The deeper problem with pornography

I wrote this piece several years ago, but I’m posting it now because it appears that the mainstream media are finally addressing this issue. A recent issue of TIME featured an excellent cover story on the psychological and physiological effects of porn. Apparently, it’s rendering young men who have grown up on it impotent in actual sexual relationships, which is forcing them to pay attention and seek help. My sense is that the widespread availability of pornography has the potential to undermine lasting romantic relationship because it short-circuits the natural movement of sexual desire toward loving and mutually fulfilling connection. Here’s the post:

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when I was a kid, pornography was sequestered away in seedy movie theaters and dimly lit “adult entertainment” emporiums. If you were curious to watch it, you had to work hard to find it, and the fear of being seen, coupled with strong social stigma, successfully kept most folks away.

Nowadays porn is everywhere, and you can indulge in it whenever you feel the impulse, merely by calling it up on your browser. Whereas once you had to make an effort to locate it, now you have to fend off unbidden emails and ads trying to seduce you into purchasing it. And late-night talk show hosts make knowing jokes about it, as if it’s an inside secret that everyone shares. If you’re drawn to it, the temptation is ever-present, the gratification is instantaneous, and the cultural attitude is blasé, if not approving. No wonder so many people, men in particular, become addicted to watching it.

As a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher, I’m not surprised when even experienced meditators and spiritual seekers report struggling with a fascination with porn. After all, sexual pleasure has such a powerful pull—without it, we wouldn’t survive as a species. My first suggestion, when I’m counseling someone, is that we set aside the question of whether the fascination is right or wrong and explore it, as we would any other issue, from the perspective of awareness.

The first step is to notice when you feel the impulse to call up porn on your browser and, instead of acting on it, stop and ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What am I wanting or expecting? What am I sensing and where in my body am I sensing it?” Often you’ll find that you’re triggered not by sexual feelings but by a more global sense of dissatisfaction and unease, what the Buddhists call dukkha. Or perhaps you’re trying to avoid difficult feelings like sadness, anger, or fear by burying them in a flood of arousing images. Just be present for these uncomfortable feelings with awareness before acting on them in any way.

Then you can ask yourself, “I may feel an impulse to indulge in pornographic images, but what am I really wanting?” Most often you’ll find a deeper longing—for connection, relationship, comfort, relaxation, happiness, ease of being—that you mistakenly think porn can provide. If you look even more deeply, you may find that what you’re really longing for is a return to integrity, a return to an inner harmony and alignment with your innermost being that has somehow been lost. Once you recognize this longing, you may feel moved to satisfy it in more genuinely fulfilling ways.

One of the problems with porn is that it appeals exclusively to our lower chakras, our animal instincts, which are merely a limited part of who we are as human beings. (The TIME article says that it floods the pleasure centers of the brain with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that all addictions produce.) Whereas making love with a real person can satisfy our full range of needs for physical affection, emotional connection, playful interaction, and sensual enjoyment, pornography provides two-dimensional images only and stimulates a purely physical release. It’s rather like sugar—stripped of its natural nutrients and reduced to a pure white powder, it quickly becomes addictive while not satisfying our deeper hunger for nourishment. Even self-generated fantasy is generally more nourishing than porn because it may include images of realistic physical and emotional connection. The issue is not self-pleasuring, but how we use our minds.

From another angle, you can bring awareness to bear on the process of watching pornography. How do you feel in your body? Is pleasure the predominant experience, or is it jumbled up with anxiety, aggression, revulsion, shame? After you’re done, ask yourself these questions: “Do I feel better now than before I began? Do I feel happier, more loving, more compassionate? Or do I feel more restless, dissatisfied, unfulfilled? How does watching pornography affect my relationships with others? Does it make me more prone to see members of the opposite (or same) sex as mere sexual objects, rather than as multifaceted individuals? Does it distort my sense of how sex should look and feel and cause me to superimpose unrealistic expectations on actual sexual interactions? Does it prompt me to disconnect emotionally while making love and revert to the pornographic image bank I’ve stored up in my brain?”

Perhaps the greatest problem with porn is not that it’s inherently good or bad, but that it channels time, energy, attention, and memory that might otherwise be used for cultivating genuine love, happiness, and peace into stoking the endless fires of sexual desire. In the words of the famous Buddhist scripture the Dhammapada, “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind.” What you dwell on now shapes your future and furthers or hinders your prospects for a loving, happy, peaceful, and ultimately fulfilling life. In everything you do, pay careful attention, be honest with yourself, and notice how your actions affect yourself and others. Thoughts and feelings may come unbidden, but the choice of what you do is always up to you.

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