How Porn Harms Its Users

Pornography is everywhere, providing us with instant sexual gratification. Watching it has become normal and ubiquitous, something everyone does but no one really talks about much which is part of the reason why few of us ever stop to consider whether consuming this free, limitless stream of extreme, hardcore pornography is actually doing us any good.

“I’d never heard a lad of my age talking about porn as a serious problem or as anything other than ‘banter.’”

Jacob Hawley, Comedian1J. Hawley, BBC podcast: On Love, Why I quit watching porn… and why I’m now making a podcast about it, BBC

Another reason comes from the idea that the jury’s still out- that evidence into the harms of pornography is mixed and inconclusive.2J.Brown, BBC (26.09.2017) Is porn harmful? The evidence, the myths and the unknowns It’s useful for us to remember that the same uncertainty was kept alive for years by Big Tobacco, which worked hard to muddy the waters so as to prevent us from taking robust action on research that proved the link between smoking and cancer.3A. Brandt (01.2012) Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics. Am J Public Health. 102(1): 63–71. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300292

Over the past 20 years, the weight of empirical evidence leaves no room for doubt: watching online pornography is not good for our physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing.4Your Brain on Porn

The Science

Unnatural high

Sex is fun. That’s because as we orgasm, our brain’s reward centre releases a flood of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals.5K. Berridge & T. Robinson (2016). Liking, Wanting, And The Incentive-Sensitization Theory Of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27977239; K Berridge & L Kringelbach (2015). Pleasure Systems In The Brain. 86(3):646-64. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018.; P Paul (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, And Our Families. (75) New York; S Hyman. (2005). Addiction: A Disease Of Learning And Memory. American Journal Of Psychiatry, 162(8), 1414-1422.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16055762 There’s sound reason for this: pleasure helps us to identify sex as good for us, desirable for our survival, health and happiness and it drives us to seek out more of it.6N. Volkow & M. Morales (2015). The Brain On Drugs: From Reward To Addiction. NCBI doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2015.07.046.

Watching porn gives us the same kind of chemical ‘hit’ as having sex, but without the reward of the activity itself. Like sexual junk food, porn dupes our brain into thinking we’re doing something beneficial for us and for humanity. But whilst the survival value of sex is pretty obvious, the value of porn lies more in the billions of dollars’ profit made by the vast global porn industry. 

Changes in the brain

We experience porn like ‘sex-on-steroids’ since, because of its endless novelty, it triggers an unnaturally high and long-lasting release of dopamine in the brain compared with natural, real-life sexual experiences. Dopamine then stimulates the brain to produce a chemical known as DeltaFosB which builds new neural pathways.7S. Negash, N. Van Ness Sheppard, N Lambert & F.Fincham (2016). Trading Later Rewards For Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption And Delay Discounting. The Journal Of Sex Research, 53(6), 698-700. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123; E Nestler (2008) Transcriptional Mechanisms Of Addiction: Role Of DeltaFosB, Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363(1507) 3245-3255. Doi:10.1098/Rstb.2008.0067 

Neuroscientists have recently discovered that our brains are constantly changing and rewiring.8S,W, Kercel (2005). Editorial: The Wide-Ranging Impact Of The Work Of Paul Back-Y-Rita, Journal Of Integrative Neuroscience, 4(4) 403-406;  Doidge, N. The Brain That Changes Itself. York: Penguin Books (2007). Our brain’s neural pathways are strengthened or lost through use or neglect. Like other addictive substances, porn is very effective at forming new, long-lasting neural pathways that are able to overpower others.9S.Pace. (2014). Acquiring Tastes Through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity And The Flow Experiences Of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). From Http://Journal.Media-Culture.Org.Au/Index.Php/Mcjournal/Article/View/773; Doidge, N. The Brain That Changes Itself. York: Penguin Books (2007). A build up of too much build up of DeltaFosB can become a ‘molecular switch for addiction’.10T. Love, C . Laier, M. Brand, L. Hatch, & R. Hajela. (2015). Neuroscience Of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review And Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. Doi: 10.3390/Bs5030388; E Nestler (2008) Transcriptional Mechanisms Of Addiction: Role Of DeltaFosB, Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363(1507) 3245-3255. Doi:10.1098/Rstb.2008.0067; Doidge, N. The Brain That Changes Itself. York: Penguin Books (2007). p. 107. 

Heavy porn use can lead consumers to become dependent on repeated overloads of dopamine, without which they struggle to feel normal and no longer able to take pleasure in other things. Spending increasing time alone watching porn, men testify to the devastating impact porn addiction has on their family, social and work life. 

Lived experience

The idea that porn can cause addiction is something many people still feel dubious about, not least because of our evolving understanding of addiction as applying to behaviours as well as substances.11Why Isn’t Pornography Addiction an Official Diagnosis? &  C. Holden (2001). Behavioral Addictions: Do They Exist? Science 294(5544), 980. Doi: 10.1126/Science.294.5544.980 But there are now dozens of neuroscience-based studies supporting the notion that ‘Internet pornography addiction fits into the addiction framework and shares similar basic mechanisms with substance addiction.12’Your Brain On Porn Studies Find Escalation and Habituation in Porn Users (Tolerance); T. Love, C . Laier, M. Brand, L. Hatch, & R. Hajela. (2015). Neuroscience Of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review And Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. Doi: 10.3390/Bs5030388

In fact, research has found that of all internet activities, searching for porn has the highest risk of compulsive use.13G. Meerkerk, R. Eijnden, and H.F.L. Garresten, Predicting Compulsive Internet Use: It’s All about Sex! CyberPsychology & Behavior 91, no. 9 (2006): 95–103.NCBI https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19072079 And this fact seems to be playing out in people’s lived experience. The number of men seeking help for ‘porn addiction’ has soared in recent years.14Lad Bible, S.Perrie (17.5.2018) Number Of People Seeking Treatment For Porn Addiction Skyrockets Most of us who’ve ever watched online porn will recognise its addictive potential, which is amplified by porn sites’ addictive design and layout. Obviously not all porn consumers develop full blown addictions, but the risk is always present and some will succumb- particularly children and young people, due to the fact that the reward centres in their developing brains respond 2-4 times more powerfully to dopamine and other pleasure chemicals than those of adults.

“I’ve worked with students who have flunked their degree because of it. Business people who have been sacked from work because they’ve been using the office computer, or just not doing their job. People who have lost relationships.”

Paula Hall, Sex TherapistS.Sandhu, iNews, 13.9.2017. I Treat Porn Addiction – People Have No Idea How Addictive It Is

Actor Terry Crews shares: “Some people say, ‘Hey, man … you can’t really be addicted to pornography.’ But I’m gonna tell you something: If day turns into night and you are still watching, you probably have got a problem. And that was me. It changes the way you think about people. People become objects. People become body parts; they become things to be used rather than people to be loved. It affected everything.”15B. Griggs, CNN (24.2.2016) Terry Crews: Porn Addiction ‘Messed Up My Life

Changing sexual tastes and preferences16Your Brain On Porn. Studies Find Escalation And Habituation In Porn Users (Tolerance)  

‘Tolerance’ is part of any addiction and helps to explain why users of porn become gradually desensitised to tamer ‘vanilla’ sex acts and require more novel, extreme and violent content in order to achieve the same level of arousal.17B. Park, G.Wilson, J.Berger, M.Christman, B.Reina, F.Bishop, W.Klam, and A.Doan. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review With Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences 6 (3): 17. MDPI AG. doi:10.3390/bs6030017. ; S. Negash, N. Van Ness Sheppard, N Lambert & F.Fincham (2016). Trading Later Rewards For Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption And Delay Discounting. The Journal Of Sex Research, 53(6), 698-700. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123K. Pitchers Et Al. (2013). Natural And Drug Rewards Act On Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms With DeltaFosB As A Key Mediator. Journal Of Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434-3442. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013; M.  Layden (2010). Pornography And Violence: A New Look At The Research. In J. Stoner And D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs Of Pornography: A Collection Of Papers (Pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; D. Angres & K. Bettinardi-Angres (2008). The Disease Of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, And Recovery. Disease-A-Month, 54, 696–721. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18790142 P Paul (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, And Our Families. (75) New York Although most users start out watching porn that’s aligned to their morals and sexual tastes, over time they tend to become habituated to watching material they would have once found unethical or inappropriate. This is known as ‘blunting’; it’s a strong effect that’s not limited to men, and it tends to happen without the user even realising.18A. Wery. & J. Billieux. (2016). Online Sexual Activities: An Exploratory Study Of Problematic And Non-Problematic Usage Patterns In A Sample Of Men. Computers In Human Behavior 56, 257-266; B. Park, G.Wilson, J.Berger, M.Christman, B.Reina, F.Bishop, W.Klam, and A.Doan. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review With Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences 6 (3): 17. MDPI AG. doi:10.3390/bs6030017; P. Paul. (2010). From Pornography To Porno To Porn: How Porn Became The Norm

‘The combination of hyper-realistic imagery, moving pictures, and rapid-fire bombardment of images appears to mean also that chronic consumers both become visually desensitized, and find themselves viewing depictions they themselves would once have regarded as taboo or off-limits.”

The Social Costs of Pornography

This explains why the growth of online porn has corresponded with content becoming so much more hardcore and extreme: it has done so to meet the demand of consumers who are desensitised to softer porn. Heavy consumers often feel ashamed of the kind of porn they watch, as Dr. Gail Dines of Culture Reframed has observed: “Some of the worst stories I hear are from men who have become so desensitized that they have started using harder porn and end up masturbating to images that had previously disgusted them. Many of these men are deeply ashamed and frightened as they know where all this will end. Phil told me, “Sometimes I can’t believe the porn I like. I feel like a freak.””

Like any compulsive habit, watching a lot of porn is associated with poor physical, mental and emotional health. Instead of making us feel good, porn addiction leaves us feeling  empty, isolated and depressed. It also leads to reduced self-esteem, poor body image, anxiety in relationships, poor working memory and concentration, and impulsivity.19Your Brain On Porn: Studies linking porn use to poorer mental-emotional health & poorer cognitive outcomes

“…Cybersex compulsives and at-risk users… invest an inordinate amount of their time, money, and energy in the pursuit of Cybersex experiences with negative intrapersonal ramifications in terms of depression, anxiety, and problems with felt intimacy with their real-life partners…”

P.A. Philaretou, A. Mahfouz,  K. Allen, Use of Internet Pornography and Men’s Well-Being20PA. Philaretou, A. Mahfouz,  K. Allen, Use of Internet Pornography and Men’s Well-Being International Journal of Men’s Health;  Vol. 4, Iss. 2,  (Jun 30, 2005): 149. DOI:10.3149/jmh.0402.149

Watching porn is normal but unfortunately, talking about it is not. Not much is taboo in porn but honest and open conversation about our experiences of porn often feel off-limits. Everyone assumes everyone else is feeling OK about it but the reality is that they’re not. 

Ultimately, our silence only plays into the hands of Big Porn, which want to control the narrative that watching porn is harmless fun. Where we lose out, the industry wins. Where we pay with our mental and emotional health, wellbeing and relationships, the industry is raking it in. 

Don’t imagine that, like tobacco companies, porn sites are unaware of the addictive potential of their content. It’s no accident that the free availability of unlimited online porn has coincided with a staggering explosion in the industry’s scale and profitability- nor is it a coincidence that rates of porn addiction and porn-induced erectile dysfunction have skyrocketed. 

We’ve got to start talking.