The Hidden Price of Porn

Pornography is ubiquitous in our time. Just how so is difficult to pinpoint. Some studies claim it represents or has recently represented up to 30% of internet downloads. Others indicate that porn sites are 12% of all internet domains. These percentages are perhaps falling, not because there is less porn being consumed, but because of the astronomical growth of streaming media such as Netflix.

Depending upon the circles you run in, porn has a bad name. The dim view comes from traditional perspectives and observation of the negative aspects of the industry. These include the Biblical admonishment of sex outside of marriage and the call to avoid the seven deadly sins – lust, in this case, traditional standards of public decency, the desire to shelter minors from sexual material, the known deleterious effects upon marriage, the contribution to the objectification of women, the coarsening or lessening of the ability to be intimate, the support of sexual slavery and the sexual exploitation of children, the allocation of resources to criminal and/or immoral enterprise, and numerous others.

If it’s so horrible, why is porn everywhere? The biggest reason is probably the most obvious – the immediate pleasure it provides. People will do about anything for a spike of dopamine. In this sense, we’re not that much different than the lab rats who famously starved themselves to death as they incessantly hit the levers that delivered a jolt of pleasure directly into their brains. And, this just in – people like fantasy. It’s the same reason that we consume media of all kinds. There’s a reason that the stars of television and film are generally very attractive and often scantily clad.

There is even recent research that indicates that orgasms are really good for us and offer numerous physical and mental benefits. To the extent that pornography contributes to a greater number of orgasms, one could conceivably draw a positive correlation. On the surface, porn seems to deliver a great deal of pleasure and relief from life’s stresses.

Does this even the scale? You answer depends upon your moral compass. Regardless of what we may think as individuals, society as a whole seems to be voting thumbs up on pornography.

Of course pornography isn’t one monolithic thing. There are many forms, styles, degrees, and subject matter. Some people believe some of it is fine while they find other forms objectionable. So I recognize the risks of addressing the topic with one all-encompassing term. It is the same challenge as discussions of the “War on Terror,” the “War on Drugs,” or the “War on Poverty.” Just what precisely do you mean to fight in these wars?

But in all of the sturm and drang, there is a price of pornography that I do not hear discussed. It is a bit nuanced, but I suspect this hidden price may be the biggest of all. This price may have been first identified by Napoleon Hill (though he didn’t link it directly with pornography, but rather wrote about it under the term “sex energy.”)

In the classic book Think and Grow Rich, Hill devotes a chapter to “The Mystery of Sex Transmutation.” When I first read it, I was confused about what he meant. I got the vague idea that the successful men whom Hill interviewed over the twenty years leading up to this book had big libidos and yet were able to avoid becoming womanizers. I thought that his was a moral and practical observation. He simply identified character traits that allowed these men to keep their fortunes by avoiding scandal, divorce, etc.

Now I recognize with greater clarity what Hill was talking about. It was the literal direction of energy. The most successful men, the ones who collectively built the economic foundations of America and by extension the world, were channellers of their energy. They were not slaves to their base drives, but rather converted or “transmuted” this energy into their enterprises. The creative accomplishments of men like J.D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie have arguably been unrivaled ever since.

To the degree Napoleon Hill’s observations are correct, I wonder: How much creative energy has been directed into pornography that could have otherwise been channeled into businesses that create wealth, relationships that enrich our spirit, and artistic expression that beautifies and uplifts the world?

Again, the answer is difficult to quantify. Opportunity cost is notoriously tough to measure. But, here’s a feeble attempt. First we’ll have to agree on the stats. For our purposes, let’s use these: I realize they’re a bit old now, but this will be a non-scientific thought experiment rather than a serious attempt at meaningful quantification.

If 40 million people spend fifteen minutes per day on average surfing pornographic sites, that’s 10 million man-hours per day! In a year, we’re talking over 3.5 billion man-hours here. What do you suppose could be accomplished with that time if dedicated to tangibly productive activity? But this is the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t include the spiritual elements – the quality of relationships, the peace of mind, the sense of accomplishment, the freedom from guilt. It also doesn’t include the efforts of the producers of pornographic material.

It also doesn’t account for the state of mind directly after experiencing masturbatory orgasm. The release of potent endorphins such as oxytocin, serotonin, vasopressin, norepinephrine, testosterone, and the aforementioned dopamine change behavior. Some research suggests that they are biologically meant to connect us to our mate. In the absence of a shared sexual experience, the resulting behaviors have alternative and often deleterious effects. Among these is what Hill was pointing to – it saps the will, the drive to create, the gumption that propels us over life’s inevitable hurdles. I don’t know where to begin to calculate such a cost. Suffice it to say that it may dwarf the previous calculation.

Now, for any individual, these numbers may not seem all that significant. It may be that this notion is particularly dangerous. Let’s take a close look at the hidden price of porn for an individual habitual user. Let’s assume 300 days of a year, a porn addict spends an average of 20 minutes. That’s 6000 minutes, or 100 hours. Two and a half weeks of full time work. But then we have to account for the other stuff that the person would have done if they had spent that time on an activity that didn’t spend their energy, but redirected and multiplied it. For the sake of this example, let’s estimate that this represents a factor of five. So that’s five hundred hours, or twelve weeks of full time work.

To put this in the perspective of an entire forty year career of full time work, that’s 20,000 hours. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell estimated that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something. If he’s right, and admittedly there is research to cast the figure into question, this means that this person will have forfeited the opportunity to gain mastery in two areas of life. Most people are fortunate to gain one.

The same calculus, minus the specific sexual effects, could be used for any “bad” habit – too much tv, drinking, drugs, smoking, golf, video gaming, eating, exercising, etc. Porn is particularly tough because it packs a powerful brain chemical punch and involves complicated societal factors. It’s probably best to teach young people to avoid building the habit in the first place because once in place, it’s awfully tough to undo.

The ideal society – one where most people maximally utilize their gifts and do not engage in behaviors that rob them of more preferable experiences – will never be reality. The vast majority of us are not masters of our base desires. What we do in reality therefore does not match what we would choose to do in theory. So my point is not that pornography or other detrimental indulgences should or could be eliminated. Rather, I have two goals here: 1) To remind myself to constantly work to improve my personal habits, and 2) to identify tangible ways that leaders in our society can help to elevate our culture.