Posted by on Apr 14, 2016 in Challenging narratives, Common Myths, education, Gender, harm reduction, Mental health, Sex Therapy, Sexuality | 1 comment

So, I was getting ready to finally get off my tail and write my last Sound Relationship Dungeon entry, when a dear friend messaged me on Facebook Chat.

He said:

Aww, man! Gottman is hating on porn.

He also linked to this open letter from Gottman's blog. Gottman writes:

With pornography use, much more of a normal stimulus may eventually be needed to achieve the response a supernormal stimulus evokes. In contrast, ordinary levels of the stimulus are no longer interesting. This may be how normal sex becomes much less interesting for porn users. The data supports this conclusion. In fact, use of pornography by one partner leads the couple to have far less sex and ultimately reduces relationship satisfaction.

It is no secret that I have a huge amount of respect for Gottman and his research. I'm trained in his method of couples work (I'm level 2 trained. I have not the bandwidth or moneys right now for level 3). I reference him heavily on this blog and in workshops. His impact on relationship therapy cannot be overstated.

That said, I was utterly crestfallen when I read Gottman's statement, hence the title of this post.

There are many aspects of this letter that are problematic. For one, the data on porn is not nearly as settled as Gottman's letter would lead one to believe. My respected colleague, Dr. David Ley, has written extensively on this issue, and he breaks down the research on porn consumption better than I can.

Dr. Valerie Voon, who conducted the Cambridge brain porn study cited by Dr. Zimbardo, as well as many others, has recently published a paper where she and her co-authors actually state that at this point, there is not a scientific consensus that porn or sex actually is an addiction, nor that this language is appropriate. Her paper indicates that literature on such issues is overly biased towards heterosexual males, and that the absence of data on other populations greatly hinders the applicability or generalizability of their findings.

Dr. Ley also points out that the available studies on porn use do not actually prove a causal link between increased porn use and increased libido. If anything, the causal relationship is probably reversed.

Gottman cites the book Your Brain on Porn as the partial basis for his open letter. Again, I'll let Dr. Ley field that one.

Brain science is hot these days, and it’s attention-getting to use brain and neuroscience lingo in arguments, because it sounds so gosh-darned convincing and scientific. The problem is, there has been extremely little research that actually looks at the brains and behaviors of people using porn, and no good, experimental research that has looked at the brains of those who are allegedly addicted to porn. So, all of these arguments are theoretical, and based on rhetoric, inferences and applying other research findings to try to explain sexual behaviors.

Without taboo, there would be no porn: there would be depictions of people having sex.

If the jury is still out on the actual neuroscience behind porn use, why are so many smart people with schmancy credentials decrying the societal ills of porn? I think that there are other social issues at play, not the least of which are shame and taboo. I have long held that without taboo, there would be no porn: there would be depictions of people having sex.

As I've said before, the erotic imagination is not politically correct. It is keyed to our inner iconoclasts, those subversive instincts in all of us that drive us to ignore signs that say "Do Not Enter" or "Do Not Push That Big Red Button." To have someone with Gottman's gravitas instilling shame over a normal human impulse can potentially be very harmful to people who are already vulnerable and struggle with shame.

I'm even more troubled by the many parallels I see between the rhetoric of anti-porn activists like Gail Dines, whom Gottman mentions in his post, and Prohibition era Temperance activists.

Don't believe me?
If you have the time and inclination, watch the first few episodes of Ken Burns' Prohibition Documentary, and mentally replace the word "alcohol" with "porn." The result is almost creepy.

Otherwise, compare Ms. Dines' criticism of porn:

As the evidence piles up, a coalition of academics, health professionals, educators, feminist activists and caregivers has decided that they can no longer allow the porn industry to hijack the physical and emotional well-being of our culture. This means understanding that porn is everyone’s problem. Culture Reframed, an organization I founded and currently chair, is pioneering a strategy to address porn as the public health crisis of the digital age. We are developing educational programs for parents, youth and a range of professionals that aim to help shift the culture from one that normalizes a pornographic, oppression-based sexuality to one that values and promotes a sexuality rooted in healthy intimacy, mutual care and respect.

With Mary Hunt's push for Anti-Alcohol education in schools:

Enacting mandatory temperance instruction laws and making sure that they were strictly enforced was only part of the movement. Mrs. Hunt wanted to dictate the content of the instruction and textbooks. She was particularly disturbed that some of the texts being used were "not safe in that they did not preach total abstinence" and most did not devote at least one-fourth of their content to temperance instruction (Tyack and James, 1985, p. 517). She described her long search for acceptable texts as an "almost superhuman effort to secure absolute scientific accuracy, not modified in favor of occasional or moderate use of alcohol" (Bader, 1986, p. 99).

The temperance movement also made similar generalizations and exaggerations about alcohol that are commonly seen in Anti-Porn literature. Note the similarities between this initiative and Dines' Culture Reframed organization.

Temperance materials made no distinction between drinking and alcohol abuse, which were portrayed as one and the same. A typical poster presented the virtue and blessings of the abstainer on one side and the sin and misery of the drinker (synonymous with the drunk) on the other. An important organ for the dissemination of temperance educational thought and practice was the Temperance Educational Quarterly:

In the Temperance Educational Quarterly, the advocates of prohibition described how temperance was to be taught in the public schools. Some articles gave scripts for teachers and pupils to use on Frances E. Willard day. Others printed pledges for children to sing in meetings modeled on revivalist principles. Others again told horror stories about drunkards and offered quotations from writers on the evils of liquor. The magazine featured prize essays by pupils on alcohol, smoking, and other evils and furnished detailed lesson plans. This pedagogy, like the textbooks approved by the WCTU, was one of moral absolutism, a luring world of virtue and vice....

Porn, like alcohol, is not inherently good or bad. Most people are able to consume both responsibly with little to no impact on their ability to function in society. Not everyone falls into this category, and some people cannot or do not have a healthy relationship to porn. Can someone be addicted to porn the way some are addicted to alcohol? That depends on who you ask. In my (statistically insignificant) experience, compulsive use of porn is a closer to compulsive video game playing. Any activity, if done unmindfully or to excess can potentially impact someone's life for the worse.

To be fair, one also cannot ignore the problematic and often exploitative aspects of the porn industry that impact both industry employees and consumers. The same could be said of prohibition era bootleggers and some modern alcohol producers.

Nevertheless, even if Ms. Dines and Gottman were correct in their assumptions about porn, the solution they put forth is likely to be as effective at promoting healthy sexuality as prohibition was at promoting healthy alcohol consumption.