A Critique on “The Great Porn Experiment”

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In 2012 Gary Wilson gave a Ted Talk called The Great Porn Experiment where many claims were made that do not have scientific backing. These types of efforts to educate the public backfire by giving people misinformation that then affects such things as relationships, parenting strategies, sexual education, and even mental health treatment. Fight the New Drug is another such venture that has found its way into many Utah public schools and LDS meetinghouses for trainings it offers, sharing similar information. Not to leave out The Sons of Helaman group. The following is a critique of the Ted Talk mentioned above offered by an anonymous guest, which I endorse. The statement from the ted talk will be left in black text color. The response by guest is in orange.

“Nearly every young guy with internet access becomes an eager test subject”
R: Actually, most children have not viewed sexual films on the internet, and evidence exists that no more who view sexual images online exist than viewed VHS tapes proportionately.

“Lajeunesse” citation for “most” boys seeking pornography by age 10.
R: After some searching, I found a suggestion that a 2009 publication on this topic might exist, but continued to be unable to find it. I have unparalleled access to publications through my University and Google Scholar. Numerous news outlets describe the results the speaker is characterizing, leading me to think the speaker is merely parotting news outlets and did not read a source article. At the very least, it was improperly cited in the talk (no year given).

“Driven by a brain that is suddenly fascinated by sex.”
R: While this age may coincide with puberty, no studies have ever been done in children testing their sexual sensitivity at this age (such a study would be illegal in the USA).

“Perceive internet porn as far more compelling than porn of the past”
R: There are no data to support this statement.

“Unending novelty”
R: Actually, the Koukannas study had nothing to do with internet erotica. The speaker did not show all the points from the actual plot in the study (see attached) and failed to note that this showed simple dishabituation, not “internet novelty” as he claims.

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“It’s not mere nudity, but novelty that gets arousal skyrocketing”
R: This is true of every stimulus, emotional or neutral, and has no unique effects in sexual images.

The ram study note “as quoted in”
R: The speaker actually did not access the original study, but relied on the description from a secondary study and failed to provide the full citation for the source article.

“Without the Coolidge effect, there would be no internet porn”
R: There is no evidence to support this statement.

“Perceive each female on a guy’s screen as a genetic opportunity”
R: Perhaps this is obvious, but this is speculative/no data.

“His brain releases the go get it neurochemical dopamine”
R: Two problems with this statement. First, a PET study to demonstrate this has never been done while a person viewing sexual images on the Internet (to sexual stimulation, yes –Internet, no). Second, dopamine has long been tied to learning. It does not, itself, cause behaviors. This is a common public misunderstanding of dopamine.

“As long as the guy can keep clicking, he can keep going and so will his dopamine”
R: There is no evidence to support this statement. In fact, there is every reason to think the dopamine would habituate at the same time the viewing behavior and other sexual responses habituate.

“With Internet porn a guy can see more hot babes in 10 minutes than his ancestors could see in several lifetimes”
R: There is no evidence to support this statement.

“The problem is, he has a hunter-gatherer brain”
R: I have never heard this term used in neuroscience.

“A heavy users brain rewires itself to this genetic bonanza”
R: I have no idea what physiological structures this might be referring to, but there are currently no data to suggest anything unique (i.e., not simple learning processes) occurs during the viewing of sexual images on the Internet.

“His brain becomes associated with this porn harem”
R: The “brain” does not become associated with objects. This is a good example of the lacing of neuroscience-y terms without meaning in this talk.

“Such behaviors that are associated with this are being alone, voyeurism, clicking, …”
R: If the speaker means associated with viewing visual sexual images in general, there is no empirical evidence to support these links. For example, in studies of the emotional response to sexual films, “shock” and “surprise” are rarely endorsed.

“As one young guy once asked, are we the first generation to masturbate left-handed”
R: I appreciate that this was probably offered as humor, but there is no evidence that a greater proportion of people now masturbate left-handed.

“Real sex, in contrast, is courtship…”
R: I have never seen this offered as a definition of “real sex”, nor the term “real sex” ever used in a scientific paper.

“Now what happens when our guy finally gets with a real mate”
R: I am not sure what consistutes a “real” mate, but presume he is contrasting interactions in-person versus electronically. In that case, there are no data suggesting how often men view sexual images before having experiences in person, so it is not clear that the situation is relevant to the use of sexual images on the Internet. Again, this cannot be easily studied in the USA because of restrictions on surveying children about sex.

“He couldn’t find any college age males…”
R: Again, the study is discussed without a proper citation, so I cannot evaluate the claims. 

“Studies have no control groups”
R: This is simply false. The speaker is unaware of the different types of control groups and assumes, because a between-subject study cannot be conducted including non-users, that the phenomenon cannot be studied. Within-subject experimental studies are widely used in science.

“If all men started smoking at age 10…we would think that lunch cancer is normal for all guys”
R: Actually, epigenetics (individual differences) and differences in smoking levels would account for variance in the development of lung cancer. This is a poor example as not “all” men would develop lung cancer.

“They had been using it for a decade then, pretty much non-stop”
R: This is an incomplete study of only 20 men that only recorded self-report and has not been peer-reviewed. There is a tremendous body of much larger samples with more objective data. It is unclear why this study is a focus.

“Researchers haven’t asked porn users about the symptoms that Zimbardo described in The Demise of Guys”
R: I am not sure why they would ask about pop psychology books, but they most certainly have measured executive functions and pathology. There must be 100 publications with questionnaire research like that.

“Arousal addiction symptoms are easily mistaken…”
R: There is no research addressing “arousal addiction” and it does not appear in either DSM-5 or ICD-10.

“Health care providers often assume that these conditions are primary, perhaps the cause of addiction, but never really the result of an addiction”
R: Some of those conditions named are, in fact, Axis I disorders. Diagnostic approaches require that addiction be diagnosed separately if it exists. I am not sure on what grounds the speaker is making a claim about “most” or to which “health care providers” he refers.

“as a consequence, they often medicate these guys without really inquiring about if they have an Internet addiction”
R: How does “Internet addiction” now suddenly appear? This also is not currently a DSM-5 or ICD-10 diagnosis, so it is reasonable for someone not to inquire about something that is not thought to exist.

“Guys never realize that they could overcome these symptoms simply by changing their behavior”
R: Aside from the tautology here (i.e., “guys can change by changing”), there also are no randomly controlled clinical trials concerning Internet porn addiction that would support the idea that a behavioral treatment (assuming that’s what the speaker meant to say) is effective.

“It’s hard to believe that sexual activity could cause addiction because sex is healthy”
R: Decades of research on sexually transmitted infections aside, there are many studies highlighting the potential social and emotional negative effects of sexual behaviors.

“Internet porn is not sex”
R: Currently, no evidence exists that viewing sexual images on the internet is quantitatively or qualitatively different than viewing something sexual in person. While I could speculate about what is likely to differ, these data do not exist.

“Internet porn is as different from real sex as today’s video games are from checkers”
R: I have not yet seen any data scientifically comparing the experience of playing an identical game in person versus on the computer. 

“Wathcing a screen full of naked body parts…”
R: Perhaps I am naive here, but I believe most sexual images are not “body parts” but rather whole bodies interacting.

“…won’t automatically protect one from arousal addiction”
R: I have no idea what is being suggested here, except that we are now back to the term “arousal addiction.” I am not sure why the speaker suggests such viewing might be protective.

“porn has the most potential to become addictive”
R: The speaker appears to only have read the abstract of the study and misquotes it (they use the term “erotica”). Also, the study predicts “Compulsive internet use” not “addiction” as the speaker claims.

“Here’s why, this ancient program,”
R: The study authors did not make any claims about the brain nor measure it in any way.

“the reward circuit,”
R: I have not seen the anatomy referred to in this way. Reward circuitry is preferred because there are known to be multiple feedback systems involved in rewarding processes. Again, this is a good example of using inaccurate neuroscience-y language.

“evolved to drive us towards natural rewards such as sex, bonding, and food. As a consequence, extreme versions of natural rewards have a unique ability to capture us.”
R: There is no data to support that substance addictions are extreme forms of natural rewards. In fact, they are quite clearly outside the physiologically normal response range.

“For example, high calorie foods or hot novel babes give us extra dopamine”
R: Actually, it has never been demonstrated that more attractive sexual images generate more dopamine than less attractive sexual images. Also, the broad use of the term “dopamine” represents another use of science-y neuroscience language that is non-specific.

“Too much dopamine can override our natural satiation mechanism”
R: There are no data to support this statement with respect to human sexuality.

“Give rats unlimited access…”
R: That was not what was done in this study. There were three groups of rats, each had access to both regular food ad-libitum. Two also had access to calorically-dense foods, one group had unlimited access to them. Weight gain occurred in both the resitrcted and unrestricted high-density groups, which actually suggests the middle group continued to feed on regular choe (33% of calories) as well. This rebuts the speakers use of this study, if the fact that it was a rodent study alone did not.

“This is also why 4 out of 5 Americans are overweight”
R: I am not aware of any scientist claiming that this explains all American obesity.

“About half of those are obese, that is, addicted to food”
R: I am not aware of any scientists claiming that food addiction is present in every person who is overweight.

“In constrast to natural rewards, drugs, like cocaine or alcohol, only hook about 10% of users”
R: There are no data contrasting drugs and sexual image “addictiveness”.

“This binge mechanism for food or sex”
R: This is the first mention of “binge”, which is commonly distinguished in substance addictions research and has never been demonstrated with respect to sexual images.

“What if mating season never ends?”
R: I do not know what this means and the speaker does not explain.

“All those hits of dopamine can tell you brain to do two things…”
R: Dopamine is involved in many functions. I am happy to send review papers. Simplifying to two without recognizing this complexity is too much, even for a public talk.

“They kick in a molecular switch called delta-fos B…and that starts to accumulate in the brain’s reward circuit”
R: Actually, delta-fosB is a transcription factor that exterts effects on DA sensitivity (the arrow is drawn in the wrong direction on the speaker’s slide). Also, it is not clear whether delta-Fosb is changing expression, not “accumulating”. This is another example of the inaccurate use of neuroscience-y language by the speaker.

“Now with excess chronic consumption of drugs or natural rewards this build up of deltafosB starts to alter the brain and promotes a cycle of binging”
R: In reality, this change has never been demonstrated with erotic images, and only one study of rodents even suggested it might occur in animals. No authors that I am aware of have claimed this is linked to “binging”.

“If the binging continues…”
R: Actually, no study of delta-fosB has done longitudinal manipulations that would support this statement.

“Seen in all addicts”
R: This most definitely has not been demonstrated in all addicts. In fact, it has yet to be observed in humans. These remain animal models for the time being.

“The dominoes are…”
R: Any statement made with such certainty as absent as this science is must be inappropriate.

“brain changes”
R: What brain changes? Another use of non-specific neuroscience-y language.

“One of the first changes is a numbed pleasure response”
R: Although it is not clear what this is the first change of, if we guess the speaker is referring to substance addictions, the overwhelming data (largely work by Kent Berridge) actually clarify that decreases in liking occur late in substance addictions. I am not aware of any place where this is still debated in science.

“It kicks in so every day pleasures really don’t satisfy a porn addict”
R: Decreased general pleasure responsivity has never been documented in people who believe they are addicted to sexual images. 

“At the same time, other physical changes in the brain make the brain hyperreactive to porn”
R: Hyperreactivity in the brain has never been demonstrated in these individuals.

“Everything else in the porn-users life is sort of boring”
R: No data support this assertion, although it is non-specific enough to be very difficult to test. A Barnum statement, perhaps?

“Porn is super-exciting”
R: Again, this has never been demonstrated in the brain of these individuals.

“Finally, his will-power erodes”
R: No longitudinal data exist on this topic. The closest longitudinal data suggest that it is actually the other way around: those who are higher sensation seeking will look for more sexual images over time, not be made more sensation seeking by them.

“As his frontal cortex changes”
R: No data support any frontal cortex changes in these individuals.

“I can’t emphasize this enough, all addictions share these same brain changes, and the same molecular switch that kicks em in deltaFosB”
R: See previous. This statement is simply false. This has not been demonstrated.

“Now scientists have used brain scans to measure these changes in drug addicts”
R: DeltafosB cannot be measured by any scanning tool. 

“These scans show a reduced pleasure response in drug addicts”
R: Actually, the pleasure and rewards circuitry has long been studied separately in the brain, and now jumping to call this a “pleasure” response shows a general sloppiness and misunderstanding of neuroscience.

“These changes have been shown in…”
R: The citations flashed on slide at 9:11 reflect PET, fMRI and EEG studies, none of which represent replications as the speaker claims.

“and now, in Internet addicts”
R: Actually, that study refers to structural differences, not functional differences, and has not been replicated. Not also the lack of any authors or journal information.

“Just notice the dates, I want you to know that they exist”
R: It is unclear why the dates are important or what the point of saying “brain studies exist” is other than to continue to dress up a concept with neuroscience-y language.

“All brain research points in only one direction. Constant novelty at a click can cause addiction”
R: Not one of the studies speaks to that point. Even the one Internet study he mentions was not functional (i.e., had no assessment of clicking behavior).

“Now we know this because when scientists examine former Internet addicts they found that these brain changes were reversing themselves”
R: What scientists? “Reversal” is a very strong term to offer without evidence.

“Unfortunately, none of these studies isolate porn users but they do include them”
R: The only caveat offered the entire talk.

“Here’s the game changer: at least we have a group of guys who are no longer using…these guys are the missing control group in the great porn experiment.”
R: No scientist has written about a great missing control group. This is an invention of the speaker who does not understand scientific design.

“They are showing experts what changing one single variable can do”
R: I am not aware of any scientist who claims that psychological treatments operate on single variables.

“You probably want to know why any porn-loving guy in his right mind would want to give it up? Two words: erectile dysfunction”
R: No study has ever tied sexual image viewing with erectile dysfunction.

“Survey by the Italian Society of Andrology”
R: This is not accessible for review. It appears not to be an experiment, so is innapropriate to cite as evidence.

“Confirms what we have witnessed over the last few years”
R: No data actually appear to have ever been published by this group.

“Nor is the problem psychological, it’s due to physical changes in the brain”
R: I am not aware of remaining dualists in science who think the “brain” and “psychology” are separable in the way the speaker seems to think they are.

“Addiction-related changes: their numb brains are sending weaker and weaker signals to their bananas”
R: There is no evidence for this statement.

“As Dr. Foresta says”
R: There is no citation offered and there appear to be no associated empirical data.

“Foresta describing a classic addiction process”
R: I do not see the word “addiction” anywhere in his quote. The source is not available to check.

“Internet porn is qualitatively different from Playboy”
R: This has not been established empirically, and it is unclear why images on a computer would differ from images in magazines.

“Widespread youthful ED has never been seen before”
R: It absolutely has and was attributed to health and drug-abuse factors, not viewing sexual images on a computer (see Ley, Prause, & Finn, 2014) for review.

“ED is often the only symptom that gets these guys attention”
R: No data support this.

“The question is what less obvious symptoms are they missing. Most don’t figure that out until after they quit.”
R: No data to support this.

One minute anecdote
R: This is rarely seen at science meeting since anecdotes are not data, but the next statement is the real problem.

“This is why pockets of guys are apeparing all over the web”
R: No data to support this.

“Wherever men congregate. In essence, they are seeking a neurochemical rebirth”
R: I have no idea what a “neurochemical rebirth” is.

“What they really mean is giving up porn.”
R: I am familiar with that group. The actual name itself refers to masturbation, not porn, and is consistent with their forum. The speaker is simply mischaracterizing the community to make the problem appear real.

“this movement, to unhook from porn, is growing rapidly”
R: No empirical data support this, except the speaker’s own three (!) websites dedicated to convincing men such a problem exists.

“There is a bizarre fly in the ointment. Guys in their early twenties aren’t regaining their erectile health as quickly as older guys”
R: No data support this.

“They didn’t start on today’s Internet porn. Now we know this is a key variable because the older guys didn’t start having sexual problems until they got high speed internet”
R: No data support this.

“Today’s young teens start on high speed internet when their brains are at their peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity”
R: No data support this statement.

“This is also when they are most vulnerable to addiction”
R: Addiction to what? This claim cannot be evaulated, but if it refers to visual sexual images there are no data to support it.

“By adulthood, teens strengthen heavily used circuits and prune back unused ones, so by age 22 or so a guy’s sexual tastes can be like deep ruts in his brain”
R: No data support this. “Deep ruts” does not refer to any real physiological event.

“This can cause panic if a guy has escalated to extreme porn or porn that no longer matches his sexual orientation”
R: No data support that men “panic” nor that they escalate to sexual images consistent with a different sexual orientation.

“Fortunately, brains are plastic so his tastes can revert once he quits porn”
R: Although it is not clear what is meant by “plastic” here, no data to support brain changes or brain changes that “revert” with cessation of viewing.

Fifty second anecdote beginning 15:15.
R: Again, anecdotes do not equal data.

“…experts [should] listen to the thousands of men who are teaching us about arousal addiction by escaping it”
R: It is unclear where these data on thousands of men quitting are, if they exist at all.

 

Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org. She authors the Mormon Therapist Blog, hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.

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