by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
Human sexuality is a topic that involves us all, and usually will capture the attention and provoke a reaction in all who are asked about it. In the last 100 years there have been major shifts in our understanding of sexuality as well as our attitudes toward it. This topic shows a divergence of views across the generations still alive today and manifests a range of beliefs, attitudes, and expressions of sexuality in our society.
We have come a long way from the ignorant, repressed and shame based sexual mores of the Victorian era of just 100 years ago. Sexuality was not openly discussed then, ignorance was rife, and many false beliefs pervaded society back then around sexual issues. It is said that Queen Victoria was shocked and went into denial when told about the concept of lesbianism. Such an idea apparently went un-thought of in even the educated quarters of society. At the same time the notion of sex for pleasure was not widely entertained except amongst the rakish male lords who indulged in affairs with single women, maids, boys, and each other. Sex was out of sight and out of mind, just like children of that era.
A century later and the current sexual mores have homosexual and heterosexual relationships and sexual encounters on an equally accepted footing amongst many adults, and we live in a society of sexualised images in everyday marketing. Today the current Generation X and Y age groups being labelled “The Hook-Up Generation”. This title reflects recent studies in Australia and overseas that show the more relaxed and casual attitudes to sex being taken by younger age groups.
In this era and amongst this Gen X and Y demographic, there is the convention of friendship “with benefits”, where one can call or be called upon with the “booty call”, or a request for casual sex, without complications or commitments. Friends have entered the status of potential sex partners as an extension of that friendship. Sexual encounters amongst strangers who meet in social settings are the other main form of this free and liberal attitude to sex.
According to studies such as that done by Sexual Ethicist Moira Carmody from the University of Western Sydney, there is clearly a pattern of casual sex happening amongst people aged between 16 to 25(Lunn and Puddy:2010). Sex has been decoupled from relationships and sex is an end to itself now, not part of some wider context of meaning or relating. Sex is often being initiated in social settings, where alcohol and/or drug fuelled people are meeting, and having sex occurs in a guiltless, irrelevant way, devoid of any other meaning other than curiosity and pleasure(Lunn and Puddy:2010).
Some researchers note that this trend may not favour women as time moves on. The thinking is that this period of casual sexual freedom may suit both men and women in their teens and in their 20’s, but many women in their 30’s start to examine their lifestyles, and want to settle down. A study done of Secondary school students in 2008 by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University found that 40 percent of 3000 students had experienced sexual intercourse(Lunn and Puddy:2010). This would support the notion of increased sexual activity by the young. Attitudes amongst this group were found to decouple sex from relationship.
Sex researchers such as Bettina Arndt (2009), and Cardinal George Pell (2010), are cautious about this research and argue that certainly women are looking to connect their sexuality with their relationships, and not normally seek to decouple it in the way suggested by some researchers and commentators. Cardinal Pell repeats an argument about the pitfalls of women falling into this casual sex way of life when it comes time to stop and look for meaning with their sexuality inside a relationship.
The argument put forward by such commentators as Timothy Reichert (2010) is as follows. The casual sex phenomenon is real for teenagers and young adults, and there is an attitude of it is consequence free as long as safe sex precautions are practiced. The contraceptive pill may this all much more possible for women to accept. At the same time feminism promoted the equalisation of sexuality and its expression by both men and women. Women were told to get out there and have sex for pleasure as liberated beings, and for their right to use their body as they see fit.
This actually suited men who in the past had to enact “mating or courtship rituals” of wining and dining, courtship etc as a way of getting to a sexual stage of relationship. This was now seen as demeaning to women and so it was sidelined, much to men’s delight as now they did not need to work hard to get to the point of “putting the hard word” on a woman. Life got easier for men as women were encouraged to become sexual initiators and not be the passive recipient of sexual advances. Men could not believe their luck as life just kept getting easier.
The decline of the church as a set of moral boundaries in people declined at the same time as there was the rise in the age of the internet, and that meant online pornography which makes up over 50 per cent of its content as at 2007(O’Donell:2007). Men and women started to be visually assaulted with images of men and women being sexualised and objectified as the “natural way” of being an adult, and as the way of expressing their sexuality(O’Donell:2007). A new set of social and sexual mores came with the online pornography age, notes O’Donnell (2007), which creates the culture of women as porn stars in a culture of sexual permission.
Women, more than ever are expected to perform more types of sex, with more partners, at an earlier age, to be seen as normal and accepted by their peers(Powell:2009). The pressure and hence power dynamics have not really served women at all, it has disempowered them in another way and left them in a sexualised stereotype they are powerless to stop, given marketing, media, the internet, and men are wanting to propagate it going forward.
The issue emerges when women typically want to get out of the singles circuit and settle down to a committed relationship, and possibly children. This is occurring at a later age for women and men notes the 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics data, which reveals the later ages of 29.6 years for men, and 27.7 years for women. These median ages have been consistently rising for 2 decades. Careers, travel, saving for a house, and committed singledom are noted as drivers and reasons in this set of rising ages.
Researchers are noting that even though women are trending towards settling down in their 30’s, less men are following them. The argument put forward by O’Donnell (2007), Reickert (2010), and Flood (2010), is that men either do not want to give up the single, casual sex life anymore, or they struggle to adjust to monogamy in a committed relationship after a decade or more of casual sex. Research shows that older men can go after and obtain casual sex from younger woman and so they are able to maintain this lifestyle longer.
Neuroscience also puts forward a powerful argument as to why the trend towards a sexualised society sets up a dynamic which can mean some men cannot simply stop casual sex or convert it to monogamy by a simple choice or application of the will. Sex involves some of the most powerful drives in a human being, and also releases powerful opiate like endorphin chemicals during orgasm.
This sets up the possibility of sexual addiction notes neuroscience researchers such as Pascuel-Leone(Doidge:2008) who notes that mental imagery, visual images, and bodily actions can all activate the same motor programs in the brain. Thinking of sex, looking at pornography, and actually having sex, can cause the neuroplasticity of the brain to create rigid and repetitious neural pathways in the brain.
Our plastic brain is perpetually altered by every physical sexual encounter, and every visual or imagined interaction. In a world full of internet and DVD pornography which creates sexualised and objectified images and stereotypes, in a culture of “hooking up” in a physical sexual way, in a culture of sexualised image marketing and focus by media, we are creating habits, not all good, in our brains, notes Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich(Doidge:2008).
The brain structure that regulates instinctive drivers and behaviours is the Hypothalamus(Doidge:2008). It is “plastic” like the rest of the brain and will utilise a “lose it or use it” principal on key drives in the body. Sexual repetition enlarges the pathways for more sexual activity and enlarges brain maps or circuits used to activate such drives(Doidge:2008). Sexual tastes are “learned or acquired” as the brain is exposed to novel or exciting experiences, much like how addictions are formed by the first experience that shapes the addictive reception of the addict.
Neuroscientists have warned that online pornography is the “crack cocaine” of the internet for men, and some women. One perusal can “hook” a person into an addiction that can last a lifetime. This is why pornographers create both fantasy scenarios, and the vast array of “categories” of porn. Research has shown that an early life, sexually charged event, can have laid down into the brain of a child the potentiality for the later adult to respond with a strong addictive charge to fantasy re-enactment of such an event. Pornographers setup as many fantasy scenarios for this reason(O’Donell:2007).
For example, let’s say a 10 year old boy who has some awareness of sexuality, comes across a situation where he can see a teenage girl next door undressing from time to time in her bedroom, through her window. He gets sexually excited as a 10 year old but nothing more happens. In neuroscience this is defined as a possible formative experience of that part of the brain that will later shape his sexual identity via neural pathways.
When the same boy as a 20 year old man, one day out of curiosity, types into Google, “Girl Next Door Sex”, and gets pages of hits, his body and brain gets excited by anticipation. This charged state is already creating the basis for a deepening of that man’s sexual impulses towards a possible addiction to internet pornography of this type. An instant addiction can form, especially where the man then masturbates and ejaculates whilst watching such online content, for this physical act then releases opiate like endorphins which fuel the addictive charge on the activity. The brain always responds to what it believes is positive behaviours.
This same man is now walking through a society where he is confronted by sexual imagery, marketing and ideas that continue the theme via visual images entering the brain. If the man adopts a “hook up” lifestyle then a deepening of the sexual neural pathways also continues. Neuroscientists such as Doidge(2008) argue that this combination, but particularly the internet pornography is a dynamic phenomena that draws a person down a slippery slope towards deeper and more intense imagery and fantasy situations.
Merencich(2008) and Doidge(2008) argue that our brains are being reshaped by the sexualised nature of society, with consequences for that person’s ability to function in jobs, relationships, and setting up a negative impact on their own sexual potency. For example, a 2001 American MSNBC.com survey found that 80 per cent of viewers felt they were spending so much time on internet pornography sites as to be putting either their relationships or jobs at risk.
Viewers reported starting out with simple fantasy scenarios of consenting women and men but over time got drawn into seeking out more degrading, extreme, and possibly illegal or harmful material that they found they had no control over once online. Effectively they were describing one symptom of an internet pornography addiction, and even though they felt shame or guilt they continued over time looking at such material(O’Donell:2007).
The brain does not differentiate between input from physical sex, visual images or other imagination or simulations. Each feeds and strengthens the other as it basically all uses the same motor programs and pathways of the brain. In my therapy practice I now see an emerging trend of this sexualisation of men and women based on the wider peer group pressures, internet pornography, and the “hookup” mindset within younger men and women.
More and more I see couples coming to me where the man no longer wants “bread and butter” sex. Increasingly there is a demand and a need to “act out” fantasies that are often anger fuelled, sexually and personally demeaning for the woman. Upon inquiry I normally find a history of pornography usage by the male, and within the relationship the woman being coerced to watch and perform the X-rated activity on the screen.
Sex often happens while pornography is running on a screen. The woman report not only feeling degraded but also the man as “not being present”. What they are typically reporting is the man using fantasy fuelled images in their heads to be able to orgasm, and are not emotionally present, or consciously aware of their partner. They are in effect having a fantasy moment whilst using their partner physically.
Men’s brains are wired differently to women in some key areas. Men are wired to be attracted and aroused by visual stimulation, and hence why men more so than women are attracted to visual pornography. Once men wire their brains through pornography usage this way, they often now have a problem where they need graphic visual stimulation to “get off”. Mundane and repetitive partner images no longer excite the brain and so they lose interest in their partners and retreat into internet pornography as a secret inside the relationship.
They start to see sex with their partner as an obligation to “keep the peace” and prefer internet pornography instead. Some men opt out of relationships and accept that their life works better for them as a single man with no constraints on pornography usage, and the option of hooking up for casual sex when it suits them. From this place more men are no longer pursuing relationships but instead are living in a form of denial about a sexual addiction that has destroyed their ability to relate and be emotionally and sexually available to partners.
I believe this is one of the main drivers as to why men in their 30’s find it hard to simply switch from a lifestyle of “hooking up” and/or internet pornography into an emotionally available, monogamous sexual relationship. The brains of such people have become “wired” to their way of doing their life in a sexual way, much in the same way as any addict struggles to give up whatever drug they are using.
Just like drug addicts these men tell me they do not have a problem. This is a form of denial which characterises all drug and process addicts who remain in denial about their addictions. They also rationalise it, like other addicts do, that either they are on top of it, or that they can and will give it up, “when the right women comes along”, or some other false and self deceiving statement. As men get older they can also draw upon the larger pool of same age and younger women out there who they can seduce and use sexually, either in consensual “hooking up”, or on the false promise of a relationship. Remember that all addicts lie to get their next “hit”. Sex addicts are no different. Lying about intentions about commitment in order to get sex occurs in more relationships than one would like to admit.
Neuroscientists note that most women do not end down this sex addicted path as their brains share emotional wiring with sexual impulse wiring, and so emotional connection drives can curb simple physical impulses to just “hook up”, or to quickly get addicted in the same way as men. Women are also not visually wired in the same way as men and so visual internet pornography does not typically have the same “crack cocaine” effect on them as it does some men.
So women in our current sexualised society can and do let go of the “single life” and its free sex implications without much hesitation. The problem that researchers are noting is that this group are now finding they are struggling to find men who want to settle down with them. The problem may actually be that at least some men have created a problem due to the powerful combined effects of the plasticity of the brain, coupled with the powerful wiring effects of sexual impulses, sexual imagery, and the inputs of our sexualised culture.
Certainly I encounter men in my therapy practice who suffer from related intimacy and “commitment” issues after a decade or more of single life living. They suffer doubt, anxiety, and admit to struggling with the idea of giving up the hedonistic lifestyles of a single man, for the sexual and also other non-sexual reasons. Michael Flood(2010) expresses the view that “young men have become more open to intimacy, to love, to trust..... In some ways it’s a feminisation of young men’s sexuality”. Bettina Arndt(2010) agrees with his view.
I guess I see this too but entering a committed relationship is one thing, but maintaining intimacy and monogamy within it over time is another thing. Everyone undergoes a “honeymoon” stage of relationship where all is bliss, and we are happy to merge with another in a form of symbiosis where what they like we like, and where the sexuality is new, dynamic and part of the brain endorphin fuelled bliss bonding instinct we all carry.
The real issue comes after about the first year where such fire and intimacy dies down, and each person starts to drop the idealisation of the other person, and the relationship itself. Now one’s own unresolved issues and demands start to surface, often creating conflict and forcing compromise and adjustment. This is natural and necessary but it also represents the most common point where one or both people tire of each other. Neuroscientists point to how the addictive nature of sexual desire starts to wane once we find repetition rather than new and novel situations which fire the brains neurons and endorphins to high levels.
Part of the death of the “honeymoon” stage of relationship is this addictive brain makeup where if the stimulus is not being increasingly heightened or replaced with novelty and new stimulus, a waning effect occurs. This is what occurs in relationships as part of our brain makeup. We are supposed to have created other more emotionally bonded states that prevent the relationship failing by this stage. This simply is not occurring for some relationships anymore.
Someone with a history of serial casual sexual partners will be wired to having a need for stimulus to arouse them. Relationships over time do not provide this and so these people struggle and often fail in relationships for this reason, but many create an excuse or blame for other reasons and about the other person to justify why the relationship failed. All addicts are in denial about the problems their addictions cause to others in their lives. They often lie, delude themself, and act as victims where they blame others for their failures stemming from problematic addictions in their life.
I believe that some people are not the classic serial casual sexual “hookup” persons, but are in effect serial relationship encased “hookup” persons, who would prefer the social mask of having frequent relationships of small duration, with exciting experiences, including sex, that have an expiry date as the stimulus of the new person what they offer in and out of bed, becomes normalised, loses its euphoria, and hence addictive nature. To me it’s just a variation of the “hookup” lifestyle, and renders some statistics about relationships, and the claimed preference for sex only inside relationships, unreliable. There are many people claiming to commit to each other in droves, but the statistics for exiting relationships around or under 1 year, shows that we are also doing that as well in droves.
Basically I believe and agree with Neuroscientists that the effects of our sexualised society is creating real and lasting brain neural pathway changes that will influence many, and dominate some, over the course of their adult lives. I believe the statistics minimise the problem through stating peoples intentions and ideals about being in relationships, when in fact I think a better question would be how successful are those who attempt relationship, are really able to make them work and last after a year or two. I believe many are deluding themselves as to their capacity to make relationships work from this place in a longer term setting due to unrecognised and untreated sexually related brain wiring that we all are exposed to, as well as other intimacy and commitment issues.
The neuroscientist and M.D. Norman Doidge(2008) believes a social shift is happening in society where we are silently and in small degrees normalising sexualised behaviour and increasing our tolerance levels to it. In this place the old Playboy and soft porn magazines are no longer porn, they are now mainstream content of many men’s magazines with adult but not restricted ratings by censors. In this context more and more men are getting turned on to porn, then getting progressively desensitised to its generic forms, and then turning to more graphic and novel forms for replacement levels of stimulation. This is how the brain works by requiring more and more novel stimulus to create brain reward outcomes to our consciousness and bodies, else there is no longer a “payoff”.
All addicts require a “payoff” from their addictions in order to remain addicted and so either increase the dosage or concentration of their drugs to keep getting the same “buzz”, or they switch to a poly-addiction, meaning using other types of drugs, or cocktails of drugs to keep the “high” going over time. The brains opiate-like receptors get normalised or “fatigued” to repetition and so the addict is forced into searching for novelty. The same process works for sexual addictions, including pornography. Men do not want to watch the same sex DVD twice, or flick through the same adult magazine again, as they no longer provide novelty for the brain. They need more and more fresh content to keep the addiction going, according to Doidge(2008).
This is our evolutionary design and heritage, and while it is true that some people do not have addictive personalities, this brain design sees all of us vulnerable to some degree, whilst others are instantly hooked after one viewing. It is the same process involved for the “hooking up” of single life casual sexual encounters. However the clinical evidence of pornography addicts in therapy is that they report losing interest in their partners as the pornography addiction grows.
The reason is the same as for the need for new magazines or images: the brain requires novelty and stimulus to keep the “buzz” going. A stable relationship partner no longer creates that stimulus to their sex addicted partner over time. Some coped by using internalised fantasy images to enable them to show interest and perform, whilst others tried to coerce partners into their world by either watching porn with them, or by acting out fantasies in the bedroom with them(Doidge:2008). Not surprisingly, this had a negative effect on many partners who saw a switch in their partner’s attitudes, needs and wants in the bedroom.
This building up a tolerance to mild porn and so then requiring the user to access more hard core and novel porn is not dissimilar to the real life action of single men and woman who adopt lifestyles of casual sex across numerous partners over time. They too start to build tolerance and create desensitisation to their sexuality within those lifestyles and so are driven over time to seek more novel sex and new images or bodies to create arousal. After a decade of such behaviour it is not surprising from a neuroscience and addiction point of view that some struggle to adapt to monogamous life.
Neuroscience has also shown that some erectile dysfunction in men, and orgiastic potency in both men and women stems from this same issue and set of dynamics. The brain drives our sex organs and creates the eros and libido effect in us beyond what significance we may imagine. Any addiction requires over time higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and in an embodied addiction like sex, the loss of pleasure is particularly seen in erectile dysfunction in men, and orgiastic potency in both men and women. Unfortunately neuroscience shows how the bodily consequences also extends to neuroplastic changes in the brain that will make future moderation for affected individuals hard to achieve(Doidge:2008).
Studies are showing disturbing negative effects on the Dopamine chemical system and associated pleasure process in the brain by sexual and other pleasure addictions. Michael Merzenich’s research into brain changes based on stimulation found that the surge of Dopamine that thrills us also consolidates the neuronal connections responsible for the behaviours that lead us to accomplish our goal. Dopamine is released in sexual excitement, increasing the sex drives in both males and females, facilitates orgasm, and activates the brains pleasure centres. This is why pornography and sex can be addictive, and in a lifestyle where the two meet, it can be more so.
Brain research shows that under certain conditions addictions can cause permanent changes in the brains of animals and humans. The brain can produce certain proteins in response to addictive pleasurable drugs and experiences which can then affect certain gene production availability, leading to irreversible damage to the brains dopamine system and rendering the person or animal more prone to addiction. The exact mechanisms and variability between people in this area is still not completely understood. Pornography promotes a fantasy relief, but is actually now being seen to be a gateway to addiction, suffering, a loss of self control, and a decrease in sexual pleasure.
Neuroscientists and medical experts such as Doidge(2008) tells us that an addict experiences cravings because their plastic brain has become sensitised to the drug or the experience. Sensitisation is a concept different from tolerance. Tolerance is a condition whereby an addict needs more and more of a substance or an experience like sex or porn to get pleasure. As sensitisation develops as it does in addicts, one needs less and less of the object or experience to crave it intensely. Increasing sensitisation leads to increasing cravings but not necessarily a liking or wanting, and hence many addicts “act out” even when they do not like it or want to. This leads to the addiction “running them”, creates shame, guilt and self-loathing from this same place.
Sexual addictions, whether from actually having sex, or from pornography, or both, have an added factor of activating two separate pleasure centres in the brain, which accentuates the addictive experience. One centre is for “satisfaction pleasure” and the other is for “exciting pleasure”. Neuroscience states that the exciting pleasure centre in the brain is responsible for creating anticipation and related tension in the body at the thought of good sex, and is Dopamine related, and creates arousal. The satisfaction pleasure centre is that which actually activates while having sex or masturbating to porn, and creates a calm, fulfilling pleasure which releases muscular and bodily tension. This centre releases endorphins which are opiate like brain chemicals and give a peaceful, euphoric bliss to the person.
The brain becomes easily addicted to such a process where there is a double reward and no punishment. Brain maps or neural circuits are by their nature competitive and the active one’s cannibalise or erase the older unused one’s so affecting what attracts us, turns us on, and changes our perceptions of our environment. It is believed that the looking at porn and the constant turnover of sexual partners creates changes in the brain maps that means firstly old stable sexual partners in relationship become cannibalised by new maps showing porn and new images.
Hence over time we lose interest in our real-life sexual partner and focus on porn instead. Secondly the serial casual sex lifestyle person does not create stable or enduring maps, and the brain makes this pattern of stimulus its normalised way of behaving. When the person settles down the brain has a reality and momentum that will take time to change and alter. Some brain changes may have become permanent and may no longer be able to be easily changed via plasticity properties of the brain. Men’s brains are naturally evolved to be more susceptible to this type of problem, whereas women maintain different physiological and emotional components that create resiliency in many of them from such effects.
Actual experience supports this fact. Women who are teenagers and young twenties are not all feeling OK about the casual “hookup” experiences they have had. Sex researcher Rachel Hills has noted that many feel dirty or used afterwards, often after coming down from drugs or alcohol which had clouded their consensual judgement at the time. Some reported having ended up in coercive, or unplanned or potentially dangerous environments or dynamics as a result of the free will choices they made with strangers. Women also reported experiencing emotional pangs and raised expectations of relationships arising from successful “encounters” of this type, and suffered emotionally when the other person did not call again or experience the same emotional effect.
Others feel torn between negative feelings about such a lifestyle versus the peer group pressure and social media expectations that such behaviour is “normal” and a sign of adulthood, or young, fun and socially acceptable. Women report they are not able to separate out their feelings from the pure physical pleasurable side of sex like men can. Neuroscience supports this reality based on the differences in men and women’s brain makeups, but also the cultural conditioning from childhood that creates their instinctual brain maps and emotional brain pathways in the first place. Research shows that far fewer women than men will ever develop an interest in porn for these key reasons.
The implications for men and women living in a sexualised society where societal mores now state that free casual sex is “normal”, and that porn in its many shades, forms and content variations is harmless, does not stand up to scrutiny when evaluated against recent neuroscience understandings of the human condition and the plasticity of the brain. The reported behavioural and cultural changes in thirty something men and women, and the lifestyles they are choosing or being compelled to live, may have some basis in our neuroplasticity of the brain.
The idea that people have full free will and are unaffected by the type of society we are now creating is not an argument that can be left unchallenged. We may be setting up our generation X and Y adults for the basis of unfulfilling adult lives and relationships without having understood the powerful combined effects of human sexuality on our brain, and how brain plasticity can make permanent changes to our perceptual and impulse driven realities. We may also be creating a generation of addictive adults due to the liberalism of pornography coupled with the new form of sexual liberation within society. Total freedom does not always bring happiness but it may bring partial or total suffering to some.
1. The Brain that Changes Itself, Doidge Norman M.D., 2008, Scribe Publications, Carlton Australia.
2. Mapping the Mind, Carter Rita, 2003, Phoenix Books, London.
3. “Hooking Up”, Lunn Stephen and Puddy Rebecca, The Australian Newspaper Enquirer section, 21 November, 2010, pg 1.
4. What Men Want in Bed, Arndt Bettina, 2010, Penguin Books, Australia.
5. Beyond Co-Dependence, Mellody Pia, 2000, Harper Collins, Australia.
6. Child Pornography – Crime, Computers and Society, O’Donnell Ian, Milner Claire, 2007 Willan Publishing, UK.
7. “Sexual Ethics and the erotics of Consent”, Moira Carmody, 2004, Making Sense of Sexual Consent, Reynolds P., Cowling P.,pg 45-56, UK.
8. “Sexual assault 'woven through Australia's landscape'”, Simmons Amy, March 10, 2009, ABC News Online.
9. Opinion Piece, Cardinal George Pell, Sunday Telegraph Newspaper, August 8, 2010.
10. Bitter Pill: How the Contraception Boom Shifted Wealth and Power Away from Women, Reichert Timothy, 2010, Viewpoint Essay, First Things: A monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.