The mother of a 15 year old boy recently reached out to one of my colleagues for advice regarding her son’s seemingly out-of-control preoccupation with kinky sex and highly sadistic pornography. (This boy was described as bright, poopular and high functioning). The response among my fellow clinicians was mixed.
Sexual orientation or pathology?
Some of my colleagues took the position that the boy may simply be oriented toward so-called kinky fantasies and behaviors by nature. They suggested that it would be wrong to condemn the boy’s supercharged interest in kink. Rather they would tend to see him as a budding member of the kink community, someone who was, in effect, born that way. To pre-judge his fantasies as unhealthy, they argue, is akin to trying to “treat” homosexuals with the now discredited idea of “reparative therapy“. They say, in effect, kinky sex is part of our identity, not a choice or a preference and should not be treated as an illness.
Instead these colleagues suggest educating this boy to see his preferences as OK as long as they are consensual, legal, and so on. They warn against diagnosing him as having a porn addiction and see his obsessive porn use as evidence of teenage sexual urges with no place else to go. They also suggest acquainting him with the kink community in order to reduce his shame and isolation, thereby enabling him to seek out safe sexual experiences with like-minded girls in the future.
Of those who are vocal in the kink community, some see their sexual preference for sadism, masochism, bondage etc. as a type of sexual orientation. They feel they are rejected, discriminated against and judged as sick in the same ways as other minority sexual orientations.
Colleagues on the other side of the fence saw red flags and reasons for concern. They argue that sexual tastes are more plastic than previously thought, and that “Addiction and unwanted sexual conditioning both appear to be outcomes of pathological learning (brain plasticity).” There is a growing body of neuro-imaging research supporting the idea that sex and porn can cause brain changes similar to those found in drug addiction. See also the article and video by Donald L. Hilton MD entitled “Pornography addiction – a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity.”
Gary Wilson of the viral Ted talk video The Great Porn Experiment and Marnia Robinson monitor the various porn addiction self-help websites (such as: rebootnation ; yourbrainrebalanced ; and nofap.org😉 They report that:
“When the largest of the English-speaking recovery forums, which is not religious, polled itself a few years back, 56% of the members reported that their porn tastes “became increasingly extreme or deviant.” 24% were bothered by this 32% were not…Climaxing to something novel creates more intense arousal and the resulting intense climax reinforces the new “taste.” Guys often report gradually losing the ability to climax to earlier tastes (until months after they quit). Happily, not only are many reporting a gradual return to sexual health, but they also report losing interest in some of the fetishes they had escalated to while using.”
This does not mean that anyone is legislating what is healthy and what is sick. It is simply pointing to the possibility that people have more of a choice than they might think.
Another somewhat neglected line of argument has to do with the traumatic affects of exposure to sexually explicit material for children and young teens. At least one study found that exposure to sexually explicit material in the ages 6 to 12 lead to sexual dysfunction later on. I believe that for children and teens exposure to certain kinds of pornographic images can constitute a sexual trauma in its own right (see also my post about teen porn users).
I have no doubt that many people, maybe the majority of people, see their “arousal template”, in other words their sexual tastes, fantasies and preferred scenarios as relatively permanent. I think the debate really centers on when in the developmental trajectory this arousal template takes shape. This in turn has implications as to whether there are points at which desires can be skewed in a more deviant direction by exposure to certain stimuli or returned to a more socially acceptable direction simply by taking some time away from the behavior and allowing neural plasticity to do its work.
What is a “normal” sexual arousal template?
I find it hard to believe that the association between certain kinds of physical pain or degradation and sexual arousal is genetically determined at birth. However, it seems that the same social forces that have influenced human experience in patriarchy in general have influenced us to experience domination and submission as related to erotic arousal. And on a biological level, fear and sexual arousal appear to be connected. The content of much porn is laden with people being dominated, overpowered, ambushed, helpless, or unsuspecting in an endless variety of ways.
After a cursory look at the available research surveys I would guesstimate that overall the studies suggest that between 2% and 20% of the population have engaged in sadomasochistic practices. This is a relatively small percentage even if it is underreported since some of the surveys only asked if the person had engaged in the behavior even once.
But what is striking is that when you look at the survey data regarding people’s “fantasies” or “interest in” behaviors related to sadomasochism, bondage, dominance etc. the percentages shoot up. Wikipedia cites the folloing:
“Another representative study, published in 1999 by the German Institut für rationale Psychologie, found that about 2/3 of the interviewed women stated a desire to be at the mercy of their sexual partners from time to time. 69% admitted to fantasies dealing with sexual submissiveness, 42% stated interest in explicit BDSM techniques, 25% in bondage.”
None of this is the last word of course, but it supports the idea that “plain vanilla” sex may not be so plain after all. People’s sex lives very frequently appear to be infused with erotic fantasies of dominance and submission.
Hijacking the arousal template
Certain things are now known to take the most common arousal templates and push them in a more extreme direction, one that leads to use of more extreme porn or the acting out of sexual fantasies such as those found in the kink community. At the far end of the scale, or maybe off the scale, are the illicit or non-consensual behaviors.
• Teens exposed to pornography are at a stage when they have a hormonally heightened susceptibility to erotic stimuli and when the higher centers of their brains are not yet fully mature. This can lead to their seeking increasingly “deviant” stimuli and sometimes to porn addiction and ED.
• Childhood sexual trauma such as overt or covert sexual molestation can more or less predictably cause the acting out of abusive sexual scenarios in many people. In later life a large proportion of sex addicts have been found to be survivors of sexual trauma.
• And the exposure of children to sexually explicit material may constitute a sexual trauma for some sensitive children which could in turn lead them to show more extreme (positive or negative) sexual behavior down the line.
These specific circumstances are further exacerbated by the increasingly sexualized content in the society at large, the “ambient porn” as it is called. This very explicit, sexual content is pervasive in that it is common in all mass media including music videos and video games. Where is it all headed? I believe we will ultimately outgrow and learn to manage this sexual runaway train in the same way that we have other potential hazards. But because we are so much more reactive around issues relating to sex, it may take a very long time.