Pornography as we now know it, that is broadband internet pornography, is a product of the sexual revolution, so it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its consumption is condemned by a wide swathe of the moral spectrum, from religious traditionalists to feminists, and in fact many writers in the so-called manosphere recommend against men viewing it. But is there any reason rooted in health and biology for refraining from viewing pornography? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
First of all, consider the Coolidge effect, which “can be defined as the restoration of mating behavior in males that have reached sexual satiation with one female and show a restoration of mating behavior when the original female is replaced with a novel female.” In other words, a man who has become tired of having sex with any one woman, his wife for example, will show a renewed interest when presented with the opportunity to have sex with a different woman. This effect is not confined to humans and has been shown in a wide variety of animals, even snails. The effect can be measured in laboratory animals as time to ejaculation; when a male animal is presented with the same female over time, he will take longer to ejaculate with each mating bout; when presented with different females each instance, time to ejaculation is much shorter and remains shorter.
This is, in essence, what makes pornography such an attraction for many men: the availability of a wide variety of potential sex partners. The primitive part of the brain that responds to pornography cannot in essence tell the difference between a real, live woman and a representation on the page or screen, and the advent of broadband pornography means that distinction matters even less, as representations become more real. With the Coolidge effect in operation, men who view pornography need never become tired or bored with a sex partner, as a vast array of different women is on offer at any time. This gives pornography the potential to be addictive.
Another aspect of pornography connected to the above is that it is a supernormal stimulus. This is an effect that was discovered by the Nobel Prize winning biologist Niko Tinbergen. In essence, a supernormal stimulus causes a response in an animal that is more powerful than the stimulus that the animal’s instincts normally respond to. For example, birds that respond to their own eggs with actions of protection and caring will respond even more powerfully to artificial eggs that are larger and more garishly colored, and they will even discard their own eggs in favor of the artificial ones. Essentially, animals are hardwired to respond to certain stimuli in their environments, programmed by their genes to do so, but this response can be disrupted, intercepted we might say, by stimuli that resemble but are more powerful, supernormal, than the original.
Pornography as a supernormal stimulus can mean that the user of pornography, presented with a powerful stimulus in the form of vast numbers of representations of women and sexual acts, will discard his real or potential sex life with real women in favor of the supernormal stimulus of pornography.
In this regard, pornography has the potential to be addictive, and new research is showing that it can produce brain changes that are similar to those seen in drug addiction. A study was recently published in JAMA Psychiatry, Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption, and it found a negative association between the amount of pornography viewed and the amount of gray matter in the brain.
The negative association of self-reported pornography consumption with the right striatum (caudate) volume, left striatum (putamen) activation during cue reactivity, and lower functional connectivity of the right caudate to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could reflect change in neural plasticity as a consequence of an intense stimulation of the reward system, together with a lower top-down modulation of prefrontal cortical areas. Alternatively, it could be a precondition that makes pornography consumption more rewarding. [my emphasis]
An article written about this study did not mince words: Pea brain: watching porn online will wear out your brain and make it shrivel.
But were men with smaller striatum seeking more porn because they needed more external stimulation, or did the higher consumption of porn make this part of the brain smaller?
The researchers admit both could be true. But they say the latter is more likely.
Kühn says existing psychological, scientific literature suggests consumers of porn will seek material with novel and more extreme sex games.
“That would fit perfectly the hypothesis that their reward systems need growing stimulation.”
Seeking more extreme forms of pornography shows that it shares something in common with drug addiction: habituation, which is the need for larger or stronger doses to achieve the same effect as smaller doses did before. Pornography seems to change the brain in the same manner as addictive drugs do.
The fact that these changes appear to involve the reward system of the brain means, in my opinion, that deriving pleasure from everything in life, not just the sexual, will diminish, an effect that is seen in drug addicts, who only want their drugs.
In Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective, the authors make clear the similarity of addiction to pornography and to drugs.
In one study, sexual experience has been shown to induce alterations in medium spiny neurons in the nucleus accumbens similar to those seen with drugs of abuse. Another study found that sexuality specifically increases DeltaFosB in the nucleus accumbens, and serves a role as a mediator in natural reward memory. This study also found that overexpression of DeltaFosB induced a hypersexual syndrome. As Dr. Nestler said, DeltaFosB may thus become a “biomarker to assess the state of activation of an individual’s reward circuitry, as well as the degree to which an individual is ‘addicted’, both during the development of an addiction and its gradual waning during extended withdrawal or treatment.”
In another article, one of the co-authors of the above paper, Donald Hilton, M.D., also specifically makes the connection outlined above: Pornography addiction – a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity.
In summary, pornography is a supernormal stimulus that has at least the potential to cause its users to discard or disregard normal sexual relations in favor of increasing consumption of pornography. It has the potential to be addictive in the same manner as drugs, since it can cause changes in the neural structure of the brain.
We know that drug addiction can ruin lives, but most people don’t consider whether consumption of pornography can do the same. At the very least, it seems capable of life disruption. There are many anecdotal reports on the internet of men, even young men, who have experienced erectile dysfunction that was brought on by consumption of pornography, which gives some credence to the idea that it causes habituation and disruption of normal function. Many of these anecdotes also report that normal sexual function was regained with cessation of pornography consumption.
In these times, society views the consumption of pornography as little more than an individual choice which in essence is harmless. I believe that science is beginning to show that it is not at all harmless, and that there are good reasons rooted in biology and health, especially mental health, to avoid it. It is an addictive, disruptive drug in visual form.