In his 2012 TED Talk “The Great Porn Experiment,” physiology professor Gary Wilson addresses the impact of watching online porn on the brains and sexual functioning of young heterosexual men. “Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse found that most boys seek pornography by age 10, driven by a brain that is suddenly fascinated by sex. Now, users perceive internet porn as far more compelling than porn of the past. Why is that? Unending novelty. With internet porn, a guy can see more hot babes in 10 minutes than his ancestors could see in several lifetimes. The problem is he has a hunter-gather brain. A heavy-user brain rewires itself to this genetic bonanza so it carefully becomes associated with this porn harem. Such behaviors that are associated with this are being alone, voyeurism, clicking, searching, multiple tabs fast-forwarding, constant novelty, shock, and surprise.” These habits develop in contrast to and sometimes to the exclusion of the behaviors involved in real sex, such as “courtship, touching, being touched, smells, pheromones, emotional connection, interaction with a real person.”
How does watching porn become addictive? Wilson talks about the “reward circuit” in the human brain that evolved to drive us towards natural rewards such as sex, bonding, and food. “Extreme versions of natural rewards have a unique ability to capture us. For example: high-calorie foods or hot novel babes give us extra dopamine. Too much dopamine, though, can override our natural satiation mechanisms.
“For example: give rats unlimited access to junk food and almost all of them will binge to obesity. This is also why 4 out of 5 Americans are overweight and about half of those are obese. That is, addicted to food. In contrast to the natural rewards, drugs such as cocaine or alcohol only hook about 10% of users whether they are rats or humans. This binge mechanism for food or sex was once an evolutionary advantage. But what if mating season never ends? All those hits of dopamine can tell your brain to kick in a molecular switch called Delta-FosB, which starts to accumulate in the brain’s reward circuit. Now, with excess chronic consumption of drugs or natural rewards, this buildup of Delta-FosB starts to alter the brain and promote the cycle of binging and craving. If the binging continues, the Delta-FosB builds up and it can lead to brain changes seen in all addicts. So the dominoes are: excess consumption, excess dopamine, Delta-FosB, brain changes.
“One of the first changes is a numbed pleasure response. It kicks in so everyday pleasures really don’t satisfy a porn addict. At the same time other physical changes in the brain make the brain hyper-reactive to porn. Everything else in a porn user’s life is sort of boring, but porn is super-exciting. Finally, his willpower erodes as his frontal cortex changes.”
It’s possible to reverse these changes in the brain, says Wilson, but only by giving up looking at porn. “Probably you want to know why any porn-loving guy in his right mind would give it up. Two words: erectile dysfunction. Internet porn is killing young men’s sexual performance. Young guys are flaming out with women. Sexual enhancement drugs often stop working for these guys, if they ever did, because the problem isn’t below the belt where Viagra works. Nor is their problem really psychological. It’s due to physical changes in the brain. Their numb brains are sending weaker and weaker signals to their bananas. As Dr. Carlo Foresta says: ‘It starts with lower reactions to porn’s sites. Then there is a general drop in libido, and in the end it becomes impossible to get an erection.’
“There are three takeaways from this. First, Foresta is describing a classic addiction process — gradual desensitization. Second, internet porn is qualitatively different from Playboy. Widespread youthful ED has never been seen before. And finally ED is often the only symptom that gets these guys’ attention. The question is what lesser symptoms are they missing? Most don’t figure that out until after they quit.”
In response to the physical changes caused by obsessive-compulsive porn consumption, some young men have taken it upon themselves to launch a movement called NoFap to encourage and support each other in breaking an unhealthy, addictive attachment to masturbating to porn. The trademarked website NoFap.com hosts short- and long-term challenges in which participants abstain from porn and masturbation (for a week, a month, a year, a lifetime) with the clearly stated intentions to “recover from porn-induced sexual dysfunction, stop objectifying and establish meaningful connections, improve your interpersonal relationships, and live a more fulfilling life.”
Wilson notes that guys in their early twenties aren’t regaining their erectile health as quickly as older guys. Even though older guys have been using porn longer, they didn’t start on today’s internet porn. Research indicates that older guys didn’t start having sexual problems until after they got high-speed internet. “Today’s young teens start on high-speed internet when their brains are at their peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity. This is also when they are the most vulnerable to addiction, but there is another risk. By adulthood, teens strengthen heavily-used circuits and prune back unused ones. So, by age 22 or so a guy’s sexual taste can be like deep roots in his brain. This can cause panic if a guy has escalated to extreme porn or porn that no longer matches his sexual orientation. Fortunately, brains are plastic so his taste can revert once he quits porn. As a guy returns to normal sensitivity his brain looks around for the rewards it evolves to see, such as friendly interaction and of course real mates.”
Other commentators have questioned the scientific validity of studying sexual behavior the same way that as drug and alcohol addictions. In an article republished online by Psychology Today, clinical psychologist David J. Ley argues that the high levels of brain activity that anti-porn advocates pathologize as addiction could also signal healthy adults with high libidos. I have tended to side with those who prefer not to apply the terminology of addiction to sexual behavior, partly for semantic reasons — alcohol and drug dependencies can be quantitatively measured and treated — and partly because I’m aware that what constitutes normal/acceptable/healthy sexual behavior relies heavily on the values of the observer. Wilson’s talk and the studies he cites deal exclusively with heterosexual men and so have nothing to say about the ways that pornography has historically played an important role in validating the desires and experience of non-heterosexual men.
In contrast to Wilson’s research, the refreshingly colloquial British gay publication FS (published by the health charity Gay Men Fighting AIDS) conducted an admittedly unscientific study of gay men’s porn habits. More than 1000 readers responded, 87% of whom watched porn at least once a week. One in four watched porn every day. Although the report acknowledged that some men felt out of control with their porn-viewing, the study reflected more concern about the impact of bareback porn on gay men’s sexual behavior offline than with issues of addiction.
That being said, it’s undeniable that there are plenty of people whose social and sexual functioning has undeniably been damaged by excessive porn-watching. And I am always impressed, inspired, and moved by anyone who chooses to sacrifice short-term pleasures for long-term mental and physical well-being. It takes tremendous courage and self-compassion — not to mention support from others — to stop drinking, to stop doing drugs, or to make a profound change in sexual behavior, including looking at pornography. I want to be a resource and a champion for anyone for whom that’s a good choice to make.
Have you ever found that looking at pornography has become a problem for you? Did you ever try to stop? Did it work for you? Have you ever found that you were spending too much time on hook-up websites and/or mobile apps? Have you tried deleting those apps or taking a break for a while? How did that go for you?