Can Porn Give You Erectile Dysfunction?

Can Porn Give You Erectile Dysfunction?
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If articles in the popular media can be believed, a sizable portion of young men in the developed world are becoming addicted to online pornography and desensitized to real sex. When faced with flesh and blood women, they find themselves unable to perform.

Writing in the Globe and Mail last November, columnist Leah Mclaren argued that porn-induced erectile dysfunction is a big problem facing what she called "Gen-XXX." Anecdotes led the way in her controversial piece, but she also claimed the support of science.

"Porn-induced erectile dysfunction is now well documented by the mainstream medical community. Dr. Oz devoted a show to the topic last year..." she wrote.

Ah. Yes. Doctor Oz. In light of his past quackery and a recent study showing that four out of every ten claims he makes aren't based on based on evidence, I am leery to trust "America's Doctor." What about the rest of the medical community?

As it turns out, there are precisely zero published studies on porn-induced erectile dysfunction. Surprised by the dearth of information, I emailed sexologist Dr. Jill McDevitt, who has a Ph.D in human sexuality. She replied saying that she'd never heard of the condition, and upon investigation, could find no research addressing it.

What she did find, just like me, were a host of entertainment and anti-pornography sites all too willing to fill the information void with scientific-sounding explanations. Leading the way is Gary Wilson's Your Brain on Porn.

Wilson, a science teacher, explains porn-induced erectile dysfunction in the context of an overarching addiction to pornography, the existence of which is hotly contested. It goes a little something like this: Pornography is far more attainable and stimulating than monogamous sex. Masturbating to porn triggers the release of neurotransmitters tied to the reward system of the brain, like dopamine, granting a euphoric rush of good feelings. Repeatedly masturbating to porn puts this reward system into overdrive, which eventually alters the structure of the brain, ultimately numbing the pleasure response and making it harder to get aroused by real world sex.

Wilson pairs his intuitive account with all sorts of testimonials on his website from men who quit masturbating to pornography. "My skin and eyes looks alive for the first time in years," one user states. "ED cured. I am now engaged to an awesome girl," says another. The result is a narrative extremely compelling to a host of young men.

Many scientists at the Kinsey Institute, perhaps the leading scientific organization on sexual health, are not convinced, however. When a popular science YouTube channel posted a video touting Wilson's theory on sex addiction, Kinsey Research Fellow Debby Herbenick responded bluntly:

"Most sex researchers don't recognize 'porn addiction' as a true addiction (nor do most of us recognize 'sex addiction' as a true addiction). This is a common topic of conversation among scientists in my field. The video is mostly speculation; empirical data to back up the statements in the video are enormously lacking."

Herbenick also added that "many of the professionals who think it can be treated are selling treatment programs for porn/sex addiction." Indeed, Wilson recently published a book.

Wilson's approaches may border on hucksterism, but it seems he honestly believes the ideas he's touting and thinks the science is there to back them. In an interview with Vice, he cited a recent study from Cambridge University which found that "pornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behaviour similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts." The researchers found that many of these people also had erectile troubles.

He does, however, neglect to mention a key caveat mentioned by the Cambridge researchers.

“Whilst these findings are interesting, it’s important to note, however, that they could not be used to diagnose the condition. Nor does our research necessarily provide evidence that these individuals are addicted to porn – or that porn is inherently addictive," they wrote.

It's Wilson's tendencies to neglect nuance and oversimplify that irk a great many of the scientists studying pornography's effect on the brain and sexual health. While the Cambridge study lent support to the notion that porn is addictive, others have found the opposite.

Pornography, like food, can be consumed in both healthy and unhealthy ways, and impart both positive and negative effects. There are some who claim that people can be addicted to food, but few would say that it's inherently addictive.

“Whilst these findings are interesting, it’s important to note, however, that they could not be used to diagnose the condition. Nor does our research necessarily provide evidence that these individuals are addicted to porn – or that porn is inherently addictive. - See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/brain-activity-in-sex-addiction-mirrors-that-of-drug-addiction#sthash.3yPWWmyf.dpuf

(Image: Shutterstock)

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