But rather than let this discussion follow the standard route toward a debate about porn either being morally icky or educational and normal (I think it can be both), I'd like to steer it toward the psychological concepts of superstimuli and the Coolidge effect.
Our relationships are bombarded with threats. Porn, especially today's porn, can help you destroy your relationship quicker than you can say "nofap." (NoFap is a fast-growing internet community for people seeking to reduce or stop their porn consumption and regain a natural arousal pattern.) But there are countless things besides porn that are, objectively speaking, just as threatening. I'd like to focus on how you can handle and relate to such threats so that they become far less threatening.
Usually, when we have more information and more contact with something we can set boundaries that are the correct boundaries and not over or under react.
First let's get back to the main question I posed:
Why are men faking orgasms?
According to Gary Wilson, today's porn users are changing the wiring of their brains in ways that make it very difficult to have a fulfilling sex life with a real partner. "The Internet is not Playboy," he says, and combining our brain's natural sex drive and the internet's powerful capacity to present huge amounts of stimulating material should make the user beware. He gave an informative TEDxGlasgow presentation and runs a quasi-science-based website called www.yourbrainonporn.com. It's full of resources for someone who is curious about how to "reboot" your brain and have a healthy relationship with sex again.
Recently, Dr. Oz hosted a panel of experts on his show that discussed why porn is causing erectile dysfunction. You might watch his short segment to get an easy overview of the problem with porn that most men, especially young men, grossly underestimate--until they have a big problem.
Here are some things that may surprise you about today's porn use, taken both from my work with men on this issue and from Gary's website:
- Very young males (in teens and twenties) are reporting erectile dysfunction due to habitual use of sexual superstimuli like porn. This wasn't happening before high speed internet.
- Excessive internet porn use is a fast-growing cause of male erectile and ejaculatory dysfunction (in males of all ages)--leading some men to fake orgasm.
- Researchers have noted that they cannot easily find a significant population of males who have never used online porn to study as a control group (Gary Wilson notes this, and it is noted also in this article.
- Men who realize how much porn use affects partner-sex performance and enjoyment can be highly motivated to give it up or balance it with healthy real-sex.
- Today's online porn is completely different from pre-Google days of print or video-store pornography because the effect of novelty fatigue (dopamine overdose basically) is vastly accelerated.
What is a Superstimulus?
A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of something that humans have a natural biological response toward. Refined sugar, for example, wasn't around for millions of years of human development, until now. As a result, the pleasure circuits in our brains can be especially hooked on sugar, unless you override your old-brain (limbic system) excitement for it with conditioning that uses your new-brain (neocortex) to head off an unhealthy, short-term fix.
Superstimuli can cause us to get addicted and overlook our health and relationships. Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett wrote Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose (2010). She argues that superstimuli govern the behavior of humans as powerfully as that of animals. She notes that our modern world is overrun with superstimuli that blinds us to our normal impulses for nurturing, sexuality, romance, territoriality, and defense. Her writing discusses the theme of how our exposure to media, ads, and the entertainment industry has hijacked of our social instincts to care for each other and tend to our families.
Virtually any novel sensory experience is a superstimulus. That is, until you get used to it. The problem with porn being a superstimulus is several-fold:
- Your dopamine neuropathways literally get conditioned to reward you for trying to fertilize your computer screen.
- Your partner isn't a computer screen and probably will not care about your dopamine problem. She will just think you are a dope, and kinda-sorta she is physiologically right.
- Your computer obviously isn't that exciting if not for the endless display of willing partners that it can conjure up for you at lightening speed.
- Even if your real partner is literally a porn actress, she cannot compete with you and your FIOS internet connection.
A famous experiment was done with rats that illustrates how sex can be a superstimulus. Normally, a male rat mates with one female that is ready to mate and there is a refractory (rest) period where the male's interest naturally declines. But if a new receptive female is placed into the male's cage just after he finished copulation, he is instantly just as excited as the first one and gallantly gets it on with the new female. This can repeat as long as new females are introduced, until the male dies from exhaustion.
The effect of the superstimulus on sexual functioning in mammals is known as the Coolidge effect. The term gets the name from an old joke about Calvin Coolidge when he was President: The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown [separately] around an experimental government farm. When [Mrs. Coolidge] came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.” Upon being told, the President asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” President: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”
High speed internet porn is a superstimulus because it creates the possibility of unlimited novelty for sexual gratification that does not occur naturally with your partner. The Coolidge effect is at work when porn is used to achieve orgasm and the source of arousal shifts from physical or emotional cues to visual ones. For some porn users, the desired visual scenes can graduate to fetishes that can put impossible demands on a sexual partner or render the user impotent during normal sexual activities. Higher rates of unprotected sex are also reported among overstimulated porn users because desensitization has made it difficult or impossible for arousal or orgasm when using a condom.
Apart from the danger of addiction and copulatory impotence for men using porn, in some relationships any porn use is the equivalent of cheating. Other couples find that porn is just another way to learn about the wide world of sexual pleasure that can enhance the marriage. Either way, porn tends to be a lightening rod that exposes the natural polarities between partners as it relates to sexual expressiveness, level of desire, or level of sexual experience. Wherever you and your partner are in this contiuum, it is critical to maintain respectful dialogue that includes a willingness to learn about how the other thinks and feels.
How to Tell if You're Addicted to Porn
- You are unable to stop using porn or the behaviors associated with porn, despite attempts to do so.
- Become angry, hostile or irritable if you are asked to stop using porn.
- You keep all or part of your porn use secret from loved ones.
- You feel as though you live a double or secret life because of your porn use.
- You continue to view porn despite negative consequences, such as broken relationships or job loss.
- You have lost track of large chunks of time because you've been absorbed in porn use.
5 Things You Can Do to Stop Porn from Ruining Your Relationship
1) Educate yourself
There is a lot of rhetoric about porn because of passion on both sides of the debate to either maintain free speech and sexual freedom and those that attack porn on a moral basis. Study the resources available on Gary's website and make use of reading the large number of threads in online forums to meet people who have experience with this issue. Deal with the shame that most people feel at some point discussing porn and don't let it stop you from understanding the many nuances of the discussions about it. For men especially, it is critical to assess whether you have an overuse/addiction problem or more of a habit that you need to keep a critical watch over.
2) Talk about it
Most couples I talk to have spent very little, if any, time honestly exploring each others views about porn and while acknowledging the various perspective on it. Have a "beginner's mind" and do your best to let go of what you already think you know about the issues. You can develop a true partnership, one not based on fear, when you are both willing to learn something and not assume that you know what needs to happen.
3) Improve your connection
The focus on the addictive nature or porn is very important. However, all addictions are fed by disconnection in other areas of life. Focus on your emotional health. Is your life in balance in other areas? Do you feel fulfilled in your work, family, or spiritual identity? The breeding ground for addictions are environments that do not tolerate deviation or imperfection. If we aren't allowed to feel or express our true feelings in one area, the feelings will find a way to get expressed somehow but in a more extreme form. This is not always unhealthy and can fuel such creative passions as art, sports, or is productive energy for change.
4) Move one step toward the middle ground
Know what is at stake for you if you relax your most extreme opinions. If you think you need porn ask yourself "Why couldn't I use it less?" If you think there is no such thing as safe porn use, ask yourself, "What am I afraid that could happen if I was 1% less rejecting of my partner's view?"
Fear is not relational and won't help you build your relationship. Fear protects and shuts down relationship connection. So whether you want to have more freedom to use porn in your relationship or want porn to be completely gone from your relationship, try to take one step that is not just reinforcing the same position you have always had.
CAUTION: This is an act of intimacy and as such will expose your vulnerability and risk of being hurt more. Therefore don't take ten steps at once...just one incremental step away from your agenda. Ask your partner to do the same so that you can take another, more vulnerable step, and so on, until you both meet in the middle somewhere in a less polarized form of connection.
5) Get professional help
The difference between a porn-influenced relationship and a porn-addicted relationship is very big. If you fit some of the criteria in the checklist above or find that the gap between you and your partner's views on porn is the Grand Canyon, then you may consider hiring a professional to guide your conversations. Get familiar with the many resources that can help you:
This section of the website includes discussion about self-help verses getting third-party help. There is more of a slant toward self-help here. It includes resources for how to tame your computer and how to "reboot" your brain.
AASECT is the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This organization has rigorous professional standards for qualifying as a sex therapist or educator. This link is the directory to find ASSECT therapists near you.
LifeSTAR is a three-phase treatment program aimed at helping individuals who struggle with pornography addiction and unwanted sexually compulsive behaviors. This program emphasizes the importance of supporting the partners of the person seeking treatment.
Sexaholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover.
COSA is a twelve-step recovery program for men and women whose lives have been affected by another person's compulsive sexual behavior.
Peer support for couples recovering from any kinds of addiction or compulsion Based on the principles of AA: "Our primary purpose is to stay committed in loving and intimate relationships and to help other couples achieve freedom from dysfunctional relationships."
The 12-Step program for Sex Addictions Anonymous
Information and resources about online sexual addiction and tools to reduce harm.