Porn Harms the User

Much scientific research from the last few decades shows that pornography has major effects on the individual user. The intersection of neurology, biology and sexuality sees major behaviour changes. At its core, pornography stimulates our sexual systems, which are primarily an activity of the brain. The physical act of sex, which on the surface is the stimulation of the genitals to produce an orgasm, is in fact a brain activity from first to last.

Sex and the Brain

The sexual processes of desire, arousal, anticipation, excitement, fulfilment, and recovery involve numerous powerful hormones which flood the brain. Some basic hormonal functions include:

  • Dopamine, the hormone responsible for excitement and anticipation, is produced in large volumes in anticipation of the reward of an orgasm and sexual fulfilment. The limbic system of the brain, which includes the reward and pleasure areas, has numerous dopamine receptors, which react to certain cues – including sexual ones. Sexual arousal is stimulated by engaging all five senses, resulting in large volumes of dopamine being generated in the limbic system. During this process, brain signals from the pre-frontal cortex are bypassed. This the area of the brain responsible for judgement and self-control.
  • Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter produced during sexual arousal. It is both a natural adrenaline, increasing elated energy, and mediates communication in the sympathetic nervous system. It enhances memories, such that experiences during heightened levels are forged into the memory.
  • Serotonin, the hormone associated with mood regulation, reduces during arousal. This reduction lowers our inhibition and self-control, and relaxes us.
  • Endorphins and enkephalins, which are natural opioids, are stimulated and released during orgasm, relaxing muscles, alleviating pain, and regulating stress. In other words, following the intense pleasurable feeling of an orgasm, there is an ongoing feeling of relaxation and satisfaction.
  • Oxytocin is released following orgasm, which has a bonding function, drawing the person closer to the object of their desires.

Biblical sex and science

  • The Bible is very clear that God designed sex to be enjoyed.
  • The erotica poetry of Song of Songs celebrates human sexuality, affirming the function of desire and sexual pleasure.
  • But the Bible also says that God places specific boundaries around how and when sex is to be expressed: in the domain of committed marriage.
  • Jesus was clear that the goal of human marriage was oneness (Matt 19:6), and sexuality amplifies that unifying effect.
  • Marriage is also a foreshadowing of a more profound, eternal unity – that being between God and the redeemed humanity saved through Christ (Eph 5:32).
  • Faithfulness and exclusivity are foundational to marriage, which is why marriage is always to be honoured and kept pure (Heb 13:4), sexual activity outside of the marriage always condemned (1 Thes 4:1-8).
  • In God’s wisdom, marriage is the economy for producing and raising children (Gen 1:28), and serves as the foundation to any stable community. 
  • Sexuality enhances the relational dimension of a marriage, not just emotional bonding, but also in guarding against adultery (1 Cor 7:2-5).

We know that the biblical view of sex and relationships is widely rejected and shunned in society. However, the amazing (but unsurprising) thing is that science supports the Christian ideal of sex. Not only does oxytocin bond us to our sexual partner, but over time, dopamine causes changes to our brains, so that our desires and the triggers for arousal become more established. More specifically:

  • Neural pathways are reinforced through repeated cycles of dopamine and norepinephrine production such that the things we desire become more concrete.
  • At the same time, other interests and activities become less desirable, as our limbic system adapts to those preferred triggers for dopamine reception.
  • Dopamine causes a bypassing of the signals from the frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for judgement and self-control. Overtime, the brain adapts by less engagement of the frontal cortex – and in the case of adolescents with underdeveloped brains, retarding it’s maturing.

Scientifically, our brains are wired to enhance our desires and attachments to the person we’re sexually engaged with. From a biblical perspective, two virgins who marry for life, should find themselves increasing their desire and attachment for each other. Sex grows oneness, which is exactly as God intends it.

Pornography corrupts good sexuality

With pornography, the consumer bonds with many images and concepts, amplified by sight and sound. The other senses (touch, taste, and feelings) become less associated with sexual desire, and are disassociated from sexual arousal. This is why porn users can be highly aroused by images, but find it difficult to be aroused by a real person.

When exposed to high volumes of dopamine over a period of time, dopamine receptors are reduced, requiring more dopamine to experience similar levels of excitement and anticipation than previously. Consequently, porn users progress into more unsavoury, extreme fetishes, because the previous things that used to arouse them no longer generate the same excitement. Below we present a summary of the research on the negative neurological effects of pornography.

Negative effects of pornography on the User

Objectification, sexual aggression, and negative gender attitudes.

Pornography exposure has long been associated with objectification attitudes and increased sexual aggression [1-5]. Studies suggest that the type of pornography viewed (violent or non-violent) has little effect on the degree of violent tolerance found in users (verbal aggression is more affected than physical aggression, but not significantly different) [3].

Regular consumers of pornography are inclined to hold negative gender attitudes [4, 6, 7] and commit sexual harassment [8].

Furthermore, studies suggest that increased sexual aggression occurs in both males and females after prolonged exposure to pornography [3]. Sexual aggression is a precursor to rape and domestic violence. A landmark study of 304 scenes from a random sample of the top 275 selling adult movies in 2005 showed an extraordinary picture of the level of violence in contemporary pornography. It showed that 88% of scenes contained physical violence (including choking, spanking, gagging, slapping, and hair-pulling); 49% contained verbal violence; 94% of the recipients of violence were women; and 95% of the violence was received neutrally or with pleasure [9].

Women who watch porn increase their acceptance of victimisation over time, as their exposure to sexually aggressive (towards women) pornography normalises such behaviour [8].

Mental Health and Behaviour changes

There is a range of adverse mental health consequences from pornography usage. Depression, reduced self-esteem [10, 11], sexual insecurity [13], and anxiety accompany prolonged use. Research by Doornwaard showed a relationship between psychological wellbeing (lower levels of self-esteem) and excessive sexual interest as predictors of compulsive porn use [10]. 

Pornography has been shown to be a poor sex educator[14]. Increased exposure to pornography increases sexual uncertainty and confuses sexual belief[12, 13]. It increases unrealistic attitudes about sex, including altering the users sense of sexual realism [13, 15]. 

Academic outcomes, especially for adolescents, are poorer in pornography users [16]. Some studies have shown that memory retention is also compromised in long-term pornography users[17, 18].

Prolonged exposure to pornography leads to significant behavioural changes. This includes increases in acting out [19], casual sex [12, 15, 20], earlier first-time sexual activity [2], sexually permissive attitudes[13], and sexual sensation seeking[21, 22]. Additionally, general increases in risky behaviour [2, 21] (including sexting), alcohol consumption have been found [23]. There is also evidence of increased sexual preoccupation, [13, 24, 25], and reduced capacity to delay gratification [13, 26-29].

Neurological effects

A wave of recent scholarship has emerged on the relationship between compulsive pornography use and it’s neurological impact, with one source citing 37 neurological studies and 13 literature reviews[30]. The evidence of these studies show that regular pornography use causes real change to the brain, and supports the view that compulsive pornography use fits the behavioural addiction models of similar DSM-5 disorders like Internet Gaming Disorders[31].

For example, one study from Cambridge by Valerie Voon et al found that compulsive pornography users had heightened reactions to sexual cues in the dorsal anterior cingulate, ventral striatum and amygdala – generally associated with sexual desire, that is to say, ‘craving’ increased. Yet they also found that these same subjects had no increase in the desire, or ‘liking’, pornography. Thus researchers concluded that this brain behaviour was consistent with drug addictions.[32]

The same researchers, in another study, assessed cue-reactivity through attentional bias in compulsive pornography users, concluded that there were ‘possible overlaps with enhanced attentional bias observed in studies of drug cues in disorders of addictions’. They dovetail these results with their previous study concluding their evidence provides ‘support for incentive motivation theories of addiction underlying the aberrant response to sexual cues in CSB’.[33]

Another study of compulsive pornography users showed significant reduction in the functional (activity between the amygdala and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) compared to non-pornography users.  The DLPFC is widely accepted as the instrument of cognitive control, and the functional activity between it and the amygdala is associated with a range of behaviours including emotion regulation, impulsivity, modulating negative emotions, as well as anxiety, depression and stress.

This loss of the frontal control system, known by neuroscientists as the braking system, is well documented amongst patients with substance addictions like cocaine and methamphetamines, accompanied by observable reductions in brain volume[34]. Studies of compulsive pornography users have also shown similar losses in grey brain matter, in particular the right striatum, as well as reduced functioning of the left putamen – both of which mediate cognition of various functions including executive controls. [35]

The authors at www.yourbrainonporn.com summarise these combined studies suggesting that pornography affects the brain in three ways: 

  • sensitisation – where motivational and reward circuits become hypersensitive to memory cues;
  • desensitisation – where the brain becomes less-sensitive to pleasure;
  • and hypofrontality – where the increased dysfunction between the prefrontal cortex and limbic system results in reduced impulse control, and increased cravings.

Regarding addiction, there has been (general) reticence in classifying problematic pornography use as addictive. In part that has been due to a classical definition of addiction as pertaining to pyschoatic substances like alcohol, opiates and cocaine [37], as well as the relatively new research frontier of pornography and neurology. However, in 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) redefined addiction to include other broader behavioural influences on the brains reward, motivation and reward circuitry. In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added Internet gaming disorder as an addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), however there was no reference to internet pornography addiction. Love et al make the compelling argument that compulsive internet pornography use fits into the addiction framework, sharing similar processes as substance addictions.[37] This conclusion is well supported by Voon and Kühn (ref), and is why we also refer to compulsive porngoprahy use as addictive throughout this website.

More broadly, further research has shown the brain’s neuroplastic capacity to change itself, including adapting and recovering from various injuries and disorders. Doidge, a leader in this science, claims that partial to complete cues can be constructed under certain circumstances[45]. This is relevant for pornography users in that just as studies (such as from Voon[32]) show that the brain can negatively adapt to regular neurological stimulation, Doidge would suggest that intentional therapy can reverse the effects of pornography – either in creating alternative neural pathways for other activities, as well as reducing the degree of reactivity to sexual cues. That is, cognitive behavioural and other therapies may find success in reversing the neurological effects of long-term pornography use on compulsive users. At present there is little to no research to show if this is specifically the case, but in light of general support for the brains ongoing plasticity, studying the capacity of the brain to reverse/reduce dependency on pornography warrants serious consideration.

Thus, the overall evidence is that excessive long-term pornography use does impact the brain, particularly the limbic system and DLPFC, in ways consistent with substance addictions, and any genuine intervention seeking to reduce the effects of pornography on a user needs to allow for proven addictive behaviour therapies.

 

Credits

1. Zillmann, D. and J.B. Weaver, Pornography and men's sexual callousness toward women, in Pornography: Research advances and policy considerations. 1989, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc: Hillsdale, NJ, US. p. 95-125.

2. Villani, S., Impact of media on children and adolescents : a 10-year review of the research U6 - ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fsummon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=Impact+of+media+on+children+and+adolescents+%3A+a+10-year+review+of+the+research&rft.au=Villani%2C+Susan&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=b29339546¶mdict=en-US U7 - Course Reading. 2001.

3. Wright, P.J., R.S. Tokunaga, and A. Kraus, A Meta-Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies. Journal of Communication, 2016. 66(1): p. 183-205.

4. Peter, J. and P.M. Valkenburg, Adolescents’ Exposure to a Sexualized Media Environment and Their Notions of Women as Sex Objects. Sex Roles, 2007. 56(5): p. 381-395.

5. Ybarra, M.L., et al., X-rated material and perpetration of sexually aggressive behavior among children and adolescents: is there a link? Aggressive Behavior, 2011. 37(1): p. 1-18.

6. Stanley, N., et al., Pornography, Sexual Coercion and Abuse and Sexting in Young People’s Intimate Relationships. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2016: p. 0886260516633204.

7. Hald, G.M., N.N. Malamuth, and T. Lange, Pornography and sexist attitudes among heterosexuals. Journal of Communication, 2013. 63(4): p. 638-660.

8. Bonino, S., et al., Use of pornography and self-reported engagement in sexual violence among adolescents. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2006. 3(3): p. 265-288.

9. Bridges, A.J., et al., Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update. Violence Against Women, 2010. 16(10): p. 1065-1085.

10. Doornwaard, S.M., et al., Lower Psychological Well-Being and Excessive Sexual Interest Predict Symptoms of Compulsive Use of Sexually Explicit Internet Material Among Adolescent Boys. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2016. 45(1): p. 73-84.

11. Bélanger, R.E., et al., A U-Shaped Association Between Intensity of Internet Use and Adolescent Health. Pediatrics, 2011. 127(2): p. e330-e335.

12. Peter, J. and P.M. Valkenburg, Adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit internet material, sexual uncertainty, and attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration: Is there a link? Communication Research, 2008. 35(5): p. 579-601.

13. Owens, E.W., et al., The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 2012. 19(1-2): p. 99-122.

14. Flood, M., The harms of pornography exposure among children and young people. Child Abuse Review, 2009. 18(6): p. 384-400.

15. Peter, J. and P.M. Valkenburg, Processes Underlying the Effects of Adolescents’ Use of Sexually Explicit Internet Material: The Role of Perceived Realism. Communication Research, 2010. 37(3): p. 375-399.

16. Beyens, I., L. Vandenbosch, and S. Eggermont, Early adolescent boys’ exposure to Internet pornography: Relationships to pubertal timing, sensation seeking, and academic performance. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 2015. 35(8): p. 1045-1068.

17. Laier, C., F.P. Schulte, and M. Brand, Pornographic Picture Processing Interferes with Working Memory Performance. Journal of Sex Research, 2013. 50(7): p. 642-652.

18. Laier, C., M. Pawlikowski, and M. Brand, Sexual Picture Processing Interferes with Decision-Making Under Ambiguity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2014. 43(3): p. 473-482.

19. Baxter, A., How Pornography Harms Children: The Advocate's Role. Child L. Prac., 2014. 33: p. 113.

20. Wright, P.J. and R.S. Tokunaga, Activating the Centerfold Syndrome: Recency of Exposure, Sexual Explicitness, Past Exposure to Objectifying Media. Communication Research, 2013. 42(6): p. 864-897.

21. Hald, G.M., et al., Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association Between Sexually Explicit Materials Use and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2013. 10(12): p. 2986-2995.

22. Reid, R.C., et al., Reliability, Validity, and Psychometric Development of the Pornography Consumption Inventory in a Sample of Hypersexual Men. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 2011. 37(5): p. 359-385.

23. Morelli, M., et al., Sexting Behaviors and Cyber Pornography Addiction Among Adolescents: the Moderating Role of Alcohol Consumption. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 2017. 14(2): p. 113-121.

24. Peter, J. and P.M. Valkenburg, Adolescents' Exposure to Sexually Explicit Internet Material and Sexual Preoccupancy: A Three-Wave Panel Study. Media Psychology, 2008. 11(2): p. 207-234.

25. Fortune, A.E., W.J. Reid, and R.L. Miller, Qualitative research in social work. 2013: Columbia University Press.

26. Negash, S., et al., Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting. The Journal of Sex Research, 2016. 53(6): p. 689-700.

27. Brown, C.C., et al., A Common-Fate Analysis of Pornography Acceptance, Use, and Sexual Satisfaction Among Heterosexual Married Couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2017. 46(2): p. 575-584.

28. Park, B.Y., et al., Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 2016. 6(3): p. 17.

29. Simons, L.G., et al., Mechanisms that link parenting practices to adolescents’ risky sexual behavior: A test of six competing theories. Journal of youth and adolescence, 2016. 45(2): p. 255-270.

30. https://yourbrainonporn.com/brain-scan-studies-porn-users

31. Association, D.-A.P., Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.

32. Voon, V., et al., Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours. PLoS ONE, 2014. 9(7): p. e102419.

33. Mechelmans, D.J., et al., Enhanced Attentional Bias towards Sexually Explicit Cues in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours. PLoS ONE, 2014. 9(8): p. e105476.

34. Hilton, D.L. and C. Watts, Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective. Surgical neurology international, 2011. 2(1): p. 19.

35. Kühn, S. and J. Gallinat, Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption: The brain on porn. JAMA Psychiatry, 2014. 71(7): p. 827-834.

36. https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/research-articles-and-abstracts. Accessed 13 October 2017

37. Love, T., et al., Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update. Behavioral Sciences, 2015. 5(3): p. 388.

38. Schmidt, C., et al., Compulsive sexual behavior: Prefrontal and limbic volume and interactions. Human Brain Mapping, 2017. 38(3): p. 1182-1190.

39. Grubbs, J.B., et al., Internet pornography use: Perceived addiction, psychological distress, and the validation of a brief measure. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 2015. 41(1): p. 83-106.

40. Grubbs, J.B., et al., Internet Pornography Use, Perceived Addiction, and Religious/Spiritual Struggles. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2017. 46(6): p. 1733-1745.

41. Grubbs, J.B., et al., Perceived addiction to Internet pornography and psychological distress: Examining relationships concurrently and over time. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 2015. 29(4): p. 1056.

42. Twitter comment from July 2015, sources: https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/critique-damaged-goods-perception-pornography-addiction-mediator-between-religiosity-and and https://twitter.com/JoshuaGrubbsPhD

43. Leonhardt, N.D., B.J. Willoughby, and B. Young-Petersen, Damaged Goods: Perception of Pornography Addiction as a Mediator Between Religiosity and Relationship Anxiety Surrounding Pornography Use. The Journal of Sex Research, 2017: p. 1-12.

44. Fernandez, D.P., E.Y.J. Tee, and E.F. Fernandez, Do Cyber Pornography Use Inventory-9 Scores Reflect Actual Compulsivity in Internet Pornography Use? Exploring the Role of Abstinence Effort. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 2017. 24(3): p. 156-179.

45. https://www.barna.org/blog/culture-media/barna-group/porn-press-conference#.VrS9OrSJndl., J.M.M., The Porn Phenomenon: A Comprehensive New Survey on Americans, the Church, and Pornography. 2016, Barna Group: Ventura, California.

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