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Neuropsych

What a sex-crazed beetle can teach us about porn

Instead of liberation, the sexual revolution has led some people, particularly men, to be addicted to porn.
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Credit: Kevin Carden / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Males of the Australian jewel beetle prefer to "mate" with beer bottles instead of females because they find the bottles more sexually attractive.
  • A similar phenomenon is occurring among humans. Pornography is warping our sexuality.
  • The prevalence of porn may play a role in erectile dysfunction as well as other mental health and social issues.

The Australian jewel beetle (Julodimorpha bakewelli) is a large golden-colored insect that offers a telling insight into how technology is warping human sexuality in the 21st century. 

In 1981, a pair of insect specialists from the University of Western Australia observed a male jewel beetle attempting to mate with a discarded beer bottle (known in Australian slang as a “stubbie”). Upon further investigation, they found that male jewel beetles were not only frequently mistaking stubbies for females of their species; they actually preferred the stubbies, ignoring potential mates in order to hump the glass bottles because these bits of litter were more glossy and more golden than the female jewel beetles, and thus more sexually exciting to the males. 

The arousal response, as basic and fundamental as hunger or thirst, is far more powerful than moral reasoning. It is an involuntary response that the porn industry has become very adept at provoking.

Something similar is happening to the males of our species, but it is in response to another kind of superstimulus — that is, a stimulus that provokes responses that, in the ancestral environment, would have been adaptive, but in their modern and exaggerated form are highly maladaptive. That superstimulus is online porn.

Porn is a superstimulus

When met with the temptations of online porn — a very carefully designed superstimulus — human beings are not much more sophisticated than Australian jewel beetles. When a user arrives on a porn platform, their eyes (and sometimes ears) are immediately bombarded with intense sexual stimuli. Not only do thumbnails show the most explicit moments of a video, the links to videos are also often animated, and they play automatically when the user hovers a cursor over them, or else when the site opens. The arousal response, as basic and fundamental as hunger or thirst, is far more powerful than moral reasoning. It is an involuntary response that the porn industry has become very adept at provoking.

In my book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, I take aim at a wholesale societal transformation caused by two interconnected revolutions. The first was material: most importantly, the invention of “the pill,” which broke the link between sex and reproduction for the first time in human history, followed by the invention of the internet, which has introduced us to new kinds of superstimuli that our Stone Age brains struggle to resist. 

The second revolution was ideological. The majority of American children are now exposed to online porn before the age of 13, and the porn they are seeing is entirely different from the smutty magazines of previous eras. You might think that the exposure of children and adolescents to an addictive product that deliberately manipulates their sexual development would be met with universal opposition, particularly given that between 35% and 45% of content on the most popular porn platforms contain violence and aggression — most often gagging, slapping, and choking — which are now considered by the “porn generation” (that is, my generation) to be a normal and expected part of the sexual script. 

The harms of the sexual revolution

And yet, the public seems reluctant to hold the porn industry to account, or indeed to voice any disquiet in response to the obviously destructive consequences of the sexual revolution. The problem, some insist, is that we are not yet liberated enough — that the process of liberation has only just begun, and that we ought to redouble our efforts to tear down the few sexual norms that have survived from the era before the sexual revolution. 

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I disagree. I think that what we are witnessing is the inevitable consequence of liberation hurled at a society in denial about the reality of human sexuality, which can be beautiful but also wicked and repulsive. The pornification of our sexual culture exposes this truth with terrible clarity. 

We are rapidly entering a world in which tech dominates the most intimate parts of our lives, and this tech is designed by corporations whose sole interest is making money. The writer Venkatesh Rao describes this as a world in which “you either tell robots what to do, or are told by robots what to do” — you live either above the algorithm, or below it. The porn industry is a particularly unpleasant example of this creeping domination, since all but a tiny number of us are to be found below the algorithm. 

Porn users are both the drivers of the industry and also its victims — not as victimized as the performers, of course, but victimized nonetheless. They are caught up in a form of capitalism that takes our most basic instincts and corrupts them. The 2% of Western European men who report watching more than seven hours of porn a week are not a healthy and happy group, and neither are the men whose porn use may be less time consuming but nevertheless personally destructive. 

Porn is linked to sexual dissatisfaction

The continuing influence of the NoFap movement is a testament to the sexual dissatisfaction that often comes with porn use. Founded in 2011 by the American web developer Alexander Rhodes, NoFap encourages followers to give up both porn and masturbation (“fap” being slang derived from the sound of a man pleasuring himself). 

Members of the NoFap subreddit sometimes write of masturbating so often that they give themselves painful abrasions, and many report suffering from “death-grip syndrome,” a quasi-medical term used to describe the loss of sensation that can sometimes result from masturbating too aggressively. Even if they are motivated to seek out sex with a real person, psychological death-grip may mean that they cannot become aroused by someone whose body isn’t exactly like that of a porn star. Compulsive porn users expose themselves to so much sexual stimulation that they literally become impotent. In just 20 years, the proportion of young men who suffer from erectile dysfunction has risen from 1 in 50 to 1 in 3, as porn has deadened their responses to real people. 

The American actor and athlete Terry Crews is now an advocate of the NoFap movement, having publicly spoken about his own struggle with porn addiction: 

“Some people say, ‘Hey, man … you can’t really be addicted to pornography.’ But I’m gonna tell you something… It changes the way you think about people. People become objects. People become body parts; they become things to be used rather than people to be loved.” 

Don’t be a jewel beetle

Crews is handsome, rich, and successful. He is also a husband and father of five. Nevertheless, he found himself neglecting his wife and watching porn instead, like an Australian jewel beetle choosing an inert object over a real, living mate. Such is the power that porn has over some users. 

But the difference between humans and Australian jewel beetles is that while our sexual impulses may be similarly basic, our moral reasoning is not. We do not have to live downstream of the manipulation of the porn industry, or indeed of any other malign effects due to unchaining the dark side of human sexuality. We are animals, of course, but we are thinking animals. We can choose to think differently. 


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