Recently, I had the honor to speak to a group of over 200 men about the impact of pornography on emotional health and well-being. It can be a sensitive topic and I applaud those courageous men for participating. It is a topic that most do not want to openly explore because of the feelings of shame and embarrassment when the conversation invariably takes a moral turn.
However, it is an important topic where a little knowledge about it can go a long way in terms of understanding its impact and taking active steps toward health.
Estimates suggest that:
more money is spent on pornography than the four major U.S. professional sports combined.
thirty percent of pornography users are women.
pornography increases marital infidelity by 300%.
Research is showing that shifts in societal acceptance of pornography runs along generational lines with young adults more likely to accept pornography as good for society. What is considered pornographic is shifting liberally with:
over three quarters of adults indicating that a fully nude image is not pornographic.
almost half of adults indicating that a fully nude image that is sexually arousing is not pornographic.
over one fifth of adults indicating that an image of sexual intercourse is not pornographic.
Given the noticeable generational shifts in acceptance of pornography as well as the advent of technologies that lowers the barriers to access for pornographic material, we are in the midst of a perfect storm for pornography addiction.
While societal acceptance of pornography continues to grow, it is important to understand the addictive nature of it and why it is harmful. The goal is to remove shame that can cripple making positive change and to simply show how it interferes with healthy living.
What is pornography? It is the depiction of sexual material for the purpose of sexual arousal, and pornography addiction is compulsive (uncontrollable) sexual activity with concurrent use of pornographic material, despite negative consequences to mental, physical, relational, and/or financial wellbeing.
Why are we in the perfect storm for pornography addiction? Because it feeds into three processes within the brain that underlies addictive behavior: novelty, pleasure, and association.
The brain craves new things and pays special attention to it. When we experience things for the first time, they are much more memorable. For example, you are likely to remember your first kiss, but what about the fifth one? Our brain pays attention to new things that stand out and there is an automatic curiosity to explore further. In fact, it is the brain’s craving for novelty that allows us to learn. While this can be positive for things like academic learning or job tasks, it is extremely dangerous for things that are unhealthy for us. This is especially true when it comes to pornography. There is an infinite flood of novel images and videos. One could spend a lifetime viewing new images and videos and never experiencing the same ones twice.
The brain’s craving for novelty leads to the second factor: that the brain is especially sensitive to pleasure. There is a specific pathway in your brain that is designed to remember pleasurable experiences and help you repeat it. When you do something that feels good, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released in abundance in the brain. Neurotransmitters help the brain communicate and dopamine is involved with communicating pleasure. The release of dopamine in your brain sets off a series of processes that basically tells the brain, “Hey, this feels good! I like it and we should remember this so we can do it again soon.”
Given the brain’s propensity for novel and pleasurable things, the appeal of pornography is apparent. The diversity of faces, genres, and styles creates an infinite library of novelty where it is almost impossible to become bored. If one decides to masturbate to pornographic material, the climax achieved is extremely pleasurable. Sexual climax releases its own set of chemicals in the brain that are tied not only to pleasure but trust, safety, and interpersonal connection. So now, we have a situation where the novelty of infinite pornographic material when coupled with masturbation, sends signals to the brain of extreme pleasure and relational closeness, resulting in a desire to remember it and repeat it.
The recipe for addiction culminates in the third factor, association. When we do things that are pleasurable, our brain associates (learns) that that behavior brings about a positive feeling. For example, there is no biological or genetic reason that a pet dog should get excited when the owner approaches the kitchen pantry. However, if the dog observes that the owner always gets the box of doggie treats every time she goes to the pantry, the dog associates (learns) that the behavior (owner going to the pantry) will lead to something pleasurable (doggie treats). Humans learn in similar ways. If we experience something new that feels good enough times, we associate (learn) that these things go together: “If I engage in behavior Y, I will experience positive feeling Z.”
The Brain Aims for Efficiency:
Once these three factors come into play, the brain does something amazing. It structures itself to allow you to do the behavior better. Think of it this way, when you first learned to drive, your brain was hypervigilant and focused. Driving was a new experience so you paid extra attention; your senses were extra aware and on high alert - your brain was using a lot of its capacity to help you focus on driving. Today, however, you do not nearly pay as much attention to the actual behavior of driving. You can listen to music, sip a drink, or hold a conversation. Your brain does not use nearly as much of its capacity to help you drive. Can you imagine if your brain took as much energy now to drive as it did when you first learned? Driving would be extremely difficult.
The process of getting better at driving without having to focus or think much about it demonstrates one of the most powerful aspects of the brain: efficiency. With repeated behavior, your brain senses that the behavior is important so it restructures itself so that you can do the behavior more efficiently without having to think. These behaviors move from the realm of conscious and focused thinking to the realm of instinct and habits. Instincts occur automatically. They are like the auto-updates on your computer, working in the background without needing you to directly engage it.
This is exactly what happens with pornography. The infinite newness of it, combined with how good it feels, builds an association in your mind that, when repeated, changes your brain so that it can do it better, faster, and automatically. Add the fact that one can instantly access it almost anywhere and anytime, people essentially become their own on-demand ‘pornography dealers’.
Using pornography becomes an automatic response to negative emotions such as stress, boredom, depression, anger, etc. The brain remembers that pornography feels good and, in moments of conflict or stress, instead of talking through problems in a healthy way, exercising, or learning to tolerate the negative emotions, it defaults to pornography behavior. These days, there is virtually no barrier to access and one can feel the pleasurable effects of pornography instantly. Why go for a 30 minute jog when pleasurable, soothing pornography can be accessed in seconds? Why talk things through with your partner after an argument when you can feel better with a few clicks or swipes?
Pornography not only becomes the de facto problem solving strategy, it also distorts the reality of relational intimacy. Pornography is created to meet the thirst of all ranges of desire and distorts the reality of real relationships and intimacy – it designed for one purpose: fantasy. One becomes accustomed to the self-focused, self-gratification of pornographic fantasy, which has an adverse effect on real romantic relationships. You begin to normalize the focus on yourself in your relationships, and lose the ability to relate and develop mutuality and reciprocity in relationships. Because of the brain’s efficiency, someone who is addicted to pornography has tremendous difficulty with sexual intimacy with their partner because they have associated sex and pleasure with pornographic material instead of an actual person.
So while our society may be shifting its stance and acceptance of pornography, do not be deceived: pornography can be highly addictive and detrimental.
Hope and Change:
There is, however, hope. Because of our knowledge of what makes pornography addictive and unhealthy, we know what can help break the addiction and how to lead a healthy life.
Break the association: Because pornography is based on fantasy, repeated exposure to it normalizes it as real and natural. Healing can occur when we purposefully break the association between pornography and real-life. This means the obvious: the usage of pornography has to stop. Stopping its usage slows down the behavior-reward nature of pornography and begins to reduce the expectation (norm) of pornographic-style sex in actual relationships.
Build healthy associations: While we break unhealthy associations, we need to ‘re-learn’ healthy sexuality. Focusing and practicing healthy relationship behaviors as well as focusing on what is real and authentic when it comes to sexual behavior helps to rebuild those brain connections that associate sexual intimacy with an actual person. Building healthy associations also begins to awaken other senses and experiences that were neglected.
Develop healthy life skills: Stress is, for better or worse, a normal part of adult life. While it does not feel good, experiencing it does not necessary mean that something is wrong. Developing and practice healthy life skills such as exercising, breathing, healthy dieting, and relationship building helps to buffer against stress and negative feelings that we will invariably feel. This provides a ‘toolkit’ of skills to deal with life stressors.
Guard against triggers: While we can lessen the impact of past unhealthy associations, we will never be able to completely eliminate them. This means that if we encounter certain triggers, we may feel the desire to engage with pornography. Therefore, we need to pay attention to these triggers and find ways to protect ourselves from them. Recognizing the step or two before we encounter a trigger goes a long way in preventing the awakening of unhealthy associations.