Guiding Star founder, Leah wrote an opinion piece last week about Miriam, the Duke University Freshman who is receiving a lot of media attention because she is working her way through college by starring in porn films. The post got me thinking. CNN host, Piers Morgan; the women of The View; and many others are scratching their heads about why a bright young woman, bright enough to make it into Duke University (and a professed feminist who talks about women’s liberation!) would choose to be a porn actress. For me, however, I am not confused. In fact, her decision makes perfect sense to me. Allow me to explain.
On The View, Miriam told Barbara Walters that she has been watching porn since the age of 12. This is rather consistent with the statistics of porn use among the youth of today. Nearly 9 out of 10 children with internet access, between the ages of 8 and 16, have viewed pornography on the internet 1. The average age of first viewing is 11 years old. Most of these children do not go looking for it; they happen upon it while doing seemingly innocent internet searches. For those unfamiliar with the content of today’s porn, it is not just naked bodies or two people having intercourse. Hardcore pornography IS mainstream pornography. Today’s content includes sex with children, adolescents, and even corpses. Rape and violence are commonplace. Sex involving inanimate objects, defecation, urination, and vomit can be found, and mixing intercourse with violence, rape, mutilation, and even murder is common.2 Children’s natural curiosity about our bodies and about sex make it hard to look away from the images once they’ve stumbled onto them, which is perfectly understandable, as 11 is about the age that kids become more aware of sex for the first time. But as they watch, the sexual content releases a flood of neurochemicals that can create a high, not unlike that of street drugs.
The Brain Science
The book Rescuing Our Youth From the Porn Trap: A Parent Primer explains that during sexual activity, including porn viewing, the brain releases several neurochemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, serotonin, and for males, vasopressin.
These chemicals have the following effects:
- Dopamine narrowly focuses one’s attention, causes the person to ignore negatives, creates feelings of ecstasy, and creates dependency.
- Norepinephrine generates exhilaration and energy, increases memory capacity, and “sears” experiences into the brain.
- Oxytocin is “the bonding chemical” because it bonds two people closely together. This is the same chemical that surges through a woman’s body during labor and childbirth, as well as breastfeeding, creating a strong bond with her child. This also surges during sexual climax.
- Serotonin creates deep feelings of calmness and satisfaction and releases stress. It is often called “the natural Prozac.”
- Vasopressin surges in males at sexual climax and it is a bonding and commitment chemical.
Though these same neurochemicals are typically released during all kinds of sexual activity, Rescuing Our Youth From the Porn Trap shows how, depending on the context of the activity, these chemicals can have very different results.
In a committed and loving relationship, such as in a healthy marriage, dopamine narrowly focuses our attention on our partner, causes us to ignore negatives (isn’t that a great help in marriage!), creates feelings of ecstasy, and creates a healthy dependency between the two people. Outside this context, in the context of lust, dopamine does the same thing but can have very different results. In porn use, for example, the viewer focuses solely on the perceived positives and ignores thoughts of family, their personal values, or sometimes other factors, if they should be viewing it at work, for example. This is why many people have experienced job loss for this very thing. A dependency to the images can be created, rather than a healthy dependency to a trusted person.
In a healthy loving relationship, norepinephrine gives the partners feelings of exhilaration and energy and later, the spouses can recall small details of their partner and the intimate moments they have shared with one another. Outside this context, in lust, the person gets a rush and the images or experiences are “seared” into the brain, causing the images to be recalled with great detail and sometimes at random moments even years later.
Oxytocin bonds the couple together as powerfully as the couple bonds with their newborn when they hold him or her for the first time. This can be a help for the stability of the relationship. In the context of lust, oxytocin is not released in the same amounts as within a loving relationship. The brain releases a very small amount. Often people turn to porn or casual sex when they are feeling lonely and craving real human intimacy, but the amount of oxytocin released is by far insufficient to fulfill their human need for connection. Thus, many feel even more empty and lonely than before which can cause them to return to another experience of pornography to fill this hole.
Serotonin can be a great help for a couple, as life is often filled with many stresses. Serotonin can relieve stress and help the couple feel calm, renewed, and better able to meet the demands of daily life together. Within the context of lust, however, such as during pornography use, serotonin behaves the same way, which is why pornography is the drug of choice for many people when they are feeling stressed and overwhelmed with the difficulties of life. After climax from masturbation, the person experiences feelings of calmness and satisfaction.
Vasopressin can help a man be more committed to his partner. With each loving sexual encounter, he becomes increasingly loyal and protective of his spouse and family. Within the context of lust, a man becomes more and more committed to himself, the fantasies or any objects involved (such as the computer). Each experience reinforces this loyalty to self and the person can fall into a world of denial, isolation, and narcissism all while vehemently defending his unhealthy behavior.
Rescuing Our Youth From the Porn Trap also explains that when young people view pornography, the above powerful chemicals often cause them to move quickly through the stages of addiction: 1) Curiosity, 2) Pleasure-Seeking, 3) Self-Medication, 4) Dependency. Though some doubt that pornography use is a legitimate addiction, brain scans have shown that frequent porn use causes identical brain damage to that of heroin addiction.3 In the case of sexual addictions, the person becomes addicted to his or her own brain chemicals, making it an actual chemical addiction. When it comes to children who watch porn, they too can become addicted, but research shows that they often experience pornography different than adults do. Children are less likely to view it as fantasy, instead seeing it as reality. Rather than seeing it happen to other people, they often visualize and experience it as happening to themselves.
In the case of Miriam, she was a child who was not protected from the many dangers on the internet. What likely started as accident, fueled by normal curiosity, turned into an addiction. If she ever did try to stop, she likely found herself with the scores of others who have found themselves unable to kick the habit by sheer willpower. Those who try to stop porn use often get trapped in the avoidance cycle. They believe that if they just avoid the internet, or if they avoid being alone, or whatever their trigger is, then they can just stop. They think that if they just try hard enough, they can quit. Since porn use can be a chemical addiction, however, and they have learned to rely on the neurochemicals in order to cope with the struggles of ordinary life, more than likely when they are feeling lonely or stressed, they will be unable to resist their habit. Until they learn other ways of coping, until they learn to truly connect with others in an authentic way, and until they learn skills to change their thought-patterns, willpower alone will likely prove to be insufficient.
In this context it makes perfect sense to me why Miriam talks about porn as liberating. The shame that addicts feel is often very isolating and they usually feel great guilt. If she ever felt this way — and it is likely at the age of 12 she did — or if she has ever been trapped in the avoidance cycle and felt the hopelessness of being unable to stop despite her best efforts, simply embracing her addiction is probably experienced as a kind of liberation. If she has experienced the guilt and shame that is so common among porn addicts, telling herself and hearing from others in the sex industry that there is nothing wrong with porn probably DOES feel liberating. However, being free to live with an addiction can never be the same thing as being free from an addiction and living a healthy lifestyle.
Several studies have shown that one effect of porn is that it gives people unrealistic ideas about what sex is and makes them think deviant behavior is normal. With Miriam, here was a girl of 12, who essentially received her formation about sex and about what it means to be a woman from the porn industry. Just as trafficked girls and women are often shown porn as their training so they will know what to do and how they are to act, Miriam too was groomed for several years to embrace her present lifestyle. Considering all of this information, Miriam’s present choices are not surprising. Like the many other children that have viewed mainstream hardcore pornography, she likely has little to no concept of what healthy sex looks like. Although Miriam may not have been coerced into viewing pornography, nevertheless, she is one of its victims. She likely did not start out deviant. Like the many other children who are currently addicted to pornography, she was probably a normal kid doing her homework and happened to stumble on something that corrupted her innocence. Furthermore, her concept of her worth and her place as a woman was defined for her at that critical age by pornographers.
As nearly 9 out of 10 children with internet access has viewed hardcore pornography, statistically, Miriam is likely not the only child in our society who is being formed in this way. In fact, I would argue that this is the primary mode in which today’s youth are getting their sex education. Many parents treat sex education as having “the talk” as an awkward, one-time thing, usually too late in adolescence and insufficient to combat the overwhelming messages and training about sex that they are getting elsewhere. I feel that a more holistic approach would be better, one that begins simply by showing children how special their bodies are. This approach would begin with birth and, as they age, the parent would teach them in an age-appropriate way what a special gift their sexuality is. Rather than treating sex as something surrounded in shame or fear I feel the truth about our sexuality should be communicated. Sexuality is something beautiful that allows us to connect in an unparalleled way to another person in mutual love, respect, and self-giving. Furthermore, sex is an act which should work in conjunction to the many other ways in which the two people show one another their mutual and unconditional love, respect, and self-giving in the whole of their lives together.
I hope that one day Miriam and the many others like her will experience the true freedom that she surely yearns for, not the false freedom of doing whatever one wants, but the freedom of living a life free from addiction and in accordance with her unfathomable dignity, a dignity which she even now possesses in the same quantity as she always did, even if she and others don’t see it.
How We Got Here
Patrick Trueman, former Chief of the US Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, explains that beginning with the Clinton administration, all recent administrations have chosen to not enforce federal laws against hardcore pornography. While prior to Clinton’s presidency, pornographers were making softer porn in order to evade prosecution, now they can make hardcore pornography without fear of prosecution. Typically, new porn users do not search out hardcore material. They start with softer porn, but due to the Coolidge Effect, they eventually progress to harder material. Like drug and alcohol addictions, porn users find that the material that used to give them the desired high ceases to do so. Thus they progressively need more hardcore, more taboo material in order to get the same response. The Coolidge Effect is the biggest reason why the fastest growing demand in pornography is for child pornography. The majority of people seeking out this type of porn began with viewing adult women, but bit by bit are led to eventually viewing children. 4
The good news is there is hope. Recent science into the workings of the brain has shown that it is incredibly neuroplastic, meaning it is changeable! Though many online recovery programs exist, many are ineffective and advocate avoidance and willpower to overcome addiction. There are, however, online and anonymous recovery programs that exist that were created by working in conjunction with neuroscientists who studied how people become addicted, and have used this science to help people become un-addicted. The old adage “Once an addict, always an addict” is no longer true. With practice and training, many people are re-wiring their brain to break sometimes life-long habits and learning healthier ways of thinking and behaving. Here are two such recovery programs:
candeobehaviorchange.com – This is a secular program.
reclaimsexualhealth.com – This is identical to the Candeo program but it also includes Catholic theology and Scriptural references.
Covenant Eyes: This is filtering software to protect your family! This is the one I am familiar with, but there are others. You can easily do a Google search and find others.
Rescuing Our Youth From the Porn Trap: From the makers of RECLAiM, this is a book for parents on how to help their teens who may be trapped in the use of pornography.
Fighting For Your Marriage: From the makers of RECLAiM, this is a book, written by women whose spouses were addicted to pornography, and it is designed to help other women who are dealing with infidelity issues.
1. “Social Media & Mobile Internet,” Amanda Lenhart, Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2007, http://www.pwerinternet.org. quoted in Kristin Bird, Bruce Hannemann, Jeannie Hannemann, et al. Rescuing Our Youth From the Porn Trap: Parent Primer (Kaukauna, WI: Elizabeth Ministry International, 2013) 4.
2. . Kristin Bird, Bruce Hannemann, Jeannie Hannemann, et al. Rescuing Our Youth From the Porn Trap: Parent Primer (Kaukauna, WI: Elizabeth Ministry International, 2013) 4.
3. Bruce Hannemann. “A Call to Awareness and Action” (presentation, Reclaim Sexual Health Conference, Appleton WI, October 27, 2011).
4. Patrick Trueman, “A Call to Awareness and Action” (presentation, Reclaim Sexual Health Conference, Appleton WI, October 27, 2011).
Kristin Bird, Bruce Hannemann, Jeannie Hannemann, et al. Rescuing Our Youth From the Porn Trap: Parent Primer (Kaukauna, WI: Elizabeth Ministry International, 2013).
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