porn and health

The ups and downs of pornography - Dr Elaine Sung

Australia’s appetite for pornography is as voracious as ever – and it’s impacting people’s health.

An abundance of adult material on the internet contributes to the high consumption of porn. An estimated 10-15% of websites are sexually explicit.

The University of Sydney recently surveyed 20,000 people Australia-wide aged 16-69 regarding their porn viewing behaviours. Some of the key findings may surprise you:

  • 84% of men and 54% of women reported looking at pornographic material at least once in their lives.
  • 76% of these men and 41% of these women viewed pornography in the previous year.
  • 66% of men and 54% of women agreed or strongly agreed that pornography can improve sexual relations among adults.
  • 49% of women and 42% of men agreed or strongly agreed that pornography degrades women shown in it.
  • 4% of men and 1% of women reported being addicted to porn.

My experience from talking with patients is fairly consistent with these figures. Both men and women have told me how they use porn to ‘spice up’ their sex lives.

However, the negative psychological and physical bi-products are ever-present. Both as individuals and a society, men and women can suffer at the hands of pornography.

More worrying still is the ready-access our children have to sexually charged adult material. The widespread, negative implications on kids can be devastating.

In this blog post, I’ll look at the good and not so good aspects of the topic, offer some advice from a medical professional’s point of view, and leave you to make your own conclusions.

Note: PLEASE CLOSE THIS PAGE NOW if you’re offended by this topic and don’t want to read text of a sexual nature.

The good side of porn

I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest porn can save a marriage, but many patients say it’s helped their sex lives. Mutually satisfying sex does wonders for relationships – and happy, healthy relationships are important to mental health.

Looking at naked people we find attractive appeals to our most primal self. Pornography allows people immediate and discreet fulfilment of this urge.

Religious or moral inhibitors may exist on the surface, but just below these barriers, I believe many adults are hardwired to be aroused by nudity.

So, if watching a raunchy movie together gets two loving, consenting adults in the mood, then go for it. As long as it’s not illegal and no-one is getting hurt, my view is ‘whatever floats your boat’.

The not so good

It’s argued that the negative aspects of porn far outweigh the positives. While I question this theory, there are certainly some significant impacts for men, women, and of course children.

Men

Porn consumption among men is significantly higher than women. Some men may experience sexual dysfunction and mental health issues.

Sexual dysfunction

Exposure to porn can lead to all kinds of sexual dysfunction in men. Of the most common is erectile dysfunction.

Erectile dysfunction occurs when a neurotransmitter called dopamine is in short supply during sex. As dopamine is linked to the brain’s reward system, it’s normally in plentiful supply during sex, contributing to an erection.

Watching excess porn floods the brain with dopamine. In some men, being overloaded with chemicals causes dopamine receptors to shut down. More or harder porn is progressively required to get an erection.

Sex with a partner can pale in significance to thrill of such porn. The lack of stimulation leads to low dopamine levels, making it difficult to rise to the occasion.

Dodgy operators such as AMI (which ironically stands for Advanced Medical Institute) push their expensive ‘snake oil’ to vulnerable men desperate for a quick fix to their erectile dysfunction.

My advice? Give these jokers a wide berth and visit your GP. We’ll provide you with an effective treatment plan tailored to your individual circumstances.

Mental health

Some men can become a little too reliant upon porn. Immediate, accessible, and extreme sexual stimulation can occupy a considerable part of their day, both mentally and physically.

I’ve treated a patient who was watching adult movies up to 12 hours a day. He lost his job, almost lost his marriage, and spiralled into depression. He countered this depression with more porn, eventually becoming quite a mess. Luckily, I was able to help him break the cycle and get his life back.

Excessive porn consumption can be a chicken and egg situation. Whatever the cause of the problem, professional help is usually the only way out when dependency is at play.

Women

Though not unheard of, women tend to exhibit less direct porn-related sexual dysfunction and mental health issues. Female patients are more likely to experience self-objectification and abuse linked to sexist attitudes.

Labiaplasty

Recent studies challenge the link between the proliferation of porn and the growing demand for labiaplasty. My own experience with patients, especially younger women, tells a different story.

Labiaplasty is a surgical procedure to reduce the size of a woman’s labia. Medically necessary in a tiny percentage of cases, the majority of enquiries I receive about the surgery are cosmetically driven.

Along with breast augmentations and anal bleaching (yep, it’s a thing), many female porn stars undergo the procedure. Infantilising women’s genitals for the screen seems to be big business.

Historically, women never really saw other women’s genitals. Now that they’re exposed to thousands of unrealistic porn star vaginas on the internet, feelings of imperfection and insecurity abound.

I get asked the ‘normal’ question so often, I joke with patients that I should have a ‘YOUR VAGINA LOOKS PERFECTLY OK’ t-shirt printed. Occasionally I direct women to a well-known art installation called The Great Wall of Vagina to see what normal really looks like.

Hostile sexism

Unsurprising to most, much of today’s heterosexual porn degrades and objectifies women. There seems to be a huge market for harder material, ranging from scenes of playful-rough sex to outright sexual violence. Yuk.

Depicting hostile sexism in adult movies contributes to a broad social inference that women are ‘sluts’ who enjoy and deserve abusive sex. Impressionable groups such as sexually inexperienced young men may know no different and can act out what they see.

Highly publicised campaigns such as the ’me too.’ movement help put the issue of sexual violence against women in the spotlight, but there’s still have a long way to go.

Children

The most concerning aspect of porn’s prevalence is kid’s accessibility and the message it generates about gender, equality, and sexuality.

Movies and images far beyond the comprehension of young minds are just a click away. I’ll never forget being told of a friend’s 10 year old daughter innocently Googling ‘teen pics’. Luckily her mum was close by to shut things down.

Among many negative outcomes, childhood exposure to porn can lead to:

  • damaging views of sexuality
  • feelings of shock, embarrassment, confusion, and sadness
  • depression and anxiety.

Young people are more likely to mimic what they see when viewing adult material. This includes not using condoms, engaging in anal sex, and having sex with multiple partners.

Boys’ exposure to porn reinforces sexist attitudes towards women and risks them perceiving sexual violence as the norm. Young girls may mistakenly mirror submissive roles in movies, helping perpetuate this gender inequality.

The average 10 year old no doubt knows a lot more about sex than I did as a kid. However, they’re still not emotionally mature enough to sort fact from fiction. Unfortunately, many children have porn as their main source of sexual education.

What can parents do?

With a nearly half of children aged 9-16 being exposed to sexual images in the last month, it’s next to impossible to shield your child’s eyes from porn. There’s still much concerned parents can do:

  • Take the time to research what parental control software best suits your family.
  • Talk with your child about porn and its place in society – at around 10 years old as a guide (depending on their maturity).
  • Keep any adult material you have in the house under lock and key – never underestimate a child’s ability to access the darkest depths of your PC.

Support your child if they’ve been exposed to porn. Encourage them to talk about it while assuring them they’ve done nothing wrong. This is very important as children often internalise confusing, negative messages and process feelings as guilt.

At times of greater need, your GP can work with you and your child to devise a treatment plan and refer to specialists if required.

Dr Elaine Sung is the owner and principal GP at Doctors of South Melbourne. Her areas of special interests include sexual health, women’s health, and mental health. She’s also mother to two school-aged girls.