Porn Addiction: The Neuroscience and Why It Is a Problem

Posted on March 7, 2013

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http://mashable.com/2013/02/20/addicted-to-porn/

The link above is to a video that puts in plain English the neuroscience behind porn addiction.  There is no moralizing here just the facts about how that stimulation affects one’s brain.  Go watch the video, then come back and let’s talk.

Those of us who work with sex addicts refer to online pornography as “the crack cocaine of sexual addiction” because it is accessible, affordable, and anonymous.  It is also highly addictive.  The neuroscience behind pornography addiction is similar to that of drug addiction.  Brain scans of sex addicts look very similar to those of drug addicts.

Pornography use can also be very damaging to relationships on a number of levels.  First, the tolerance from prolonged use of pornography can make your partner seem less attractive because of the neurochemical impact.  Tolerance means that more intense experiences are required to achieve the same level of neurochemical stimulation (and perceived level of excitement).  Second, from a psychological perspective, pornography displaces the relational aspects of sexual attraction leaving only physical appearance and sexual behaviors as the standard for arousal.  Consequently, pornography sets an impossible standard for body image to which a partner cannot measure up (particularly over a lifetime together).  Third, most partners react to the discovery of a partner’s pornography much as they would if their partner was having a sexual affair with another person.  Partners feel violated and betrayed.  Partners often question, “Why wasn’t I enough?”  Fourth, once the images are in the brain, it is hard to get them out.  Those with a porn addiction often report picturing the pornographic images during sex with their partner.  Some report needing these images to maintain arousal.  The problem is that focusing on other images gets in the way of being present with your partner during sex and therefore, blocks true intimacy.  If you are not really present with your partner, sex is still just masturbation.  Fifth, as you spend more time with pornography, you may be spending less time with your partner.

Not everyone who looks at pornography is an addict.[1]  Here are some signs of the presence of addiction (three or more would indicate the presence of addiction; adapted from Carnes, 2010, pp. 42-43).[2]

  • Recurrent failure to resist impulses to engage in pornography viewing.
  • Viewing pornography more and for a longer period than intended.
  • Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop, reduce, or control.
  • Inordinate amount of time spent in obtaining or using porn.
  • Preoccupation with pornography use.
  • Frequent engaging in porn use when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic, or social obligations.
  • Continuing porn use with knowledge that it is causing social, financial, psychological or physical problems
  • Tolerance: The need to increase the intensity, frequency, or risk to achieve the same level of arousal or diminished effect from the same usage.
  • Giving up or limiting social, occupational, or recreational activities because of porn use.
  • Distress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability if unable to use porn.

As with other forms of addiction, it is difficult to overcome porn addiction without support.  Further, those who find themselves addicted in one area may be coping with other addictions as well.  Stopping porn addiction to be replaced by other additions (either sexual or chemical) is like playing whack-a-mole.  The addiction is beaten back in one area only to pop up elsewhere.  Compulsive pornography use can also lead to other sexual acting out with further dire consequences to health, relationships, and career.  Also like other addiction, most of those coping with porn addiction do not seek help for the problem until a crisis occurs.  This can take a number of forms (e.g. a loss of a partner or a loss of a job for viewing pornography at work).

Returning to sexual health is possible and worth the effort.   Truth in advertising: recovery is a difficult process.  Your brain is rewiring those neural pathways.  Additionally, any trauma or anxiety that was previously being numbed by the pornography must now be coped with without that anesthesia.  Reality is difficult, but it is worth it.

A final word.  Among the blocks to seeking help are feelings of guilt and shame.  Addiction is not about moral failing.  It is a brain disorder requiring treatment and support.  Further, partners need their own support to work through the pain, sadness, anger, and confusion that follow the discovery of a partner’s sexual acting out.

To find a therapist in your area trained in Sexual Addiction, visit http://www.iitap.com/.  In San Diego, call me or one of my LifeSpring colleagues.  We have supported many though the process of recovery.

Reference

Carnes, P. (2010). Facing the shadow. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.


[1] In a future post we can examine if pornography is inherently unhealthy.  This post is focused on addiction.

[2] For a real diagnosis, find a clinician with training in this area.

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