Does Porn Cause Madness? – or how to misuse science to fit to ideology

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In CNN’s Global Public Square Naomi Wolf asks “Is Pornography Driving Men Crazy?”. Which, of course, is a rhetorical question as she obviously has picked her side.

The Overture
She begins by reflecting on the recent “self-destructive” sexual adventures of some high ranking men. She appears to have a problem mainly with the part that today people can not cover their tracks as effectively as they used to. This she blames to the recent advances of technology. But it is all just a prelude.

What is driving this weirdly disinhibited decision-making? Could the widespread availability and consumption of pornography in recent years actually be rewiring the male brain, affecting men’s judgment about sex and causing them to have more difficulty controlling their impulses?

Forget the “could” implying this is a question. It is not, it is a statement. Porn, surely is to blame. She references to her earlier essay, where she six years ago had gathered that porn causes desensitization. So far so good, and it’s not like this issue has not been mulled over several times before, for example by TLP before.

This is when Wolf takes a sharp wrong turn to neurotransmitterville.

It’s, like, in the brain yeah?
She starts to talk about reward systems in the brain, and how porn gives the brain a reward in the guise of a dopamine burst which lingers in the happy-place for an hour or two.

The neural circuitry is identical to that for other addictive triggers, such as gambling or cocaine.

The addictive potential is also identical: just as gamblers and cocaine users can become compulsive, needing to gamble or snort more and more to get the same dopamine boost, so can men consuming pornography become hooked.

To which a neuroscientist might reply, “no”. The problem is in the association. Sexual arousal releases dopamine, yes, and cocaine and gambling release dopamine, so porn=cocaine=gambling? No. There is high heterogeneity in different reward mechanisms in the brain. Lajtha and Sershen stated in 2010 explicitly that there are separate mechanisms, separate routes, for different drugs and for natural stimuli such as food or sex. She lumps everything under “dopamine” to bad and addictive, showing a deep level of misuderstanding of neurotransmitters in general. So why would she like to treat them as an entity?

First she classifies porn, basically, as a taboo-breaker which leads a slippery slope to Sodoma and Gomorra.

ordinary sexual images eventually lose their power, leading consumers to need images that break other taboos in other kinds of ways, in order to feel as good. Moreover, some men (and women) have a “dopamine hole” – their brains’ reward systems are less efficient – making them more likely to become addicted to more extreme porn more easily

She goes on to ramble on about how this does not alleviate moral responsibility, stating that people should understand the risks and act responsibly towards porn. As if the question had all the while being that people had accused their actions on their porn consumption. Now, here I was thinking it was Wolf, the author, making that claim.

And then she ends with:

Understanding how pornography affects the brain and wreaks havoc on male virility permits people to make better-informed choices – rather than engage in pointless self-loathing or reactive collective judgments – in a world that has become more and more addictively hardcore.

So let’s see the argument. Rise in sexual misbehavings in public are due to porn, which is similar to cocaine and gambling and which will lead to civilizations eventual demise. But doesn’t this, if we follow the dopaminergic route, also apply to sex? It also releases dopamines, and if you have enough of it, you become desensitized, leading to you wanting to explore further to keep up the spark. This is of course what sexual therapist would label as positive, as it (as well as viewing of pornography) enhances the relationship. She also gives no data on these public sexual scandals being on the rise, and suggest not a single plausible link between them and porn. It only exists only in her mind, and now she wants the CNN viewers to get it as well.

So basically it all ends to Porn is inherently bad and, see, it affects your brain! Like drugs! You criminal bastard!

It’s like blaming video games for… Oh. Yeah. Let’s move on.

The Porn gazes back
So what’s the issue here? Surely it is always appropriate to criticize porn, because it’s what the riff-raff are up to, and thusly it scores some extra points on the keeping-up-appearances-bourgeois. It is also not unheard of that political columnists horribly misuse and -understand neuroscientific data to fit their ideological nichés. But what she really is saying, is not that porn is addictive, but that porn leads to sexual violence. Which in some higher level mediatory or moderatory way can even be true (yet highly unlikely). Porn is seen as not evolved to fulfill a need, but to create one, which in the end manifests itself through violent sexual acts.

But the main point is this: sexual violence has a simple external cause. 

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  3. Three Middle School Girls Assault Boy and Nothing Happens.
  4. Nobel Prize winning author thinks women can’t write.
  5. All The News That’s Fit to Compartmentalize

18 Responses to Does Porn Cause Madness? – or how to misuse science to fit to ideology

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    Can’t somebody write a thumbsucker about what drove Naomi Wolf crazy? Or how much dopamine is released in her brain when she publishes something predictable?

    Sucks to be Wolf, though, having this thing go to press just as the DSK case that 50% justified it (Weiner, DSK — TREND!) vanished in a puff of nonsense. Do headlines trigger dopamine in District Attorneys same as beaver shots do for me? Well, no, but close enough for CNN!

    Back to you, Ms. Wolf.

  2. qubitman says:

    Forgive my ignorance and naivety, and I do ask this question seriously, but what is the simple and external cause? Pornography? Or is there something else?

    • rapscallione says:

      Well, you know who this blog belongs to, right? Do a little reading and you’ll figure out what he’s getting at.

    • Comus says:

      There are several ways of looking at this.

      If you’re a TLP-convert, then obviously the underlying cause that first pops up is narcissism. You’ve been primed.

      Or you could see this as Wolf’s need to find a concrete external cause (instead of an internal one; remember that nasty evolution/rape -controversy few years back?). Furthermore it needs to be something that fits a feminist ideology, and not for example, as the chauvinist camp might proclaim, the provocative clothing etc. So you get to porn, an age-old nemesis, and attack it with full vigour, armed with misunderstood science that is not even directly related your hypothesis.

      It might as well be pixies. As long as it keeps her in the press.

      • ThomasR says:

        The statement was sarcasm. Narcissisim, in the TLP paradigm, is an internal cause. People (i.e. Wolf) desperately need their problems to not be their own fault. If it’s pornography’s fault, or video games’ fault, then YAY! we just need more drugs, or stricter government controls. It’s nobody’s fault!

  3. philtrum says:

    Naomi Wolf always had a tendency to histrionics, but she’s gone totally off the deep end in the past 10-15 years. I recall that in “The Porn Myth” she rhapsodized about how beautiful and empowered ultra-Orthodox Jewish wives must feel because their husbands don’t even get to see other women’s hair, or something like that. (Women living under the Taliban must have the hottest sex lives of all!)

    Oddly enough, she was unsympathetic, to the point of misogyny, about the women who claimed Julian Assange had assaulted them. Like Phyllis Chesler, she’s really stopped doing anything resembling principled feminism and is now exclusively working out her own demons.

  4. Supastaru says:

    “ideological nichés”? i don’t get it. What does “nichés” mean?

  5. Rooster says:

    The article would have remained unchanged if “dopamine” was substituted with “thrills”. Color the language noir and you have an old-styley public service film about how the need for thrills behind drugs also leads to perverted sexual behavior!

    The question is, how did neurochemistry become the accepted technobabble for thrills-and-sin, and how does this affect the public discourse on mental illness and madness. Because whoa, I’m under 30 and somehow while I was busy being a teenager “madness” went from being a dehumanizing label through which people with sad maladjustments were discriminated against, to something there’s a reactionary response of the type “now you’re legitimizing bad behaviour due to medical

    And it could have been different. Possibly not better, but different. Skinnerian operant conditioning could have made it, structural psychoanalysis could have made it, etc. etc. It’s not like lack of evidence was an obstacle: see Alone’s chronicles on Depakote. How did history get from there to here?

    • Comus says:

      I oftentimes wonder whether it’s a generational shift in world views. We no longer need explanations, we prefer descriptions. Dopamine-surges, fmri’s and the DSM are highly descriptive, but they offer no explanation what so ever. Maybe science has imploded into too vast a field, so we are content at just observing things. After all determinism and reductionism are rather safe viewing points. We live in an era where even illnesses are brands.

  6. Pastabagel says:

    Any call to monitor, limit or restrict internet porn is really is an attack on the anonymity of the internet generally, and specifically the ability to hide what you look at and to hide what you publish. Consider that a significant percentage, if not an outright majority of the porn on the web is amateur, i.e. regular people posting videos of themselves in much the same way as they do on Youtube. Internet porn is a two way street.

    Secondly, the widespread consumption of internet porn renders it useless as a measurement or indicia of aberrant or deviant behavior. If nearly everyone looks at porn online, then what does it mean if one person does? It means nothing. And any discussion about “need[ing] images that break other taboos in other kinds of ways” must explain why it’s okay when major Hollywood studios do this in their films (Saw, Pulp Fiction, etc), but not okay in this context.

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