Is pornography making men miserable?

Is pornography making men miserable?

"The internet is for porn." It's an expression that we've all heard, and it's probably the very same reason that you're so defensive about your browsing habits. Any discussion about the merits of life online is bound to include veiled innuendos or references to jerking off. In fact, the perception that the web is completely inundated with boobs, bums and boners is so prevalent that we routinely overestimate how widespread it really is. At one time, it was estimated that approximately 50 per cent of all online content was pornographic, but now a report by Forbes Magazine has determined that the figure is closer to a mere four percent. That's still a lot, but hardly the epidemic of smut that fear-mongers claim has brainwashed our youth and corrupted our children.

Still, it's hard to deny that porn has become far more widespread since the advent of the digital age. As a result, we've all become a lot more desensitised to the commodification of sex. What would have once shocked and appalled now elicits nothing more than a shrug. More people than ever are watching porn these days. According to stats released by Pornhub, the site received approximately 23 billion visits in 2016, and users watched an estimated 4,599,000,000 hours of porn that year. In addition, a recent survey conducted by Cosmopolitan found that 56.5 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women admitted to watching porn regularly.

A woman wearing a top with the caption 'censored.' Credit: Getty

All this would be fine, were it not for the fact that new research seems to suggest that porn isn't just making us desensitised to all things erotic: it's actually making men more miserable, and could be a cause of depression among them. Strangely enough, women who enjoy pornography seem to be less susceptible to this severe gloom. So what's going on? Is porn really harmless, or is it actually profoundly damaging to the male psyche and libido?

A recent study entitled "Pornography, provocative sexual media, and their differing associations with multiple aspects of sexual satisfaction", which was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, has taken a candid look at the correlation between sexual satisfaction and the types of smut viewed by men and women. Researchers Nathan D. Leonhardt and Brian J. Willoughby surveyed 858 people in committed romantic relationships, and asked them about their use of mainstream heterosexual pornography. Willoughby and Leonhardt learned that the men who routinely watched porn were often more dissatisfied with their sex lives. The researchers believe that pornography has given these men unrealistic expectations about sexual intercourse, which in turn has had a negative effect on their mental health.

“For both men and women, use of provocative sexual media was negatively connected to satisfaction with love and affection in the sexual relationship; we suspect this is due to the objectifying nature of the content," Leonhardt explained in the paper's abstract. "It could be difficult to establish a sexual relationship built on love and affection if individuals accept a message of sexuality without identity ... Provocative sexual media was particularly problematic for women, as it was also connected to lower satisfaction with sexual variety, overall sexual satisfaction, and satisfaction with time spent on intercourse. We suspect that women’s provocative sexual media use could be leading to a greater likelihood of self-objectification, which could negatively influence sexuality in a variety of ways."

A man browsing a ponographic website on a tablet device. Credit: Getty

So, why is it that men are so badly affected by this? Leonhardt speculates: "Perhaps men who view pornography are disappointed in their partners’ lack of ability or desire to perform the sexual acts portrayed in pornography... This is just supposition, but perhaps the negative connection was not there for women because their male partners are more willing to engage in the sexual acts depicted in pornography."

Leonhardt and Willoughby's findings seem to indicate that an overactive consumption of porn is stymying our relationships, encouraging us to objectify instead of empathise, and seek stimulation and deviancy instead of a more loving and emotional form of eroticism. Porn is essentially making it routine for us to cut the intimacy out of sex and that isn't having a good effect on men's mental well-being. Establishing an equal and satisfying sexual relationship, where trust, curiosity, care and affection improves our sexual experiences, is going to be a lot tougher if porn is programming us to think that our sexuality should have no sense of identity.

It could also be that excessive viewing of porn encourages feelings of shame and self-loathing, if the pornographic content is something that the individual finds deeply embarrassing or humiliating. Porn can also become addictive and can be used as a self-medicating stimulant along the same lines as drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, with the addict gradually coming to depend and rely upon pornography and masturbation in order to cope with stress. This, in turn, will contribute to the vicious cycle of shame and so on.

A number of erotic books. Credit: Getty

Some research seems to suggest that the negative effects of pornography could actually be manifesting themselves in physical ways and even leading to cases of impotency and erectile dysfunction among men during sexual encounters. Due to a porn overload, some men are no longer aroused in the presence of an actual flesh and blood partner. Instead, they can only get off by viewing sex on screen. It's already been proven that watching pornography leads to an elevation of the neurotransmitter known as dopamine, also known as the "pleasure hormone." The problem is that male arousal is dependent on the activation of this hormone.

Thus, like Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, men who view too much porn can become conditioned to a specific type of sexual arousal; one that doesn't carry over into real life. More worryingly, it seems that the younger the age of the man who watches porn, the greater the chances are that they will come to prefer it over sex. This can ultimately lead to embarrassment or anxiety once performance issues arise.

I personally think that pornography is no more a cause of depression than any other activity taken to excessive levels. Moderation is key in all things. Porn could well make people depressed, but it could also be that depressed people, who often feel listless, apathetic, tired and antisocial, are more inclined to use porn. However, the disparity between male and female reactions to smut seems to suggest that women are consuming porn in a more healthy way and that maybe men could take a few cues from women. Ultimately, it's important to remember that pornography is manufactured and presents an extremely unrealistic image of sexual relations and interaction - and it's sure as hell no substitute for the real thing.