Why A Sex Therapist Worries About Teens Viewing Internet Porn

(Photo: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

(Photo: WBUR)

Editor’s note: This post contains explicit sexual descriptions.

By Dr. Aline Zoldbrod
Guest contributor

Bill sits in my office, his head in his hands.

“I’m at the age where a lot of my friends are getting married. But I can’t even get up the courage to date. I’m 26, and I’ve got a good job, but I feel like a total freak. My life is stalled. I’m getting more and more isolated and depressed. I just can’t seem to maintain any sexual interest in girls. Hell, I can’t maintain that much interest in a girl in any way. I can’t get turned on. I can’t get an erection. And I’m getting too paranoid to ask any girl out on a date. What if she tells her friends that I can’t perform?”

It turns out that Bill has been watching Internet porn since he was 13. There was not a lot of love or supervision in his family. His dad drank, and his mom was overwhelmed with the stress of taking care of the kids and being the wife of an alcoholic.

For a long time, he masturbated to the porn. In the last few years, he has found himself just watching the porn for hours on end, just clicking his mouse like a zombie, trying new scene after new scene to get enough of a hit to stay aroused, but not even masturbating. Besides work and eating, all he does is stay glued to the screen.

You may have seen the recent film Don Jon, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jon, an Internet porn addict whose habit hurts his love life. I see too many Jons in my office — men like Bill.

I can think of plenty of good uses for pornography. I’ve seen it help some of my patients, enrich their lives. And I know that in writing this piece, I’m stepping into a hornet’s nest. Pornography is a very loaded topic, a value-laden one. Many colleagues who are sexologists don’t agree with me, nor do champions of free speech.

From "Don Jon" (Youtube)

From “Don Jon” (YouTube)

But I see a sexual and relational train wreck happening, and I need to speak out. Parents and policy-makers, beware: Something very bad is happening out there with teenagers and pornography. Internet porn has the potential to change some adolescents’ sexual development in a very damaging way: It can ruin or hinder their ability to form sexual relationships.

Here’s the thing: When sex is good, it’s a wonderful part of life. I would hope that even the most conservative among us would wish that when our children grow up, they could have pleasurable sex with a beloved partner.

But if the current trend with teenagers and porn continues, there is going to be a new generation of adults who lost an important step in their sexual development and who have trouble, as young adults and later in life, integrating emotional attachment and love with sexual expression and sexual pleasure. Masters and Johnson did not call sex “the pleasure bond” for nothing.

Dr. Aline Zoldbrod

Dr. Aline Zoldbrod

This is not a new issue. The 60s and 70s saw sexploitation and snuff films, and porn has been traded on the Internet since the 1980s. But films and early porn cost money. Beginning in the 1990s, the amount of free porn exploded; the types of porn available online became ever darker and more insidious; teenagers began accessing it; and now we’re seeing the daunting results.

Recently, a new documentary has come out that illustrates the negative effects that pornography can have on teenage boys. I urge you to watch it here.

What’s all the fuss?

Let’s look at the numbers: A 2007 study in the journal Pediatrics found that 42 percent of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 Internet users age 10 to 17 had been exposed to online porn in the last year, with two-thirds reporting only unwanted exposure. A follow-up study in late 2011 found that about one-quarter of kids reported unwanted exposure to porn.

Perhaps not surprisingly, boys are much more likely to seek out pornography than girls, and use increases with age, research finds. In the Pediatrics study, for instance, 38 percent of 16- and 17-year-old male Internet users deliberately visited X-rated sites in the past year, compared with 8 percent of girls.

You may say, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about, Dr. Zoldbrod, you’re just being rigid and uptight and moralistic. I saw a ton of porn when I was a teenager, and I would have to say that it helped me be a well-adjusted sexual human being.”

But that was porn back then.

Few of us are in a position to listen to large numbers of people whose experiences with today’s porn have been devastating. In this society, talking about sex is pretty much off limits. But I talk to people about their sexual problems all day for a living, and people tell me the specifics about the mechanics and dynamics of their sex and sexuality, partnered and alone.

So let me give you a brief outline about how porn is used these days by some boys and men. Unlike the olden days, when you looked at magazines like Hustler or Playboy and fantasized, or bought porn DVDs and masturbated to the stories — a thin plot starring a specific cast of characters — today’s free Internet porn is an unlimited, endless series of raw sex acts. There is no plot. It is non-stop penetration and orifices, with a large serving of violence. This is nothing like the porn experience of the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s.

Teens click from image to image, quickly looking for new sexy or shocking pictures. Teen brains are hyper-reactive to stimulation, and they are hyper-plastic. There is a saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” That means that just like Pavlov’s dog, teens who watch a lot of Internet porn are learning to associate this kind of insanely high visual stimulation to sexual arousal. There is no way that being with another human being can provide that kind of sexual stimulation.

And notice, it’s all visual stimulation. There is no part of the arousal that is fed by touch, taste or smell.

When teens use porn like this and actually still manage to have sex with another flesh-and-blood human being, sexual dysfunction is common. How can a boy navigate the give-and-take of real sex when his sexual template has been entirely centered on meeting his own timing and needs?

Here is a short (and incomplete) list of my fears about boys learning about sex from porn and becoming dependent on it emotionally and physically:

• First and foremost, boys who become obsessed with Internet porn are training their brains to need a kind of stimulation that is unobtainable from a real human being.

• The images, even when not violent, stress performance and conquest, not pleasure.

• Most (straight sex) images demean women. Exposure to it can increase acceptance of male domination and female servitude.

• These giant penises are unrealistic. Make sure teen boys know that porn stars are chosen because of their outsized genitalia. They are not normal.

• Porn makes it look like men/boys are always ready for sex. Teen boys do not understand that on the movie set, the actors pause quite frequently to get aroused by male or female “fluffers” whose role is to make sure that the guys are always erect.

• Women are portrayed falsely, as if intensely aroused by any kind of stimulation, and as if the way to approach a woman is to focus on her genitals.

• Porn is inevitably bareback porn: it’s always sexual penetration without the use of a condom (in straight porn, that is. Gay porn tends to feature condoms.)

• Overuse of porn leads to social isolation and is a very destructive self-regulation strategy.

Adolescence is perhaps the most important time in the life cycle for the development of sexuality. Teen boys have always read all the porn they could get their hands on. But at the same time, they had their attractions and their relationships to the real girls and boys they socialized with and spent hours with every day and night. They were learning how to talk to potential girlfriends/boyfriends, how to be friends, how to relate. Learning the pleasures of touch and sexual touch was a big part of the awakening. One of my patients recounted: “And the girl behind me used to play with the hair on the back of my head and with my neck. Oh my God, it felt so good.”

milestones

The masturbation and the porn were just a part of the recipe for burgeoning sexuality. Some of the other ingredients were love, touch, trust, self esteem, friendship, and connection.

Proactive Parenting

Parents’ guidance can be critical here. Parental influence remains strong during the teen years. Don’t be afraid to use it.

Be honest with yourself about your family life. Kids will be much less likely to get caught up in obsessively watching porn if there is a lot of love, affectionate touch, and emotional connection and support in your family and between you and your spouse or partner. If your family is not working well, get some help. I would like you to be comfortable talking about the fact that relational sex is pleasurable (within whatever is your value system). But, more important is what you model about the joys of being in a relationship with another.

Keep an eye on them and encourage all their hobbies and connections with real friends and relatives. Make it clear that while they are under your roof, they are under your supervision. As much as is possible, supervise what they are doing on the Internet.

One concrete thing that is helpful is to install blocking software on all the computers at home. But know that blocking software is fallible. It blocks some sites you might want your kids to access and fails to block some very objectionable sites. Besides, your child can use cell phones — theirs or a friend’s — to access the Internet. Here is one helpful list of blocking software.

Ideally, you would have begun talking to kids about human sexuality long ago, but it’s not too late. For the basics of how to do it, go to sites like PlannedParenthood.org. Your first task is to be able to talk about sexuality in a positive and natural way, early and often, using the proper terms for sexual organs. This might take practice. Don’t just stress the dangers of any kind of sexual expression, because then your kids will not talk to you. And masturbation is normal; do not demonize it.

Unfortunately, popular sites that give advice on talking to kids about sex have not generally been updated to address the ubiquity of Internet porn. I believe you have to address this issue head on. Once your children hit the preteen and teen years, it is not enough to simply prohibit them from looking at porn. They are going to run into it. (In fact, many children accidentally run into graphic porn when they are 8, 9, and 10.)

So you should go on the Internet and look at what’s out there, so that you can intelligently and calmly and warmly tell your child why what they might run into is not what sex is about. You’ve told your kids about “stranger danger;” try to talk to them about Internet porn at the same level of non-hysteria. Explain why a habit of viewing a lot of computer porn can make being sexual in real life, with a flesh-and-blood person they care about, less likely to succeed.

Tell them how sex with another person you love can be a wonderful, spiritual experience. Tell them that they might run into images that scare them or intrigue them but then make them feel dirty, or ashamed, and if that happens, to come to you, that you’ll understand.

And as you prepare to meet this challenge, know that you are going to get stirred up and anxious and you’re going to want to postpone or avoid it. Instead, push yourself forward to have this big talk. And give yourself a big hug. You’re being a great parent.

Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D. is a Boston-based sex therapist and the author of SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It. You can find her at SexSmart.com.

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