Erectile dysfunction is on the rise. No pun intended.
Increasing numbers of twenty-something men find they cannot be aroused by their actual, real life partners. Many are becoming convinced that erectile dysfunction (ED) is normal. Most assume Viagra is the solution. But there might be a better Rx for ED.
The rise of erectile dysfunction isn’t new news. If you watch TV commercials, you’d assume ED is approaching epidemic levels in older men. This seems to call for desperate measures, as the most common prescription, Viagra, carries risks of sudden vision loss, ringing in your ears, hearing loss, chest pain, back pain, pain spreading to the arm or shoulder, nausea, sweating, headache, memory problems, upset stomach, irregular heartbeat, swelling in your hands, ankles, or feet; shortness of breath, feeling light-headed, fainting, or “an erection lasting more than four hours.” Yikes.
The new news is the rise of ED in younger men. A 2011 article in Psychology Today concluded that the use of internet pornography has created a generation of young men who cannot be aroused by their actual, real life partners, and that “many are becoming convinced that [erectile dysfunction] at twenty-something is normal.”1 The culprit seems to be the debilitating combination of pornography and subsequent masturbation.
Erotic images have been with us for a long time. As Naomi Wolf notes in her article “The Porn Myth,” “For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women.”2 These images usually portrayed the female form with all its imperfections. Nowadays, men have seen hundreds if not thousands of fake-breasted, airbrushed, aroused-beyond-belief pixelated women, all contorted into positions that would make a yoga coach drool – before they’ve laid with an actual, warm-blooded woman. “For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women,” writes Wolf.
Today, approximately 70 percent of men ages 18-24 regularly visit porn sites. They form desires for sex that cannot be met in reality. Masturbation follows, which releases oxytocin into the male system, a chemical that facilitates human bonding and trust while reducing fear. All the joys, comfort and psychological attachment that nuptial union is designed to bring are being attached to pornography. Small wonder we’re witnessing a generation of young men addicted to pixels but unable to perform with an actual person.
The good news is that neuroscience is discovering a solution. The brain’s plasticity makes porn damage reversible. In The Brain That Changes Itself, psychiatrist Norman Doidge writes about patients who used porn and were able to quit, cold turkey. They turned off the Internet after doctors explained what was happening to their brain and being told to stop watching porn – now. For those who did, “their appetite for porn withered away.”3 The entire rehabilitative mental process requires “unlearning” old pathways by cutting billions of connections in the brain, having a compelling reason to do so, and then hacking out new neural pathways.
The even better news is that science is simply catching up to scripture on this one. The same rehabilitative process can be found in the Bible. In Proverbs 6 we read of a man who is stupid about sex. A woman thrills and then seduces him. Immediately after climax, the thrill is gone. The young man is horrified to learn his bedposts are sunk in Sheol. His life is being sucked out of him. This is why scripture says: “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body” (I Cor. 6:18). Like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, porn is the kind of sin that demands you take flight – fast.
The entire rehabilitative process requires more than simply fleeing. It is also filling in new neural pathways. That’s one reason why Jesus told a story about an unclean spirit (Mt. 12:43-45). It went out of a man, passed through waterless places seeking rest, and did not find any. “Then it said, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” Jesus’ point is that simply saying No to porn is insufficient. You have to also say Yes to something new or else lust will return, more virulent than ever. When it reignites, your last state will be worse than your first.
The Apostle Paul reinforces this process in Ephesians 4:22-25: Stop doing this, start doing this, and here’s why. For instance, “Lay aside the old self and put on the new self, because you are created in the likeness of God.” Or, in verse 25, “laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”
This is not to say science and Viagra are bad. Science is not the problem. It’s scientism, wrote C. S. Lewis, “a certain outlook on the world which is a caricature of the true sciences.” Scientism believes pharmaceutical prescriptions are the only solution for any and every problem. It prescribes Viagra but opposes religion. With the rise of neuroscience, this could change. As the faith community points out how science is catching up to scripture, the Bible might eventually be recognized as offering an effective Rx for ED.
1 Marnia Robinson & Gary Wilson, “Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow”, Psychology Today, July 11, 2011.
3 Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (New York: Penguin, 2007), p. 131.