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By Rick McKain, MAC, LPC
Professionals Liaison, MARR, Inc.

One of the men in the group a couple weeks ago asked what I considered an excellent question as we discussed the Unit on Cybersex that night. I made a comment about early exposure to pornography being traumatic.

His question was, “Why do you consider early exposure to pornography traumatic?” That is the question.

I have always considered early exposure to porn as traumatic pretty much since I’ve been doing the BBR group [and all the other group names from the past] 15 years. I probably need to define my terms and then explain why I believe what I believe. Before I do this, it should be noted that whole books have been written on what is actually considered porn and what isn’t. Also the same could be said about trauma – again the area of trauma is a whole specialty in the clinical psychology realm. So I will not take a huge amount of time to define these two things – “porn” and “trauma” as I will be brief.

When I think of “porn” which I’m using as short for pornography throughout this article, I’d like to acknowledge that it has changed over the years. When I saw what I considered porn in about 1965 – it may not be considered porn by today’s viewers. It was a centerfold of a “Playboy” magazine. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that. The closest thing to that in my experience was the Sears or J.C. Penney catalogue but they had clothes on. By todays standards [and I use the word standards loosely] that would have been considered “soft porn” at best.

So porn to me is anything visual that is sexual arousing to me. It can be something I see as spontaneous, or something I seek out and view that sexually excite me.  Some sort of visual image that increases my arousal and may be used to lust after and to take action toward. It is still in the category of porn for me if I view it only and don’t take any other action regarding it.

Video: Steve Harris, LCSW, CSAT-S | Metropolitan Psychotherapy Associates
Learn more about Metropolitan Psychotherapy Associates here.

What do I mean by trauma? The terms trauma and abuse are often used in conjunction with one another.  Abuse is something that happens to me – something I experience.  For instance, if a person beats me – that is abuse.  What I may experience as a result of that beating is trauma.  In the case of physical abuse the trauma is often experienced in a traumatic way, and most often has lingering effects.  If someone was beaten as a child, then later in life if someone hits them or is aggressive toward them, the damage done from the original beating will revisit the experience and they may be re-traumatized.   In popular Christian writing today, many authors use the term woundedness to describe the more clinical term abuse.  The trauma is the result of having experienced or endured the abuse or wounds from another.

So the term trauma the way I understand it – is the result of anything we experience, visually, experientially, or physically that has a potent and lasting effect on our perceptions and ability to function personally and in relationship.

I asked three different counselors at MARR if they considered early exposure to pornography traumatic.  Doug Brush, Paul Feuerzeig, and Dave Devitt all said yes they do. Doug said early exposure to porn begins a fantasy process among boys that isn’t real.  This process is carried into adulthood, as well as the process of objectifying women.  These early experiences continue the fantasy life of unreal images and  objectification that gets carried into relationships and negatively affects intimacy throughout their life.

Paul Feuerzeig said early exposure to porn first impacts and affects the arousal template – which is set from about age 6 – 10 years old.  It will impact what arouses an individual, and then it will take extreme stuff to arouse that impacted person.  Therefore the typical and healthy progression  is gone.  The effects on future relationships are ongoing.

Paul continued by saying this early exposure to porn often leads to an extreme sense of sexual insecurity, both in observing and comparing the physical of what is viewed on the monitor with the person’s own physical characteristics – leaving the person with a “less than” self-perception.  Additionally, there is an insecurity of performance anxiety – so the person is left with the feeling of “less than” regarding his personal self-expectation.  The young viewer of porn is left with the transition of wrongfully equating sex with intimacy.

Dave Devitt said pornography trauma is, “too soon too much too often.” Pornography seems to assail the God-given structure of the human arousal template. The pornography may compromise the arousal template. Continuing to view porn or frequent viewing of porn, especially in young viewers, exacerbates the sensitivity and the response demand of the neuronal network. The brain becomes blunted and almost oblivious to reality – and only responds to unreality. This demonstrates the progressive nature of the brain demanding more and more stimulation just to function normally.

All three of these counselors have answered this question from their perspective and their own personal work with many men over the years who have no doubt been traumatized by pornography.  I agree with their conclusions and appreciate their willingness to share their  views.  It is interesting to me that each counselor believes that early exposure to porn is traumatic.

Part of the problem that men have trying to understand that early exposure to porn is traumatic is because young boys and young teens don’t remember their first porn experience as a negative, bad, or “traumatic” experience.  Every man I’ve talked to who reflects on his first viewing of porn remembers it as a memorable or pleasurable experience.  For them trauma and pleasure aren’t synonymous.  For them pleasure = feel good, and trauma = feel bad.  And since they did not feel bad while viewing porn, they conclude how could that be a traumatic or bad experience?

Let’s say a 10 year old boy views porn on the Internet.  He may have a number of reactions to it.  But let’s say he is intrigued, fascinated, and aroused by it.  After the experience is over he may have many conclusions.  He may conclude that he wants to view more of that kind of stuff.  He may be confused.  He may think that he will return to view more at a later time.  In this example, none of his conclusions are negative or experienced as traumatic to him.  But the impact in his life, and the impact on his life, and the many unforeseen consequences are the traumatic part.  His perception of  how women behave, what they are on earth for, how he is to relate to them, what they are interested in, and what arouses him, have been drastically altered – after viewing the porn.  He cannot go back and un-see what he has seen.  Some damage has been done, and more viewing of porn is bound to do more damage and produce more trauma.  He is, in a sense traumatizing himself, although he thinks he is doing what feels good and maybe even getting by with something.  The consequences are there.  They are extensive and traumatic.

Video: Mari Mars, MS, LAPC, NCC | Petrichor Counseling, LLC
Learn more about Petrichor Counseling here.
For additional resources click here.

I wish I could shield every young boy from porn.  I wish I could eradicate it from the earth.  In my opinion, it serves no good purpose, and I regret that I ever saw any.  I worry about my grandsons.  My oldest is 7 years old.  Some of you men saw your first porn when you were 6, 7, and 8 years old.  That breaks my heart for you to have been exposed to the damaging effects of pornography.

I hope this blog provides some answer to the astute question – Why is early exposure to porn traumatic?


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7 Comments

  • jim schaudies says:

    Good article!

  • Anonymous says:

    My ex is 50 years old and masturbates probably over 4 hrs daily to teen Porn, he would rather watch Porn than have sex when we were together, the Porn has caused him to seek nameless faceless encounters with young strangers from online. He says girls are nothing but ************, *****************.

  • Melody James says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. I think most sex issues in adults can be traced to trauma and it seems much harder for men to recognize trauma and admit the impact.

  • Christopher Poole says:

    I certainly see and recognize your point but I believe you are missing an alternate utility of porn. The sexual drive in males is particularly strong and even in a committed relationship it can be unrealistic to have the expectation of your needs always being met and your fantasized fulfilled. Porn can serve as a release to those overpowering urges and a fulfillment of possibly taboo fantasies. I cannot attest to the conclusions that you have reached. There may have been a time when I have objectified women but after spending much time with several women that I was dating nothing could be farther from the truth now. I can’t speak for porn’ s role in my initial behavior although I’m sure it played it’s part but just as importantly so did our culture and upbringing. i think that those strong sexual urges have a big hand in the objectification of women so when that drive is satisfied i always found it much easier to see things more clearly.

  • Francois says:

    When my daughter was in middle School she started experiencing depression severe enough that we took her for therapy. She had started adolescence early and was visibly developing. I thought it was hormones that were affecting her emotions but what I came to realize was that her physical development was drawing unwanted attention from the most aggressive boys, which was causing serious social problems, especially in the age of social technology. Her therapist told us boys have been profoundly affected by early exposure to hard core porn on the internet, in ways most people don’t understand, and it’s our daughters who will be most affected.

  • James says:

    I understand the conclusions made and it may be true in today’s hardcore internet porn. i personally believe that images of beautiful naked women is not traumatic to young boys, the trauma for me came from the church constantly telling me those feelings I had were wrong and sinful. I felt like a terrible person for having lust. The cognitive dissonance of thinking “this feels right and pleasurable” vs “the church says it’s sinning” was what caused my trauma. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I left the church and pursued what I knew I wanted. I still have hangups over sexual situations because of the brainwashing. When I was about 6-7 I found some ratty hustler magazines in a field. I completely understood what I was looking at. Maybe not all youngsters go through puberty starting at 5 like I did. (Yes I had hairy legs and crotch at 5). I would also sneak into the living room and watch while my dad was watching the playboy channel. No trauma from that, just from being constantly told it was a sin and I was bad and would go to hell for wanting sex. Now the smut that is readily available today, I do believe, can be tramatic for youngins because it’s pretty vile stuff ,and yes, constantly master bating to porn will kill your drive with real women. Young teens to twentys are having problems because of it. However, for adults, porn has its place. It’s been around since we started making cave paintings so it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is a really great article. I began watching Porn at the ripe age of 12 from what I remember. I have gone through many periods and frequencies of porn use. All in all at the end of the day watching hardcore porn fairly consistently since that age and now being 28 has definitely taken me away from reality. I think anything that takes you away from reality that is consistent enough to take you away from pursuing the life you are truly meant to live is a problem. Porn use and masturbation has definitely affected me to a degree where it has taken me away from not only following dreams but also from even being able to formulate/develop them. I feel as if my brain has been so fucked up for so long because I was blocking necessary energetic fields that needed to be clear to begin the process of figuring out what I truly love and what to do in the world. I can say now that fitness has really helped me become disciplined more and more bringing me to a place where I can recognize what I want to be in my life that is consistent and life changing. I do not want porn or incessant masturbation to be a part of my life anymore. It has no place. When I do not masturbate for long periods of time I feel strong and like nothing can stop me from following my dreams.

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