Intimacy is one of the most important human needs. After food, clothing, and shelter, meaningful connection with others humans ranks as the strongest requirement for health and well-being. In our increasingly disconnected world, however, finding this essential nourishment can be surprisingly challenging. As real connection and intimacy disappear in the streams of social media “likes” and other artificial measures of value, we lose sight of what makes us truly feel connected. And in the absence of the authentic intimacy and closeness we seek, technology can seem to perfectly fill the void.
At the most profound level, sex is about communing with another person and the indescribable force made by the connection two people. At its most basic physiological level, sex is for procreation of the species and recreational pleasure. Most of us live somewhere in between these poles, with moments of base carnal pleasure and (hopefully) moments of transcendent bliss.
While it may not be essential for survival, many people feel that moving sexual energy in some way is a need that must be satisfied, regardless of the presence of true connection with another person. This is where pornography enters the picture. While watching a pornographic movie a person can pretend that he is experiencing a sex act and stimulate himself to reach an orgasm, without the challenging or beneficial aspects of engaging in such acts with a person.
For some people, pornography serves a vital and life-giving purpose, helping them explore their sexual identity and empowering them to connect more erotically with their romantic partners. But for many others, pornography is a trap, an addiction with many of the same detrimental effects for the brain and body as some other types of addiction.
Psychologists and sexual health experts have begun exploring the potentially damaging effects of frequent porn exposure. It is quite telling that it has been nearly impossible for researchers to find college aged males who have not used internet pornography to serve as control groups. The use of pornography among men for sexual pleasure is so ubiquitous as to seem normal, but this does not necessarily mean that it is wise. Masturbating to pornography activates the reward centers of the brain, giving us the feeling of pleasure and success that would usually come from intimate connection, but at an increasingly high price.
Addiction and the Reward Circuit
We are wired to seek out pleasurable experiences, and repeat activities that make us feel good. When we imbibe things that our brains interpret as rewards, be it sugar or the completion of goals, dopamine and other positive hormones are released, causing us to feel happiness. This is true of food, alcohol, sexual activity, exercise, relational fulfillment, drug use, and work goal.
At its core, this hormonal release system is designed to inspire us to keep doing things that are good for us, like accomplishing goals and connecting with people who love us. But it is an indiscriminate mechanism that can be highjacked by substances and behaviors that are actually not beneficial for us in the long term.
The challenge is that the sustainability of those happy feelings triggered by dopamine is in direct proportion to the degree of authentic satisfaction provided by the stimulus. A feel-good moment that is triggered by the high-intensity stimulation of sugar or porn fades quickly. Then we want more of the dopamine and good feelings, but require more of the same stimulus each time, and experience decreasing amounts of pleasure. This is what causes drug addicts to overdose, needing more and more of the substance to experience a high until they exceed their bodies’ processing ability. And it is what leads to sexual desensitization, when men become unable to have an erection or experience sexual pleasure without pornography. The chemical processes in the brain of a drug addict and someone addicted to pornography are nearly identical.
A study conducted by German neuroscientists concluded that men who watch the most porn have the least amount of activity in the striatum, the reward center in the brain, when subsequently viewing pictures of nude women. The link they drew from this observation is that repeated exposure to porn dulls the brain’s response to stimulus that would otherwise be pleasurable. There has also been a link discovered between frequent porn use and depression among men, probably in connection to this muted response to pleasure and resultant low dopamine levels.
Another disturbing effect of frequent porn watching is hypofrontality, reduced impulse control caused by a weakening of the connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with decision-making. During arousal and sexual stimulation one’s ability to predict consequences and make well-planned choices is limited. Over time, the continual weakening of this connection can severely interfere with decisions. This can lead to watching more porn and making other potentially inappropriate and reckless choices with less understanding of or concern for the consequences. Activating the brain through pornography then links sexual release with motivation, causing men to seek it out to feel a sense of accomplishment. As the cortical systems of the brain, the higher brain functions that have a wider view of reality, get sublimated to the arousal, decisions become purely driven by what is below the belt.
Why Porn Addiction is Harmful
All addictions have consequences for the brain, body, and heart. Physically, we are seeing a rise of sexual problems among all men, but especially men of college age. They are increasingly unable to have or retain an erection in sexual situations. Dopamine requires novelty. New pleasurable experiences stimulate more dopamine release then repeating similar experiences, hence flipping through a wide array of pornographic movies. Eventually this can lead to the Coolidge effect, an automatic response of arousal only in novel sexual experiences (not one’s romantic partner). With too much pornography use, men run the risk of never being able to experience an erection again. The rewiring creates a higher arousal threshold, where increasing amounts of novelty and stimulation are required to experience an erection, and eventually arousal becomes impossible.
From a brain physiology standpoint, becoming dependent on any substance for pleasure is a recipe for disaster. Once the reward circuitry is hijacked and rewired, everything else seems less exciting. It can be harder to find pleasure in one’s friendships, work, exercise, or other meaningful activities, when a burst of intense but short lived pleasure is just a few clicks away. Pornography addiction can sap motivation and resolve to follow through with one’s dreams.
And emotionally, frequently using pornography can lower relationship satisfaction. Porn usually depicts a kind of sex that is not truly intimate, that lacks connection and closeness but is high in acrobatics, selfishness, and rough treatment of women, with focus on the male ejaculation. In reality, this kind of sex is usually unsatisfying and demeaning for both partners. Imprinting this type of sex as the ideal sexual script sets men up to be disappointed with their real human partners that may have desires and methods that are nothing like what is shown in porn.
Compulsive porn users may turn to it to actually avoid intimacy, due to a fear of vulnerability and closeness. Paradoxically, they may be seeking that very experience of intimacy by loosing themselves in porn, but in a way that can be controlled and does not require depth and vulnerability as real intimacy does in life.
Lastly, when porn use includes ejaculation, the disconnecting effects are intensified. Orgasm triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone that creates bonding. When a person orgasms while looking at a screen, he becomes more bonded with the impersonal technology and is less likely to seek connection and bonding with his human partners.
How to Recognize A Porn Dependency
Not everyone who uses pornography is necessarily dependent on it or causing self-harm. Some people use it for educational purposes, to learn more about sexual possibilities that they can later share with their partners. Some people view porn with their partners as a form of foreplay. For others, it is an occasional solo recreational activity that enhances their quality of life like the other recreational activities that they enjoy at other times. People who may have a porn addiction tend to exhibit some of the following signs:
- Challenges experiencing or maintaining an erection.
- Masturbating while watching porn more frequently than without it.
- Reduced enjoyment of sex with another person or masturbation without pornography; watching porn is more exciting than real sex with a living breathing person.
- Poor impulse control, first in the ability to refrain from pornographic viewing at inopportune moments (such as late at night when a person works early the next day) and later in other activities.
- No longer finding real people as attractive and arousing as the ones in porn.
- A decreased libido, fatigue, depression, low energy, and little or no life satisfaction.
Opening to True Connection
There is evidence surfacing that addiction is more linked to a lack of connection and joy in one’s environment than the power of the substance. People who have satisfying lives with meaningful connection and true intimacy – in friendships and relationships – are less likely to fall prey to any addiction.
The more you can care for your body, heart, and mind, the less dependent on porn and other short-lived stimulants you become. Finding life-giving ways to manage and minimize stress, loneliness, and anxiety is important for everyone, but especially someone who tends to turn to a dependency for relief.
As with so many things, the first step is awareness. Begin to track how often you want to turn to porn for comfort. Notice if that impulse is stronger when you are feeling procrastination, anxiety, stress, or sadness. Then see if you can set a time-based porn break, giving your mind a chance to reset by avoiding porn completely for a month. You may choose to reintegrate it later, but this space will enable you to focus on cultivating authentic connections with friends and lovers.
Practice clear and open communication with your partner about your porn use, your sexual needs and desires, and your emotional state. When you feel the need for sexual release, see if there is another way that you can care for yourself – by exercising, drinking a big glass of water, working on a meaningful project, communing with your friends, or making love with your partner. Focus on cultivating true self-love and practicing true self-care that is beyond momentary pleasure.
Sex is a basic human desire, a procreative and recreational urge that has brought the human race this far. So much more than just a release, sex has the power to foster intimacy, connection, closeness, and healing. But like anything that feels really good, it can be misused. When we turn to immediate gratification as our default way to sublimate a deeper need, we can create lasting harm in our brains and bodies. Cultivating a healthy relationship with pornography, and our sexuality in general, is an important way to support our overall health and wellbeing.