Dr. Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist who has spent his
career helping families and schools foster good character in young
people. He is

education professor emeritus at the State University of New York at
Cortland and founding director of its Center for the 4th and
5th Rs—Respect and Responsibility (


). His books for parents and teachers include
Raising Good Children, Educating for Character, and, with his wife Judy, a book for teens, Sex, Love, and You:
Making the Right Decision.

Last October, he spoke on the topic “Battling Pornography” at a
conference on “Character Education and Digital Lifestyles” sponsored by
the Interaxion Group and hosted by Rome’s Pontifical University of the
Sacred Heart.

According to a recent report from the American Association of
Pediatricians, The Impact of Pornography on Children,
pornography consumption by young Americans is on the rise and is a
direct cause of various psychological and physical dysfunctions. Can it
affect male/human fertility?

It can. The psychiatrist Norman Doidge, in his 2007 bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, was one of the first to report that
persistent pornography use was linked to male sexual problems such as such
as erectile dysfunction and loss of attraction to real partners. The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry
subsequently reported that even moderate pornography use by males was
accompanied by reduced grey matter in the brain and decreased sexual
responsiveness with real women, even though Internet pornography continued
to be sexually arousing for them.

Here is how neuroscientists explained this: “Brain neurons that fire
together, wire together.” Every time a person is sexually excited by
pornographic images and has an orgasm by masturbating, a flood of
dopamine—the reward neurotransmitter—consolidates the brain connections
that were firing during that sexual experience. What the brain finds
sexually arousing keeps changing as the pornography user experiences new
scripts and images.

In this way, pornography hijacks the brain’s reward system. Just as with
drugs, you build up a tolerance so you need more porn, and more deviant
forms of porn, for the same effects. Withdrawal symptoms can occur when you
try to walk away. Last April, the connection between porn and sexual
dysfunction became a cover story in Time magazine: “Porn: Why
Young Men Who Grew Up on It Are Becoming Advocates for Turning It Off.”

A few years have passed since Terry Crews, famous for his aftershave
commercials, publicly admitted to having a pornography addiction and
his struggle to free himself from it. If it’s true that the consumption
of pornography is due to a dependence similar to that of those
suffering cocaine, alcohol and amphetamines addictions, what can be
done to help sufferers?

Fortunately, because of the brain’s plasticity, the neural rewiring caused
by pornography is reversible. Some persons are able to achieve this on
their own by quitting porn “cold turkey,” but many more find they need help
from a counselor, therapist, or support group.

Through the work of Dr. Patrick Carnes in the secular community and Dr.
Mark Laaser in the Christian community, more attention has been drawn to
various forms of sexual addiction, including pornography addiction.
Recovery programs such as Sexaholics Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous,
based on the 12 steps originally used by Alcoholics Anonymous, have helped
many people.

More recently, Dr. Kevin Majeres, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist,
has created a website, www.overcomingcravings.com,
that provides virtue-based, self-help modules that explain the nature of
addictions, including pornography addiction, and how to overcome them.

The Catholic psychotherapist Dr. Peter Kleponis, in his recent book Integrity Starts Here!, lays out a 7-point pornography recovery
program that he says he has used successfully with hundreds of patients. He
explains that emotional factors such as loneliness, insecurity, stress,
anger, a lack of fulfillment in life, and family-of-origin wounds like
divorce can contribute to using or becoming addicted to pornography. His
7-point program includes self-knowledge and commitment; purifying your
life; support and accountability; counseling; a spiritual plan, including
daily prayer; continuing education about healthy relationships and stress
management; and doing “virtue exercises” every day that build up the
character strengths that protect someone from slipping back. He stresses
that striving to live virtuously is a lifelong pursuit.

Besides causing sexual dysfunction in some users, what other harmful
effects of pornography consumption has research brought to light?

In 2012, the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity
published a comprehensive review of pornography studies in many
different countries that examined the effects of Internet pornography
on teenagers. A number of findings were consistent across cultures:


The more frequently teens viewed sexually explicit Internet material,
the more they thought about sex, the stronger their interest in sex,
and the more they became distracted by their thoughts about sex.


The more teens consumed pornography, the more likely they were to
approve of casual sex and the earlier they began having sex.


The more they watched porn, the more likely some teens were to engage
in the high-risk sexual behaviors that porn depicts and sex while using


When teens viewed pornography that depicted violence, they were more
likely to become aggressive in their own sexual behavior.


The more teens used porn, the more likely they were to become depressed
and engage in delinquent behavior.


Girls tended to report feeling physically inferior to the women they
saw in pornographic material.


Boys tended to worry that they might not be able to perform as the men
in these media did.

Are there other differences between males and females?

Many studies have found that m
ales are much more likely to consume pornography, use it for sexual
excitement and masturbation, and view it alone and in same-sex groups. One
estimate is that 87% of persons addicted to pornography are males.

However, girls are increasingly accessing hard-core pornography. A U.S.
Netvalue Report on Minors found that by the turn of the century, youth
under 17 were spending 65% more time on adult pornography Internet sites
than they did on game sites. Four of the ten who had visited a pornographic
site were girls.

In the American Association of Pediatricians report, pornography
consumption by young people had, among its effects, the acceptance of
infidelity within relationships and the perception of marriage as
obsolete. In what way and to what extent can pornography affect and
alter our attitudes toward marriage and the desire to have children?

The pornography study you’re referring to was done in the 1980s before
Internet pornography. It had one group of randomly assigned college
students and other young adults from the community view pornographic
material for 6 weeks. Among various negative effects, including greater
tolerance for rape, those subjects showed a dramatic reduction in how they
rated the desirability of marriage and having children, compared to ratings
by a control group that had viewed non-sexual material. This experiment, we
should note, was ethically problematic because it exposed subjects in the
porn-viewing group to something that was harmful.

In explaining why marriage and children became less desirable to those who
had viewed pornography, the authors of this study pointed out that
pornography depicts sexual gratification as impersonal, self-centered, and
relationship-free rather than part of a committed love relationship that
carries responsibilities. By contrast, these researchers said, marriage and
parenting are two of the biggest commitments and responsibilities we can
take on as human beings. Pornography’s depiction of depersonalized, “free
sex” appears to have had the effect, on the young adults in this study, of
weakening the values of love, responsibility, and sacrifice that marriage
and raising children require.

In what other ways does pornography give a distorted picture of human

Besides divorcing sex from love, pornography presents a very warped,
dehumanized picture of sexual relations. It doesn’t show the behaviors that
are part of healthy, caring sexual relationships such as intimate
conversation, kissing, cuddling, and being responsive to each other’s
needs. In pornography, deviant and abusive sex is the norm.

In a competitive market, pornographers vie with each other to produce ever
more extreme footage. In one study of popular porn videos, the number of
sexual partners in a scene ranged from 1 to 19; the average was three.
Scenes in these videos commonly featured gang rape, brutal and repeated
anal sex, and other degrading actions such as men ejaculating into a
woman’s face. Nine out of 10 scenes showed a woman being verbally
humiliated, hit, beaten, or otherwise harmed. Almost always, the victim
seemed not to mind or looked happy about it.

Actors who have quit the porn industry say that with editing and off-screen
coercion, pornographers can make it look as if what’s happening onscreen is
being enjoyed—but the reality is that the actors are constantly threatened
and verbally abused by their agents and directors to get them to do things
they don’t want to do. Websites such as FighttheNewDrug.org and
pornkillslove.com include such testimonies by former porn actors. Books
that reveal the sordidness of the porn industry include Pornland
by Gail Dines and Pamela Paul’s

Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our
Relationships, and Our Families.


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