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!1
Internet Porn & The Meaning Crisis
Isa Hassen
University of Toronto

‘When The Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves.
On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that
creates billions of losers for every handful of winners.’ (p.3)
Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, 1999

In the quote above, the famous feminist Germaine Greer makes a bold critique of the
modern post-feminist world, where she argues that women are more objectified, enslaved, and
isolated than ever before, sometimes even more so than in traditional patriarchal society. One of
her key pieces of evidence is the proliferation of internet pornography — a modern phenomenon
that "disadvantages" women and "means even more loneliness…" 1. In this essay I wish to indite
porn’s relationship to deeper philosophical problems. Internet porn is a significant part of modern
life; for the modern male, technological advances have coincided with the proliferation of
pornography. From 56k dial-up internet where images of the subject would slowly load, pixel
line by line, to today’s emerging VR (virtual reality) headsets which already offer shockingly
immersive pornographic experiences (even before the devices have hit mainstream markets), it
seems that every new tech gadget that is invented eventually devolves into a new screen on
which to watch porn. Technological proliferation has tempted a whole generation of boys (and

1

Greer, page 182.

!2
some girls) into regular pornography watching, sometimes to the extent of multiple hours per
day2, and it has become so pervasive that is now acceptable to publically display a billboard
advertisement of a porn website smack in the middle of Times Square. This public promotion of
selfish auto-erotic activity was not normal before, as Greer observes "At the beginning of the
twentieth century masturbation was thought to debilitate an individual"3 . Sexual liberation in the
past 50 years have rendered such notions archaic, but modern neuroscience and psychology,
along with perennial philosophy may lend credence to that belief once again.
A growing body of researchers and psychologists like Leonhard Sax in his book Boys
Adrift and Philip Zimbardo in his book Man: Interrupted have uncovered a strange phenomenon
happening in the past few decades: that this generation of boys are underperforming compared to
previous generations. The effects are physically measurable, as the family doctor notes: "the
average young man today has a sperm count much lower than what his grandfather had at the
same age"4. But the problem goes much deeper than sperm counts; Sax cites the declining
graduation rates for men at all levels of education5; Zimbardo notes the rising levels of male
obesity and poorer physical health in general6 when compared to women; increasing prevalence
of "dysfunctional" male behaviour like dropping out of the workforce7; and more generally,
authors like Zimbardo and Greer argue that modern men are suffering from a loss of motivation,

2

Zimbardo, page 27.

3

Greer, page 182.

4

Sax, page 13.

5

Sax, page 9.

6

Zimbardo, page 23.

7

Edsall, Thomas, "The Increasing Significance of the Decline of Men", https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/opinion/theincreasing-significance-of-the-decline-of-men.html?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits&_r=0

!3
in that they are failing at seeking and maintaining long-term romantic relationships. But what
could possibly be the cause of such a strange phenomenon? Edsall, an NYT columnist, notes an
interesting correlation with the decline of men: "The recent increase in dysfunctional behavior
among non-college white men correlates with the substantial increase in the rate of white
nonmarital births, up from 22.2 in 1993 to 35.7 percent in 2014. In 1965, the white nonmarital
birthrate was 3.4 percent." 8. In other words, he suggests that the breakdown of the Western
family unit has begotten a generation of men whose drive and motivation is fundamentally
broken. This problem inevitably affects girls as well, hence the Greer quote at the beginning of
this essay.
Drawing on the work of the above mentioned researchers, I wish to make an even
stronger claim; that porn reflects something even deeper, it represents and drives our postmodern
disconnection from a meaningful life and long term relationships. Charles Taylor discusses the
problem in his philosophical treatise The Malaise of Modernity; he shows how many modern
writers have pointed out a "convergence on the themes of [social] decline"9 and a "loss of
meaning"10 in the modern world. John Vervaeke, a leading philosopher and cognitive scientist at
the University of Toronto, calls this problem The Meaning Crisis11. The term "Meaning Crisis" is
difficult to pin down — indeed Vervaeke has entire courses dedicated to explaining it — but it
has to do with modern breakdown of traditional family structures and religious worldviews,

8

Ibid

9

Taylor, page 1.

10
11

Taylor, page 10.

For example see Peterson’s and Vervaeke’s discussion here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RCtSsxhb2Q. The definition
of the Meaning Crisis is difficult to pin down — Vervaeke has developed entire courses dedicated to explaining this, for example
NEW33 at the University of Toronto. For a cognitive-science explanation of how meaning is formed see Vervaeke’s study titled
"Relevance, Meaning and the Cognitive Science of Wisdom".

!4
leaving a huge vacuum of 'meaning' in its wake. It is not just a modern problem, as philosophers
have been wondering about the meaning of life since Socrates and beyond, but Vervaeke and
Taylor argue that the modern world has particularly profound manifestations of a crisis in life’s
meaning. In this essay, I intend to focus on the metaphorical similarity between internet porn
addiction and various facets of the Meaning Crisis. This essay is divided into three general
subheadings: "Overstimulation & Desensitization", "Narcissism & Isolation", and
"Unfaithfulness & Unrestricted Choice". Each of these 3 subheadings can be related to
technological proliferation, pornography, and a larger modern philosophical problem.
Overstimulation & Desensitization
One of the measurable effects of excessive technological use, and porn use in particular,
are the powerful effects on the brain, an area that we are only now beginning to understand
through neuroscientific study. Using a term from behavioural psychology’s study of
"reinforcement" and "intermittent variable rewards", Tristan Harris (who worked on Google’s UI
design team) explains how modern app interfaces are designed to be addictive - in his words: to
"hijack people’s minds". He compares modern app notification-checking to slot machines (one of
the most profitable machines in the gambling industry) and their tendency to encourage
compulsive, mindless behaviour12. How many times do you check your email unconsciously on
your phone? Now imagine what happens when you hijack people’s minds with one of the most
powerful evolutionary motivations: sex drive. The over-stimulative effects of excessive internet
porn are hard to overstate. Although pornography has existed since ancient times, even as an art

12

Harris, Tristan. "How Technology Hijacks People's Minds - from a Magician and Google's Design Ethicist – The Startup.",
https://medium.com/swlh/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3

!5
form, it has never been possible to consume it in the massive quantity that technology enables
today.
The landmark compilation of studies on porn and the brain was pioneered by Gary
Wilson in his own peer-reviewed studies and his book Your Brain on Porn: internet pornography
and the emerging science of addiction. The book and accompanying internet movement at
yourbrainonporn.com (albeit a less academically rigorous website) has led to coining the
acronym YBOP - a term which self-proclaimed porn addicts use to refer to addiction effects.
Wilson draws on dozens of neuroscientific and psychological studies to make the strong claim
that porn has severe, measurable effects on the brain - comparable to hard drug addiction (or in
some cases, worse). He explains how the overstimulation of certain neural pathways in the brain
can cause other neural pathways to become weaker. Practically speaking, it can lead to a porn
addict seeking out more and more extreme forms of porn over time13, while becoming
disconnected and "numbed" from other enjoyable things in life. A study done at Max Planck
Institute found "that higher hours per week & more years of porn viewing correlated with a
reduction in grey matter in sections of the reward circuitry involved in motivation and decisionmaking"14. This is a common problem observed with other types of addiction as well; for
example hardcore drug addicts are known to become disinterested in everything else, such as
friendships and family, in order to satisfy the hardened neurological craving in their brain15.
Similarly, self-proclaimed porn addicts such as Noah B.E. Church mention, in their personal

13

See for example, this compilation of studies which show that addicted users tend to seek more and more extreme forms of
porn: https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/studies-find-escalation-porn-users
14From

a 2014 study by the Max Planck Institute, summarized here: https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/desensitization-numbedpleasure-response
15

Ibid

!6
stories of recovery, noticing these effects within themselves16. Church, in his book Wack:
Addicted to Internet Porn, explains how his addiction led him to lose his motivation and his
physical ability to deal with women. This is now starting to become a clinically recognized
illness17 which some call "PIED", or porn-induced erectile dysfunction. It is a disorder which
happens when men who use porn excessively are able to get an erection for porn only, but are
unable to perform for a real woman. Some are able to get an erection, but don’t know how to
play with women in healthy ways, as their fantasies come from the exaggerated and scripted
world of porn. Some millennial age men don’t even realize they have a disorder, since they have
been addicted to porn since adolescence, and are simply unaware of their normal lovemaking
capabilities. As Greer puts it: "Sex at the end of the century is no longer a matter of intercourse.
The sex of the millennium is pornography"18. Screen time, not skin time, is now the normal way
of exploring sexuality.
Fortunately there is hope for those who wish to rediscover the natural side of their
sexuality. Rehabilitated addicts like Noah B.E. Church, and advocates like Gary Wilson inspire
hope by claiming that is is possible to "reboot" the brain and overcome a porn addiction, thanks
to the same mechanism which enabled the addiction in the first place: neuroplasticity. In the
same way that excessive stimulation of certain neural pathways can cause them to "harden" and
make a person addicted to a certain pleasure, cutting off all access to the stimuli for a while can
cause the brain to rewire and reorganize itself. This process is known in the YBOP community as

16

Noah BE Church, "A story of porn addiction and recovery (Noah B.E. Church at The Mystery Box Show)," YouTube,
November 16, 2014, , accessed March 31, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXtEcQGLWW8.
17

See Healthline’s summary of PIED here: http://www.healthline.com/health/erectile-dysfunction/porn-induced-ed

18

Greer, page 181.

!7
"rebooting"19, and although it doesn’t appear have gained wider scientific acceptance as a
rehabilitation technique, there are many active online communities and hundreds of anecdotal
accounts of its efficacy20.
The concepts of overstimulation and desensitization can be observed at both the microlevel (an individual’s brain), and the macro-level (a hyperconnected, globalized world). It is not
just porn users who are overstimulated and desensitized, but perhaps the whole internet reflects
some of this. One way in which this phenomenon is manifest is in the increasingly shocking and
crass nature of user-generated content on popular websites. Our overexposure to an endless abyss
of content has dulled our senses in a way that we are apathetic in the face of shocking and
disgusting content. Misogyny and hate are common in YouTube comments21. Comments that
would be considered vile and inappropriate in almost any real-life setting are only a click away
from the front page of the world’s most popular video sharing site. Compare this to the porn
billboard mentioned in the introduction, which was removed within hours of being posted at
certain intersections in New York City due to protests22. Yet that billboard’s message is mild
compared to many sexist YouTube comments, which are not removed. Somehow, it seems that
the over-stimulative nature of the Internet makes shocking content normal. Hence it is no wonder
that videos of people being burned alive and beheaded are appropriate for Daesh (ISIS) internet
outreach schemes. Perhaps Daesh should’ve chosen another medium if they wanted their
message to be more effective, because the internet is already desensitized.

19

https://yourbrainonporn.com/reboot_your_brain

20

Just Google "YBOP reboot"

21

See this Time article for instance: http://healthland.time.com/2014/01/17/a-dramatic-reading-of-my-youtube-hate-comments/

22

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/09/pornhub-billboard-times-square_n_5955824.html

!8
Narcissism & Isolation
Another feature of the Meaning Crisis identified by Vervaeke is narcissism and
isolation23. These concepts are, in some sense, polar opposites. People suffering from narcissism
excessively seek out external validation while caring little about others’ needs, whereas people
suffering from isolation may care a lot about others and seek their company. Yet somehow the
worst part of both of these opposing concepts are manifest in internet porn. Narcissism is a focus
on the self over the community, the ego over everything else, and an arrogant disregard for
others’ feelings. Narcissism and individualism are a central theme of Charles Taylor’s critique of
modernity; he begins his argument by saying "The first source of worry [about the state of
modernity] is individualism"24, which is very much related to narcissism. Psychologists might
also agree that narcissism is a problem distinct to the millennial generation, according to famous
books The narcissism epidemic and Generation Me by Twenge & Cambell (2009). Their findings
taken from some of the largest intergenerational studies in psychology, conducted over a span of
60 years, suggest that narcissism is a measurable psychological trait that has become pervasive in
the West in recent decades.
On the other hand, there is something distinctly narcissistic about pornography. As Greer
points out, "The acceptance and promotion of men’s auto-erotic activity means that men are
more likely to dispense with the services of actual women…"25. Unlike actual lovemaking, in
porn there is no need to care about another person’s feelings and nurture a relationship. The

23

I cannot provide a citation for this, except for personal lecture notes from Vervaeke’s NEW333 course at the University of
Toronto.
24

Taylor, page 2.

25

Greer, page 183.

!9
controversial Times Square advertisement mentioned earlier stated "all you need is hand", with a
picture of a hand in the shape of a heart. The advert is a poignant representation of the narcissism
and isolation associated with pornography. This tendency to succumb to the sordid self, and to
sell one’s deeper needs for the cheap price of a temporary selfish pleasure may be identified as
isolationist behaviour.
Sherry Turkle makes a case for technological isolation in her famous and lengthy book
Alone Together; in her words: "Anxiety is part of the new connectivity" 26. She argues that recent
technological advances connect us more frequently, but in fragmented, shallower ways — for
example think of the way texting has replaced calling in many social situations. Texting is
multithreaded, where a person can have many apps open at the same time, while a phone call is a
focused one-on-one exchange. It seems that 21st century technology (remember the telephone is
from the 20th) enables us have more connections, but shallower relationships. This, in turn, may
lead to a kind of desensitization to real relationships: "It is [now] commonplace to hear children,
from the age of eight through the teen years, describe the frustration of trying to get the attention
of their multitasking parents" 27. It also "drains us", as the fatigue induced by maintaining an
always-online life reduces the energy we have for nurturing relationships with those we
physically interact with on a day-to-day basis, which may drive both our narcissistic tendencies
and greater isolation.

26

Turkle, page 242.

27

Turkle, page 268.


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