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Techsploits

Your Brain on Porn

By Annalee Newitz

DAMN, I just love pornography. As a woman and an upstanding American, I'm supposed to recoil with horror from pornographic images and situations; I'm supposed to think that the people involved are being exploited, and that it's a degrading, icky business. Honestly, I'm far more sensitive to the idea that workers at Wal-Mart and Burger King are being exploited than I am to the idea that people in the porn industry are. When I check out porn websites—which I do on an almost daily basis—I'm supposed to be ashamed. But I'm not.

I watch B-grade horror movies and bad comedies and porn. So what's the big deal? Do you really think the underpaid guy in Brian Yuzna's latest blood-soaked splatterfest is somehow less exploited than babe No. 3 in Jenna Jameson's last flick? Give me a break. They both have to work with lots of fake goo, and at the end of the day, they go home and laugh about it.

But somehow I've allowed my rant about porn to get in the way of my rant about science. What's really pissing me off right now is a recent U.S. Senate hearing that was aimed at dismantling the First Amendment with incredibly bad neuroscience. Several "scientists"—including Jeffrey Satinover, a big proponent of programs that "cure" homosexuality and a backer of the idea that liberalism causes brain damage—testified that pornography is an addictive substance that affects the brain the same way heroin does and as a result is no longer just a form of expression but instead some kind of wacky drug-delivery system.

What the fuck is it with these God-addicted Republicans? They're willing to deny all scientific reason, make laws based on stem cells having little souls and force schools to put warning stickers on books about evolution—but suddenly, when it comes to porn, they're all about "brain chemistry" and "endogenous opoids." I mean, really: let's keep our ideology straight here, guys. If porn changes our brain chemistry, then that's obviously the way Jesus wanted it to be. End of story.

The thing that intrigued me about this hearing, aside from its inherent looniness, was how it completely ignored the way pornography is made. Instead, it focused entirely on how porn is consumed. If I were a Christian crusader, I would be most concerned with the well-being of the people creating smut—they're on the front lines. Worrying about porn consumers is sort of like saying, "Who cares about all those soldiers dying over in Iraq; think of the people who are being harmed by watching them on TV!" If you really do believe dirty pictures are bad, shouldn't you try to stop them at the source? Even Larry Flynt became a Christian for a while. It's not a lost cause, people.

But these Christians don't really care about saving the world from porn. They just want to bring back censorship any way they can. That's why Judith Reisman, a rep from the California Protective Parents Association, cited the "scientific" existence of something called "erototoxin," a completely made-up brain chemical whose name sounds like it was coined by the script doctors on Star Trek: Enterprise.

Essentially, Reisman and her pals want to prove that porn causes a measurable change in its consumers' brains. From there, they'd argue that porn isn't speech but a harmful substance—thus, it can't be protected by the First Amendment.

Unfortunately this argument is a real race to the bottom, especially for Christians who believe the Bible has the power to change minds and lives. Nearly every fleeting emotion or piece of sensory input creates a chemical reaction in the brain. Geneticist Dean Hamer argued in his recent book, The God Gene, that the feelings associated with revelation and transcendence are hard-wired into our brains. In addition, many neuroscientists now believe that all kinds of thought patterns have the power to alter the brain's neural circuitry. Being converted to Christianity probably changes the brain's structure far more than masturbating to some glitter-covered cutie on FaerieFantasies.com. It's even addictive, since Christians start to feel bad if they don't go to church at least once a week.

Does all this mean that religion isn't a form of expression protected by the First Amendment? Nope. Does it mean that consumers of religion are having physical reactions to what they read in their holy books and experience in their places of worship? Yes.

Uh-oh—you know what that means, don't you? Pornography and Christianity have something very fundamental in common. They both have a somatic effect on their consumers, rewire their brains and change people's minds. Sounds kind of like the thing you'd expect ideas to do in a country with laws that protect freedom of expression, doesn't it?


Annalee Newitz (mmmporn@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who hopes to be changing the circuitry in her brain for a long time to come.


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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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