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Pornography is everywhere, thanks to the internetPornhub

They say everyone remembers their first time and I certainly remember mine. It was the summer of 1992, with a beautiful blonde girl. Well actually, now I think about it, there were probably four or five girls. And there were a couple of men as well, one of whom I distinctly recall having a handlebar moustache and wearing nothing but a pair of black Nike Air Jordans.

For millions of men, the first time they watch porn was – is – part of the process of growing up. Part of the journey to sexual maturation, when you start finding out what turns you on, even which gender turns you on. For most people of my generation the process was fairly harmless; maybe a peek at Playboy, a Mills and Boon novel or, in my case, a slightly disturbing encounter with a foreign satellite channel while surfing BSkyB for the Italian football highlights. Our guilty pleasure was, in hindsight, all fairly innocent.

But nowadays the business of porn is far more serious – and dangerous. The extension of the internet into all aspects of our daily lives allows people to find porn whenever and wherever they like, and nothing, not even the most extreme or depraved material, is more than a few clicks away. Even mainstream celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Kate Moss are getting in on the act by getting it out, flaunting their nakedness on social media and in semi-respectable magazines. Porn's tentacles are wrapped around each and every one of us; there's no escape any more.

Anti-porn sites on the rise

Yet there is now a burgeoning movement to rid humanity of this scourge. Sites such as No Porn and the charmingly named NoFap are encouraging people to kick the habit, to stop watching porn in the belief that abstinence improves people's performance at work, at school and in the bedroom. Campaigns are gathering momentum on social media, with a persuasive vehemence that would have made American prohibitionists proud a century ago.

But is porn really that bad? Is this a genuine problem, or simply a corrective response to the tsunami of T&A which has engulfed the internet?

To find out, IBTimes UK spoke to Gary Wilson, the high priest of the anti-porn movement, a man whose scientific background has earned him a huge internet following. His site, Your Brain On Porn, is one of the most popular resources for those seeking to learn more about the dangers posed by modern erotica, and has persuaded an army of addicts to go cold turkey.

Studies have shown that one in 25 adults is affected by compulsive sexual behaviour.
Studies have shown that one in 25 adults is affected by compulsive sexual behaviour.Reuters

Wilson, who founded YBOP four years ago, says he isn't an activist. If people want to watch two (or more) strangers having sex on the internet, he isn't going to lose any sleep over it. He is simply turned on by the science of porn; as a former anatomy teacher, he is fascinated by the development of the human brain, particularly in relation to sex. This passion is shared by his wife Marnia Robinson, an author who was written several books about relationships.

"It all started when I met my wife 15 years ago," Wilson tells IBTimes UK. "We wrote articles and books about the neurobiology of sex and relationships. We felt we had to write about it because there was a big gap between the science and the literature and what was really happening. We started writing about it on her site, and then she said I needed to build a site myself."

Internet porn stats

It has been estimated that up to 37% of the entire internet is devoted to porn - although the figures vary

Over $3,000 is spent on pornography every second

A new pornographic video is created in the United States every 39 minutes

Annual porn industry revenue in China is almost $28bn

Sources: BBC/Internet Filter Review

But why are sites like YBOP gaining so much traction now? Surely porn has been around since man learnt to draw - why is it such a menace to society all of a sudden?

"First of all it's about videos, streaming videos," Wilson says. "That means that pre-adolescents can watch three-minute clips of real people, of real sex, if you want to call it that.

"Streaming videos started in 2006. It needed high-speed internet. Porn also created tube sites, short clips on the internet depicting scenes of hardcore sex. Thanks to the internet, everyone now has access to streaming videos."

'It's rewiring our brains'

According to Wilson, porn is so addictive because the core functions of the internet tap directly into our primitive brain. It's all to do with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates the brain's reward and pleasure centres.

"The reward circuit gets activated for things such as sex, food, water, achievement, but it also gets activated for novelty," Wilson tells me. "And that's what the internet is - the ability to click from scene to scene. You get a big jump in dopamine and an activation of the reward circuit. The internet is so appealing, smartphones are so appealing, because they activate the reward circuit through novelty.

"There's also violation of expectations. When something's different than expected, that gives you dopamine. You're constantly getting more than what you expected, getting different stuff to what you expected. The simple aspect is shock or surprise - that's why a horror film is exciting, that's why a roller coaster is exciting. And anxiety is really, really exciting; it causes adrenaline, which in turn causes arousal."

The scientist suggests the ubiquity and addictiveness of porn is, essentially, rewiring our brains to view sexual gratification as a passive experience. You don't have to use your imagination anymore, or even take an active part in the process. The beauty of porn is that it comes to you, with no effort required, flooding your brain with images of unrealistic pleasure and beauty.

"It's conditioning your sexual arousal just like Pavlov's dog to constant novelty, fetishes, etc," Wilson explains. "You're creating a template when you're sitting in a chair and masturbating.

"Some people find they can just click from pornstar to pornstar, [and] that their real partner doesn't match the way the pornstar looks, or responds."

'It trains us to be dissatisfied'

According to Wilson, huge numbers of people are now seeking sexual gratification from porn rather than the real thing. This problem has previously been cited as a root cause of erectile dysfunction; men are used to ogling a fantasy, a silicone-enhanced version of female perfection, so they find the real-world imperfections of their partner a turn-off. Porn is also an inherently solitary pursuit, far simpler and easier than intercourse with a partner.

Wilson also believes the "porn effect", abetted by internet dating sites, is behind the sharp increase in the average age of marriage over recent years; people are always looking for someone more attractive, closer to the fantasies that have brainwashed them on the web.

"It [internet porn] is really training all of us that we are dissatisfied," he says. "We can easily click on something new, then we can click on Tinder and start a new date."

Marriage
Marriage has been a major casualty of the porn explosionReuters

This opinion is backed up by recent figures, including a survey from the Office of National Statistics, which reveals that, in England and Wales, the average age at marriage in 2012 was 36.5 for men, and 34 for women. Both averages had increased by almost eight years from 1972.

Studies also show the problems of rape and domestic violence are worsening drastically, and the issues are as prevalent in the UK as anywhere. The number of recorded rapes in England and Wales rose by 29% in the 12 months to June 2014, while the number of domestic violence cases rose by 15% in the final quarter of 2013 alone.

Wilson is reluctant to state categorically that porn leads to violence against women, because "the studies are conflicting". However, he suggests hardcore erotica is encouraging men, particularly young men, to view their female partners as submissive toys who will enjoy extreme versions of intercourse.

He says: "I'd say there's difference between measuring violence and measuring coercion. That wasn't studied until recently. Last year, researchers looked at young people, ages 16 to 18, and there was a tremendous increase in anal intercourse. The men felt compelled to do it because they'd been watching it in porn so they convinced their girlfriends to do it, even though neither partner said they really enjoyed it. The adolescents are thinking this is normal."

'They develop fetishes, which cause anxiety'

Yet perhaps the most prevalent problem is the mental damage wreaked by today's high-speed, ultra-stimulating internet pornography, which can all-too-easily become an insidious crutch, like alcohol or class A drugs.

Like any addiction, pornography can lead to withdrawal symptoms and depression. As well as lowering self-esteem, it provides a hit of pleasure that can easily induce dependence. Furthermore, as users become attuned to ever-more extreme versions of porn, they can wind up getting hooked on genres that go against their core sexuality, which itself creates a vicious circle of doubt and despair.

Straight users who venture on to gay sex videos [or vice versa] may find the anxiety of the experience - the sense they shouldn't be doing this - gives them an exhilarating rush of dopamine. But later they start to question their sexuality and often get sucked into a rabbit hole of doubt; the term "homosexuality OCD", or HOCD, has been coined to encompass the growing number of young people, both straight and gay, trapped in rumination about their orientation.

"In general guys develop porn-induced fetishes," Wilson says, "whether it be incest, female domination, some can develop transsexual porn, even gay porn, and the reverse. We've had lesbians who've been gay their entire life who end up getting off to straight porn. It's the need for greater and greater stimulation.

"People search for more novel porn, more shocking porn, eventually they escalate through rape porn and domination to gay porn. It doesn't match their actual sexual tastes so it stimulates anxiety, and you can escalate while you are masturbating, you get bored with BDSM and you see gay movies on a tube site. It's shocking, you ejaculate and you wire in that arousal to that certain act. Afterwards comes the recrimination."

'We need to talk about the reward circuit'

So what can be done about porn? Is it time for us to launch jihad on the smut-puddlers, to introduce prohibition for pornography? Wilson isn't convinced this is possible.

He says: "I know in the UK they try and set up so you have to opt in to porn sites, but I'm not sure whether that will work; people must be able to get around that. Some are suggesting that all porn sites should be accessible with a credit card, but I'm not sure how that would work either."

The expert believes the only option is to focus on the schools, before children become hooked, and stop tip-toeing around the issue of erotica.

"What's missing in sex education?" Wilson asks. "The education about the reward circuit. About how the internet and the delivery system can impact on the porn circuit. How the adolescent brain is completely different from the adult brain, and how that's completely different due to the internet."

Wilson's masterplan may work to an extent. Perhaps subsequent generations, raised in cyberspace from birth, will be more judicious. Perhaps the No Porn movement will go global, and sites such as PornHub will go out of business. But with researchers suggesting up to 40% of the internet is now devoted to pornographic material, the crusaders have a fierce fight on their hands.

For more info on Your Brain on Porn, visit the website here.