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The male brain on porn: Wheaton researcher speaks at Pitt - The Pitt News

The male brain on porn: Wheaton researcher speaks at Pitt

Off the Hook hosted Dr. William Struthers, a Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, Thursday night to talk about the injustices of pornography. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

William Struthers left the rat race of rodent research and started studying the brains of male porn addicts in 2004, delivering his findings to students Thursday night in the William Pitt Union. 

Struthers, a psychology professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, was initially an animal researcher, studying rodents’ neurology and sexual behavior. When he began teaching at Wheaton in 1999, he realized that students were more interested in the sexual behavior of humans than of rats. After multiple students approached him privately about being “addicted” to pornography in 2004, Struthers changed paths.

“A number of male students visited my office and asked me why they were compulsively viewing pornography,” Struthers said. “That got me into the research. My students brought the problem to me, and I’m looking into it.”

Off the Hook, a Pitt student organization that promotes love and fidelity in relationships over the college hookup culture, hosted Struthers Thursday night in the O’Hara Student Center to talk about the injustices of pornography. About 150 students listened to Struthers’ research on the neurological effects of compulsive porn watching.

According to Struthers, viewing sexually explicit images is correlated with partaking in “risky” sex acts and drug use, and it also negatively affects a male’s ability to detect nonverbal nonconsent cues.

Struthers said men who watch pornography often experience decreased self-confidence, increased desire for social isolation and diminishment of the basal ganglia in the brain, which affects impulse control and individual learning.

Instead of individual learning or learning through experience, pornography activates mirror neurons which allow people to learn things simply by seeing and not doing. Men who watch pornography learn through sexual “scripts” instead of through practice with a consenting partner.

Struthers published his research in the Journal of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity and Enrichment in 2011 and has since published a book titled, “Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain.”

Jacque Faylo, president of Off the Hook, requested that Struthers come to Pitt after hearing him speak at Princeton University about pornography over the summer. Off the Hook hosts talks that challenge hook-up culture and create spaces for students to speak openly about sex.

“We have noticed that hook-up culture is a problem, and it promotes problematic things like rape culture and issues with sense of self,” Faylo, a senior chemistry and religious studies major, said. “So, we bring in prominent speakers from diverse areas, and they each give their own arguments and evidence for sexual ethics.”

Reed Frey, founder of Off the Hook and a senior politics, philosophy and religious studies major, said Struthers shared his intellectual process with the students, while keeping things comical.

“It was backed up with a lot of heavy research, and he had a good critical thinking mind,” Frey said. “He shared the limitations of his research while also being confident in the claims backed by his research.”

Julie Beaulieu, a visiting lecturer in the GSWS department, said the issue of pornography is not so clear-cut.

“There are a range of different kinds of pornography, including feminist pornography, queer pornography, woman-centric pornography,” Beaulieu said. “We tend to only think of one kind and that’s the objectifying, perhaps violent, perhaps misogynistic kind.”

Beaulieu said pornography can be reaffirming for women who are in communities that tell them to suppress or deny their desires. If pornography is negative toward women, Beaulieu said it is only representing the attitudes of our culture, which is the larger problem.

Struthers is still in the process of researching pornography’s effects on female brains, but said women were more aware of context, while men rely more on visual cues. Therefore, pornography attracts fewer female viewers.

Joseph Henkels, a senior public service major, said he enjoyed the talk more than others he had attended on pornography because of its scientific approach.

“It was good to look at how pornography morphs and stimulates the brain,” Henkels said. “It wasn’t just opinion-based. We know tobacco is bad for you because of facts, and these are facts on how pornography is bad for you.”

Despite the complicated science and touchy subject matter, Struthers kept the talk lighthearted, imitating the way a Victoria’s Secret model struts “solicitously,” as he described how our culture commodifies sex, putting risque commercials on TV and Cosmo magazines in grocery store check-out lines.

He ended the discussion by addressing sexual ethics, and said if students took one thing away from the talk, it should be that pornography does harm, and the question of consent is just the cusp of those harms.

“Pornography is not just something that some people view, but it has also created a culture where sexual exploitation is available all around, free online, in the movies that people watch,” Struthers said. “It creates not just a culture of people viewing pornography but a culture of things being pornified.”

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