Pornography Addiction

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.[21] 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.[22] 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.

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24 comments
Baron says November 30, 2014

Your main argument seems to be that pornography has a strong potential to be addictive (and may possibly destroy brain cells). I don’t doubt that at all. However, alcohol also has a potential to be addictive and destroy brain cells too; yet it can be used responsibly. Even agreeing with everything you say, it sounds to me like pornography can be used responsibly; viewing it occasionally for a few minutes isn’t going to cause most men to become addicted.

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    P. D. Mangan says November 30, 2014

    Seems about 8 to 10% of the adult U.S. population is addicted to alcohol, so that’s a reasonable estimate of the fraction of people who try it that become alcoholics. No statistics exist as to what fraction of men who view porn become addicted or have problems with it. I would guess that it’s much higher, since porn speaks to a fundamental drive that begs fulfilling, like hunger. Alcohol does not.

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      Klejdys says December 1, 2014

      Gambling’s search for rush or pulling the handle of a slot machine for reward seems similar to me as well. I agree w/ Baron’s analysis – the roughly 5-10% of people who can’t handle their “sin” in moderation put it at risk for the rest of us who occasionally partake in a little “roughing up the suspect” because the wife has a headache or has no desire to be intimate w/ us because we didn’t take out the garbage.

      The overall bad news is it makes it harder for our young women to compete in a marketplace w/ the best alternative for young men is just a few seconds away.

      The good news is the economics of “free pr0n” make it kind of a loser $$-wise putting the fundamental nature of the “pr0n industry” in some massive change at the very least.

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      Androg says December 1, 2014

      I think you’re right that the percentage of those at risk is higher than with substance abusers – at least among the most at-risk group (male digital natives). For example, this poll found that one-third (33%) of men between the ages of 18 and 30 either think that they are addicted or are unsure if they are addicted to pornography. http://yourbrainonporn.com/pornography-use-and-addiction-33-men-18-30-addicted-or-unsure-2014

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Lex Corvus says December 1, 2014

Excellent article. BTW, there’s a typo in the second paragraph: It’s –> Its

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    P. D. Mangan says December 1, 2014

    Thanks, fixed.

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Richard M. says December 1, 2014

I was a habitual porn viewer/masturbator for about 30 years, beginning at age 12 when I found a Playboy magazine lying in the street, to looking at videos and magazines belonging to my friends’ brothers and parents, to buying a subscription to Penthouse, to buying hardcore mags from porn shops, to Usenet porn, to broadband.

I have no doubt whatsoever that porn is highly addictive: my own behavior when viewing porn was frenetic, rushing from image to image, video to video, fast-forwarding through the dull or gross or even too conventional bits. Over my active years, I progressed to ever more extreme or outlandish material, overcoming my initial revulsion to (say) homosexuality to the point where tranny porn made up a sizeable fraction of my viewing behavior.

I quit porn when I was received into the Catholic Church. Since then, I’ve had a number of relapses, the last being several months ago. (Knowing you’ll have to confess this unmanly and pathetic habit acts as a significant–though not perfect!–disincentive to indulging.) Prayer has been a hugely effective weapon in warding off temptation, especially asking the help of Our Lady.

But even now, I have to be really careful. If someone posts nudity or other lewd content onto my Twitter timeline, I can feel the reward centers in my brain lighting up, and I have to exert a significant amount of self-control to not look further. Porn addiction does seem to be a permanent feature of my life, much as it is with alcoholics.

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    Luis B. says August 4, 2015

    Richard, I identify with your comments wholeheartedly. Pornography addiction is real, it’s powerful anything any man or woman can imagine, and it is dangerous as it changes/destroys our brain reward circuitry/chemical balance. I have been hooked on pornography for over 40 years. I’d love to walk away from it for good, and am currently working on it after my wife discovered my addiction. The reason to walk away? Not losing my marriage, because it has had a terrible impact on my relationship (lack of interest, erectile dysfunction, desire to do nothing more than just look at porn every free minute of my day). I recommend a program, which I am currently enrolled into, call ‘Fortify’, an online accountability partner and training program that explains the whole addiction to porn dynamic, as well as provide strategies to combat this affliction. I realize and accept the fact that my long term exposure to porn will require a long term focused approach to maintain my guard up at all times. No if’s and but’s about it. For any young men out there looking to experiment with porn, thinking they can turn it on or off at will. DO NOT DO IT, for your sake.

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The Myth says December 2, 2014

Very interesting article that I think will affect a lot of men’s lives. Any guesses/evidence to how long it takes the brain to resensitize? Are there any supplements or lifestyle recommendations that can help?

Personally, anytime I’ve wanted to stop a bad habit I have needed to replace it with another habit. Idle hands and all that…

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    P. D. Mangan says December 2, 2014

    Well, these are necessarily guesses, but many online anecdotes report full recovery in weeks to months. However, my feeling is that just like with drug addicts, some of the changes may never go away, or at least those susceptible to addiction will need to be on their guard against it for a long time. Probably the age and length of experience with porn will affect this; older plus longer experience may mean longer recovery time needed.

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jrack says December 2, 2014

does any of this apply to fast food. I mean opening the fridge and thinking of what to eat when you can just hop in the car and reward the pleasure centers quickly and cheaply. Not sure why the effects on the brain of fast food would be any different than the effect of porn or if there are specific brain regions devoted to sexual gratification versus other appetites like food.

If you’ve ever had a bamboo back scratcher, OMG, they are hard to put down.

It seems a lot of conveniences in modern life are deleterious to individuals in the same way porn is, all being about instant gratification. how do they disambiguate all these effects?

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    P. D. Mangan says December 3, 2014

    It absolutely does apply to fast and other, addictive types of foods, especially those with sugar. Food manufacturers have done lots of research to ensure you can’t stop eating their products.

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Heather Langan says December 3, 2014

Thank you for a well-written, informative article on this critical topic. As you noted, this issue is becoming more and more problematic for individuals and society. There’s little research about how this type of supernormal stimulation affects very young brains, but it is likely not good; time will tell just how damaging it is.
I’d like to direct readers and those interested in more information to the work of Patrick Carnes, PhD (Out of the Shadows, Don’t Call It Love, etc.) , and the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals. Check out http://www.sexhelp.com.

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    Heather Langan says December 3, 2014

    Another really good resource can be found in the work of Rob Weiss, LCSW. He’s really an expert on the digital revolution and how it’s affected pornography, among other things. Check out his books Untangling the Web and Closer Together, Further Apart.

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      CandyCane says December 3, 2014

      I’d suggest a different book for anyone interested in this subject: “Your Brain On Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.”

      I say this because I recently heard a talk by Weiss (and read “Closer Together”). He doesn’t address the unique vulnerabilities of the adolescent brain. He pays a little lip service to the idea that today’s readily available sexual stimuli constitute something new in human evolution…and then tells everyone to roll over and go back to sleep because “the kids will adapt.”

      Unfortunately, widespread reports of porn-induced sexual dysfunctions in young men suggest that kids are *not* able to adapt to chronic overconsumption via internet erotica/erotic services, and there’s little reason to assume that they would be able to do so, from a neurobiological perspective.

      I also think Weiss is wrong when he insists that only people with pre-existing vulnerabilities will develop porn-related problems – and that they would have developed similar problems any way. In fact, chronic overstimulation itself has the potential to cause major problems even in healthy people.

      Reply
Tuba says November 22, 2015

Pornography for men is like romance novels for women. Would you argue that romance novels are addictive and affect a woman’s health? Until researchers do dissing porn is gratuitous sexism.

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    P. D. Mangan says November 22, 2015

    I think they’re fundamentally different in that romance novels don’t stimulate the dopamine pathway in women like porn does in men.

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      Tuba says November 23, 2015

      I thought I had found a good site for men’s health, but alas your anti-porn stance is so moralistic and presumptive that I will skip the rest. Porn does not ask me to lie about it being fat. Porn does not suck my wallet dry. Indeed, compared to real women porn is very inexpensive. No matter how you define the currency woman is the most expensive aspect of a man’s life. Porn does not let itself go. Porn’s interest in sex is totally fake and thus totally honest unlike real women. Porn doesn’t argue. Porn does not intentionally abuse emotionally. Porn does not take the kids away. Porn does not economically enslave you via divorce court. Porn does not demand more rights than you or screw you over with legal lies… damn…. compared to real women porn is not only a bargain and but one of the best creations man ever made. One reason why men die younger than women is from all the stress chemicals women engender in men with their demanding behavior. Porn is thus an elixir, a tonic, good medicine for what ails thee; it makes the weary whole rather than cheapens the soul.

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        Ape says January 31, 2017

        Tuba, lemme guess, social anxiety and you don’t get laid much?

        Addict alert. The extreme moralistic butthurt in response to a measured, non-moralistic post gives you away, among other things.

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      Tuba says November 23, 2015

      And one other thing…. You wrote: “romance novels don’t stimulate the dopamine pathway in women like porn does in men.” What study tells us that?

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        MattT says January 18, 2016

        WTF are you on? I can point out a few things about you, TUBA. You’re probably a divorced, quick tempered, selfish and very depressed man. What you wrote was the most immature response out there. It’s honestly guys like you who have no self control and will not step up to be a better man, that give porn it’s support. Common man, you know you needed to do that one thing, and didn’t. That’s why she left.

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        Markus N. says January 27, 2016

        Maybe if you exercised some more discipline over your mind and body you would be better able to relate to real women than porn. They like a disciplined man.

        Reply
Negative emotions are bad for your health - Rogue Health and Fitness says January 14, 2016

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Ironthumb says October 5, 2016

I find porn to be quite normal to me. I use it as an outlet since I have some saved in some private folder in my phone thank goodness I don’t have connection, maybe that is why I don’t feel its damaging effects too much. And whenever I do have connection I usually just prefer to just download Spanish movies and Spanish dubbed anime. (although I sometimes download some porn I have to admit that once I start browsing one it will go for hours!)

For me I still prefer sex and go to porn as an outlet for my overwhelming libido whenever sex isn’t possible.

I guess it helps that I am just so cheap and wont even bother subscribing for an internet connection therefore my exposure is limited to the current movies on my disposal.

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