Porn-Potatoes

Posted by Ian Kerner, Ph.D., LMFT

Over the past month, I've been conducting a "no-porn" experiment with a group of guys. Not that I'm anti-porn; I'd like to think that I take a nuanced perspective.

As a sexuality counselor and author, I've written quite a bit in this column about Internet porn - from how it's altering the contours of our sex lives in unexpected ways to how women are starting to use porn much in the same ways as men.

But unlike the subjects of some articles about porn that have also recently appeared on CNN.com - Can the Christian crusade against pornography bear fruit? and Is pornography driving men crazy - I emphatically do not buy into the alarmist rhetoric that contends that porn is addictive, porn is a gateway drug, and porn destroys marriages.

Rather, I view Internet porn as just another form of erotic material, one that many (if not most) people use in healthy ways to enjoy their own sexuality.

That said, I grew up in the age before Internet porn - when guys in search of erotic fodder were compelled to use magazines, videos, and even (gasp!) their own imaginations and sexual memories. That's clearly become ancient history: For the past few years I've noticed that nearly 100% of the men I come into professional contact with, regardless of age, now use Internet porn as a tool for self-pleasure.

And that got me wondering what, if anything, has been lost in this shift. Like other aspects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, are we increasingly becoming "porn-potatoes?"

What would happen if men stopped using porn for a short period of time (say, three weeks) and were instead compelled to seek out other forms of erotic material in order to self-pleasure?

I decided to find out. As part of an informal "no porn" experiment, I reached out to five men of various backgrounds ages 22 to 67, both married and single, all of whom currently used Internet porn as a self-pleasuring tool, and all of whom felt their usage posed no problem to themselves or their intimate relationships.

As the three-week experiment unfolded, the feedback from the group of guys was intriguing:

All of the men ended up pleasuring themselves less than they would have normally had they had access to Internet porn. While they still had the same urges to self-pleasure, most simply decided it was not worth the effort - and that freed up their time. Said Greg, a single guy in his early 20s who works from home as a freelance Web developer," I ended up getting a lot more work done."

And when they did make time to self-pleasure, four of the five men also had much more difficulty, er, "getting started."

"I would see something sexy, and get turned on, and my first instinct was to flip open my laptop and let my fingers do the walking. Business as usual," lamented Chris, who is married and in his late 40s. "But without Internet porn, I just couldn't get it going, and more than once I gave up."

Added Kenneth, who is single and in his mid-30s, "I actually went out and bought a copy of Penthouse, but I was really self-conscious. The whole experience left me feeling dirtier than actually just going to a porn site. Plus, there wasn't nearly as much variety. I missed the browsing."

Fred, a married man in his 30s, was forced to improvise. "I needed to watch something - you know, moving images - but I don't own a DVD player anymore," he said. "I ended up reading one of my wife's romance novels instead, and you know what? It was pretty hot! Now we're reading them together, and I really like this whole erotica genre."

That brings me to my next point: In general, when the guys found new ways to self-pleasure, they also discovered something new about themselves. Fred discovered that he had indeed been becoming something of a "porn-potato" and David, a man in his late 20s who is on the verge of moving in with his girlfriend, really enjoyed his strolls down Erotic Memory Lane.

"It had been a while since I thought about my sexual past: ex-girlfriends, hookups, etc.," he admitted. "I used this experiment to start at the beginning and work my way up to the present. I remembered that I have some really hot nuggets buried in my past, and I also found myself thinking a lot about my current girlfriend and what a great sex life we have together."

In fact, without easy access to Internet porn and the steady stream of anonymous porn stars, most of the men turned to their own erotic histories and specific sexy memories for stimulation.

Nick, who is married in his 30s with two kids, reported that he became more focused on trying to have sex with his wife, which led to some tension, and, happily, some resolution.

"We had some fights, and I definitely got grouchy, but once I removed the porn I became much more engaged with my wife," he said. "I realized we were getting sexually complacent and that porn was like a valve. Once I didn't have the valve to let off some sexual steam, I became much more focused on the bigger situation of our sex life."

At the end of the experiment, though, all of the guys returned to the Internet. "It's just easier with Internet porn," Greg confessed.

"I love sex with my wife," Chris said, "but when I'm going solo I want the variety."

Yet most of the men agreed that it made sense to adopt a more "balanced diet" of approaches. Said Nick, who had previously been stuck in a sex rut, "I actually became more sexually interested in my wife than I've been in a long time. And I feel more affection towards her overall. We'd been arguing a lot and also not having sex, but throughout this experiment, all of my sexual thoughts included her, and overall, that renewed interest in our sex life together."

I find this last point especially interesting. Research that includes MRI brain scans of men and women during the process of sexual arousal has shown that orgasm lights up all parts of the brain, including those associated with memory. Orgasm plays a powerful role in the reward centers of the brain, so it makes sense that the more we associate that positive reward with a particular person, or memory of a person, the more we reinforce our overall relationship with that person.

Going forward, I'd like to explore this point further: Can self-pleasuring with a particular person in mind increase our feelings of love and desire toward that person via the reward of orgasm? If so, it could be a helpful solo-exercise for those couples who feel detached and disconnected from each other.

I'm sure at this point some of the anti-porn extremists will say I just proved that porn is bad - that it detracts from the connection that a couple potentially builds together. But I also believe that there's plenty of room for both fantasy and reality in a healthy sex life and lots of different "happy endings."