Welcome to an illuminating journey, which is dark and grim because it brings our attention to the darkness that is cast not by our shadows nor by the absence of light but by our own projections. It is illuminating because it is informative and we know that even in darkness to the perceiving eye, a map is a good guide, if not better, until we can train our eyes to see through the dark and have the reliability of map.
What follows is a talk given to a small group of Muslim Audience at MIUF so references are biased towards a Muslim sources. Since the discussion, one or two issues have been added to reflect the concerns of some Muslims that were raised, at least in Nigeria.
If you are a fan of the movie The Matrix, then you shall hopefully find what follows interesting as well. The Porn Matrix is analogous to the The Matrix which is an illusory reality but which has real effects. Neo (the hero of The Marix) discovered the truth that their reality was simulated by machines because he understood machine language, being a computer programmer. Hopefully what follows shall provide insight into the mind workings (language) of pornography in creating The Porn Matrix where many of us reside in without realizing. Like Neo, understanding the language of pornography shall hopefully set us free. May the rebellion succeed!
Definitions and Clarifications
For any word so widely used, and thus widely believed to be understood, we should clarify these words precisely because many think they understand them. My experience is that the more people claim to understand a thing, which means it has been accepted into the vocabulary of common sense, then the more the need to clarify the meaning.
Pornography (aka Porn): Pornography is the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of sexual arousal. Pornography may be presented in a variety of media, including books, magazines, postcards, photographs, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video, and video games. The term applies to the depiction of the act rather than the act itself, and so does not include live exhibitions like sex shows and striptease. (Wikipedia)
Masturbation: Masturbation is the sexual act involving the self-sexual stimulation of the genitals for sexual arousal or other sexual pleasure, usually to the point of orgasm. The stimulation can be performed using a hand or fingers, as well as everyday objects or a sex toy. (Wikipedia)
Sex Education: Sex education is instruction on issues relating to human sexuality, including human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexual activity, reproductive health, emotional relations, reproductive rights and responsibilities, sexual abstinence, and birth control. (Wikipedia) There is a tradition of sex education in Islam which may be different from the prevalent “secular” types especially when it comes to use of language or images or even the selectivity on who gets taught etc.
Pornographic Content: The outcome of pornography, made with the intent of pornography i.e. sexual arousal.
Pornography Consumption: The intake of pornographic content for sexual arousal through the senses (not necessarily stimulation). The focus of this will be on Internet porn.
Pornification: The projection of sexuality on non-pornographic content (i.e. “to make something sexual in character or quality”), leading to sexual arousal on a thing that may not be sexual. Porinification is the logically follows from Pornographic Consumption.
Porn Matrix: An alternate social reality, existing in parallel with our shared social reality (which is the product of consensus based on shared unadulterated experiences), where Pornography Consumption and Pornification shape this reality by projecting sexuality as defined by values pornography promotes (even while at odds with our shared reality). It is a delusional reality with consequence in our shared reality. These “values” of pornography are not necessarily only acquired through pornography consumption but even when acquired otherwise, and then projected to our shared reality by pornification, it helps to strengthen the Pornographic Matrix and therefore the same effect as Pornographic consumption.
What follows is an excerpt to whet your interest on how much of a problem pornography may be today.
Muslim states actually held 6 of the top 8 positions for searchers intending to seek access to sex related sites. The complete top 10 were:
7. Saudi Arabia
Even more disgusting were the statistics for various animal sex terms, where Pakistan once again led the field across most areas. A suggestion for them to rename their nation as Pornistan would not be out of the question, as they were the country that produced the most searches for sexual terms for the animals pigs, donkeys, dogs, cats, horses, cows, goats, snakes, monkeys, bears, elephants, and the generic term animal.
Saudi Arabia was the only country to generate more searches than Pornistan for an animal, coming in at position 1 for ‘fox sex’. They also finished second or third for a good number of the above mentioned animal terms. Other muslim countries to register top 5 positions for those terms were, in order of prominence, Iran, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Morocco and the UAE.
Other interesting statistics were Turkey ranking number 2 for ‘child porn’, and arabic being the language used 2nd most for searches for ‘gay man’, ‘gay sex’, and ‘gay girl’. Egypt led the pack when it came to ‘fat sex’ and ‘bird sex’, Indonesia was first for ‘homo sex’, and Saudi Arabia up front, or should I say back, for ‘ass sex’. Pornistan also led the searches for the terms ‘children sex’, ‘sexy child’, ‘sexy children’, and ‘rape’.
It is fair to note that some have responded to this revealing statistics as perhaps a move to show the moral deprivation of Muslim majority country, that the statistic may have been calculated in a way to exclude powerful western countries because google trends is not the best measure of porn consumption. This may be true, which may change the rankings, but it doesn’t change the data and perhaps even relative rankings, at least based on google searches.
Motivation: A Problem for Men or Women
On a lighter note, a researcher(s) who wanted to carry out a study on Internet porn had one major obstacle: there was no control group! This is because almost all males within the required age range were consuming porn so they could not compare those who do from those who don’t, only those who do a lot from those who do a little.
Is porn a problem for Men or for Women? While the above story gives a hint, pornographic consumption should not be confused with masturbation even though the two can be associated in practice. Based on concerns expressed over the Internet, Internet porn appears to be a man’s psychological issue leading to social and economic consequences, while to women it is mostly those social and economic issues that leads to personal/psychological issues; a full cycle from man to woman. The effects of Internet porn typically starts with a man who alters (social and economic) reality which in turn affects women as the victims of this alteration since women interact with men. That is not to say women don’t consume porn as men do, because there are in fact genres suited for them, women are simply not the majority. Either way, it is a problem for both men and women; husbands and wives, boys and girls, for as long as the two sexes coexist.
Position of Islam on Pornography and the Limitation of Legal Deductions
A survey of different Muslim groups shows that prohibition of pornography is one of those few things Muslims can boast of achieving consensus. It is also important here to differentiate between pornography and masturbation because the latter is one area with only slight disagreement on its legal position. Because pornography is often used as a means to masturbation, the two could be conflated; so make no mistake, pornography is prohibited in Islam!
However we should also be aware that a legal prohibition is mainly what it sounds like, a legal prohibition. If legal prohibitions were sufficient to motivate Muslims not to break the prohibitions, Muslims would have certainly been the most pious, if not progressive people in the world today, especially with the proliferation of Fatwa on the internet. There is a gap between Islamic legal rulings on social/economic issues and strategies to avail us from them. There is also a smaller gap with coming to a deep understanding of issues; this trait is unfortunately pervasive. Nonetheless legally positioning pornography, or any other matter, may be a good start.
This talk hopes to quickly pass the legal deduction aspect (which is not contested) and focus primarily on gaining understanding, sharing insights and even pointing to strategies/ways to avail ourselves of porn. But we shall not pass without mentioning at least one scriptural reference that is used in arriving at the legal prohibition:
Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms… (Q24:30-31)
قُل لِّلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَ يَغُضُّواْ مِنۡ أَبۡصَـٰرِهِمۡ وَيَحۡفَظُواْ فُرُوجَهُمۡۚ ذَٲلِكَ أَزۡكَىٰ لَهُمۡۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ خَبِيرُۢ بِمَا يَصۡنَعُونَ (٣٠) وَقُل لِّلۡمُؤۡمِنَـٰتِ يَغۡضُضۡنَ مِنۡ أَبۡصَـٰرِهِنَّ وَيَحۡفَظۡنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبۡدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنۡهَاۖ وَلۡيَضۡرِبۡنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِہِنَّۖ
And come not near unto adultery. Lo! it is an abomination and an evil way. (Q17:32)
وَلَا تَقۡرَبُواْ ٱلزِّنَىٰٓۖ إِنَّهُ ۥ كَانَ فَـٰحِشَةً۬ وَسَآءَ سَبِيلاً۬ (٣٢)
“Amongst the lowest grades of people before God on the day of judgement, is the man going to his wife (and making sex) and she going to him: then either of them divulging their common secret.” (Abu Said)
“Let-not the one of you fall upon his wife like a beast (camel) falls. It is more appropriate to set a messenger afore the act” (ref)
My argument in what follows is that by consumption of pornography we are consumed/recruited into the Porn Matrix where our reality is shaped by the Porn Matrix (i.e. persistent pornification) and we end up suffering as a human social group psychologically (emotionally/spiritually), physiologically, socially and economically regardless of who does the actual consumption; because while the Porn Matrix is a delusion, when people act according to the reality of the Porn Matrix, they do so in our shared reality with real effects e.g. the psychopath whose twisted reality sees no fault in killing a person, kills a person, then the consequence of their action is not in their twisted reality but in the shared reality where “normal” people share.
Recruitment Phase 1: Rewards, Habits, Fetishes, Perversions… Sliding Down the Pit
The brain has the ability to make us acquire new skills, cultivate habits and learn. It also has the ability to make use feel good about our actions by rewarding us with release of “feel good” hormones, not by rational justification. Different parts of the brain have been scientifically observed to be associated with particular activities and emotions; notably through intricate connections between the parts. Brain cells are connected to each other via neurotransmitters. The stronger the connection between parts associated with particular activity or emotion, the easier that activity or emotion is to the person. Frequency of connections firing up results in strengthening the brain connections which leads to the cultivation of habit. Therefore when we form habits, there is usually an underlying physical change in our brains to facilitate that habit. Synaptic Plasticity is “the ability of the brain to change the strength in connections between the neurons (brain cells) in response to experience”.
An important neurotransmitter, Dopamine, is associated with the particular abilities of the brain mentioned above. Dopamine is released at moments of heightened pleasure and the result is that connections, being made at that time of pleasure, are strengthened (both new and old connections). Dopamine makes us feel good when released/fired that we want to do more; this is why you want more ice cream after your first mouthful taste. This is how pleasure seeking leads to rewards in the brain which leads to habits… and could even lead to addiction especially in the case of drugs. Sexual arousal from pornographic images causes Dopamine to be released, which strengthens the brain connections associated with pornographic images. This is how the habit of porn is literally built!
Another thing the brain is good at is making associations. For instance we know that rats in the lab have been conditioned to feel pain even when no pain is inflicted on them because a certain sound has been made everytime they were inflicted pain. From daily experiences we know of traumatic experiences, even minor ones, where we dislike things simply because we associate them with something that happened in the past e.g. people who once suffered a car accident while it is raining are likely to feel nervous when they are in a car and it is raining. In cases of watching porn, there are notable features of the scene that may not be arousing to the person at the time. The brain in the state of heightened pleasure could form new associations between the sexual pleasure and the notable feature; this is one explanation of how fetishes are made. E.g. watching a sex scene with a woman in red hair may cause the watcher to associated red hair with sex; fetish for red hair.
What about perversions; the deviant and appalling sexual acts associated with pornography? What else but an unsurprising corollary of an act that is itself deviant; leading to extremes of deviant practices. “Extreme” having any useful meaning only to those outside the practice because all those engaged in the practice can only be relatively deviant or “soft” compared to others. Unintended brain associations explains habits, sexual fetishes and perversions, especially with the excessive want of pleasure quenched through hyper stimulation.
In addition, Dopamine which is a instrumental in the mechanism of reward leads to non trivial consequences when it is released in reaction to pleasure. It locks the person in a cycle of cravings and binge (excessive indulgence), then craving for more of the activity, then more Dopamine… and so on. The effects of this are three:
- Numbed pleasure experience,
- Hyper reactivity to sex/porn,
- Weakened will power.
If consuming pornography has lead one to be rewarded by their brains leading to a habit, then one has been recruited into the Porn Matrix. If one goes even further to cultivate fetishes and perversions, then one has indeed become an agent of the Porn Matrix!
Recruitment Phase 2: Addiction or Not
Philip Zimbardo reveals that we are not only getting addicted to substances as in the case of “typical” addictions. We are now in an age where we are getting addicted to stimulation/excitement, thanks to hyperstimulation made easy by the Internet. This is no accident as addiction to stimulation is not limited to porn, but most endeavors today that fall within the trinity of consumerism, capitalism and entertainment. Zimbardo calls it Arousal Addiction. We don’t simply want more, we want different! This he has attributed to excessive porn consumption, among others like excessive Internet and gaming. A notable side effect is that men are now incapable of intimacy with their spouses, who are real unlike the fictitious and fantasy porn characters they are used to watching. It is in light of this realization, that Cindy Gallop has launched a campaign “Make Love not Porn” after dating many young men and being fed up with their delusions from porn; “Hardcore pornography has become sex education”.
A relevant fact about pornographic addiction is that “addicts” do not suffer withdrawal syndrome. Pornography’s claim to addiction is contested, mostly rejected. In fact, even if porn qualifies as addiction, it is a behavioral (not substance) addiction. More specifically, this would fall under the category of Compulsivity, which is known to manifest in sexual acts.
Compulsive behavior is defined as performing an act persistently and repetitively without it leading to an actual reward or pleasure. A major cause of the compulsive behaviors is said to be obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). The main idea of compulsive behavior is that the likely excessive activity is not connected to the purpose it appears to be directed to. (Wikipedia).
The insight from this is that some compulsive porn consumers don’t really get the pleasure they seek but they do it anyway just like the OCD patient would clap their hands three times whenever someone sneezes, for no apparent reason but the compulsion to do it. A classic example of compulsivity is seen in gambling which even the “addicts” are aware of its negative influence yet they feel compelled to do it.
This type of compulsive behavior is characterized by feelings, thoughts, and behaviors about anything related to sex. These thoughts have to be pervasive and cause problems in health, occupation, socialization, or other parts of life. These feelings, thoughts, and behaviors can include normal sexual behaviors or behaviors that are considered illegal and/or morally and culturally unacceptable. This disorder is also known as hypersexuality, hypersexual disorder, nymphomania or sexual addiction. (Wikipedia)
Some evidences of arousal addiction have been shown by Gary Wilson that novelty trumps nudity; because arousal goes down when men are shown nude images of the same type but arousal spikes up when men are shown equally nude images of different type. In fact of all the activities on the Internet, pornography consumption has the most potential to become addictive! Furthermore Arousal Addiction has been has been wrongly diagnosed as ADHD, social anxiety, depression, performance anxiety which happen to be only symptoms of Arousal Addiction, not the disorder itself. These symptoms lead to unproductivity in other activities (from learning the Qur’an, to balancing work with family, to learning new skills). Given the proliferation and interest in productivity tools/apps these days, I wonder if there is a correlation between porn consumption and productivity tool consumption. The bottom line is that these symptoms could disappear if the arousal addiction is taken care of, which means we would be generally more productive in our lives if we didn’t consume porn. This is good enough reason for the ambitious.
Why is addiction relevant here, or rather which aspects of addiction are relevant to this discussion. The first is as mentioned above, that there are no withdrawal symptoms/syndrome as in the case of substance addiction; only compulsivity. The second is that the addiction/habit can be traced physically to the brain, which learnt the habit, which can therefore be unlearnt via Synaptic Plasticity!
Here is a trivia for you: A study showed that religious people are more sensitive to pornography by their likelihood to believe they are addicted to porn (even if their viewing is “modest”), and to point out that it affects their lives negatively. An obvious corollary. On the other end, the non-religious are probably typical with regards to addiction which is denial. We could assume there is such a thing as addiction to pornography in so far as the “addicts” believe so. The reaction of the religious may seem more prudent however it may also hide a measure of helplessness. Does that do more harm or good to the religious? The key is to see it as the behavioral “addiction” it is which is treatable by a number of methods; the most potent though not abundant is will power. (cognitive behavioral therapy is successful with internet addiction, acceptance and commitment therapy etc.).
Pornography “addiction” may have the following effects:
- Tolerance; ethically desensitized by pornographic images. Think of movies and violence, then think of cognitive dissonance
- Self-deception: making excuses for continuing to consume porn
- Loss of willpower: willpower which we have found to be the simplest solution to arousal addiction if only strong enough
- Distortion of attention; every habit takes time away from other this
Having these effects due to consumption of pornography means one has been recruited and enlisted as an agent of The Porn Matrix! Next we shall see how the Porn Matrix is sustained.