Sexual assault and harassment claims are reaching a fever pitch in major news outlets. In the latest batch, there was Hollywood exec Harvey Weinstein, then actor Kevin Spacey, and, most recently, comedian Louis C.K.
As with all sexual scandals, bringing these predators’ behavior to light began with allegations from victims. “Anyone can make allegations,” some used to say, but when the details of many allegations coming from different sources match, one can’t help but see trends that make for some pretty convincing evidence, at least in the court of popular opinion. Multiple accusers of Bill Cosby said they were incapacitated by sedatives, for instance. Eventually, such trends become impossible to ignore.
For Louis C.K., certain trends stand out as well. As the New York Times revealed this past week, and Louis C.K. has since admitted, the women who came forward accusing him of sexual misbehavior all shared accounts that aligned in one strange way: he asked them if he could masturbate in front of them, or he initiated such behavior without asking. One such woman was Rebecca Corry. In 2015, many years after the incident, C.K. called Corry to apologize, indicating, he “used to misread people.” Similarly, in his remarks to the Times, C.K. indicated he “misread her signals.” This upset Corry, according to Vox, because it “implied she had done something to invite his behavior.”
I can understand Corry’s being appalled at hearing an insinuation that she sent some kind of signal to initiate a sexual request when she didn’t. But sadly, there’s another possible explanation for how Louis C.K. could have misread Corry—and countless other women—without their sending any signals at all. The explanation for this could be, quite simply, the frequent consumption of porn.
Porn Changes Your Brain
It is not a leap to suggest that Louis C.K. has been a consumer of porn; he frequently talks about it in his comedy. In a satirical television debate scripted for the show Louie, he said people having sex on earth are “like porn for God. He watches us, and then he probably masturbates! . . . It keeps me sane. I'm a good citizen, a good father, I recycle and I masturbate. And I'm proud of it." In a particularly dark joke in his special Live at the Beacon Theater, C.K. said, “You can figure out how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11th you masturbated, like how long you waited. And for me, it was between the two buildings going down.” In another episode of Louie, C.K. claimed the habit as one of his talents. “I’m 42, I’m really good at masturbating. I’m like the best masturbator on the planet earth. I’m really there is nobody better at that than me, so I’m gonna continue to excel at that. I’m gonna focus on that and raising my children. I know it’s not nice to say both those things in one sentence, but they happen to be the two things that I do the best.”
We get the idea. Louis C.K. masturbated quite a bit, and porn gave him much inspiration. So much so, that he joked to Jimmy Fallon that our world probably has enough porn to last an entire person’s lifetime, if they started watching it at birth.
C.K. himself started using pornography at twelve years old, according to another joke, and he’s done it every day since. Which makes his behavior fall squarely in what the research tells us about frequent porn use. Routine pornography consumption influences how a person perceives the people and things that surround them. Women in porn, for instance, appear to desire sexual activity no matter the setting—public or private place, workplace or home, painful scenario or romantic one. In fact, the fewer the boundaries, the more titillating it is for viewers.
We know any content we consume influences us in some way, whether we like it or not; otherwise the entire advertising industry would not exist. Well, it turns out that experiencing a sexual climax during the consumption of imagery makes an even greater impression on our brains.
As psychiatrist Norman Doidge recounted in The Brain that Changes Itself, in the mid-to-late 1990s (when the Internet was taking off), he started to see firsthand how Internet porn was affecting his patients’ lives and relationships. “Typically,” Doidge wrote, “while I was treating one of these men for some other problem, he would report, almost as an aside and with telling discomfort, that he found himself spending more and more time on the Internet, looking at pornography and masturbating. He might try to ease his discomfort by asserting that everybody did it.” Doidge noticed another trend: these men also reported greater difficulty being turned on by their real-life sexual partners. They increasingly had to rely on recalling porn fantasies rather than being in touch with their senses in the moment to get aroused with their wives and girlfriends.
Doidge ultimately concluded that Internet porn has created addictive responses in many consumers today:
Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated. . . Since neurons that fire together wire together, these men got massive amounts of practice wiring these images into the pleasure centers of the brain, with the rapt attention necessary for plastic change. They imagined these images when away from their computers, or while having sex with their girlfriends, reinforcing them. Each time they felt sexual excitement and had an orgasm when they masturbated, a ‘spritz of dopamine,’ the reward neurotransmitter, consolidated the connections made in the brain during the sessions.
Doidge may have been one of the first clinicians and scientists to recognize the addictive aspects of porn use, but he was certainly not the last. New research continues to affirm his findings.
Porn Hurts Not Only Individuals but Societies
Studies have since revealed how exposure to porn modifies people’s views of sexually exploitative scenarios. A 2011 study for the University of Oklahoma found that, upon hearing a description of a rape, college students who recently watched porn were less likely than those who had not to call the incident a rape. The more exposure they had to coercive scenarios in video, it seemed, the more likely they were to consider them normal in real life. A 2016 study from the University of Amsterdam surveying twenty years of research on porn and adolescents found that porn use was associated with more permissive sexual attitudes and more sexual aggression. Another 2016 study out of Europe, which surveyed more than 4,000 boys and was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found that “boys’ perpetration of sexual coercion and abuse was significantly associated with regular viewing of online pornography.” The conclusion that porn consumption alters the way people view things—and changes their sexual behavior—seems all but impossible to ignore.
Perhaps that’s why legislators in Virginia approved an anti-pornography resolution earlier this year, recognizing that porn leads to “individual and societal harms,” including “hypersexualization of teenagers,” and “may normalize violence and abuse.” Porn, the resolution states further, “equates violence with sex and pain with pleasure.” Paul J. Wright, an associate professor of psychology, socialization, and media use at Indiana University Bloomington, commented at the New York Post that the majority of scientists familiar with the research would agree there is clear enough “evidence of harm in terms of compulsive use and socialization toward attitudes and behaviors that most people perceive as antisocial” that communities should come together to reduce harmful effects.
Pornography changes the way that consumers view other people in both sexual and nonsexual scenarios. It may make them much more inclined to see sexual advances—or openness to such advances—where there in fact are none. Of course, the perpetrators of sexual misbehavior are always responsible for their actions. This research on porn only affirms that victims are not responsible for leading on their predators.
Louis C.K. is the only person responsible for his wrongful sexual behavior, which he fostered by feeding his porn addiction. The sooner we see these connections, one hopes, the more people can pursue healthy sex lives without the toxic additives of porn, and the fewer coercive and damaging sexual situations will derail people’s lives, careers, and healthy development.