Does Pornography “Mess with Your Manhood”?

The April 11, 2016 TIME cover story on “Porn and the Threat to Virility” was replete with anecdotes of young men’s real-life sexual responsiveness being depleted by excessive pornography consumption.

Really? I wondered. Is men’s capacity for arousal and orgasm with real partners reduced by their habituating (desensitizing) to the variety of streaming explicit sexuality? Is compulsive pornography-viewing literally a downer? Does it contribute to erectile dysfunction (ED)? If so, this is news worth reporting by us textbook authors, and would be a practical, nonmoral reason for encouraging boys and men to limit their hours in online fantasyland.

Knowing that the plural of anecdote is not evidence, I turned to PsychINFO and found surprisingly little confirmation—and little research—on this socially important question. One new study of 434 Belgian university men found that “problematic” online sex viewing (and associated sexual self-gratification) predicted “lower erectile function.” This correlational study, though a good beginning, did not specify the viewing–dysfunction causal relationship. Call me a skeptic.

But now the Skeptic Society has published an article by my esteemed friend Philip Zimbardo, with Gary Wilson, summarizing their respective new books, Man Interrupted (2016) and Your Brain on Porn (2016). Their arguments:

1)     Over time, online porn leads to ED. The explosion in easily available streaming online porn has been followed by a soaring rate of young male erectile dysfunction—from 1 percent of men under age 25 back in Kinsey’s 1950 era to one in four today.

2)     Across individuals, online porn leads to ED. Seven studies document an association “between online porn use in young men and ED, anorgasmia, low sexual desire, delayed ejaculation, and lower brain activation to sexual images.”

3)     Desensitization and conditioning explains it. The waning of real-life male sexuality occurs as preteens, teens, and young men become desensitized by compulsive pornography consumption. Like addicts, they come to need more stimulation and variety of the sort that a real sex partner “cannot compete with.” While masturbating, their sexual arousal becomes associated with pornography.

4)     But the effects are reversible. Benefits follow stopping use, including “clearer thinking and better memory, more motivation, increased charisma, deeper relationships, and better real life sex.”

The debate has only begun. Skeptic Marty Klein, despite sharing “reasonable concerns about young people marinating in Internet porn,” finds their conclusions lacking empirical support. In response, Zimbardo and Wilson vigorously defend their conclusions. Surely the “porn messes with your manhood” claims will trigger much-needed further research that seeks to replicate or extend these findings (including to women viewers), and to control for confounding factors. Stay tuned.