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The cost of growing up on porn

By Pamela Paul
Sunday, March 7, 2010; B05

Guess what, guys? Turns out pornography -- the much-maligned bugaboo of feminists, prigs and holy rollers -- is nothing more than good, not-so-dirty fun.

The proof comes from the University of Montreal, where recent research showed that connoisseurs easily parse fantasy from reality, shudder at the idea of dating a porn star (what would Maman think?) and wholeheartedly support gender equality. "Research contradicts anti-pornography zealots," gloated a column's headline in the Calgary Sun.

So, I've been contradicted. Presumably, I'm one of the zealots in question. My anti-porn fanaticism took the form of a 2005 book, "Pornified," in which I dared to offer evidence that all is not well in the era of Internet porn. Today, 20-somethings, teenagers and even -- sorry to break it to you, parents -- tweens are exposed to the full monty of hard-core pornography.

Wasn't it time someone asked some obvious questions? What will happen now that the first generation of men raised on Internet porn is making its way onto the marriage market? What influence does the constant background blare of insta-porn have on their ideas about women and monogamous relationships?

The answers I found to those questions were less than cheering. In dozens of interviews with casual and habitual porn users, I heard things such as: "Real sex has lost some of its magic." "If I'm looking like eight or 10 times a day, I realize I need to do something to build my confidence back up." "My wife would probably think I was perverted and oversexed if she knew how much I looked at it every day."

In the years since I wrote the book, I have heard from dozens of readers who described the negative effects of porn. One was a student at Berkeley, who observed that "ever more deplorable acts needed to be satiated" and noted: "As a child, we are exposed to things that we may not realize have formative effects. As adults, many times we simply continue without questioning." (Women, it seems, also turn to iVillage.com, where a board devoted to "relationships damaged by pornography" contains more than 32,280 messages to date.)

Yet there's still so much we don't know. Perhaps we can learn from the skintillating news out of Montreal. Let's have a closer look at that -- oops! -- turns out there is no study. Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and associate professor at the university's School of Social Work, has yet to publish a report. His findings, such as they exist, were based on interviews with 20 undergraduate males who detailed their views on sex, gender and pornography in one to two lickety-split hours.

Granted, it's qualitative, not quantitative, research, but the brevity of the interviews is concerning. While reporting "Pornified," I felt the need for more than four hours with many of my 100 interviewees. Of course, my guys could talk anonymously to a disembodied voice on the phone; the poor fellows in Montreal had to sit down and look a male social worker in the eye before confessing a penchant for three-ways. Lajeunesse asked 2,000 men before he found 20 willing subjects. Most of them, he said, were referred by women in their lives. Hmm.

And just how did Lajeunesse learn that pornography hadn't affected their views of said women? Why, he asked and they said so! "My guys want to have equal relationships, equal income, equal responsibility domestically," Lajeunesse told me. Color me dubious, but I hardly think most men would own up to discriminating against women, spurred on by porn or not.

To be fair, researching the relationship between men and pornography isn't easy. My methods had flaws, too. The most methodologically sound study would involve gathering a sample of men, scheduling regular sessions to view online porn, and comparing their subsequent sexual attitudes and behaviors with those of a control group that did not use pornography. Through a series of measures -- interviews, questionnaires, observations -- the data would be collected and analyzed by a team of objective academics.

That's not going to happen now, though it once did. Back in 1979, Jennings Bryant, a professor of communications at the University of Alabama, conducted one of the most powerful peer-reviewed lab studies of the effects of porn viewing on men. Summary of results: not good. Men who consumed large amounts of pornography were less likely to want daughters, less likely to support women's equality and more forgiving of criminal rape. They also grossly overestimated Americans' likelihood to engage in group sex and bestiality.

Yet Bryant's research (conducted with colleague Dolf Zillmann) was carried out long before the Internet brought on-demand porn to a computer screen near you. So why no update? Other than a spate of research in the '80s and '90s that attempted to link pornography with violence (results: inconclusive), nobody has looked at the everyday impact of hard-core porn. "That's a catch-22 with most studies about media effects," Bryant told me. "If you can't demonstrate that what you're doing to research participants is ultimately beneficial and not detrimental, and you can't eradicate any harm, you're required not to do that thing again."

Every university has a review board for the protection of human subjects that determines whether a study is ethically up to snuff. "It is commonly the case that when you get studies as clear as ours, human subjects committees make it difficult to continue to do research in that area," Bryant explained. "Several graduate students at the time wanted to follow up, but couldn't get permission." In other words, the deleterious effects were so convincing, ethics boards wouldn't let researchers dip human subjects back into the muck.

No matter -- people will take care of that on their own. As one young man explained, after mentioning that "porn may have destroyed my relationship with my girlfriend" in an e-mail: "I always feel that I'm over porn, but I find myself keep coming back to it. There seems to be an infinite number of porn sites with limitless variations, one never becomes bored with it. . . . It's a very difficult habit to break."

Or as one 27-year-old female lawyer noted recently: "All of my girlfriends and I expect to find histories of pornographic Web sites on our computers after our boyfriends use it. They don't bother erasing the history if you don't give them a lot of hell." The implications troubled her. "I fear we are losing something very important -- a healthy sexual worldview. I think, however, that we are using old ideas of pornography to understand its function in a much more complex modern world."

Of the many stories I've heard revealing the ways in which young men struggle with porn, I offer here just one, distilled, from a self-described "25 year old recovering porn-addict" who wrote to me in October. "Marc" began looking at his father's magazines at age 11, but soon, he wrote, he "turned to the Internet to see what else I could find." This "started off as simply looking at pictures of naked women. From there, it turned into pictures of couples having sex and lesbian couples. When I got into watching videos on the Internet, my use of porn skyrocketed." At 23, he began dating a woman he called "Ashley." "However, since Ashley's last boyfriend had been a sex/porn addict, I was quick to lie about my use of porn. I told her that I never looked at it. But after 5-6 months, Ashley discovered a hidden folder on my computer containing almost a hundred porn clips. She was devastated."

Marc and Ashley broke up, got back together and spent several months traveling in India. He continued to look at porn behind her back, and on a trip to Las Vegas, he got lap dances despite promising not to. Ashley broke up with him again. "I had never thought about the adverse effects of my use of porn. . . . I want to change. I want to be a respectful human being towards all human beings, male and female. I want to be a committed and loving boyfriend to Ashley."

This is hardly solid lab research. But it is one of many signs of pornography's hidden impact. And flimsy "if only it were true!" research isn't an acceptable substitute for thorough study. An entire generation is being kept in the dark about pornography's effects because previous generations can't grapple with the new reality. Whether by approaching me (at the risk of peer scorn) after I've spoken at a university or via anonymous e-mails, young people continue to pass along an unpopular message: Growing up on porn is terrible. One 17-year-old who had given up his habit told me that reading about porn addicts "was like reading a horrifying old diary, symptoms, downward spirals, guilt, hypocrisy, lack of control, and the constant question of to what degree fantasy is really so different from reality. I felt like a criminal, or at the very least, a person who would objectively disgust me."

Let's not ignore people like him, even if it's tempting to say, as one headline did, "All men watch porn, and it is not bad for them: study."

That's just one more fantasy warping how we live our real lives.

Pamela Paul is the author of "Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families."

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