Learning to Unlearn Lust.
I remember years ago watching a TV documentary about the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. It was an interview on death row an hour before he was to be executed. The interviewer was American evangelical author James Dobson, and he asked a question that I’ll never forget. About midway into the interview, Dobson asked Bundy to elaborate on the antecedents of his behaviour, which many would deem grotesque. Dobson kept prodding to find the turning point of Bundy’s behaviour. With nothing left to lose, his response was as clinical and lifeless as the room itself. In some small glimmer of redemption, he began with repudiating any admission of playing the victim, yet he strongly acknowledged certain contributing factors that influenced his behaviour. Before elaborating any further, he prefaced by recounting his childhood growing up in a loving Christian home, in a house void of any adolescent misgivings. Like any young boy, he would often explore the surrounding neighbourhoods and alley- ways. An innocent curiosity led him to a discovery of adult magazines in another person’s trash. Pair this with the odd, dark, detective magazines, and you have an unhealthy recipe for ruminating all kinds of thoughts. But according to Bundy, it was never the sole reason leading him to act out maliciously the way he did years later. However, it did have an influence over him which amassed over time. One thing led to another. He confessed, ‘It doesn’t make you a serial killer, but it does have a damaging effect on you.’
In Bundy’s case, pornography nudged the pendulum to a very dark and violent side. Others might not sway as violently, but their behaviour might still be affected in more obscure ways. I never imagined how such an influence could distort my own friendships, romantic relationships, family, work, and passions. But I wasn’t blindsided either. I had a self-awareness that something was amiss; it wasn’t enough to snap me out of it, but thankfully it was enough to stop me from going to any extremes. Wisdom is something that you bring to your life — it comes from awareness and experience.
I often wonder how much more someone like Bundy would’ve been affected had he had easy access to mobile devices and the internet. It concerns me when I think about the adverse effects to which today’s generation is exposed. Writer Belinda Luscombe aptly points out in her thought-provoking Time article ‘Porn and the Threat to Virility’:
A growing number of young men are convinced their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic — more prone to permanent change — than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning.
If our brain is a sponge, and our memory a fridge full of marinated imagery, eventually a discerning taste will be impossible to distinguish. The more filth I fed my brain, the more distorted my palate became. True beauty was substituted by artificial sweeteners. I was lucky enough not to grow up with the internet. I say lucky because I’m grateful for my youth spent just being a boy running around a garden, not servant to the TV. Access to any kind of explicit imagery was never immediate or on a whim. It had to be a carefully planned operation just to get hold of a ‘girly’ magazine from the local corner newsagent. I had a better chance of buying a pack of B&H Special Milds over the counter. So I did both hoping that it appeared normal. I personally never had any access to videotapes of such a persuasion unless a friend had discovered his dad’s secret VHS collection by chance. The only supply channel to higher-grade material was in who you knew and the different tricks you’d pick up from the more seasoned kids at school. One friend in particular hid his porn by bookending them between a blockbuster movie he copied onto VHS. So when he handed out movies like Jaws and Rambo, it appeared perfectly normal. His collection of Hollywood movies on his bedroom shelf certainly didn’t seem out of place to his parents.
Back then there was a much bigger mystery to it all, which at times made the allure and fascination greater than the need to fuel a sexual hunger. Nowa- days any sudden urge can be fed within seconds. You never really have time to wrestle with your addiction or the temptation to counteract it. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for young men growing up with unadulterated access and how they’ll be once they reach marriage — if they ever get there.
As Luscombe’s article mentions, more and more young men are having less sex because of an abundance of pornographic material. Mutual consent in a healthy relationship has become less appealing than ease of access. Human responses like feelings, intimacy, and mood have very little relevance anymore. In such a small amount of time, it has gotten even worse because of the increasing pace of technological advancement. The scary facts point to the past decade of demise. Digital access to pornography became an exponentially pervasive component in our lives. In 2007, broadband internet reached 50 per cent of Americans — the same year the ubiquitous Pornhub was founded, and two years following the launch of YouTube.
To give a bit of perspective on how disconcerting it was back then, there were 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult sites out of a total of 167 million U.S. internet users. When we jump to 2013, the stats are similar but contextual to the advancement of technology. American smartphone ownership exceeded 50 percent of the nation’s population. The significant jump wasn’t in the innovative prowess, but that over six years society went from having free access to porn to having free access to porn anytime, anyhow, anywhere. This closed the age gap dramatically. Even more alarming, the average age of young men who now view porn is between eleven and thirteen years old. They most likely make up the twelve million hours a day spent viewing porn globally on Pornhub. The cold, hard reality is that by the time these young boys reach their twenty-first birthday, they will have been knee-deep in viewing porn for nearly a decade. Worse, probably everything they’ve learned about sex will have come from the adult footage they were seeing and sharing. 10 long years of shaping their mind. Now imagine starting a serious relationship after having spent years invested in content that is anything but monogamous and loving.
I’ve always found the irony in pornographic statistics, as I’m convinced of the increasing difficulty in finding any control group willing and honest enough to conduct any conclusive studies. In any test, you need two or more subjects to compare, and finding teenage boys today who have never looked at porn before, or who don’t look at it currently, is almost impossible. As Professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse, of Montreal University in Canada suggests, ‘We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any.’
If you know how the brain works, it’s a lot easier to understand why you or someone close to you is acting out the way they are. When I explained to my wife how the rewards centre of the brain worked, she had a better understanding of why I would so easily lose control. It’s not enough to tell your partner that, ‘men as the collective whole’ are visual creatures. It’s just a stupid cop-out as far as I’m concerned. If you have eyes, you’re visual; women are visual, too, so I don’t completely buy this notion. However, I do believe that men have been conditioned visually far more as young boys than girls have. The rewards circuit over thou- sands of years has developed to respond to natural rewards — things we need to sustain our daily lives, whether it’s finding food, eating, intercourse, or being in communal relationships. These have always been core to our living environment. Over time this started to change when man introduced ‘extreme’ rewards, beyond what is sufficient. These new extreme rewards would cause the dopamine in our brain to overflow. I imagine it must’ve been an intense feeling. Any form of pleasure to our brain is acknowledged as something good for us. Extreme rewards can lead to bingeing, whether on a Big Mac or a slab of Dairy Milk. You’re getting it while the getting’s good, so munch until your heart’s content.
Biology professor Gary Wilson explains how all of this works. A surge in dopamine basically flicks a molecular switch in our brain called Delta FosB, which sounds like some sort of SEAL ops team about to drop in through a roof. Every time there’s a spike in excitement, it causes your dopamine to surge, which then kicks in the Delta FosB, and it accumulates over time (think of it being stored up like an arsenal). This excess Delta FosB has the ability to alter the brain, and, by doing so, it stimulates a habitual cycle of craving or overindulgence. The more this Delta FosB builds up, the more the bingeing accumulates, to the point where the brain changes. For the sake of analogy, imagine someone toying with soft drugs at a party. Over time you notice them doing it more and more, at any chance they can. The brain adapts to the craving of the high, and the effects are less powerful than they were the first few times at the party. So what does the brain do? Well, it craves the initial high, which means there’s a propensity to seek out harder drugs.
In other words, Professor Wilson is saying that with things like online porn, the constant novelty of the click can gradually create addictive traits. As soon as a young boy makes his first click, the everyday pleasures considered to be normal in society eventually become unsatisfying for him. His receptive brain has become hyper-reactive to the provocative imagery he is viewing. As his frontal cortex changes over time, so too does his willpower — it gets weaker and weaker, eroding within. Sometimes I think it’s easier to sympathise with a drug addict because I perceive their battle as a chemical response, assuming it to be unmanageable and there- fore playing them more as a victim than a culprit. It’s easier to wrap your head around why someone is desperate to shoot up or find the next fix. You believe to some degree that their body has wrestled with their mind and won; therefore, they must have little control over their actions. Sure, you’ll still be repulsed or saddened by the addiction, but you’re under no illusion that the chemicals won’t have a massive influence over reason.
Sadly, the reverse is often true for sexual addiction. I suppose most people don’t view it as a chemical issue, as in a solid or liquid substance overpowering your brain, but rather as more of a psychological condition. For most, a chemical connection is far more tenuous. So when a wife tells her husband to stop looking at other women, it shouldn’t appear out of the ordinary for her to do so. It’s a natural and obvious response — “Stop! Close the laptop and get over it!” Like a parent telling her misbehaving child to stop annoying the family dog. Somehow I doubt anyone would expect a drug addict to crave less easily or not at all. Most people have a grasp of the complexities involved in such an addiction.
Once I understood how the brain worked, it helped me to understand my behaviour and explained why I struggled with my libido despite having a normal, healthy, sexual marriage. It notably waned after a couple of years of being married. In fact, I was worried. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but after having read a lot of information, I realised I was suffering from erectile dysfunction, which was more of a surprise for me than the warning sign of a compromised relationship. In truth, my brain had been numbed from all the visual stimulation I was ingesting, so weaker signals were being sent to the parts of my body that I naturally expected to display healthy signs of arousal. It wasn’t inherently a psychological issue, which is what I initially believed it to be. It was also physiological. My brain had in fact reconditioned itself. All the years of feeding my mind all kinds of unwarranted imagery had shaped the way I thought and responded. What’s worse, I had become accustomed to sexual imagery playing a large part in triggering my pleasure points at times when I was so desperate to perform my role as a husband. I often had to conjure past imagery in my mind so that I could physically be up to the task. Messed up, right? I was relying on what my mind knew — an addiction to pixels. Instead of being present in a real moment, I was robbed and dragged away to something unrealistic. It might have been a temporary solution, but it left a permanent feeling of shame and guilt. It seems so obvious now, but had I only removed easy access to adult content, I would’ve been on the road to recovery. When you’re in the thick of it, one single variable seems so insurmountable.
This is an extract from Wanderlust: How I learned to Rethink Love and Unlearn Lust.