Love Ruined My Porn Habit

Photo: Oleg Elkov / Shutterstock
Love Ruined My Porn Habit
Sex

We hear about relationships torn apart by one's internet porn habits but where are the support groups for smut-loving women like me, who suddenly and inexplicably get turned off by porn when they fall in love?

Before I met my boyfriend, I was visiting youporn.com about half an hour a day, hunting through dozens of clips to find the one most perfectly calibrated to turn me on. After I met my boyfriend, my visits to the site dropped off in equal proportion to how much I was getting off with a flesh-and-blood human being.

But my loss of appetite for porn can't simply be chalked up to how great it is to have the real thing: There were days when, beau away, I'd recall the quick jolt of satisfaction that used to await me online. I would go to my computer and put my hand down my pants — only to find that porn, gasp, suddenly did nothing for me.

Even clips that had the golden ratio suddenly looked contrived, grotesque — like apes humping in a zoo. It made no sense.

And it was so unfair! I didn't want to have to rely on my boyfriend as my lone source of arousal. I would tell myself, "Come on! We can't put all of our eggs in this guy's basket!" but still nothing. Love's blindness had also somehow made me blind to the pleasures of porn.

It turns out, however, that there's science behind my stultification. A growing body of research on the biology of love proves just how hardwired we are to fending off attraction to others once we become smitten with someone.

Biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her? explains: "Love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one person at a time in order to conserve your energy." In other words, love is a shield of chemicals and psychological trickery that helps us stick to our mate, trying to ensure that we make and raise babies with them. "Those people who didn't have an urge to fall in love probably died off," says Fisher.

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But if the continuation of our species has ever faced an enemy it couldn't handle, it would be porn.

According to The Porn Trap author Wendy Maltz, our bodies and brains produce many of the same chemicals when we're watching porn that they produce when we're in love. Chief among them is dopamine, which does the job of focusing us on one person, and oxytocin, which helps us form attachments.

"I've called pornography cupid's rival because the physiological experience of porn competes with romantic love," says Maltz. "It actually jumps in there and in a very easy way competes with it." If you have an orgasm with porn, oxytocin is released, which can emotionally connect you to what you're watching. "So you can actually kind of fall in love, in a way, with your porn," says Maltz.

My problem, of course, was the reverse: as much as I liked porn, it wasn't enough to keep me from getting a lover (how many women does it do that for?), and once I had him, I was suddenly less interested in going back to my old, onscreen flame. I had the opposite response of many men; in the rivalry between my porn and my lover, porn was the jilted one, the one I left for the superior neuro-chemical high of a real person. So perhaps it's not a stretch to imagine that love's defense mechanisms would attack virtual love affairs as well.

But chemicals might not have been the only things in play; in addition to the drug arsenal of the brain, we also have powerful little cognitive tricks that kick in automatically to protect our romances. In a 2008 study, a group of men and women who were manipulated into thinking about how much they love their partner were able to tear their eyes away from photos of attractive people faster than people who were simply made to think about happiness.

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"This stuff happened at a fast enough speed that individuals couldn't have been in conscious control of it," says Gian Gonzaga, a senior research scientist for the Internet dating site eHarmony.com, worked on the study. "It was like it was just an automatic process for them to move their attention away — which is really powerful."

Gonzaga pointed me to a similar study in which people in love were asked to recall details about an attractive person's looks. They weren't able to do it. But when asked to recall other, mundane details, like what kind of sweater the hot person was wearing, they had no trouble. Yet, the opposite was true for recalling an average-looking person's looks. The in-loves could remember looks-related details as long as the person in question was not stereotypically good-looking. Depending on your perspective, this study reveals a hiccup in our love-protection system: It appears we're only safeguarded from running off with people who look ripped from the pages of Good Genes magazine.

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But maybe the same principle makes us especially defensive against porn. With its big-muscled, square-jawed guys and large-breasted, hourglass women, porn is a caveman's paradise.

The study would explain why my in-love brain's defense mechanisms go into overhaul and practically shut down when such perfect-looking people come up on my computer screen. I asked Gonzaga if he thinks it's possible for these defense mechanisms to kick in when a person in love watches pornography. After stammering a bit, he told me, "I've never thought about it that way. I would have to think about that more carefully, but it certainly would make sense. If you're trying to suppress your attention to a photograph, it should work for pornography too, but I'd obviously like to see that study."

Maltz has yet another explanation: "Porn is a dissociative experience," she says. "When we interact with porn, we're in a fantasy world where we don't see the reality of what we're doing." It's true that the first few times I watched porn, it made me feel very strange and disgusted, and stroked my feminist rage — feelings I admit do not stray far from the ones I have experienced years later while surfing youporn.com in love.

What Maltz is getting at is that it takes most of us a certain amount of repeated exposure to porn for us to be able to enter into its fantasy world. But when we fall in love, we often take a break of a week or even months from porn, and that is long enough to lose that ability and to be reminded of the alienating reality of it all. "When you see porn in contrast to a live experience, maybe you're able to break through the dissociative experience," says Maltz.

Well, despite all these barriers, it still seems like there's hope for my furtive little habit. Over time, I've noticed my interest in porn beginning to return. And from what the experts have told me, this is what we'd expect. As Dr. Fisher says, love has three stages, and it's in the first one (the "attachment" phase) when we experience most of the intense hormones and chemistry.

All of those biological protections that keep our eyes from wandering eventually lessen and lose their grip — that's when we're supposed to start trusting our partners on a more rational level. I'd like that to be the case — and I'd like him to earn it — but just in case, I don't mind browsing now and then for a little backup.

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Elizabeth Cline is a fashion expert who has appeared on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, China Global Television Network, The New York Times, CBC News, and NPR. Her publications have been showcased in Forbes, Sierra and Atmos Magazine, Vogue Business, Slate, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, AMC.com, SundanceTV.com, The New Republic, The Nation, and more.