PORN: pastime or peril?

Posted in media by jenapincott on August 30, 2009

LoveScienceauthorToday I’d like to introduce a guest blogger, Duana Welch, Ph.D., author of Love Science, a fabulous relationship advice column that bases its advice in social science research rather than opinion. Check out Duana’s blog at http://www.lovesciencemedia.com/.

Sorry; no pictures. But you really are here for the articles…right? Right?!?

And in that spirit, Wise Readers, here are two notes your cohorts sent regarding pornography and marital happiness—the first from a man, the second from a woman:

“I think that happiness, including sexual, can be satisfied in many ways both with and without influences outside of the marital relationship. Unfortunately, one answer to what the effects of porn are on marital well-being is, “It depends.” There is such a huge dynamic involved. Full disclosure: I have looked at boobies on the Internet. I love my wife and in no way think that those other boobies have changed the way I feel about her.” –Sam

“I am already pretty insecure about my own sexiness quotient, and I think feeling sexy to your mate is key to being able to open up and fulfill both of your sexual and emotional desires. Knowing that my mate needs to fill his thrill with external stimulants does not make me more inclined to open up more — in fact it has the opposite effect. On the other hand, it is probably all in the approach — light porn shared between secure partners might serve to rev the engine. But porn found stashed on the computer or behind t-shirts in the closet is not the best way to ignite my flame. 🙂 Unless it’s the flame behind my eyes…” –Gina

So who’s right? Is porn a mere pastime, a marital peril, or some combination of the two? Certainly, the question is not an idle one; porn outsells all other forms of media combined every year, and the National Research Council reports that in the USA, porn is a bigger money-maker than all pro sports together. Recently, Utah’s residents were reported to be America’s top Internet-porn “end users” (pun intended), with much hoopla ensuing about What It All Means.

Happily for us, for almost 30 years, well-regarded researchers such as Dr. Neil Malamuth and Dr. Ed Donnerstein have studied porn’s effects. Experiments abound; conclusive, cause-based answers—no wussy mere correlations here!—exist.

And the first conclusion is: Viewing porn *causes* increased male violence against women and increased male acceptance of violence against women—IF and only if the porn viewed is violent. In the typical rape porn script, women who are initially unwilling appear to become enthusiastic participants in their degradation, ultimately screaming out for more. In these experiments, men are randomly assigned to view violent porn or non-violent porn or non-porn, and are then given opportunities to behave so that the researchers can compare the groups’ resulting attitudes and behaviors. It is now well-documented that men who experience violent porn are more accepting of such violence, believe sexual violence is not such a big deal, rate injuries real women have sustained as not being severe, recommend 50% lighter prison sentences for real rapists, and –most compelling—they actually harm women. For example, in one such experiment by Donnerstein, men who viewed a violent porn film gave higher shocks to a woman who made a learning error than did the men who viewed a non-violent porn or non-porn movie (the violent-porn viewers also gave much lower shocks to a man who made a learning mistake). The men were not actually administering shocks; but they fully believed that they were.

Yet most of the porn consumed today is non-violent; everyone in the images is portrayed as ready, willing, able, and of legal age. So what are the effects there? First, the good news: Non-violent porn viewing among non-addicted observers does not cause mates to stop loving one another, nor to actively harm one another. If a spouse is devoting a lot of time and money to porn consumption, that is taking away from the couple’s bond–but that can be said of any activity with an inappropriate focus of time, dollars and energy.

On the other hand, you can forget this rationale: “Honey, I actually want you more if I watch porn!” Although porn can have a very temporary effect of making men want to have sex with the nearest acceptable person—such as their spouse—the longer-term impact is not positive for the marital bond. Simply put, porn makes men less excited by and attracted to their mates. Experiments by Dr. Douglas T. Kenrick , Dr. Dolf Zillman and others show that men who have recently viewed porn rate their own partners as substantially less desirable and attractive than men who watch non-porn material. (To a much lesser degree, this is true of watching gorgeous creatures generally; even men who have recently seen an episode of “Charlie’s [fully-clothed] Angels” rate photos of a normal, unknown woman as plain…plain.)

We’ve paid a lot of attention to men’s perceptions; they buy and watch the vast majority of the porn, and that’s where most of the research has focused. What of women’s post-porno experience? In a nutshell, women are more physically turned on by porn in the moment than they admit; women worry about their mates finding them less appealing after the women have seen porn; women see themselves as less desirable after watching porn; and women flatly reject the idea that they would want to be raped.

So, Sam and Gina: You’re both partly right. Sam, you’re almost certainly not less in love with your wife for having seen a few extra boobies, although unless hers are truly supreme, you may find yourself less attracted to hers than before. And Gina, if your physique compares unfavorably to the perfect pay-per-view bodies, you’re feeling appropriately threatened vis-à-vis your desirableness to your mate. And both of you: In no case is porn actually helping your marriage.

What’s a guy or girl to do? Obviously, avoid the violent stuff. As for non-violent porn, it’s no marital happiness promoter, but it’s not necessarily the home-wrecker it’s been cast as, either.

Cheers,
Duana

Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of blog Love Science: Research-based relationship advice for everyone (www.LoveScienceMedia.com). Although many relationship advice columns exist, Love Science is the only one that presents not only what to do and how to do it–but the science and research behind the advice. Published free bi-weekly, Love Science is also Amazon.com’s best-selling relationship and behavioral science blog for Kindle. Feel free to Ask Duana *your* question at Duana@LoveScienceMedia.com.

All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

Are women more interested in men who are taken?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 25, 2009

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If you believe that all the good men are already taken, doesn’t it follow that you’d be more interested in a married (or otherwise engaged) guy? It’s been found to be true of other female animals — even fish and birds — they all prefer to “poach” males already chosen by other females. And I describe in BLONDES, studies have found that men who are in the company of an attractive woman (especially if they’re smiling at him) are more desirable to female judges.

But are women more likely to chase that guy if he’s already taken?

Psychologists at the University of Oklahoma wanted to know, so they recruited nearly 200 heterosexual men and women, some of whom were single and others who were in relationships. Told only that they were participating in a study on attraction, they were shown a photo of an opposite-sex stranger and answered questions about their attraction to that person: How likely would you show interest? How likely would you be to initiate conversation? How likely would you be to initiate a romantic relationship with this person? The psychologists also attached a relationship status to the person in the photo: either single or in a relationship.

Turns out the relationship status made a tremendous difference — but only when it comes to women choosing men, and not the other way around. As expected, women in relationships were less attracted to the stranger than single women were, regardless of the man’s relationship status. But here’s the interesting result: single women were more attracted to the man, and more likely to initiate a relationship with him, when told he was in a relationship than when told he was single. According to the psychologists, an attached man signals desirable resources and a willingness to commit to family life. He’s been tested, “pre-screened.” Simply put, commitment makes men more attractive.

As for men, a woman’s relationship status, at least in this study, had little effect on her attractiveness Single men were slightly (although not significantly) more attracted to the woman when told she was single. Attached men were slightly (although not significantly) more attracted to a woman when told she was attached.

Of course, bear in mind that this study is based on photos and is hypothetical. I suspect a man’s partner has some influence over whether a single woman dares move in on her territory. Is she beautiful? Is she the jealous type? And what happens after a divorce or break-up? Is a divorced man more attractive than one who never committed?

Are Americans more loving?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 20, 2009

23-heidi-montag-spencer-pratt-american-flagI love the large cross-cultural surveys done by evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt and his colleagues at Bradley University. His latest adds evidence to the conviction that love is universal. Repeat: love is universal. To be universal, there must be a evolutionary reason — in other words, it must help our species to perpetuate somehow. As Schmitt explains:

Love can rivet our attention to a single mate, instigate the process of romantic flirtation, lead to systematic patterns of courtship behavior, and on occasion culminate in marriage. Love helps parents bond in healthy ways with newborn offspring, leads to informative adolescent infatuations before more serious romantic pursuits, and serves as a social glue for functional interchanges of support amongst family and friends.

But even if love is universal, there are some very interesting cultural distinctions that emerge in the study. Here are a few outcomes/insights derived from the answers of 15,234 participants from 48 nations:

Nationality affects emotional investment, an indicator of love. As measured by an Emotional Investment Scale, countries in which people scored highest are the United States, Slovenia, and Cyprus. Low-scoring nations were Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Focusing on men alone, the countries with the most emotionally invested males are the United States, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Philippines, and Greece.

The countries with the most emotionally invested women are Slovenia, the United States, Malta, Cyprus, Australia, and Argentina.

In almost every country, women reported higher levels of emotional investment than did men. But there are a few notable exceptions: In Bolivia, men and women were identical in their average levels of Emotional Investment, and Malaysia, men scored higher than women (though not significantly so). The researchers suggest there is something restricting women’s reporting of their romantic investment in these two cultures.

Oddly, sex differences in emotional Investment were larger in nations with high gender equality (e.g., Switzerland, Australia, and Germany) and were smaller in nations with low gender equality (e.g., Turkey, South Korea, and Bolivia). The researchers claim: “What appears to be happening is that greater gender equality is associated with higher Emotional Investment among both men and women, but the accentuating effects of gender equality on Emotional Investment are greater among women, leading to larger levels of the naturally-occurring sex difference in Emotional Investment.”

Stress reduces emotional investment. In cultures with high stress (e.g., Bolivia, Indonesia, and Malaysia), levels of Emotional Investment were significantly lower, especially among women. High national levels of stress (Infant Mortality rates, Childhood Malnutrition rates, and the Pathogen Stress experienced in local environments) —were also linked to lower levels of Emotional Investment. This is predicted by evolutionary theory: harsh conditions lead people to develop insecure attachment levels that result in lower emotional investment.

Emotional investment doesn’t lead to higher fertility rates.To the contrary: countries with lower emotional investment levels among women were related to higher fertility levels.

Countries scoring high in emotional investment don’t have stronger marriages. To the contrary: national levels of emotional investment were positively correlated with divorce rate, unrestricted sociosexuality, short-term mating interests, and the tendency to engage in short-term mate poaching (i.e., stealing someone else’s partner for a short-term sexual affair)

Emotional investment is linked with commitment, but there are nationwide exceptions. Individuals from North America who reported more unrestricted sociosexuality reported lower levels of emotional investment. Similar results were observed within the world regions of South America, Eastern Europe, and Oceania. However, unrestricted sociosexual individuals from South/Southeast Asia and East Asia reported higher levels of emotional investment. Moreover, individuals from Africa who were interested in short-term mating reported significantly higher levels of emotional investment.

Emotional investment peaks when dating one person. It’s somewhat lower among those who are living with someone, married, or currently single (in that order); and is significantly lower than that among those who have never had sex.

Schmitt admits that people from different cultures may express emotional investment differently (have different response biases) and in ways hard to quantify on a standardized scale. Moreover, the questions were written in English and translated into the native languages of the participants. Could this possibly bias the U.S. results — or are Americans really more loving?

(My book, BLONDES, provides a more detailed description of some of Schmitt’s fascinating work with the International Sexuality Description Project.)

Night owls have more lovers

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 13, 2009

vampire2Early birds may get worms but not chicks. That is, according a recent study by Davide Piffer at the University of Pisa, the mean number of sexual partners for morning-oriented men was 3.6 versus 16.3 for evening-oriented men. This means that guys who are night owls have about four times as many sexual partners as morning birds.

Drawing on evolutionary psychology, Piffer offers a few theories:

1.) Throughout human history social activities have taken place at night. (In fact >60 percent of the people Piffer polled met their latest partner in the evening or night.) The evening is commonly reserved for courtship activity — dancing, drinking, having sex. Over time, the male night owl attends more social events, meets more women, and has more sex.

2.) “Eveningness” is a sexually dimorphic trait. Across cultures, “more males than females stay up late at night (due to biological differences involving the timing of peak melatonin levels). Piffer speculates that men evolved to stay up late because, in the deep past, the most reproductively successful males were night owls and they passed along their genes to subsequent generations. In terms of Darwinian sexual selection, evening orientation benefits males more because it gives them an increased opportunity to acquire multiple lovers — all at one go, or over time. Women, however, don’t achieve greater reproductive success by having sex with more men (it only takes one to get pregnant), which is why fewer women are evening-oriented. Men with an evening orientation have a competitive advantage over men with a morning orientation.

3.) Evening-orientation, Piffer speculates, may also be a direct product of sexual selection. That is, women may actively choose night owls over morning birds. Piffer draws on the “cads-versus-dads” theory; that is, women often go for bad boys, especially at a certain stage of life, and men who stay up into the night are likelier to fall into this category.

4.) Being a night owl may also be a form of “handicap signaling.” Staying up late at night (possibly drinking and smoking) can take a toll on one’s health. Only a man who is fit and healthy would be able to compensate for his lifestyle. Assuming a man seems unaffected by little sleep, his evening orientation indicates a strong constitution — a sexy quality.

Mind you, Piffer’s theories are allextremely speculative (but fun!). Of course there are many unanswered questions: By nature, is there something about a night bird’s personality that makes him more promiscuous than a morning bird — or is it only that he has more opportunities to meet women? Do night owls in all cultures get more sex? The study took place in Italy — it would be interesting to repeat the same experiment in non-Western cultures.

At least this may explain the otherwise inexplicable female obsession with vampires.

Rechanneling sexual arousal?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 10, 2009

0_d321_3d4c4b52_XLScientists know exactly how to mediate sexual attraction between mice. Introduce males to females, and the brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is activated. A new study has found that he neurons in the ACC are “fed” by a fusion of glutamate when a mouse is sexually aroused. Shut down the ACC with a sly drug and the result is a sudden loss of sexual interest. The drug used in the study was muscimol, the major psychoactive ingredient in some mushrooms such as Altamaria, and in mice it reduced sexual attraction within ten minutes of injection and lasted for about a half hour.

This is interesting because human attraction is also mediated by the ACC (as I describe in a previous post and in BLONDES). Researchers speculate the the ACC is involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and the evaluation of risk and reward. ACC activation affects our emotional state, leading to sexual behavior.

Is it possible to shut down our ACC with a drug such as muscimol (or a different drug without psychoactive side effects), and would it also temporarily make us asexual?

Bear in mind that what works in mice might backfire in humans. We may find that desire can overpower an addled ACC — there’s more than way to turn us on. For instance, sexual arousal of sorts is known to occur in a muscimol-induced dream state — although it often translates into a sort of cosmic awe. Some people apparently can have sex on psychedelics (although most popular ones are psylocybin-based, not muscimol); many can not. (Annie Sprinkle says that when she takes mushrooms (psylocybin) she doesn’t want to make love in a traditional sense, but found they can “deepen a relationship/”). It’s out-of-body sex. It transcends sexual arousal.

To get a real sense of the complexity of human sexual arousal we’d need human subjects — but even if volunteers are willing, certain experiments are unlikely to fly with ethics boards. Which brings us back to muscimolized mice, who, unbeknownst to us, may also be experiencing a sort of transcendental erotic phantasmagoria.

But a mouse couldn’t describe it as Annie Sprinkle does:

[Sex on psychedelics] was not about bodies coming together for physical sex, but about circulating sexual energy, which was everywhere and available just for the asking. I could tap into it just by tuning in and saying “yes.” I realized that everything was sexual/ sensual–that even all my little cells were all having sex. Sex was both microscopic and enormous.

Does “stress sweat” make you more compassionate?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 4, 2009

armpit3Pheromones fascinate me, and not only the ones that mediate sexual attraction.

Several months ago I wrote a post about a study that suggests that airborne chemical signals also mediate stress and fear. Known as alarm pheromones, these chemicals are found in sweat and saliva. In that experiment, sweat from skydivers (collected from pads in their armpits) activated anxiety circuits in the brains of people who sniffed those pads later on. The fascinating theory: Emotions can be communicated by smell. It happens unconsciously.

That was just one study, and naysayers are quick to point out that a solitary experiment doth not prove human pheromones are real. But now there’s further proof.

Researchers at the Universities of Dusseldorf and Kiel in Germany recently published the results of study based on the sweat smells of 49 stressed-out students after a.) taking a final oral exam (stress sweat) and b.) exercising (sport sweat). Sniffing the pads that had been in students’ armpits, volunteers often couldn’t detect an actual odor. Nor could they tell whether they were smelling stress sweat and sport sweat. But it turns out that an area of their brains detected the difference. Only stress sweat — and not sport sweat — triggered brain activity in areas involved in the processing of social emotional stimuli (fusiform gyrus), and empathetic feelings (insula), attention (thalamus).

The implications are fascinating. Is stress contagious? In an emergency situation, it makes sense that we’re “wired” to perceive and respond to the stress of others. An odor that induces attention and anxiety may help a group to focus together or synchronize a fight-or-flight response.

It’s particularly interesting that neural circuits associated with empathy — not just attention — were activated. Are we naturally empathetic creatures? Then again, there’s no proof that the volunteers actually felt more understanding and compassionate when smelling stress sweat even if their brains go through some of the motions. I suspect empathy is context-dependent. Further experiments should look into whether volunteers really are more empathetic (more willing to help a person in distress, for instance) after smelling stress sweat compared to sport sweat. If so, this would be further proof that stress sweat is an alarm pheromone, which, by definition, changes the way we behave after we inhale it.

A thought: Could stress sweat induce compassion in autistic people?

And another thought: If feelings have smells, is happiness also inhalable, communicable?

Are pheromones why the rhythm method doesn’t work?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 2, 2009

Pregnancy_25_weeks For women not trying to get pregnant, life should be easy. Conception can only happen in the 12-24 hours after ovulation. Sure, sperm may last as many as 3-4 days in the genital tract, hanging around for the egg to arrive. But you’d think not having sex during the 4-5-day window would be sufficient to avoid mishaps. That’s what the rhythm method is — a natural form of birth control that relies on abstinence on fertile days.

But slips happen even among the most careful practitioners of the rhythm method. Some of this may have to do with women not keeping perfect track of their menstrual cycles or having naturally irregular cycles. (I discuss in BLONDES the evolutionary reasons why ovulation is hidden to both women and their partners.) The failure rate for rhythm method is 25 percent each year (with a perfect-use rate of 9 percent).

Why so high?

Another reason could be pheromones. The latest issue of my favorite journal, Medical Hypotheses, includes a submission that suggests that pheromones from men may cause an early ovulation in women. By invoking an early release of the egg — in advance of the expected fertile window — chances of fertilization are higher. As I mention in BLONDES, studies have the found that androstadienone, a testosterone-related compound found in men’s sweat, semen, and saliva, increases the amount of luteinizing hormone in women, which thereby triggering ovulation. It’s possible that high-testosterone men may be likelier to have this effect on their lovers. Their sweat smell alone may do the trick.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are other properties in semen that may also trigger early ovulation. For instance, seminal fluid contains follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), which may coax the ovary to release an egg.

Despite the high failure rate, the Roman Catholic Chruch continues to promote the rhythm method, now renamed natural family planning (adding cervical mucus and temperature data to the regimen). Problem is, we don’t live in a clockwork universe, nor do we have clockwork bodies.

“Blondes” in Elle

Posted in media by jenapincott on July 27, 2009

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Nice mention of BLONDES in ELLE magazine. Johanna Cox interviewed me for her fun article and mentioned the Hungarian hair-length study I describe in the book. A previous article also draws on some of the lighter topics in the book.

Do beauties inspire higher sperm counts?

Posted in news by jenapincott on July 24, 2009

HughHefner Not all orgasms are created equal. For instance, intercourse orgasms are known to trump masturbatory ones, as evidenced by the amount of dopamine and prolactin produced. For men, sexual excitement produces higher sperm counts. As I recount in BLONDES, men who felt jealous or threatened by the possibility of a cheating partner had higher sperm counts than men who did not. The same is also true of male porn-watchers masturbating to a threesome. When guys watched two men attending to one woman, they had higher sperm counts than when watching one-on-one sex.

Sperm competition is the reason, according to the notorious British biologists Baker & Bellis. Men produce more copious, higher quality semen in situations in which those sperm might compete with rival sperm from other males.

And now there’s more — speculation that beautiful women also inspire men to have better quality sperm.

Female beauty has been found to enhance male sperm quality in other species. The latest evidence comes from a study led by Oxford biologist Charlie Cornwallis on Gallus gallus, a species of bird. Cornwallis and his colleagues discovered that the comelier the chick — e.g., plump with an elaborate comb — the better the quality her partner’s sperm (more motile, higher velocity, with a higher sperm count). Interestingly, this was true of dominant males but not subordinate ones, who appeared to put everything they had into every copulation. From Cornwallis’ perspective, the most fit males invest their best loads in the most reproductively fit females.

No study has yet proven that the same is true in humans — it’s not exactly ethical to recruit a guy to have sex with both a beauty and a plain Jane and then compare the aftermath. A beauty bias that affects sperm count may be true only in a wildly polygamous species, which humans are not.

Even so, this theory applied to humans doesn’t sound so controversial if you think about it — after all, sperm counts in men are associated with sexual excitement. Beauty can spark frisson. Even more exciting to ponder is how in practice an alpha male would make a larger reproductive investment in the most desirable mate. How does a Hugh Hefner decide? And wouldn’t it be ironic if this were true?

PsyBlog Top 40

Posted in media by jenapincott on July 22, 2009

psyblog_logoPsyBlog, a superb psychology blog in its own right, named this blog as one of the “40 Superb Psychology Blogs.” Click here to see the others on the list. Thank you, Psyblog!

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