I know what you deleted from your browser history the other day. I know what you were looking at and why. But I know that this isn't your fault too. Your brain wasn’t designed to handle this sort of thing; an endless, and endlessly novel, supply of what it thinks is your highest biological goal. I also know full well that it is more than likely you’ve had a knee jerk reaction to the title; indignation, anger, perhaps even laughter. Maybe this is due to how normalized it’s become in the culture, maybe its the cursory readings of articles from ‘sex-positive’ psychologists from Psychology Today, that claim to have debunked the very title. Or maybe your knee-jerk reaction is just that. Knee-jerk. Involuntary. Hardwired into your very neurochemistry. If you happen to view it with any level of regularity, it’s at least possible that this is the case. It is possible your better judgement has been compromised. It’s even possible that you know this, but don’t want to acknowledge it. Whatever the case may be, I ask you, at the very least, to hold those commenting fingers in check, relax your knee, and read on, this may change your life. That’s the hope, anyway.
The ‘it’ I’m referring to dear reader, is of course, pornography. And it is everywhere.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the youth. The average age of first exposure is generally agreed upon to be 13, although some studies place the number closer to 11 (Sources 1, 2). At this point popular social media apps like Snapchat and Tik Tok are brimming with sexually suggestive content. Seeing young teens and even pre-teens twerking for the camera in these spaces is not at all uncommon. Modern pop-culture music is also unabashedly sexual, culminating in stars who not only market with their sex appeal and beauty (which has been true forever), but who intentionally make their entire brand about sex and sexually taboo behavior. This is best epitomized by Cardi B and her performance at the Grammys. This performance was equivalent to soft-core pornography, and was streamed on national television for mass consumption (Source 3).
All of this to say, pornography and it’s tamer counterparts are nearly unavoidable, so these following figures should come as no surprise. Seventy percent of young men (Ages 18-24) admit to watching porn monthly, and eighty-seven percent of US adult males (Ages 18-35) watch weekly (Sources 2, 4). This is not a fringe activity. The phrase ‘everybody does it’ is often used to cope with any potential shame in partaking, and it certainly rings true.
So, is it any different from watching sports? Or a weekly television program? Is it really an addiction? The answer is yes. Unequivocally, absolutely, yes. Porn is addictive in a very similar way to drugs. If you’re watching porn on a weekly basis, you are likely addicted, and if you aren’t you will be soon. I recognize this is where more scoffing is likely to be elicited, more knee-jerking, so again I implore you, hold on.
First, a brief overview of the neurochemistry involved in the reward circuitry of the brain. There are four actors at play here, dopamine, DeltaFosB, CREB, and Opioids. All four are involved in your reward center and addiction, but they all do different things. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical that makes you ‘want’ things and pursue them. DeltaFosB is released in tandem with dopamine. DeltafosB increases sensitivity to dopamine, ‘rewires’ your brain through neuroplasticity to seek out the dopamine inducing activity, and makes engaging in that activity more desirable. This process is not only responsible for you wanting and liking something, but for addicting you. Opioids are another pleasure chemical, this one makes you ‘like’ things such as water and sugar (natural rewards). CREB is a chemical released alongside opioids to decrease sensitivity to whatever stimuli prompted their secretion, eventually leading to tolerance (Sources 5, 6, 7, 8).
Addiction occurs because the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. As described earlier, dopamine rewards get reinforced by DeltafosB, while opioid reward potency gets whittled down by CREB. The result is disappointing opioid kicks, which leads to higher dopamine outputs to compensate. Translation? Harder cravings for less satisfaction (Source 13, 18). It’s clear to see how this cycle can quickly spiral out of control. I'd imagine this disproportionately strong dopamine system exists to compel us to be more active seeking natural rewards rather than just being complacent and happy for extended periods of time, but that’s just me spitballing.
Addictive substances such as cocaine and meth are addictive because they hijack this reward section of the brain, specifically the sex neurons, the most powerful reward source we have, and essentially supercharge it (Source 8). This is important to note, as not all dopaminergic surges in the reward system are created equal. Looking at porn is not the same thing as looking at a sunset, it’s actually much closer to a crack addict looking at a crack pipe (Source 32).
The crucial thing is, Natural rewards can do this as well. They can also prompt massive dopamine outputs, leading to these neurochemical processes, resulting in what are known as behavioral addictions. All of the above is nearly universally agreed upon science, but here is where I diverge from those ‘sex-positive’ psychologists I was referring to earlier in my conclusions.
Whether it be a certain behavior, or a certain substance, an addiction activates the exact same neurochemical processes and pathways (Sources 9,). The machinery that’s set into motion is the same, the only difference is the method of trigger.
Which leaves us with a rather self-evident conclusion- pornography is addictive. It prompts the most intense natural reward our brains can muster, so of course, it’ll get the ball rolling.
However, there is still one more wrinkle to be smoothed out. If this is the case, and natural rewards can be addictive, why is porn special? Why are you not addicted to all types of natural rewards, be it real sex with your partner or quenching your thirst? The answer is a phenomenon named after a criminally underrated president: The Coolidge Effect. The story behind the name is interesting and humorous so I’d encourage you to look it up, but it’s besides the point.
The Coolidge Effect can be accurately described as the novelty drive. For example: a male rat will only mate with a female rat for a certain amount of time before growing bored. However, when introduced to a new female, the previously bored rat will mate again. Then again, and then again. This process can be repeated indefinitely, even while the male rat is essentially ‘shooting blanks’, until he is eventually too exhausted to continue (Source 10, 11). Similarly, human beings, sharing this circuitry with rats, will also be re-aroused by new, or novel, erotic stimuli (Source 12).
This explains why one doesn’t become addicted to quenching thirst with water very easily despite the dopaminergic surge: because it’s always nearly the same. One is not easily addicted to sex with ones partner for the same reason, the partner is familiar. One is, however, easily addicted to pornography, as it presents endlessly novelty in what your brain perceives willing and attractive mates. In nature, no such level of easily accessible novelty exists, so of course our brains aren’t prepared for it. So, just like the rats, pornography addicts simply can’t help themselves.
Given all of this, it should really come at no surprise pornography is addictive. As discussed, it sets off the same addictive processes in the brain that addictive substances do, and the brain activity has significant overlap as well (Sources, 9 14).
There is, however, a final argument leveled by ‘sex-positive’ psychologists: that perceived addiction only exists due to conservative cultural norms creating a sense of moral guilt for pornography use (Source 17). It’s a weak assertion, but is worth addressing for purposes of being thorough. Simply put, reported addiction is not a suitable metric for rates of actual addiction. While it’s true conservatives tend to be hyper-aware of traditional values and morality, this trait is more likely to be leading to recognition of actual addiction, not the mere manufacturing of it. Regardless, proponents of the ‘guilt addiction’ theory have little evidence to speak of one way or the other, they simply assume the latter.
While a great many researchers, including those writing the DSM, agree with this ‘sex-positive’ view and are hesitant to categorize pronography or sexual ‘compulsions’ as addictions; the shared neurochemistry and brain activity with substance addiction, makes appropriate conclusion, while unpopular, fairly clear. That’s not just my opinion either. Top experts in the field reject the idea porn addiction is merely ‘high desire’' (Source 15), and others agree, stating “...that classification of compulsive sexual behaviour disorder as an addictive disorder is consistent with recent data and might benefit clinicians, researchers, and individuals suffering from and personally affected by this disorder.” (Source 16).
So what? Who cares that you’re addicted as long as there’s no drawbacks, and I’m sure you feel normal. So really there's no harm, no foul.
Well, not quite.
As with most addictions, there are certainly drawbacks. Symptoms. Granted, being a pornography addict is unlikely to make you shake like a leaf as a heroin addict might, the consequences are still nothing to sneeze at.While you may think you feel normal, normal is relative to you, and if you’re addicted to porn you have no frame of reference.
The most physically obvious issue would be sexual performance. While ED is a complicated, multifactorial medical issue, pornography use has been robustly tied to it as a cause (Sources 18, 19, 20, 21 ). As a result, reports of ED are up one-thousand percent since roughly 20 years ago (Source 21). ED itself is linked to performance anxiety, depression, and even overall physical health as well (Source 19).
If being dependent on Viagra when with an actual woman isn’t an issue for you, don’t wipe your brow in relief just yet. Evidence suggests that given porn’s unique and unnatural properties (endless novelty/endless escalation), real sex simply pales in comparison, leaving you unsatisfied and unaroused at with any real women. (Sources 19, 20). To be fair, this conclusion has not been confirmed, but given what we know about neurochemistry and the Coolidge Effect at this point, it is certainly plausible. After so much novelty, you’re just a bored rat with a familiar female. To top it off- evidence also suggests porn consumption can lead to undesirable attitudes surrounding sex, from insecurity through comparing oneself to the actor, all the way to negative sexual attitudes and behaviors of adolescents (Sources 19, 27). These attitudes and behaviors involve objectification and stereotyping of women, warped ideas of healthy sexuality.
Let’s say that none of this is an issue for you, and that it hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Or if it already has, you think pornography is worth it, bedroom issues be damned. First off, repeat that last sentence back to yourself slowly. Second, there’s more to the story, much more.
Pornography seems to actually rot your brain. Well, maybe not literally, there’s no decaying involved, but gray matter volume is negatively associated with repeated pornography use (Source 22). Loss occurs specifically in various regions of the prefrontal cortex, y’know, the part of your brain associated with decision making, social behavior,and internal goals (Source 23). In other words, the portion concerned with executive functions loses matter when exposed to pornography consistently.
There is also a significant positive correlation between porn consumption and delay discounting. This phenomenon of delay discounting is tied up with a lack of self-control, a lack of ability to delay gratification, and even a lack of ‘will-power’. This correlation was also much stronger than that in regards participants who abstained from their favorite food instead of pornography. The study claims that, “The finding suggests that Internet pornography is a sexual reward that contributes to delay discounting differently than other natural rewards.”(Source 24). Another study in the same vein notes poorer decision making in ‘sexually compulsive men’ (stand-in’s for porn addicts) upon watching an erotic video, than a non-compulsive man. The non-compulsive participants had “fewer impulsive initial choices and better cognitive flexibility after exposure to erotic stimuli.”, than their compulsive counterparts (Source 25).
These associations are not confirmed to be causal, but again, knowing what we know about neural plasticity, novelty, pornography in the reward center; not to mention the degradation of the prefrontal cortex; the lines are rather easy to draw.
Conversely, according to an anonymous survey, those who abstained from pornography (or compulsive maturbation in general) after being involved with it previously, tended to improve their ability to delay rewards and take risks; were rendered more altruistic, extroverted, conscientious; and were less neurotic (Source 26). This survey has a bit more casual bite to it, and it’s findings hold up the earlier mentioned associations.
This, however, is not where mental health troubles end for porn addicts. Hypersexual disorder, which operates on the same neurochemistry as, and is a superset for porn addiction, is linked to and likely causes epigenetic changes in the CRH gene, which is related to stress. These changes in the CRH are themselves related to suicide attempt severity and general psychiatric risk in adolescents (Sources 28, 29).
The final argument I often hear on why all of these drawbacks, all of these symptoms of this addiction are actually okay, is because not all of the mental health symptoms are definitely casual, just correlating. One might argue the mental health issues predict and cause porn usage, not the other way around. That’s a good way out. That’s possible. That way, you’re not addicted to something that’s actually bad for you…..Right?
In studies in places like China, where internet exposure (not even pornography) is something that can actually be controlled, the evidence is abundantly clear: pathological internet use causes mental health issues, not vice versa. Pathological internet usage is a viable stand-in for internet pornography addiction as a decent amount of internet usage for teens is pornographic, the endless novelty element holds true, and pornography is even more addictive given it has natural reward behind it. If it’s true for the internet writ large, it’s a very safe bet it’s true to porn usage in this context. One study shows internet abusers were in a depressive state, and didn’t have depression as a trait (Source 30). That demonstrates causality. The increased depression risk for pathological internet users was 2.5 (Source 31). Another study found no pathological predictor for internet abuse, but that they could use internet abuse to predict a variety of mental issues, just as in previous studies (Source 33). That last, desperate argument resoundingly fails: porn consumption undoubtedly hurts you.
I speak in such absolute and harsh terms not to attack anyone who may be addicted, there’s no shame in being a victim to something your brain cannot handle. The reason is to silence those who would defend the addiction as something harmless, or even good, as there is great shame and harm in that practice. Unfortunately, it’s all too common.
I make this point to emphasise the fact that this cannot be handwaved away as stodgy conservative sex-panic. This is not equivalent to teens 50 years ago occasionally getting their hands on a Playboy. These are not hysterics born of religious dogma. This is a drastic ground shift in how our culture views and tolerates pornography. So much so that it drives a sizable chunk of all sex trafficking as the signifier of demand (Source 34). Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning, there’ll be more consequences. How couldn't there be?
How could there not be cultural hell to pay when 70% of young men are addicted to pornography? When ED has skyrocketed 1000% in two decades? What happens to a society when massive swathes of it’s next generation of men have had their brains atrophied, leading to issues with delaying gratification, self control, and decision making? What do you think will be the result of their most ancient circuits being rewired to prefer screens to people? What about when their sexual attitudes become warped and negative? What then?
At the very least, nothing good.
Our culture is sick, and it's probable that you are too.
At this point if you’re still trying to worm out of this, if you’re still trying to hold onto the idea that you can keep watching pornography in good conscience, I am now talking directly to you.
First, I implore you to get a hold of yourself. What you’re doing mental gymnastics for right now is the ability to touch yourself while watching sex ghosts on a screen. In case no one has ever told you, you’re better than that. It’s beneath you so rise above.
Secondly, I challenge you to prove me wrong. I know it seems immature on the surface, but I'm serious. Stop watching porn, cold-turkey, for a month. Do it today. Right now. If you’re not addicted it shouldn’t be a problem. If you manage it, you shouldn't notice improvements in your mood and daily life if I’m wrong about it;s drawbacks. Worst case scenario, you miss out on a month of a thing you like, best case, your life is forever improved. Either way: at least you’ll know for sure.
If you actually manage to do it and prove me wrong, feel free to comment below, dunk on this article with your anecdote, call me a fraud, go nuts.
But we both know that’s not going to actually happen.
Despite my occasional harshness in rhetoric , I truly wish the best for those caught up in this garbage. In that spirit, I've included an effective and fact heavy resource for quitting porn. So, if you want to get better, click the link. https://easypeasymethod.org/nature.html