Pornography. Where once Playboy’s naughty pics caused moral outrage, we now see mainstream advertising which could make Hugh Heffner blush – it’s part of our society. And where once getting hold of some hardcore naked action involved a blush-inducing trip to your local video store (wearing an optional grubby mac, detective hat and sunglasses), facilitating some self-love is now as easy as doing a quick, free Google search. This new availability of pornography is widely discussed as a moral issue – but could it be a medical issue, too? What are the effects of our surreptitious viewing habits on our brains, sexualities and bodies? Could porn actually be causing your erectile dysfunction, or is the supposed porn epidemic overblown?
Why Logging On Might Leave You Limp
Because pornography’s ready availability is a relatively new phenomenon, there aren’t that many long-term studies into its effects, so drawing definitive conclusions, as some studies attempt to, is premature. That being said, some of the studies which have been conducted suggest outcomes dampening enough to leave even the most excitable erection looking a bit downcast (leading to a fair few fear-mongering headlines). For example, a 2014 study from JAMA Psychiatry reported that ‘a significant negative association [was found] between reported pornography hours per week and gray matter volume in the right caudate, as well as with functional activity during a sexual cue reactivity’ .
In other words, some studies have suggested that porn might shrink certain areas of the brain, and decrease sexual responsiveness. The theory is that the ‘dopamine dump’ caused by pornographic viewing could be altering the brain’s reward system, in much the same way that repeated cocaine use alters addict’s brains  – but key here is that it is very difficult to determine whether pornography actually triggers these issues. The researchers in the JAMA study were careful to note that ‘it could be a precondition that makes pornography consumption more rewarding’, rather than drawing concrete conclusions – so it’s currently a bit of a “chicken and the egg” situation, with further research needed.
A Young Man’s Game
What is incontrovertible, however, is that the number of men under 40 reporting with erectile dysfunction has dramatically increased – according to the Journal of Sexual Medicine, 1 in 4 new patients with ED is now under 40. Compared against a 2002 review, published in Nature, which found prevalence of erectile dysfunction in men under 40 to be just 2% , this statistic is truly concerning. Again, pornography cannot be isolated as the definitive cause of this, or even one cause among many, but NHS psychosexual therapist Angela Gregory has noted that ‘these younger men do not have organic disease…. one of the first assessment questions I’d always ask now is about pornography and masturbatory habits’ .
So could pornography be the soft cause of your struggle to get hard? Maybe. If you don’t have low testosterone or any other risk factors and you’re happily knocking one out regularly (but struggling to get or maintain an erection when you’re with a partner), taking a little tolerance break from watching the old in-out might be a good place to get to the root of the problem. On the other hand, if you experience no side-effects from your pornography consumption, there’s no reason to assume it’s doing you any harm. And if you are struggling with ED, it’s important to eliminate possible medical causes first – if you’re an older gentleman, it might be that your issue is nothing a little testosterone replacement therapy can’t solve. So if you’re struggling with erectile dysfunction, go see a good doctor – and ghost erections could quickly become a worry of the past.