Silva Neves

Silva Neves
Psychosexual, Relationship and Couples Therapist

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

How to think about pornography

There is so much confusion about pornography at the moment. It’s easy to be scared of it because there seems to be a cultural and social panic about it. 

Much of what is online and in books on the subject demonize porn, creating fear. The instant access to pornography through devices is relatively recent. It is easy to be in panic about it if we think that porn is everywhere, only a few taps away, invading the private space of our homes. 

People are free to think of pornography whichever they want to think of it, watch it or not watch it. It doesn’t bother me. I’m neither pro-porn or anti-porn. However, what bothers me is the vast amount of wrong facts about porn that is grossly misleading the public and is unscientific. There is so much misinformation that the real science drowned in so much noise. The focus of this blog is to bring some facts back to the debate. Some of these may be uncomfortable truths. But as a clinician, I’m led by clinical evidence rather than personal opinions or popular views. 

It is popular to demonize porn and to point the fingers at it for everything that is going wrong in people’s relationships or sex lives. Focusing on porn is definitely looking in the wrong places and, unfortunately, focusing on stopping watching porn will not fix your sexual issues, your relationship problems or your sense of well-being. Most importantly, focusing on stopping watching porn won’t teach you anything about yourself, your erotic mind, how to achieve psychological well-being and psychosexual wellness. It won’t teach you anything about what is really going on in your intimate relationships. It will only teach you to repress some important things about yourself, which only set you up to face them again in the future, in other forms, maybe even worst forms. I’m sorry to burst the bubble.

Firstly, allow me to de-bunk some myths. I would like to stress again that these are not my personal views, there are my clinical understanding based on the real scientific research: 

1-   ‘Porn makes a bad society’. Wrong: data shows that sexual crimes are lower in areas where there is greater access to porn. This phenomenon is observed widely: it is common knowledge that when sex is repressed, people can demand it in ways that are inappropriate. 

2-   ‘Porn creates objectification’. Wrong: objectification is focusing on a body parts and making it an object of sexual gratification, without considering the whole human being. Research in sexual fantasies show that men and women, even those who do not watch porn objectify. In fact, it seems that objectification is a part of sexual desire and sexual arousal. Some people may objectify more than others, but, it is largely a normal human thing to do. However, when men objectify, it can be perceived as being more threatening, understandably, because of the number of men being sexually violent to women. Another interesting study shows that many men focuses on the performers’ faces rather than body parts, as what is most arousing is the look of pleasure. Men and women both have fantasies that have emotional component, but we tend to express it in different ways. Men are not from Mars and Women are not from Venus. We all are from the same Erotic planet.

3-   ‘Porn creates relationship problems’. Wrong: porn is the easy and convenient way to make an exit to avoid the problems in the relationship but it doesn’t create relationship problems. Other things create relationship problems. Like sexual shame, high morals, contempt, anger, power struggles, low self-esteem, distorted beliefs about sex and relationships, insecurities, and so on. 

4-   ‘Porn creates erectile dysfunction’. Wrong: this is a popular view promoted by anti-porn campaigns that is fiercely inaccurate and unscientific. Erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems pre-date watching porn: porn is the easiest area of enjoying one’s sexuality without the anxiety of performance, so it is more enjoyable. True scientific research finds that the erections and orgasms with porn can be of better quality: it can truly be a special quality sexual time with yourself. 

5-   ‘Porn pornifies the brain and re-wires it negatively, the brain needs to be re-booted’.  Wrong: this is another popular opinion that has no bases in sciences. It is so popular that there are some anti-porn, anti-masturbation organizations using the word ‘reboot’ in their slogans. I’m going to burst your bubble again: the brain is not a computer and there is no re-boot button. The brain never reboots as it continuously develops. Once we watch something that titillates us, it tends to stay in the brain and we tend to return to it. The same process happens if we watch something that repulses us, we tend to stop watching it and never return to it (which disproves another inaccurate view that porn watching escalates to places we don’t want to go to: wrong). The brain keeps re-wiring itself based on experiences that we have. If we keep having anxiety-filled experiences having sex with someone and anxiety-free watching porn, porn will continue to be more attractive. Stopping watching porn and stopping masturbating for 90 days isn’t going to reboot your brain. In fact it’s going to increase your sexual shame and your anxiety. And it won’t teach you how to have anxiety-free sex with partners the way you want to, which is the crux of the problem, actually. 

6-   ‘Watching porn leads to paedophilia, sexual offending and sexual violence towards women’. Wrong: this is probably the most fear-mongering propaganda against porn. In fact, proper research consistently proves the opposite. Paedophilia and sexual offending are specific areas of pathology and psychological disturbance. Watching porn and masturbating is not pathological and does not indicate psychological problems. 

7-   ‘Porn is addictive’. Wrong: this is also a very popular belief based on moralistic opinions rather than science. The use of pornography is being consistently rejected from all medical and psychological bodies as there is no clinical evidence of addictive properties to porn. the World Health Organisation (WHO) which has made a diagnostic criteria for compulsive sexual behaviours (ICD-11), and which is very much led by scientific evidence, has explicitly rejected the idea of ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’. 

Anti-porn, anti-masturbation organisations often cite hundreds of ‘studies’ and ‘brain scans’ and words like ‘dopamine’ to prove their point and make the public believe them. Don’t be intimidated by all of that! Most ‘studies’ cited in those websites and books are not scientifically sound because they all fail to measure many elements that constitute criteria for pathology. They also fail to measure the relationship between porn, masturbation and sexual satisfaction. They ignore many important facts.

Dopamine is so often mentioned as way to make those inaccurate ‘studies’ credible. The truth is that dopamine goes up when the brain notices something is novel. Dopamine is not part of the pleasure experience (Schultz won a nobel prize for demonstrating this, so it is quite insulting when people keep saying the contrary). Dopamine is actually great and healthy, it means your brain is responding appropriately to novelty. Of course, there is a lot of novelty in porn. 

Also, these pseudo-science ‘studies’ that demonize porn most often make the basic error of confusing correlation and causation. Two things can be strongly correlated and have absolutely no causal relationship. It is this basic error that makes anti-porn, anti-masturbation preachers point finger at porn and blame it for all sorts of problems. 

If porn is not a problem in itself, then what is the real problems? It is important to recognise that many people struggle with their use of porn. If it is not a disease, a character defect, an addiction, like so many anti-porn campaigners say, then what is this problem? 

Whether we like it or not, young people aged 11 and above are curious about sex. We cannot change this. Children should not be watching porn because it is adult entertainment and not appropriate for underage people. But there is a massive lack of sex education. Parents feel awkward talking about sex. Teachers are equally uncomfortable talking about it. So where does it leave young people with a mind full of curiosity and questions? Of course, they turn to porn. And it is definitely the wrong place for sex education. The inappropriate lessons they get from porn is: ‘my penis should be big and hard all the time’, ‘vaginas should be hairless’, ‘men and women’s body should look perfect’, ‘sexual intercourse should last for 30 minutes at least’, ‘women should be screaming during sex’, ‘men should pound women hard’, and so on. All of these messages are so bad that they will set young people up for a lot of sexual and relationship problems. I can’t say it often: more sex education, please!

Let’s look at it another way: shall we say that fast food cause obesity and kill people? Shall we then ban all fast food and only have salad shops? Or is the problem in people not knowing enough about nutrition, not knowing how to use fast food appropriately, not knowing how to cook? What if there was more food education and what if we taught every child how to cook properly? I think it would be more useful than demonizing fast food. The same goes with porn. 

Porn can also indicate an insecure relationship dynamics. Many women fear porn because of their insecurities: they can’t compete with the porn actress: ‘if my husband watches a blond actress and I’m brunette, it means he doesn’t find me sexually attractive’, and so on. Research in sexual fantasies finds that most people fantasize about their partner, and they don’t pay that much attention to actresses or actors. For some, porn is a way to imagine themselves having great sex with their partner. For others, it is a private world that is well boundaried and doesn’t have an impact on their sexual feelings towards their partner. Most people don’t know that. Again, the misinformation fuels fear of porn inaccurately. There is a similar phenomenon with men being threatened by women using sex toys fearing it is a replacement of their penis and the toy can provide more pleasure than the penis: how can the penis compete with vibrations going for hours! Yet, most women enjoy their partner’s penis and their sex toys in boundaried ways, without any dark motives of replacing their partner’s penis. If it is absolutely unacceptable for your partner that you watch porn, you have two choices: you stop watching porn to keep your relationship or you change your partner. This seems simple and flippant, but it is not. One of the main ingredients for a good relationship is to have important shared values. If you have different values about porn and they are important values, you may need to consider finding someone with the same values. Let’s take another example: some people will only be in a relationship with someone who share their political values, or they dietary values, or their status values. The same goes with the porn values. 

Psychosexual issues. Most often, because of a lack of sex education and unpleasant or anxiety-filled first sexual experiences, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or delayed ejaculation can be a struggle for many men. Most often, these psychosexual problems are what we call ‘situational’, they only occur in the situation where they are with a partner, not when alone. This is obvious as there is no need for anxiety of ‘not performing’ when alone. Porn does not create such dysfunctions. The dysfunctions come first and make porn a lot more pleasurable than partner sex. Resolving these psychosexual issues involves fostering an anxiety-free sexual space and full acceptance with the two partners, which can be almost impossible to achieve if one partner is very hurt by the use of porn, disapproving and angry. For sex to be good in a relationship, the partner who feels betrayed by porn needs to recovery, first. Then, the couple can work on their sex lives, as a team. 

Sexual shame. It is now well documented that the biggest struggle that people face with porn isn’t actually the watching it or masturbating to it, but the shame they feel afterwards. Shame is a strong and unpleasant emotions that can propel some people to try to find a ‘cure’ to their porn problems. The anti-porn campaigns fuel this shame exponentially. In my consulting room, I see on a regular basis sexual shame dissolving as soon as I normalise masturbation behaviours and present them with the real science behind it. Religious and moralistic opinions can increase sexual shame too. However, if you have important religious beliefs that are against porn, you either have to change your beliefs or not watch porn to match your belief. It is easier to choose a religion than to go against your natural sexual fantasies, I think, but it is entirely your choice. Anyone can do it. Stop watching porn does not cause withdrawal symptoms. 

For some people, watching porn and masturbation is a good way to soothe some emotions: stress, sadness, anger, boredom, for example. If it is the only method for soothing, porn watching and masturbation can feel like compulsive. Most often, it is not compulsive, but individuals need to learn other ways to self-soothe so that they can have different ways to deal with emotions, not just one. Porn watching and masturbation can then be one out of several methods of soothing and it will feel more in control. 

There are many ways you can watch porn ethically and safely for adult and sexual entertainment purposes and integrate it into a vibrant sex life both with yourself and with your partner. For more guidance on this, I recommend the book ‘Ethical Porn for Dicks’ by David J. Ley. For more information on interesting scientific research on sexual fantasies, I recommend ‘Tell Me What You Want’ by Justin Lehmiller. 

If this blog was challenging for you, I hope you can take some time to digest it and look after yourself. I hope I brought some clarity to some people and food for thoughts for other people. If you think this is a terrible blog, you can peacefully stop reading it. If you think this is a good blog, I hope it can help you towards your sexual development, sexual and relationship maturity and accepting your rich and vibrant erotic world, within the boundaries that feel right for you. 

Silva Neves

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Valentine's Day Special: the struggles to find love.

Most people want to be loved but struggle to find love. Everybody has a different idea of what love is: some people think they have to find ‘the one’ and be in a monogamous bliss. Some people want to find one primary life partner to love and have sex with others. And other people want to love more than one person at a time. All of these different ways of finding love are good, they make up the huge diversity of what we want and desire as human beings. 

In my consulting room, I hear many single people struggling to find love, over and over again, but what I also hear are blocks that people have to find love. 

These are some of the blocks:

1- Low self-esteem. If we can’t love ourselves it is hard to open up to another. Why? Because there is a fear that others will see us as an unloveable person. We are our worst critics and we can think about ourselves with the harshest words: ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I’m not worthy of love’, ‘who would love me?’ ‘I’m a good for nothing’, ‘I’m too ugly’, ‘I’m too fat’, ‘I’m not smart enough’,  and so on and so forth. If we believe those things about ourselves, we can’t open up to others because we are afraid they will also see what we think of ourselves. 

2- Fear of rejection. Many of us harbor subconscious beliefs about ourselves or the world around us that can distort our perception of reality. For example, if you have a core belief that says: ‘I’m all alone in the world’ it will be hard for you to have an emotional sense that your partner is really genuine when they say: ‘I love you’. You won’t be able to hear these words, instead, you are hypervigilant to the signs of rejection: you can discount the words ‘I love you’ yet pay great attention to your partner being late for ten minutes, which you translate as: ‘he doesn’t love me’ because this fits with ‘I’m alone in the world’. Other people have core beliefs about relationships, which they have learnt from childhood experiences such as: ‘people don’t stick around’, ‘It hurts to be in a relationship’. Instead of engaging fully in a connection with someone else, we can approach others with a barrier to shield us from anticipatory rejection: this is a self-fulfilling prophecy as it makes it hard for somebody to truly connect with us if all we show of ourselves is our shield. 

3- The perfection complex. This is becoming more and more of a problem as we live in an age where everybody looks at everybody else’s best life moments captured with beautifying filters. When we see our friends and peers on social media always being happy, beautiful and successful, we tend to compare their beautiful ‘shop window’ with our messy storage backroom: we then feel we are the only one who is imperfect and we feel deeply inadequate. We become afraid that we won’t be liked, that we won’t be good enough. So, again, to protect ourselves, we hide, and as we do so we can’t be seen for who we really are. 

This Valentines Day, I challenge you all to make a stand against all those blocks. Be proud of your imperfections. Challenge your unhelpful thoughts: ‘you are a loveable person. You have a lot to offer to a relationship. You are good enough just as you are!’ You don’t need a six-pack or an iron-board flat stomach to be desirable. Take a risk to be vulnerable opening your arms and show who you truly are to another, invite them to open their arms too. Share one thing you’re insecure about, or one thing you worry about, one thing you are scared of, or one thing you dream about. And invite a friend to do the same with you. 

Intimacy and love (whether it is with a partner or a friend) does not reside in conversations about how many vegan meals you ate or how many times you go to the gym. But in the dialogue: ‘this is me. Right here. With all my imperfections. And I want you, as you are. Together, sharing our true selves. I will show you my hopes and dreams and I will share with you my anxieties and fears. And I invite you to do the same.’ 

Put your phone down, look up and see that everybody is imperfect and everybody has similar anxieties, hopes and dreams as you have, because we are all humans. Be courageous and be kind to yourself and others, because it is through radical acceptance, connection and nurture that we can all flourish and it is within that space that we can find true love. 

Happy Valentine’s Day. 

Silva Neves