Feb 03 2015

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SERIOUSLY: Neuroscience Proves Porn Literally Makes Men’s Brains More Childish

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‘Adult entertainment’ may be the ultimate misnomer.

Two hundred years ago in the U.K., if you said you were going to a “gentleman’s club,” it was understood you were going to a private upper-class establishment where you could relax, read, play parlor games, get a meal, and gossip with others of your class. Today, in the U.S., if you said you were going to a “gentleman’s club,” it is assumed you will be paying to see a striptease in a low-lit bar.

Is this really what should typify a “gentleman”?

Pornography is often classified, along with other sexually oriented businesses, as “adult” entertainment—something for “mature” audiences. If this meant that these kinds of entertainment are “not suitable for children” then few would protest.

The very thing in the brain that is the mark of adulthood and maturity is the thing that is eroded as we view more porn. It is as if the brain is reverting, becoming more childlike. “Adult” entertainment is actually making us more juvenile.

That said, it would be foolish to use this as an argument that pornography is suitable for adults. Heroin and methamphetamines are also “not suitable for children,” but this does not mean, ipso facto, that they are healthy for those over the age of 18.

Porn advocates are fond of saying (“fond” is an understatement—they repeat it like a mantra) that pornography is sophisticated, mature entertainment suitable for responsible adults. Porn, they will have you believe, is what true gentlemen appreciate—like blue cheese, good scotch, and Dostoyevsky. As the infamous Ron Jeremy is quick to say: “Pornography is consensual sex between consenting adults, to be watched by consenting adults.”

Which leads us to ask: What exactly constitutes “adult” or “mature” behavior? Is it merely a commentary on the age of the participant? Or is it about something more? Stipulating proper definitions is complicated because today these terms are so often used as synonyms for erotic media—which is the very topic we’re trying to dissect.

One way we use the term “mature” is when talking about reaching a final or desired state. We speak of “mature wine” as wine that has reached its peak fermentation and is ready to be consumed. We also use the word “mature” to speak of someone who has “grown up” in his or her behaviors and attitudes—they don’t display the impetuousness and naivety of youth. This is clearly what the patrons of strip clubs are doing by calling these establishments “gentlemen’s clubs”: they are insinuating that the activities that go on are part of manly, refined behaviors.

Dopamine and the brain

Ask any neuroscientist what a “mature” human brain looks like, and he or she will likely talk to you about a region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. It is located directly behind the forehead and serves as the managerial center of the brain. It is responsible for our willpower, regulating our behavior, and making decisions based on wisdom and principles. When emotions, impulses, and urges surge from the midbrain, the lobes in the prefrontal cortex are there to exercise “executive control” over them. By the age of 25, this region of the brain reaches maturity, meaning that our thinking becomes more sophisticated and we can regulate our emotions more easily.

Why bring neuroscience into the equation? Because fascinating research is being done looking at the impact of viewing porn on this region of the brain.

The brain is designed in such a way to respond to sexual stimulation. Surges of dopamine are released during a sexual encounter—and yes, also pornographic encounters—giving the person a sharp sense of focus and an awareness of sexual craving. Dopamine helps to lay down memories in the brain, so the next time a man or woman is in the mood, the brain remembers where to return to experience the same pleasure: whether that be a loving spouse or the laptop in the den.

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However, scientists are now seeing that continued exposure to porn gives the brain an unnatural high—something it literally isn’t wired to handle—and the brain eventually fatigues. Anatomy and physiology instructor Gary Wilson notes this is the same pattern noticed when drugs are abused: the brain becomes desensitized. More of the drug or harder drugs are needed to get the same high, and the downward spiral begins. Wilson says this brings about significant changes in the brain—both for drug abusers and porn users.

One of those changes is the erosion of the prefrontal cortex—that all-important center of executive control. When this region of the brain is weakened, when the craving for porn hits, there is very little willpower present to regulate the desire. Neuroscientists call this problem hypofrontality, where the person slowly loses impulse control and the mastery of his or her passions.

The point is this: The very thing in the brain that is the mark of adulthood and maturity is the thing that is eroded as we view more porn. It is as if the brain is reverting, becoming more childlike. “Adult” entertainment is actually making us more juvenile.

Hugh Hefner’s brilliant lie

The attempt to make sexual deviancy appear gentlemanly seems to me to be nothing more than the attempt of weak men to justify shameful behavior. Since the very first issue of Playboy hit the magazine racks in 1953, Hugh Hefner’s strategy was two-fold: to distributors he would market the magazine as soft-core porn, but to the target audience he would market it as a men’s “lifestyle magazine” for upwardly mobile men. Sociologist Gail Dines explains how Playboy marketed itself, thus beginning the cultural change of porn’s public image:

“[W]hen the editors addressed the reader, the pictures were just one of many attractions, rather than the attraction. The reader was invited not to masturbate to the centerfold but rather to enter the world of the cultural elite, to discuss philosophy and consume food associated with the upper middle class…The markers of upper-class life, which appear causally thrown in as afterthoughts (cocktails, hors d’oeurves, and Picasso), were deliberately placed to cloak the magazine in an aura of upper-middle class respectability.”

Just as sure as Playboy would have died without the naked women lining its pages, it also would have died without its articles and advertisements, which gave permission to the self-defined middle-class American male to indulge in porn.

Why is it that Adult stores offer back entrances? Is it because their clientele are misunderstood revolutionaries who are plotting the demise of a sexually repressed society? Or is it much simpler than that? Is it because they know that such behavior is wrong?

When one considers the options, which activity sounds more “mature” and grown-up: Making love for a lifetime to one real flesh-and-blood woman whom you are eagerly serving and cherishing, despite all her faults and blemishes (and despite your own), or sneaking away at night to troll the Internet, flipping from woman to woman, from one 30 second teaser to another, for hours on end, pleasuring yourself as you bond to pixels on a screen?

No, indulging pornographic media and other forms of commercial sex are hardly befitting of the adjective “adult.” Actions speak louder than words—even when those words are five feet high, neon, and constitute the phrase “gentlemen’s club.”

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