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Sex and Relationships: Why Is Romeo Ignoring Juliet?

"Young Japanese men are growing indifferent or even averse to sex, while married couples are starting to have it even less," reports The Japan Times, citing a 2010 poll. The trend is escalating rapidly. More than 36% of men aged 16 to 19 have no interest in sex, more than double the 17.5 % from 2008. Men between 20 and 24 showed a similar trend, jumping from 11.8 % to 21.5 %, while men between 45 and 49 leaped from 8.7 % to 22.1 %.

Japan isn't alone. In France, a 2008 survey found that 20 percent of younger French men had no interest in sex. And men in the States are reporting unwanted changes too.

Said the director of the Japanese survey, "Those in the younger generation seem to find it especially cumbersome dealing with others face-to-face. Basically, there is this general lack of communication taking place between men and women." While the female figures weren't as drastic, Juliets of all ages, who were either uninterested or averse to having sex, also saw an increase.

What's going on? And why are the younger folks, who have traditionally been the most eager to 'do it,' disproportionately affected? Said a man who has lived and worked in Japan for the past 18 years, "There is no way on earth that [so many] Japanese males are uninterested in sex. I don't think that could be said about any society, particularly not the porn-saturated Japanese society." Reported another observer, "Japan has lots of porn. An unholy amount, in fact, probably more than any country in Asia or Europe."

So, the issue is not whether young men are interested in orgasm. Their heavy porn use shows they are. The issue is why they aren't interested in sex with live partners. Keep in mind that porn has long been an accepted, prominent part of Japanese culture, so we can't blame sexual repression.

Could these statistics be related to the increase in intensity of stimulation available via the Internet and today's superstimulating masturbation toys? (Hi-tech Japanese masturbation-devices make our Fleshlight look like something you'd get at Dollar Tree.)

Brains not genitals

The sensation of sexual arousal ultimately arises between the ears, not the legs. Although extremeness of stimuli certainly plays a role, degree of arousal is determined by amount of, and sensitivity to, exciting neurochemicals released in a primitive part of the brain known as the reward circuitry. At base, sexual arousal is our most powerful natural high, fueled by our own endogenous neurochemicals.

The neurochemical most responsible for the compelling nature of sexual arousal (and mating) is dopamine. Dopamine stimulates our "Gotta get it!" reward circuitry with the message: "Something really good is right around the corner if I just keep going." When rats were wired so that they could tap a lever to stimulate this reward circuitry in the brain, they did nothing else. They tapped until they dropped, ignoring unweaned pups—and receptive females.

Dopamine is also behind the rush of cocaine, by the way. Cocaine blocks dopamine's reuptake, so it lingers in the brain pumping out exciting signals. Our reward circuitry obviously didn't evolve to get us high on cocaine—or gambling, alcohol, hentai, cam2cam sex, or any other substitute capable of hijacking this circuitry. It evolved because it bonded us successfully with our tribes, mates and kids. When we fall in love/lust, we literally get hooked on a mate—at least for a time.

Our ability to pair bond is completely dependent on blasts of dopamine goosing our love (reward) circuits. Yet this mechanism only works as intended if there's nothing around triggering the production of more dopamine than evolution's intended targets (tribes, mates and kids).

Alas, today's synthetic, hyperstimulation triggers more potent dopamine trips than anything our ancestors experienced. Novelty alone releases dopamine, so the simple fact that today's Internet user can always click to something new can make today's porn a more compelling stimulus than a familiar partner.

The younger the Internet user, the more exclusively he has likely relied on the supranormal stimulation of today's free, streaming, ever-novel porn—and hyperstimulating masturbation devices. Perhaps this is why younger men are showing higher rates of indifference to real mates.

Pair bonds at risk

Could our young Romeos (and some Juliets) be so high on their own artificially jacked-up dopamine, via these superstimulating sexual aids, that courting and real partners don't register as rewarding by comparison? Outlandish as is sounds to suggest that too much stimulation of the brain can interfere with the mammalian pair-bonding mechanism, it seems to be happening. Said American sex therapist Wendy Maltz:

With science-fiction strangeness, porn [is] competing with real-life partners, and [is] even emerging as the most important object of some clients' sexual desires.

Perhaps it's not so outlandish. Last year, when scientists jacked up dopamine in the brains of pair-bonding animals using chemical stimulation (amphetamine), the naturally monogamous animals no longer formed a preference for one partner. The artificial stimulation had hijacked their dopamine-dependent bonding machinery, leaving them just like regular (promiscuous) mammals—in which the brain circuits for lasting bonds are absent.

Normally these animals (voles) bond securely, and subsequently experience aversion to would-be home wreckers who show up looking for action. Researchers hypothesized that hyperstimulation somehow kicked in the protective aversion response immediately, forestalling pair-bond formation altogether.

Research also suggests that supranormal stimulation weakens pair bonds in humans. According to a 2007 study, mere exposure to numerous sexy female images causes a man to devalue his real-life partner. He rates her lower not only on attractiveness, but also on warmth and intelligence. Also, after pornography consumption, subjects of both sexes report less satisfaction with their intimate partner—including the partner's affection, appearance, sexual curiosity and performance. Also, both men and women assign increased importance to sex without emotional involvement.

Should we care that today's superstimulating sex aids are interfering with our mating program? After all, the planet's really crowded.

Here are three reasons to care:

First, too much stimulation can actually reduce our capacity for pleasure by numbing the brain's reward circuitry. This can lead to a dissatisfied quest for stronger and stronger stimuli—increasing the risk of addiction, depression, anxiety, irritability, concentration problems and so forth, as dopamine dysregulation escalates. As Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky explained in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: "Unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation....Our tragedy is that we just become hungrier."

Second, this numbing process can also decrease sexual responsiveness. More and more men in their twenties are reporting erectile dysfunction. Experts theorize that environmental toxins, stress and poor diet are the culprits, but they're ignoring the elephant in the room. Too much stimulation (dopamine) can cause a decrease in some of the very dopamine receptors vital for healthy erections, as explained in this slide presentation Erectile Dysfunction and Porn.

Incidentally, Juliet appears to be numbing her sexual responsiveness too. A woman recently posted:

I started using a vibrator in college, thinking I was a modern, sexually-empowered woman, and couldn't believe how effectively it got the job done. Within a month, I could no longer orgasm with my boyfriend, and a few months after that, I couldn't even do it with my hand. The vibrator went in the trash, and my responsiveness eventually came back.

Third, as tribal, pair-bonding primates, we're wired to thrive on the brain chemistry produced by close, trusted companionship and warm affection. Sex toys and masturbation to porn don't deliver those same neurochemical benefits.

We profit from interdependence not just at key points of our childhood, as Freud postulated, but throughout our lives. For example, connection helps reduce cortisol, which can otherwise weaken our immune system under stress. "It's much less wear and tear on us if we have someone there to help regulate us," explains psychologist/neuroscientist James A. Coan.

The gains from connection show up in very real terms. For example, daily warm touch between couples benefits men by lowering blood pressure. HIV patients with a partner live longer and develop AIDS less rapidly. Wounds heal twice as fast with companionship, as compared with isolation. Yet the most profound gifts of close connection may be psychological. Close emotional connections are associated with lower rates of addiction and depression. They change the neural patterns and brain chemistry of those who engage in them, bolstering their sense of self and making empathy and socialization possible.

Perhaps because of its potential for health-giving attachment, intercourse has more beneficial effects on the body than masturbation. Intercourse releases neurochemicals that reduce stress better, and the benefits linger for days. In fact—with or without sex—frequent affection is normally very soothing and rewarding for pair-bonding species. However, when we're not able to feel subtle pleasures due to blunted brain sensitivity, affection seems pointless or even aversive.

Happily, those who stop masturbating to porn generally notice a marked improvement in their ability to socialize, flirt and perceive the attractiveness of normal potential mates.  When excessive stimulation stops, the reward circuitry again becomes sensitive to the rewards it evolved to find: friendly interaction and real mates, among others.

Not long after quitting porn I noticed increased energy, increased attention, and higher self-esteem. After a month—although it took several tries to get there—those improvements were all through the roof. A couple of months later, I was having real sex. It is nice to get aroused by little things, like a revealing blouse or just a woman's flowing, shiny hair and fragrance.

Maybe there's still hope for Romeo and Juliet.


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