Jason is a 19-year-old college student. He's been dating the same girl since his sophomore year of high school. They had sex for the first time after their senior prom, and, according to Jason, they "went at it like rabbits" for the entire summer until they went away to different colleges. Despite going to different schools, they've remained in constant contact via text messages and video chats. Over the Christmas holidays, they had sex several times, though Jason says it "wasn't as good as before." Then, over spring break when they tried to have sex, Jason found himself embarrassingly unable to perform. Several times. Worried, he went to see his medical doctor, who found nothing physically wrong. Jason says he still loves his girlfriend and thinks she's "totally hot," and he can't figure out what's causing his sexual dysfunction.
So why would a perfectly healthy young guy, very much in his sexual prime, with an attractive and sexually willing girlfriend, suddenly be dealing with erectile dysfunction?
That, sadly, is a question that is being asked increasingly often, indicating ED is no longer an issue that primarily affects men over 50. It's now affecting men in general, regardless of age. And the common thread when there does not appear to be an age-related or medical cause appears to be excessive use (some might say abuse) of pornography. Put very simply, guys who use a lot of porn are much more likely to suffer from ED than guys who don't. Jason, for instance, says that when he's separated from his girlfriend he views porn daily -- sometimes for several hours at a time.
This is hardly a surprise to therapists such as myself who specialize in sex and intimacy issues, including the compulsive use of pornography. Porn addicted clients have been telling us, ever since the early days of the Internet, things like:
- My girlfriend says it feels like I'm "not there"when we're having sex. And she complains that it takes me way too long to reach orgasm.
It's not just clinicians who hear these complaints. The website yourbrainonporn.com, a popular forum for males struggling with pornography, has quite literally thousands of posts discussing ED and other forms of male sexual dysfunction -- delayed orgasm (DE), inability to reach orgasm (anorgasmia), and even a loss of pleasure in general (anhedonia).
Furthermore, the evidence linking porn to sexual dysfunction is more than anecdotal. In one recent study of 350 compulsively sexual people (some but not all of whom were compulsive users of pornography), 26.7 percent reported issues with sexual dysfunction. Similar research, smaller in scale, shows comparable results. One study found sexual dysfunction in 16.7 percent of participants; another study found sexual dysfunction in 58 percent of test subjects. For the most part, this research is limited in scope to individuals who qualify as sexually compulsive/addicted, indicating, in many instances, very heavy porn usage. However, given the increasing abundance of anecdotal evidence provided by non-sex/porn addicts, it appears that lesser levels of usage might also create, in some men, ED and other forms of sexual dysfunction.
Importantly, most of the time this dysfunction manifests with real world partners but not with porn, suggesting the problem is emotional/psychological rather than physical. In other words, it appears that online pornography is causing, in some men, including a lot of men in their sexual prime, an emotional and psychosexual disconnection that is manifesting physically with real world partners as ED, DE, anorgasmia, and the like. This, of course, is awful not only for the men, but the romantic partners who love them. After all, if a guy can't get it up, keep it up, or reach orgasm, his partner's sexual pleasure is also significantly diminished.
The good news here is that most males who use porn heavily and experience a related loss of sexual functioning find that if they step away from porn for a few months their sexual performance returns to baseline. In other words, when you remove the Pavlovian stimulus (by taking the porn away), the individual's neurochemical and physical settings are able, in time, to respond as they did before the conditioning (i.e., before the porn). Even men who qualify as porn addicts -- men for whom porn use has spiraled out of control, resulting in all sorts of negative life consequences -- tend to experience a sexual rejuvenation when they step away from pornography, though this revival make take a bit longer to manifest.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. He is the author of numerous books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction, Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, and Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men. Additionally, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. For more information please visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com/.