Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson dispute the common conception that the penis never lies.
Editor’s Note: The blocked quotations, unless otherwise cited, were taken from the comments sections of posts and message board conversations where men were talking about sex.
Once upon a time, men could trust their penises to tell them everything they needed to know about their sexual orientation. Even recently, behavioral neuroscientist Paul Vasey confidently opined, “Sexual orientation is what you think about when you’re masturbating.”
Really? What if porn, to which you once happily fapped, no longer does the job? Could this be why viewers who would never harm others are viewing violent porn? Why gay porn viewers are feeling baffled by their tastes for straight rape porn or lesbian porn? Why straight men are bewildered by their tastes for transsexual or gay porn?
Psychiatrist Norman Doidge explains in The Brain That Changes Itself:
The content of what [patients] found exciting changed as the Web sites introduced themes and scripts that altered their brains without their awareness. Because plasticity is competitive, the brain maps for new, exciting images increased at the expense of what had previously attracted them.
Do a viewer’s most recent porn tastes reveal his “deepest urges and most uninhibited thoughts,” as Ogas and Gaddam claim? Does his sexual orientation change along with what he views? Or does cyberporn manufacture superficial tastes, sometimes unrelated to sexual orientation? Most likely the latter.
Porn Has Changed … A Lot
It’s common for people to say, often casually, that they are “addicted” to the Internet, to email, video gaming, Facebook, iPhones, or even Internet porn. Even though the sensory input from such multimedia is nothing new, these activities are, in fact, physiologically, potentially addictive. Surfing the net, especially for porn, incorporates activities that spike dopamine levels and keep the reward circuit buzzing: seeking sexy material, the anticipation as each page loads, having novelty on demand, surprising and shocking visuals.
Obviously, a once-a-month Playboy or an 1980s VHS tape cannot compare to using three high definition screens, with nine windows open, to search for new scenes, genres, whatever, until you find just the right shot to take you home. After a five-minute breather you can search via Google for something you’ve never seen, so you can whack away once more. Unlike static porn of the past, today’s Internet porn is so stimulating that, in some brains, it can gradually produce addiction-related changes.
No wonder a guy’s brain can grow numb and stop responding to conventional sexual cues. Once vanilla porn is no longer doing it for him, his sexual tastes may prove surprisingly fluid. When his current cyberporn genre doesn’t arouse him, does he think, “Oh, that’s a sign that my brain needs a time-out to return to normal sensitivity—why don’t I lay off the porn?”
No. He unthinkingly does something that none of his ancestors had the option of doing (but would have done too). Out with the old and in with the new, because novelty triggers the surge of dopamine he needs to become aroused. He clicks around the Web until he hits something that engorges his penis. A novel pornstar may be sufficient, but perhaps after his fourth session of the day, he needs an added jolt of shock or anxiety to goose his dopamine and light a fire under his brain’s sluggish reward circuitry.
For some guys this innocent reflex can have one or both of the following undesired effects:
1. Rewiring: The user inadvertently carves new arousal pathways into his limbic system. As researcher Jim Pfaus points out, “the mating brain is opportunistic.” It’s not strictly bound by intrinsic wiring, but rather it adapts to promising sexual cues. This is especially true during adolescence, when the brain is primed for wiring up such cues.
Thanks to evolution, fertilization is the brain’s top priority, so—even if a porn user would prefer to forget what he just saw—his brain carefully wires up all associations that led to his orgasm. It wants him to be able to “fertilize” this target again in the future. With enthusiastic use, a new brain pathway can become a “pathway of choice,” irrespective of fundamental inclinations. In short, nerve cells that fire together wire together—especially if they produce a “bigger ‘n’ better” orgasm.
2. Desensitization: “Two hours edging to porn? That’s what Google is for.” “Two ejaculations since dinner? Let me fire up my old laptop so I can watch more windows on an additional screen.” Unlike other mammals, a guy can override his natural limits using ever-novel porn.
Over time, a user’s brain can physically change. Signs of fundamental brain alterations (as contrasted with short-lived habituation) may include: chronically weakened impulse control, craving spikes in response to cues one associates with porn use, and decreased sexual responsiveness. He’s no longer registering pleasure normally; his desensitized brain is desperate for the dopamine hits from stimulation. To climax, he needs to watch for longer or move on to new material.
Small wonder that, as users slide along the porn spectrum in search of the next big “O,” they can end up climaxing to visuals that are unnerving—or even illegal:
Anthony: I started looking at porn, on a regular basis, about five years ago. First there were the beautiful women, then the hardcore porn, then the weird insertions, then the transvestites, then critters, then the hermaphrodites, then the teen porn, then the younger models and now prison (soon to go). As the years passed I became less and less interested in masturbating and more and more interested in “novelty” searching. Looking back, I just don’t see how I failed to recognize that I had a problem.
Sexual Orientation vs. Synthetic Sexual Tastes
Obviously, a user who climbs aboard the Internet porn train can end up getting off at stops that were once inconceivable. Perhaps the most bewildering is, “Help! My penis is only responding to erotica I associate with someone else’s sexual orientation.”
Ryan: I seriously thought I was turning gay. My obsessive thoughts about this issue were so strong that I was contemplating taking a dive off the nearest high-rise. I felt so depressed. I knew I loved girls and I couldn’t love another dude, but why did I have ED? Why did I now need transsexual/gay stuff to get off? It’s like I made a mistake that I cannot correct anymore. I want to go back to my old days when I was only turned on by the female body.
Brains desperate for sensation can find anxiety-producing material particularly arousing. Such emotions release extra dopamine (and norepinephrine) in the brain. In essence, they are a response to risk-taking.
Some of today’s cyberporn users develop obsessive-compulsive patterns around shocking porn. For example, a user may keep testing to see if a particular porn genre is arousing—because he happens to find that prospect horrifying (and exciting). Then he masturbates to relieve the anxiety produced. He is like a person who can’t stop checking to see if the stove is turned off. Interestingly, addiction and OCD produce similar anomalies in the brain’s reward circuitry. Satisfaction becomes more elusive and drives continued unwanted activity.
Said one 21-year-old with a girlfriend, whose anxiety began three months earlier when he got an erection from watching a man’s penis in a video:
Now, I constantly feel the need to keep checking by using porn to prove that I’m still straight. I use any available moment to PMO to women, sometimes even in the same room as my girlfriend as she sleeps! This behaviour really upsets me but I find I can’t help it. It offers comfort for about 10 minutes before the doubt kicks in again.
Porn makers know how compelling this orientation-anxiety can be, and consider transsexual porn a “straight porn specialty.” When interviewed, the operator of several transsexual porn sites said, “My main audience, and the audience for most [transsexual] porn, are straight dudes. That’s how it’s always been. I will say that all of the visitors to transsexual sites are straight.” [Emphasis added.]
“Who am I?”
If a gay viewer starts climaxing to straight porn, or vice versa, is he discovering his “true sexual orientation?” Probably not. But brains are plastic and, users can inadvertently wire new stimuli to their erections, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate to the bell. In both situations, dopamine activation (anticipation) prompts autonomic effects downstream. The brain’s primitive reward circuitry isn’t aware that the bell isn’t food, or that “new” porn isn’t “my” porn. Its axiom is simply, “Dopamine good.”
Fortunately Ryan can, with patience and self-discipline, once again unwire his unwanted associations. (More in a moment.) Meanwhile, he may need to beware of well-meaning folks who try to tell him his changing tastes reveal buried clues about his true sexual orientation. Maybe they do; maybe they are totally devoid of significance. Said one 22-year old:
During middle school and high school I watched porn for hours. After high school I dated a girl I really liked, but I didn’t feel as much arousal around her as I felt when watching porn. In college I got confused about sexuality because I wasn’t feeling as much sexual attraction as other people. I was also turned on by gay porn and thought maybe I had latent homosexuality. My senior year I went to sexuality counseling and a coming-out support group for a quarter. Neither brought me closer to understanding sexual orientation or attraction. Yes, I got turned on by some gay porn, but I didn’t feel attraction to, or fantasize about, guys. The gay guys that I met seemed much more certain of their orientation. After a while I wasn’t sure I belonged there. I’ve started feeling more sexual attraction around women now that I’ve cut down on porn and masturbation.
Or consider Ryan again. When he began using porn, all he thought about was girls. He watched lesbian porn because he didn’t want to watch men having sex. Only after years of continuous porn escalation did he began to doubt his orientation. Recovering porn users on our forum often report developing, and discarding, multiple “tastes” as their addictions worsen. It’s evident that these mutually exclusive, transient tastes cannot all reflect buried sexual-orientation clues—if indeed any of them do.
For example, how could a taste for “transsexual porn” reflect a sexual orientation? Isn’t this evolutionary impossibility more likely to be appealing simply because it’s a cornucopia of compelling sexual cues (breasts, erect penis, arousing acts), lit with extra dopamine for the viewer who finds it exotic or anxiety-producing?
A radical change in porn tastes is likely to be little more than a sign of progressive brain desensitization. In other words, Ryan can’t be sure of much until he stops climaxing to the unwanted stimuli and returns his brain to normal sensitivity. This can take months.
A Better Test (Than Erections) for Sexual Orientation
A raging Internet porn addiction appears to operate independently of sexual orientation. However, the myth that “my sexual orientation is determined by what I masturbate to” is so powerful that many of today’s porn users do not realize that their random tastes are a function of overstimulation leading to tolerance, and therefore reversible.
Fortunately, research is catching up with reality. For example, scientists are learning that prediction of fundamental sexual orientation isn’t as simple as they once assumed. As Sexual Fluidity author Lisa Diamond says, “Sexual arousal … is only one element of sexual orientation and identity.”
So if “visuals + erection” can mislead, how do you recognize your sexual orientation? Obviously, whatever you climaxed to when you first started masturbating is a useful clue (assuming earlier childhood events haven’t distorted it).
Yet a more fundamental test of sexual attraction (or aversion) is: with whom do you want to do deep kissing?
Attraction and aversion are most powerfully displayed in the appeal of (or aversion to) engaging in intimate sexual activities that involve touch, body orifices, and body fluids such as saliva, vagina fluids, or ejaculate. Men are generally much more “turned on” by the smells, orifices, and fluids of one sex than the other.
In fact, one expert we interviewed noted that men can have profound aversion to these characteristics in other men—even to the point of nausea and vomiting (perhaps after the thrill of the “forbidden” or the effects of alcohol have passed). Said Ryan:
I ALWAYS do not want to kiss a guy. For some reason, a guy’s saliva would seem so nasty, and a girl’s is just so perfect. For me, the thought of a guy’s saliva is … disgusting, almost seems germ-filled. A gal’s saliva seems almost sweet to me.
Unwiring Plastic Changes
As a porn user’s addiction progresses, masturbation habits may tell him very little about his actual orientation. However, guys on our forum have discovered that if they (1) give their brains a rest from porn and porn fantasy (and ideally masturbation and orgasm), and (2) replace their former habits with socializing, exercise, meditation, and other comforting activities, they can start to see changes in their sexual tastes surprisingly quickly. Here’s Ryan’s report after only a month:
I spent the last year of high school jacking off to Internet porn compulsively, and escalated to gay porn several months ago. I found it disturbing to watch; it fueled my OCD and subsequent depression.
Now I’m feeling almost like a new person. I’ve been through nearly 4 weeks of hell, and had to get my antidepressants adjusted. I’ve been biking daily and interacting with others at college. But I do not get aroused at gay porn anymore. It’s like I have gotten rid of those circuits. The thought of lesbian porn is once again arousing. I am also slowly starting to get my libido back. It’s not over yet, but I have conquered part of it.
I have literally been on forums with thousands of pages of posts by people who were dealing with desensitization and escalation to weird stuff. I’m really unhappy when people tell others that what they masturbate to is “what they are.” Maybe that was true 20-30 years ago, but it is not anymore.
Is his brain already unwiring or is its dopamine signaling improving (reversing desensitization), or both? It seems that as users resist climaxing to a particular type of porn, fantasizing about it, thinking about it and worrying about it, the related brain pathways physically weaken from disuse. As neuroscientists say, when nerve cells fire apart, wires depart.
As the abandoned pathway stops producing a dopamine payoff, the brain—ever eager to go through the motions of reproduction—dusts off and fires up earlier brain circuits. Of course, if an addiction has progressed to the point where someone cannot climax without extreme porn, quitting will not be easy. He will need a lot of support. Severe withdrawal symptoms are common, but worth it for many users:
Mike: Relapsed at day 23. Already I can see that if I do quit this addiction, I will be completely able to have healthy sex with women. Along with my binge came a silver lining: those first few times masturbating were very exciting, and it was to very softcore porn. My sexual tastes had begun to normalize. Very reassuring. This vanilla stuff wouldn’t even have been a blip on my radar four weeks ago, but now it drove me wild. Of course, as the binge continued I progressed onto more extreme material, again making all too clear how the addiction screws with my tastes. I had to escalate to more extreme material to get that same rush.
Shawn: It’s hard to believe that a year ago, the main thing that got me off was transsexual porn. Arousal for real women has boosted to a level I’d forgotten during years of porn viewing. I’m now seeing just how sensitive I am without masturbation to porn. My erections are rock hard, and they feel great. I love that even the lightest touch from my girlfriend makes me respond like crazy!
We humans may want to be more farsighted and selective about the sexual cues to which we wire our orgasms. Apparently a primitive, subconscious, and very persuasive part of our brains doesn’t much care.