By Naomi Wolf
PUBLISHED: 19:44 EST, 11 December 2013 | UPDATED: 15:06 EST, 12 December 2013
These days, I am rarely surprised when, after a lecture or book signing, someone will try to talk to me about their addiction to porn and ask where he or she can get help.
As an author and feminist social commentator, I often discuss my work at events and meet a wide spectrum of people who talk to me about sex, relationships and, more increasingly, the impact of pornography on their lives.
There is no stereotype of what this person will look like. A man in his 60s has asked me if I think his porn addiction accounts for his current impotence.
New survey: A major study has revealed that British couples are having about 20% less sex than they did just ten years ago
A lovely young mother of three boys asked sadly how her husband, in an otherwise happy, sexually fulfilled marriage, became 'lost to porn' to the point that she had to leave him. She now wonders how to protect her sons.
A bright, male college student confessed that he is worried about what he calls 'the kink spiral' - the term he uses to describe feeling trapped by his need to see more and more extreme porn to get aroused.
Couples in their late teens tell me no one they know can have sex without porn playing on a screen. A guidance counsellor at a private school asks where he can find help for his students - many of whom are so addicted to online porn that the obsession is affecting their schoolwork and social development.
Recently, aA major British study, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which questioned more than 15,000 people aged 16 to 74, showed couples are having about 20 per cent less sex per monththan they did justjust ten years ago.
New discoveries: Wolf's new book Vagina: A New Biography discusses how neuroscience shows how pornography negatively affects both sex and relationships
As someone who has been researching in this field for over 20 years, I believe we must take seriously the rise of pornography. New research shows it is having a detrimental effect on men's and women's sexual responses and harming relationships as a consequence.
My latest book, Vagina: A New Biography, about female sexual desire, has a chapter on new discoveries in neuroscience that show how pornography negatively affects both sex and relationships.
Popular culture is reflecting this trend: the new film Don Jon centres on porn addiction. The hero is sleeping with Scarlett Johansson but sneaks off to watch porn, since he says nothing with a real woman (even Johansson!) is as good. Meanwhile, sex scenes in mainstream movies are getting more violent. In The Kids Are All Right, I was startled to see Julianne Moore's character start slapping her partner's face as he neared orgasm.
Young women tell me that hair-pulling, and even pressure around the neck at orgasm, are normal parts of courtship sex these days. These are 'porn cliches', as one young woman put it. I am not surprised by these shifts because we all know about the pornification of society.
I believe more voices would be speaking out if the new research on this issue were better understood. What we're not being told - and this is a view which many scientists now confirm, but too few ordinary people understand - is that porn use poses health problems.
Mine is not a moral position. I think adults should be able see whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes (if the images are not based on a crime or any cruelty being committed).
Yet the neuroscience of porn addiction is clear: watching porn causes sharp spikes in the activation of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, which makes people feel focused, confident and good.
The trouble is that this short-term neurological arousal has long-term consequences. Firstly, it can cause desensitisation to the same erotic simuli that turned you on recently and, over the longer term, it can cause a greater likelihood of sexual dysfunction.
The user then craves more and more extreme pornography - violence and taboo images activate the autonomic nervous system, which is involved with arousal - in order to reach that same level of excitement.
This acclimatisation and desensitisationdesensitisation explains why images that were seen as fetishistic, taboo or violent ten years ago are now mainstream fare on porn sites.
A second effect, confirmed with men and anecdotal with women, is trouble reaching orgasm. Doctors are now reporting an epidemic of healthy young and middle-aged men, with no disease or psychological issue that would otherwise explain their difficulties, who are having sexual problems such as impotence or delayed ejaculation due to this desensitisation.
A final problem related to desensitisation is that men start to see their own partners as less attractive, and less able to arouse them by ordinary sexual behaviour.
And, of course, one woman can't provide the ever-changing novelty, that constantly renewed boost to the brain that porn artificially delivers by a mouse click of the mouse.
There are other ways porn use can negatively affect female arousal. If a woman feels uneasy about her partner's use of porn the stress of her resentment and anger can affect her own ability to become aroused.
If you understand the neuroscience of female arousal, wWomen need to have their autonomic nervous systems (heart rate, breathing, blood circulation) highly activated to get turned on. Emotions such as stress,anger, a sense of threat and resentment can function like throwing a bucket of freezing water on the female system.
Detrimental: Porn does not teach men sexual skills that are useful in arousing women
I have also done a lot of research into the fact that sex portrayed in most porn does not teach men, especially young men, sexual skills that are useful in arousing women. As Dr Jim Pfaus, a pioneer in the field of the science of sexual behaviour from Canada's Concordia University, puts it, porn use can take an emotional toll on relationships because men who use it are 'neurologically bonding' not with their partners, but with the porn.
Relationship expert and couples' counsellor Michael Kallenbach says: 'Couples are far more aware of porn now than they've ever been. With everyone owning iPhones and tablets and being constantly bombarded with sexy ads and imagery, porn is leaking into our lives and affecting our relationships.
'When one partner watches surreptitiously, it's a very dangerous avenue to go down. Their imagination, and relationship, will be put at the mercy of fantasy. This often results in affairs.'
A recent University of Sydney study, in which two professors surveyed more than 800 men, found that excessive porn consumption was reported by almost half the respondents (85 per cent of whom were married or in a relationship), and was harming their professional success and relationships.
The numbers were dramatic: 47 per cent of the male subjects watched between 30 minutes to three hours of porn per day, one in three said it harmed their work efforts, and one in five would rather watch porn than have sex with their partners.
I can understand why the porn industry is keen to keep the addictive nature of its products quiet and promote the libertarian notion that there are no consequences. It is a global industry that wishes to turn men, and increasingly women, into addicts for financial reasons.
The situation very much resembles the marketing of cigarettes without health warnings in the Sixties.
So why isn't government-mandated disclosure of the risks obligatory, as it is now with cigarettes?
The answer is our politicians don't yet fully understand the damage that is being done.
Less sexually liberated: Porn is taking over our thought processes and corroding our ability to sustain meaningful relationships
Recently, the Daily Mail won a victory whereby the Government agreed that all households should opt in if they want to be able to view porn on the internet.
I believe that with good health information, people can make more informed choices about how, when, and if they want to use porn, and even better choices about what kind of imagery they might seek out or avoid.
Those who wish to end their addiction - like ending any addiction - can do so with effort.
Men who have done so - that is for whom we have data - report a great sense of regaining psychological control, and heightened arousal with their wives or girlfriends. Mostly they are relieved not to be at the mercy of something that many of those who write to me feel they need - but don't especially like.
Are we 'sexually liberated' if porn is taking over our thought processes and corroding our ability to sustain meaningful relationships? I think we are less sexually free.
A powerful industry is manipulating us - and ruthlessly exploiting some hard-wiring in the male brain - to turn us more and more into sexual and emotional robots, only capable of achieving sexual fulfilment in a room with a computer, alone.