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Porn Causes Brain Damage
April 04, 2006
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D
So say the activists, and that’s good enough for ABC News.

Society without statistics is all in the eye of the beholder. Ask a divorce lawyer, and divorce is always a messy affair. Call people at home, and you’ll find that no one works 60 hours a week. Ask a shrink who treats porn addicts about the effect of pornography, and she’ll respond that they are disastrous.

This is exactly what ABC did in their recent, favorable coverage of anti-porn activists and their campaign to limit adult pornography. In one of the most biased pieces on pornography we’ve seen by the mainstream media, ABC says that some activists are “raising funds for high-tech brain research that they hope will fuel lawsuits against porn magnates”, and then quotes one activist who says “we'll demonstrate in the not-too-distant future the actual physical harm that pornography causes”. They leave this scientific question dangling before the reader, as an assured reality that a link will be found given funding for the high-tech research. The main expert quoted to support the view that “you’re damaging your brain” by consuming porn is… (drum roll) an auto executive.

Without ado, the article moves on to the social consequences of porn. By talking to a porn addiction expert, they find “many of her patients, rather than improving their sex lives with porn, suffer sexual dysfunction.” And from an expert on internet behavior, we have the “estimate” that “up to ten percent” porn viewers stop having sex with their wives – but where he got ten percent, and how this compares to how much non-porn watching men have sex with their wives is anybody’s guess. Divorce lawyers claim that an increasing percentage of their clients are divorcing over pornography. Need it be say that these lawyers are seeing a skewed sample of porn viewers?

At every turn, it seems, ABC has come down against porn. Many sources are quoted, and all but one speaks on the ills of porn. That one in favor of its availability is a porn-industry representative. ABC quotes personal stories and “expert” views opposing porn from professors to activists (from a variety of organizations whose names are mentioned explicitly, in contrast to any activists groups in favor of few or no restrictions). The article hedges its words, “While polls suggest that Americans believe porn... should be available legally for adults...” but apparently found no one willing to say so – not scientists, not social scientists, not pro-free speech activists. Given the American support for porn, it seems ABC didn’t try all that hard to represent the issue.

The Financial Times also came out with its own porn exposé (Not tonight darling, I’m online, Weekend Magazine, April 1). The FT headline reads that porn is as “addictive as crack cocaine”. Without belaboring a rather controversial statement, the FT also jumps into the anti-porn industry to lay the foundation for its anti-porn rhetoric: quotes from experts who treat porn addiction, and stories from men who suffer the addiction. Again, a biased sample of porn users.

The FT uses numbers – such as the fact that 70 percent of young men visit porn sites every month – but badly. If the article is about “addicts”, then the number of users is irrelevant, the same way that the number of people who have a glass of wine in the evening tells us nothing about how many alcoholics there are.

Despite relying on drawn-out personal stories to fuel its point of view, the FT’s look at pornography was more sophisticated than that of ABC News. It cited the statistic that a study in 2000 found that 200,000 Americans were “internet sex addicts,” defined as spending 11 hours or more per week online looking at porn. This would have been worth some elaboration.

The FT also cited the U.S. Senate testimony of Dr Mary Anne Layden, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania's sexual trauma and psychopathology program, who said that "even non sex-addicts will show brain reactions on PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans while viewing pornography similar to cocaine addicts looking at images of cocaine."

But if anything, the fact that non sex-addicts have this reaction to porn suggests that these brain images are not good biomarkers of addiction to it (regardless of whether it does a better job in measuring cocaine addiction). Also, the comparison to cocaine is not as good as a comparison to “non-pornographic” sex, whatever that may be; for the fact that sex lights up the dopamine system may be simply Nature’s way of making sure we reproduce.

The public needs to have statistics, facts, and true science (if there is any) to make a decision about restricting or not this potentially damaging kind of free speech. Aside from quoting less biased sources, and some from both sides of a contentious issue, the authors should have asked and answered these important questions:

• What percentage of porn viewers become addicts? What is the definition of an addict in this case? How does this compare to the percentage of obsessive “sex addicts” before the advent of online porn?

• What scientific evidence is there, if any, that there is physical harm caused by viewing porn? Who is attempting to show this link?

• What percentage of porn viewers divorce? How does that compare to those who do not view porn?
• What percentage of people consume porn happily? What percentage find that it enhances their sex life, rather than destroys it?

A serious report on a contentious issue needs real science and social science. News outlets should stop alluding to science with no basis, and stop asking porn therapists about porn addiction.



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