Is Porn Destroying Your Sex Life?

Sep 24, 2013 | Updated Nov 24, 2013

Statistics on Internet porn use are typically inflated. Porn providers pump up their numbers in an effort to increase advertising revenues, and anti-porn activists grab the most inflated stats they can find in an effort to show the all-pervasive nature of the supposed problem. Even the most conservative statistical estimates show that porn use -- driven by online accessibility, affordability and anonymity -- is very much on the rise. What you may find more alarming than the sheer volume of pornography we consume is the effect it could be having on your sex life.

Porn Use Goes Up, Happiness Goes Down

In a recent survey of 68 leading sex and relationship experts, 86 percent said they believe porn has had a negative effect on their relationships. Nearly two-thirds, 63 percent, said they think porn use changes men's expectations of what sex with a real-world partner should be like, and 85 percent said they think porn has had a negative effect on women's self-confidence, primarily because women feel as if they now must behave like porn stars in the bedroom.

Other surveys provide similar findings. For instance, one study revealed that women whose partners look at pornography frequently (in the woman's estimation) are less happy in their relationships than women partnered with men who either infrequently use porn or don't use it all (to the woman's knowledge). The same study found that a female partner's self-esteem decreases as her male partner's porn use increases. The most common complaint by women whose partners use porn frequently is that they can't measure up to the images shown online.

Perhaps, however, it is men who should be worried about measuring up. Consider Robert, a 26-year-old computer programmer:

My girlfriend Melissa is a sales rep who spends her weekdays traveling, coming home and spending time with me on weekends. Our sex life was great until about a year ago. I used to really look forward to Friday nights because I knew the first thing that would happen after she got home was we'd hop into bed for hot, sweaty, incredibly intense sex. Our (my) pent-up sexual energy usually resulted in a quick session, followed by a shower (together), a romantic dinner out, and more leisurely lovemaking later that night. Over the last year, however, I've struggled to achieve and maintain an erection, and sometimes I can't ejaculate. And we're definitely not doing it twice in one night like we used to. I've actually faked an orgasm a couple of times just to get things over with. What I can't understand is why I'm ready, willing, and able when logging onto my favorite porn sites -- something I do regularly when Melissa is on the road -- but I can't function when I've got the real thing right there in front of me. I am NOT bored with Melissa, and I still think she's very sexy and exciting.

Robert's inability to perform sexually is more common among young men than one might expect, and it is directly related to his porn use. In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that online porn is a leading cause of both erectile dysfunction (ED) and delayed ejaculation (DE) in otherwise healthy men in their sexual prime. In one study, male porn users reported increasing difficulty in being turned on by their real-world sexual partners. When asked if this phenomenon had any relationship to viewing pornography, subjects answered that it initially helped them get more excited during sex, but over time it had the opposite effect. So, thanks to pornography, growing numbers of women now find themselves in relationships with men who are suffering from sexual dysfunction, which affects the women as much as the men. After all, if your man can't get it up, keep it up, or reach orgasm, your sexual pleasure is likely to be diminished.

Common complaints about porn-induced male sexual dysfunction include:

  • He has no problem achieving erection or orgasm with pornography, but in person, with his willing partner, he struggles with one or both.
  • He is able to have sex and achieve orgasm with his partner, but reaching orgasm takes a lot longer than it used to and his partner says he seems disengaged.
  • He can maintain an erection with his partner, but can only reach orgasm by replaying clips of Internet porn in his mind.
  • He increasingly prefers pornography to real-life sex, finding it more intense and engaging.
  • He keeps porn-related secrets from his partner (amount of time spent looking at porn, types images seen, etc.)
  • His partner feels like "the other woman."

This problem is not simply due to the frequency of masturbation and orgasm; it is more related to the fact that men in general are both visually stimulated and turned-on by new stimuli. Essentially, a man who spends 70, 80, or even 90 percent of his sexual life fantasizing and masturbating to porn -- countless images of young, exciting, constantly changing partners and sexual experiences -- is, over time, likely to find his in-the-flesh encounters less stimulating than the endless parade of new material in his head. So what we are now seeing on a relatively wide scale is an emotional disconnect with real-world sex partners that is manifesting not only physically as sexual dysfunction, but emotionally as a lack of interest in real-world intimate connections. And sexual enhancement drugs -- Viagra, Cialis, Levitra, and the like -- won't fix things because these drugs only dilate the blood vessels to sustain an erection, not to create one. The brain and body need to become aroused first of their own accord. Without that, no dose of "erection enhancing" drugs will help.

So... No More Sex?

Actually, the news is not all bad. For encouragement, we need only to look at the brains of recovering drug addicts. It is well-known that chronic use of addictive drugs causes the brain to "rewire" itself. These neurobiological changes are, in large part, what makes stopping so difficult and relapse so common among the people who do try to quit. However, numerous studies have shown that if a drug addict remains sober for six months to a year, the brain nearly always returns to something very close to its normal state. Anecdotal evidence suggests that behavioral addictions -- including porn addiction -- are the same, and the brain can repair itself when it has the time it needs to heal. According to the Web site Your Brain on Porn, turning off the porn will in most cases "reboot" the brain, allowing dopamine receptors that are damaged from overstimulation (and causing sexual dysfunction and emotional disinterest) to recover, eventually restoring the brain's reward circuits to something approaching baseline. In other words, the longer a porn abuser stays away from porn, the more likely it is that his in-the-flesh sexual dysfunction and/or disinterest will dissipate.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S, is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. Mr. Weiss is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.