begin ask these questions about adult film actors.

In a more and more socially conscious world where we've begun to demand answers about whether anyone was mistreated in the production of our running shoes and kale salads, it's not really a stretch, whether you believe porn is inherently wrong or not, to begin to ask questions about the safety of these people too. 

We can exchange debatable statistics about faceless people somewhere in the world, but this single question rehumanizes the discussion:

This person. Are you sure?

When the answer matters less than gratification does, we all have a problem. 

As pornography has evolved over the years, so have the questions we have to ask about it. Although the basic premises haven't changed (Is this good for my relationships with people? With God?), the stakes have. Every year that the multi-billion dollar industry grows, it gains thousands more viewers, actors fill a huge demand for new material, and the underbelly seems to get uglier. Some speculate that, even though calling for the end of pornography is not a realistic goal, the demand for porn can be lessened with the opportunity for education -- and for healing, for those who want it. 

Fortunately for all of us, the brain can heal itself from most damage. Neuroplasticity, which once allowed us to respond positively to harmful behaviors, also enables a return to a new normal, defined by what we supply it with. Mysteriously (but not at all, actually), when we're healthy, the biggest surges in happiness happen  when we fall in love, hug a close friend, or hold our child. That's what our miraculous brains were meant for -- bonding with the people who matter most. 

Every time we opt out of dealing with the real world, we opt out of bonding with these people. When we choose fantasy over reality, we're less able to deal with life as it is, not more. In this un-Photoshopped world where real people have real pain and feelings and cellulite, life can be hard, and we all feel sometimes like we need an escape, whatever that means for us. But what any industry can't give us is the deeply emotional, healing nature of safe relationships, rooted in Christ and grown in community -- a glimpse of heaven, even though we're a mess. It's here that we find meaning, not in any substitute. 

Emily Maust Wood is a freelance editor and fitness coach. She lives with her husband and shelter dog, collects old books and broken things, and worries about where her running shoes come from. Charmed by the idea of restoring an old home, she chronicles the adventure at

Publication date: August 11, 2015