Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Internet Porn & Civilization

Pascal-Emanuel Gobry on the apocalyptic tale science is telling about pornography, the human brain, and society
Filmshop Kassel

Not quite sure why, but suddenly there’s a burst of really good, if painful to read, writing about pornography. A reader sent me this story by a woman who posed as an 11-year-old girl online in an effort to trap pedophiles. I know this stuff is awful to read, but it’s important to know what’s out there. It’s worse than you think. The woman and the team with which she was working create “Bailey,” 11, and launch her into the world on Instagram. Excerpts:

I upload the photo to Instagram — a generic, innocuous selfie of Bailey with an ear-to-ear smile — and caption it.

v excitedd to see my friends this weekend at carly’s party! Ilysm!! followed by a string of emojis and a #friends hashtag

The photo publishes on Instagram and we wait quietly for something on the big screen to change.
This part never takes long. It’s always unnervingly fast.

At the beginning of the week, on the very first night as Bailey, two new messages came in under a minute after publishing a photo. We sat mouths agape as the numbers pinged up on the screen — 2, 3, 7, 15 messages from adult men over the course of two hours. Half of them could be charged with transfer of obscene content to a minor. That night, I had taken a breather and sat with my head in my hands.
Nine months of this, and we still continue to be stunned by the breadth of cruelty and perversion we see. I imagine this trend will continue tonight.


“Incoming,” Avery says, and we all look up at the TV. The Instagram notifications show that Bailey has three new requests for conversation.

“Hi! I was just wondering how long you’ve been a model for?”

lol! im not a model,” I type quickly, hitting send.

“No!” he types, full of false incredulity. “You’re lying! If not, you should be a model. You’re so PRETTY.”

@ XXXastrolifer appears to be in his early 40s, but tells Bailey he’s 19. When she tells him she’s only 11, he doesn’t flinch.

The next message is from another man who greets Bailey harmlessly enough.

“Hi! How are you doing tonight?”

“Hi im good hbu”

“I’m doing alright, thank you. You are a very beautiful girl.”

I hear Josh next to me mutter. “Like clockwork.”

“Wow, thank u!”

“It’s true. I love your pictures on here. Does your mom and dad let you have a boyfriend yet?”

Bailey says no, but also, it’s not something they talk about a lot. I poll the parents in the room. They agree. Getting a boyfriend isn’t top of mind for an 11-year-old.

“Maybe I can be your Instagram bf if you would like? Up to you.”

I pause to respond to @ XXXastrolifer. The conversation ends like most of them do — in under five minutes, he sends Bailey a video to show himself masturbating.

“Do you like that? Have you seen one of those before?”

I turn my attention back to @ XXXthisguy66, the would-be Instagram boyfriend. In a matter of minutes, it escalates from “An Instagram boyfriend means we can chat with each other, send selfies back and forth, and just be there for each other” to “Since we are together, are you ready to send sexy pics to each other?”

She’s 11, and doesn’t quite know what he means. He sends a photo of his erect penis, requests a photo of her shirtless, and assures her that he can teach her how to proceed.

Read it all. But be warned: the language is explicit.

This is the kind of person I am: I would as soon see these men beaten on the public square to within an inch of their lives as I would look at them. I sent a link to that story last night to a US Senator I know, and asked him to read it. He responded and said he would. We have to get something going.

A lot of you have sent me Pascal-Emanuel Gobry’s long American Greatness piece about the science of what pornography does to the human brain. It really is as good as they say. Here’s how it begins:

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. I think many readers of this article will respond with outrage, and many will see it says things they already knew to be true—and I think these two groups will largely overlap. The most powerful obstacle to confronting a destructive addiction is denial, and collectively we are in denial about pornography.

Since it seems somehow relevant, let me state at the outset that I am French. Every fiber of my Latin, Catholic body recoils at puritanism of any sort, especially the bizarre, Anglo-Puritan kind so prevalent in America. I believe eroticism is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind, prudishness a bizarre aberration, and not so long ago, hyperbolic warnings about the perils of pornography, whether from my Evangelical Christian or progressive feminist friends, had me rolling my eyes.

Not anymore. I have become deadly serious. A few years ago, a friend—unsurprisingly, a female friend—mentioned that there was strong medical evidence for the proposition that online pornography is a lot more dangerous than most people suspect. Since I was skeptical, I looked into it. I became intrigued and kept following the evolving science, as well as online testimonies, off and on. It didn’t take me long to understand that my friend is right. In fact, the more I delved into the subject, the more alarmed I became.

The main point of the article is that whatever you think about the morality of pornography is beside the point. PEG is talking about the science of what it does to the body. Prior to reading this piece, I had only a slight idea what it did to one. I bet it’s true for you too. I’ll summarize the piece, but please do read it, because he talks about the scientific findings in-depth, and includes lots of citations and links. According to PEG, what science tells us now is that:

  • Pornography is truly addictive, in the same sense that drugs are addictive. It activates the same pleasure centers in the brain as certain addictive drugs. Of course pornography has a moral dimension, but it is at bottom a physiological problem.
  • Using online pornography rewires the brain. It literally does. This has been measured repeatedly by scientists. “And since online pornography is a sexual stimulus to begin with, we are all predisposed, and it takes much less rewiring for consumption to cause addiction.”
  • Evolutionarily speaking, we are not created to handle what Internet porn offers us: constant, on-demand access to a new sexual partner (which is how the brain processes seeing new and different sexual partners on film, even if not in real life). The scientific reasons why are fascinating, if terrifying.

Here’s one of PEG’s claims that I have to quote:

Porn is a sexual stimulus, but it is not sex. Notoriously, heroin addicts eventually lose interest in sex: this is because their brains are rewired so that their sex reward system is reprogrammed to seek out heroin rather than sex. In the same way, as we consume more and more porn, which we must since it is addictive and we need more to get the same kick, our brain is rewired so that what triggers the reward system that is supposed to be linked to sex is no longer linked to sex—to a human in the flesh, to touching, to kissing, to caressing—but to porn.

Which is why we are witnessing a phenomenon which, as best as anyone can tell, is totally unprecedented in all of human history: an epidemic of chronic erectile dysfunction (ED) among men under 40. The evidence is earth-shattering: since the Kinsey report in the 1940s, studies have found roughly the same, stable rates of chronic ED: less than 1 percent among men younger than 30, less than 3 percent in men aged 30-45.

As of this writing, at least ten studies published since 2010 report a tremendous rise in ED. Rates of ED among men under 40 ranged from 14 percent to 37 percent, and rates of low libido from 16 percent to 37 percent. No variable related to youthful ED has meaningfully changed since then, except for one: the advent of on-demand video porn in 2006. It’s worth repeating: we went from less than 1 percent of erectile dysfunction in young men to 14 to 37 percent, an increase of several orders of magnitude.

Scientists know that young people are having a lot less sex these days. We have not seen a religious revival or some swing back to traditional values that would explain that. It’s overwhelmingly likely that they aren’t having sex because young men don’t desire it anymore. They’re satisfied to masturbate while watching porn. More to the point: they can only be satisfied by masturbating while watching porn. 

Here’s the most frightening part of it: the brain of a porn addict requires greater and greater novelty to recreate the same level of stimulation. PEG talks about the rise of Kink, a massively popular website that uploads fetish videos on one of 78 channels:

Kink’s rise from niche to marquee just happens to coincide with the arrival of Tube sites in 2006, which are uniquely effective at triggering the Coolidge Effect and turning porn addicts into novelty-seeking machines. It’s important to note that, while an attraction to what you might call “light kink”—fluffy pink handcuffs, a rhinestone-bedazzled blindfold, that sort of thing—has been hovering around in our popular culture for decades, and therefore some version of this has been part of pornography for ages, Kink is the real article. It’s not just acting. Women are caned and whipped until they are bruised and red. Not only are the sex acts themselves extreme (you name it, it’s there), but scenes are scripted around the psychological and symbolic, not just physical, degradation of the woman. Fifty Shades of Grey is to Kink as a Hitchcock movie is to a snuff film.

When the films have a storyline, it can usually be summed up with one word: rape. Or two words: brutal rape. It’s one thing to be aroused by a sadomasochistic scene where the sub (as the term of art goes) is shown visibly enjoying the treatment; it’s quite another to be aroused by watching a woman scream in agony and despair as she is held down and violently raped.

One series of Kink videos is based on the following concept: the pornstar is alone in a room with several men; the director explains to her (and we watch) that if she can leave the room, she gets cash; for each article of clothing she still has on at the end of the scene, she gets cash; for each sex act that one of the men gets to perform on her, he gets cash and she loses money. One has to grant them a devilish kind of cleverness: it lets them enact an actual violent rape with legal impunity. The woman really resists; the men really force themselves brutally on her. Of course, she “consented” to the whole thing, which, somehow, makes it legal.

Kink is a revealing example because of its particular focus on degradation, and its sudden, inexplicable, overnight jump from a little-known niche site to one of the most popular media brands of any kind on the planet, right after Tube sites appeared. But the key phenomenon is that virtually all pornography, very much including the “vanilla stuff,” has grown more extreme, and specifically more violent, and specifically more misogynistic and degrading towards women. Oh, nonviolent pornography still exists, if you can find it. What used to be mainstream is now niche, and vice versa.

This is the world into which we are sending our daughters. PEG says that dark sexual fantasies have always existed within the minds of men, but with the advent of Internet porn, “something has changed, seriously, dramatically, and seemingly overnight.” Put simply, countless men (and women) are being reconstructed by their porn habits to crave sexually what most people have found disgusting and taboo.

PEG talks about how extreme porn — which, again, is not a niche thing, but mainstream now — can rewire the brain to make people want what they would not have wanted otherwise. For example:

But perhaps it’s turning at least some men into something else. Andrea Long Chu is the name of an American transgender writer, who writes with admirable honesty about her gender transition and experience. For example, Chu braved criticism from trans activists by writing in New York Times essay about the links between her gender transition and chronic depression, and denying that her transition operation will make her happy. In a paper at an academic conference at Columbia, Chu asked: “Did sissy porn make me trans?” Sissy porn is a genre—again, once extremely obscure and inexplicably, suddenly growing into the mainstream—where men dressed like women perform sex acts with men in stereotypically submissive, female roles. Sissy porn is closely related to the genre known as “forced feminization,” which is pretty much just what it sounds like. In a recent book, Chu essentially answers her own question: “Yes.”

It is also dramatically affecting male-female relationships. PEG writes, “I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to be a teenage girl when close to 100 percent (as we might safely assume) of the potential relationship pool is porn-addicted.”

And, as PEG writes, with the “herbivore” phenomenon in Japan, it is not at all hyperbolic to conclude that our pornography addiction is leading to civilizational collapse. You think he’s overstating it? Read the whole thing. I’m serious — read it. There’s no moralizing in the piece. It’s all about measurable scientific effects — and when he speculates beyond the science, he’s clear to say that that’s what he’s doing.

From the conclusion:

Perhaps it sounds hyperbolic. But what we do know is that large numbers of our civilization are hooked on a drug that has profound effects on the brain, which we mostly don’t understand, except that everything we understand is negative and alarming. And we are just ten years into the process. If we don’t act, pretty soon the next generation will be a generation that largely got hooked on this brain-eating drug as children, whose brains are uniquely vulnerable. It seems perfectly reasonable and consistent with the evidence as we have it to be deeply alarmed. Indeed, what seems supremely irrational is our bizarre complacency about something which, at some level, we all know to be happening.

I urge you readers to read the PEG article carefully. Send it to your friends. Send it to your pastor. Send it to the principal of your kids’ school. It needs to be widely distributed. I’m going to print it out and have each of my three kids — two boys, 20 and 15, and a girl, 13 — read it, and talk about it with their mother and me.

This is important. The most important thing you’ll read this month. It could hardly be more important.

UPDATE: Comment from Matt in VA (who, as newcomers here may not know, if a married gay man with a three year old adopted daughter):

Part of threading the needle in regards to the “porn debate” or whatever you want to call it, is that it’s important that people understand that internet porn is extremely dangerous societally speaking and we are entering unprecedented territory with it but that this does NOT mean that men are forming rape gangs and teen pregnancy is gonna skyrocket and every single woman is going to be forced into some kind of BDMS slavery torture situation. The effects of internet porn are much more likely to manifest themselves in a Japan style culture. P.E. Gobry’s article is correct in that (I have my quibbles with it; it relies too much on “studies” when everybody gets more aware with each passing day that a very large percentage of the “studies” and “social science” that our society produces is garbage/fraudulent/won’t replicate; but he is very much right about the problem itself and how huge it is.)

Porn is certainly not the only reason for this, and I would not even say it is the single biggest reason, but men and women are increasingly alienated from each other in our society and the survival of the society itself is threatened by massive levels of estrangement, frustration, and disconnect. There has always been a battle of the sexes but in a healthy culture with, for example, a relatively healthy “institution” of marriage, there is something strong bringing the two sides together, at least in many individual cases spread out across the population. Internet porn, because of how abundant and inexhaustible it is and the way it desensitizes and causes ever-more-extreme imagery to be required in order to produce the same effect, is very dangerous for men’s sex drives and sex lives and definitely threatens their ability to fully connect sexually with women *especially* in the context of a long term monogamous relationship (it’s not clear to me that this is true *for* women but it’s definitely true for men).

The nature of the extremely visual and promiscuous male sex drive means that most women cannot hope to compete (in the sexual realm) with a Tube site bursting at the seams with extreme pornographic imagery. This doesn’t have to be true for everybody or to affect everybody — even if it only affects a sizeable minority of people it can have society-wide effects. This doesn’t mean that “men get everything they want, and women are victims,” though. Unless you think that a man doing the relationship equivalent of drinking himself to death is a “win” for that man.

The problem is very large and tackling with it/dealing with it will be an absolutely epic and fraught-with-peril effort because
A) Most of the people with power and money in our society (old people) do not even understand that the problem exists at all (we live in a gerontocracy, look at the top 4 people most likely to be elected president in 2020, they are all septuagenarians)
B) The right wing still has a 1950s/1980s mindset in which “porn” is a peepshow (which at least gets the young man out of the house!) or a still photograph of a naked woman
C) The center/moderates have a dead-eyed and dead-souled Stephen Pinker vulgar materialist mindset that believes if high-speed internet is cheaper and more plentiful and teenage pregnancies are going down, we must be living in the Best of All Possible Worlds because the numbers on the graphs look good
D) The left wing thinks “kink” is good and in fact one of the best things in the world because the left wing is increasingly a bunch of F*** You Dad spoiled-brat upper middle class 20 and 30 somethings living in coastal cities and still being subsided by their corporate lawyer parents
E) The widespread obliteration of local community, tradition, embedded “thick” culture, dating and courtship rituals, life scripts that emphasize family formation, etc. in favor of corporate serfdom/”entrepreneurial”/girlboss “feminist” values (pushed by both the corporate Right and the corporate Left) means that people under the age of about 30 or so, especially men, know in their bones that they are utterly alone, in terms of navigating their sexual (and romantic) natures. The only place huge, huge numbers of young men can go to talk about the actual lived reality of their experience as sexual (and romantic) human beings is anon online message boards — they have been ABANDONED by their own society. (By the way, this is a piece of the How We Got Trump puzzle.) It has always been the case, even if we don’t know it or understand it, that men are *hugely* hurt by the abandonment of strong guiding institutions and norms where sex and relationships are concerned, in exactly the same way men have been hugely hurt by the abandonment of localist *economic* practices, laws, and policies (“it won’t matter if we outsource all our industry or flood the labor pool with immigrants, Everybody’s Better Off!”). In both the economic and sexual realms, men have been completely thrown to the wolves, abandoned to “compete” (or opt out) in a global marketplace, so to speak. You market-worshipping conservatives are not going to like the outcome. I hear you already — you’re going to say “Matt, you say we’re going to have pathologies like Japan, but Japan is highly isolationist with almost zero immigration, you’re contradicting yourself!” But no. Here’s the common link: both in Japan and in the USA there is this disgusting and soul-destroying worship of The Middle-Class *Job* and The Big Corporation. *That* is the common link. Sure, it may manifest itself in Japan in one way, and in the USA in another very different way, in terms of stuff like immigration/globalization. But the common link is the deference to the giant corporation/the bourgeois “career”/the Human Resources metric, as the great God of the society. This is why–and I don’t like doing this, I don’t like the pronouncing of oneself as being X, but– I am, if I am anything, a romantic. We need to discover that great and ancient art which the great civilizations have always possessed and always valued — *seduction.* That is the spirit we need, and the entire ruling class and elite class and the people who run basically every institution in our society are the enemy of what is needed for our collective cultural soul at this time.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now