Recovering from the trap of Pornography. Interview with Dr. Thomas Lickona

Recovering from the trap of Pornography. Interview with Dr. Thomas Lickona

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,, 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 drugs.

· 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 sexuality?

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 and 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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