Hold on. We’ll get to that in a while.
With the wide spread use of high-speed Internet porn, we are in the middle of the fastest moving unconscious experiment ever conducted on a global level: nearly every young guy with Internet access becomes an eager test subject. That’s the conclusion of several experts, including physiology teacher Gary Wilson, who presented a TED Talk on the subject.
It all starts with a 10-year old boy—that’s the age when, according to research, boys usually seek pornography for the first time. High-speed Internet offers him not only nudity but constant novelty at a click of the mouse.
Our boy gets hooked.
The primal portion of his brain, focused on basic survival and reproduction, sees every new female on-screen as an opportunity for matting. It then releases dopamine, which keeps the boy clicking and clicking for more gratification—pretty much like a rat in a lab. A heavy porn user’s brain begins associating sex with behaviors such as being alone, voyeurism, clicking and searching, multiple tabs, constant novelty, shock and surprise.
Real sex, in contrast, is courtship, touching and being touched, smells, pheromones, emotional connection and interaction with a person. So what happens when this porn user finds a real mate?
He realizes he’s in trouble.
The increase of dopamine production promotes a cycle of binging and craving that numbs the brain to pleasures of everyday life while making it hyper-reactive to porn. Finally, the user’s willpower erodes, his brain changes and porn addiction settles. Symptoms include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, social anxiety, depression, performance anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
It’s hard to believe that something healthy as sex can be harmful, but as Wilson notes, “Internet porn is not sex: it’s as different from real sex as today’s videogames are from checkers. From all activities on the Internet, porn is the most addictive.”
According to sexual addiction expert Dr. Victor Cline, repeated exposure to porn accompanied by masturbation triggers the first phase of the addiction. The second phase is escalation, requiring more porn exposure to achieve the same buzz and sometimes leading to a preference for porn over sexual intercourse. The third phase is desensitization, when the user views as normal what was once considered repulsive or immoral.
Finally, in the acting-out phase, the addict runs an increased risk of making the leap from screen to real life. This behavior may manifest itself in the form of promiscuity, cheating a partner, voyeurism, exhibitionism, group sex, rape, sadomasochism, or even child molestation.
Another serious problem with porn addiction is erectile dysfunction—which no blue pill can cure. A survey shows that Internet porn is killing young men’s performance: tuned into the porn hypergratification that’s provided by constant novelty, shock and surprise, the men’s brains are sending weaker signals to their genitals during real-life sex. The libido drops to the point that an erection becomes impossible, even while watching porn.
Like in a classical case of addiction, there is an increasing desensitization of the brain. It will then try to compensate that by seeking more novelty, shock and surprise, until it’s overstimulated to the limit and can no longer respond. The teenage brain is extremely vulnerable to addiction because its reward system is fully developed, whereas its restriction system is not: a teenage brain is all accelerator and no brakes.
Until a few years ago, there was no way of studying the impact of porn in human behavior because it was impossible to form a control group of non-users. That spoke volumes about the pervasiveness of pornography among men. When porn addicts began to seek help and break their habit, they became the control group that was missing.
From pigs to dogs to fish
Journalist Martin Daubney investigates the effects of porn in young users in the 2013 documentary Porn on the Brain. He used to be the editor of porn magazine Loaded and, after a long period away from pornography, he goes online and searches for the keyword porn. The results pop up in seconds. He’s shocked: “The first thing I see is two gaping orifices … It’s actually an Asian girl’s posterior, called Asian Slut Double Dipped.” He then finds a woman being fisted by one man while another pisses on her face. Next, a staged incest depicts the fisting of a teenager by her dad.
“I don’t remember being exposed to anything like this ever in my life,” says Daubney. “Porn has become altogether macabre. Where is the enjoyment and innocence gone? Now it’s all about a world of male domination and female humiliation.” A group of high school students tells him porn content pops up all the time on their Facebook or in advertisements, including illegal material—there’s everything “from pigs to dogs to fish.”
Daubney persuades neuroscientist Dr. Valeri Voon, from the University of Cambridge, to perform a brain scan in a group of porn addicts while they watch pornographic images. Unsure of what to expect, she is surprised with the results: users’ brains reacted just like the brains of substance addicts, with a pronounced increase in activity in the reward center.
A perfect example of the effects of porn addiction is provided by Calum, a good-looking 19-year old student who watches porn at least 15 times a day. He volunteers to talk on camera and picks up Daubney to show him around while they chat. As Calum is driving, he sees a girl on the street that triggers his compulsion. He’s forced to rush to a public restroom and, afterwards, looks miserable. He has no control over his porn addiction.
In the past Calum tried to cut off his habit, but porn images still invaded his fantasies. When Calum describes his real-life sex experiences, it’s obvious he’s been heavily conditioned by porn to regard women as sexual objects existing solely to please him, as he mentions twice that his preferences in bed depend on “what the girl has to offer.” His great concern regarding his addiction is that he’s not getting the most of sex as a result. That alone goes to show he seems to have lost the ability to connect with a partner: he has sex with body parts. “If a girl has a nice ass it has to be anal. If she has nice breasts it has to be missionary.” To Calum, real sex is not as good as porn. Luckily he didn’t become a sex offender.
Dr. John Woods, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, has treated dozens of young sex offenders. In the early 2000s there were very few cases of online porn involved in an offender’s behavior. “Now they’re the majority. There is no direct proof that watching violent porn instigates violent acts towards women,” he explains, “but clinically it’s clear that there is a connection.” Woods mentions the case of a patient who watched extreme porn and, haunted by those images, eventually raped a child.
Finally an erection
In the 2008 documentary Porndemic: Sex in the Digital Age by Robin Benger, addiction therapist Dr. Doris Vincent states that until 2002 she had never treated sex addicts. Six years later, she had more than 200 patients suffering from porn addiction, all male. “Internet porn is the crack and cocaine of sex addiction. It affects your dopamine reward system quite strongly. You’re playing around with very dangerous chemicals in your brain.”
Two physical changes occur in the brains of porn users, as shown in a study conducted in Germany in 2014. The first change is a rewiring of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that restricts overindulging behavior. The second and more stunning neurological discovery is that high-speed Internet porn may actually shrink the brain: the more a person watches porn, the more accentuated the shrinkage. That means less grey matter in the portion of the brain responsible for decision making and motivation.
The good news is the addiction symptoms are reversed when the user quits watching porn, and after a few months of abstinence the changes are astounding. Interestingly enough, middle-age men recover faster than teenagers because their brains had not been impacted by Internet porn until later in their lives. Former users report the ability to have an erection, more self-confidence, focus and proactivity.
Men willing to quit porn now join an expanding movement across the Internet, with thousands of new adepts on sites like NoFap and Reboot Nation. And the numbers keep rising. Reboot Nation’s founder Gabe Deen tells his story in the 2015 news special Is free pornography destroying our brains? He began watching porn on a regular basis when he was eight. At one point Deen couldn’t lead a normal life without porn. He developed erectile dysfunction at the age of 23.
“It started out with very soft porn, then it would escalate to a couple of guys and one girl, gang bangs … and then I would watch things that were shocking or created anxiety, like very abusive and misogynistic stuff.” Neurosurgeon Donald Hilton, interviewed in the program, explains that, since the human brain naturally seeks novelty, there’s a progression in the use of porn that may translate into violence and pedophilia: “We need new. Then new is aggression. New is younger.”
Neuroscience studies still need to be expanded for a definitive conclusion about how porn affects the brain, but it certainly facilitates the desensitization to violence and shapes behavior.
Not only porn addicts are affected by pornography, though. Boys and girls, men and women that aren’t addicted can also be dramatically impacted by porn. I’ll be exploring that on my next post.
In the meantime, if you haven’t already, you can read my previous post It’s All Sex #1: Hyper Sexed!