Three Myths about Porn

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porn keyboard with worn P*O*R*N keysFor an in-depth look at porn's effects on the brain, visit our sister-site Your Brain On Porn. Although our website is devoted to the wisdom and neuroscience supporting sacred sex traditions, we sometimes have men join our forum who are sincerely, and sometimes desperately, seeking to stop using porn. We dedicate this article to them and their recovery.

MYTH ONE: “Obsession with porn is due to a character defect.”

Pornography is a greater challenge for men then women, because evolutionary forces have different objectives for males than for females. A male’s job (from biology’s perspective) is to impregnate as many fertile females as possible. This evolutionary function has been widely observed in animals, but the underlying neurochemical mechanism has not been studied much. However, in 2002 Canadian researchers did compare brain images of male and female subjects while they viewed erotic film excerpts.1 The males reported significantly higher levels of physical arousal. While both genders showed activation of similar corresponding brain regions, only the men showed significant activation of the hypothalamus.

[This research suggests] that the greater sexual arousal generally experienced by men when viewing erotica may be related to the functional gender difference found here with respect to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is part of the reward circuitry of the brain, but its function is much broader. It does everything but wash the windows. Its overall function is to integrate the body and the mind. It is the command center for the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system. It is the seat of desires, emotions. It’s a player in every thought, emotion, desire and impulse. It controls all of the sex hormones. In short, men are especially vulnerable to porn images because these images have the power to hijack a male brain’s command center in a way they generally cannot a female’s. The hypothalamus is also the center that determines hunger and satiation – in both sexes. Would you regard it as a character defect if someone’s stomach growled because he smelled food on a grill? More proof of this innate evolved mechanism in the male brain comes from our monkey cousins. Male monkeys will “pay” to view female monkey bottoms.2 Now that it’s clearer how men are wired, consider the implications of today’s flood of porn images. The human brain has never had to contend with such an assault, which is strategically calculated to National Geographic coverstimulate this vulnerable part of the male brain. A few short decades ago young men usually got their first glimpses of bare breasts in National Geographic. Then came “Playboy,” “Hustler,” X-rated films, hard-core porn, and now the Internet. In effect, today’s porn viewers are guinea pigs in a mass experiment. It is quite possible that male brains are not well suited to handle this overload of erotica without losing their equilibrium. In short, the potential for porn addiction goes well beyond the issue of character. It is innate and affects males more than females. This may explain why even the best character often proves to be inadequate protection when one’s computer is flooded with pornographic images. This doesn’t mean that character has no place in avoiding porn addiction. The ability to avoid porn stimulation to the extent possible requires some willpower, and it is effort well spent, as Myth Two will make clear. However, once addicted, character alone may not turn the situation around. Time, the constant support of recovered addicts, and a clear understanding of the biological factors at work seem to help.

MYTH TWO: “There’s no scientific evidence that porn is addictive.”

The tobacco companies long used the "no scientific evidence" argument to defend against the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that cigarettes were lethal. However, the “no scientific evidence” argument is not a sound argument where there has not been much in-depth study. The potential addictiveness of porn has not yet been studied in depth (in part because sex research is out of favor here in the States), but there is much circumstantial evidence that points to porn’s addictiveness, and much science that indirectly explains why it would be. The fact that not everyone who uses porn uses it to a point where it interferes with his life doesn’t prove it cannot cause addiction. Not everyone who uses alcohol becomes an alcoholic, yet alcohol is unquestionably potentially addictive. The point is that wherever one steps onto the “porn slope,” it is a slope, and it has the potential to lure one into a mighty addiction. (Accounts of withdrawal symptoms.) To see why, let’s first consider what addiction is. There’s a tendency in literature about addiction to divide addiction into ‘substance addiction,’ such as a cocaine habit, and ‘behavioral addiction,’ such as gambling. Yet science doesn’t completely understand the physical mechanisms of addiction, and this distinction is illusory. Gambling can clearly become an addiction, and it doesn't involve ingesting a substance. So can porn, and for the same neurochemical reason. Any addiction is a learned behavior that activates the reward circuitry of the brain (much of which is located in the limbic system). There certain behaviors and substances stimulate the production of dopamine, the craving neurochemical.3 Brain changes in addictsHowever, addiction is not just about the highs. Over time, an addiction creates a chronic lowering of dopamine levels (or, possibly, decreased receptor sensitivity to dopamine). This sense that "something is missing" is the basis of addictive cravings. At the same time, the addict experiences a much higher than average response to triggers related to his particular learned behavior (such as an alcoholic walking into a bar). In other words, his overall state seems to be flattened (due to abnormally low dopamine, perhaps brought on by over-stimulation), while his reaction to triggers related to his addiction is more pronounced. This may be because such triggers signal an opportunity for relief from the misery of low dopamine. In short, the brain doesn’t have individual brain circuits for cocaine use, alcohol consumption, gambling, porn use, and so on. Rather there is reward circuitry in the brain, which can become activated, depending upon a person’s learned behaviors. Anything that activates this circuitry intensely is potentially addictive. Unlike porn addiction, gambling (another behavioral addiction) has been studied in some depth, using brain imaging. Both gambling and cocaine use activate the same portions of the brain, even though one is a behavioral and one a substance addiction. An interesting aspect of that research is that heavy cocaine users prove to be less sensitive than the average person to visual cues for ordinary sexual stimulation.4 Is it possible that porn addicts (who are often confronted with highly-stimulating violent or shocking images) also grow less responsive to ordinary sexual stimulation? At least one porn user thinks so:

I think there is a correlation between porn viewing and erectile dysfunction. I am sure that if a study were actually done with honest men, we would see significant results. This is the type of issue people don't talk about. However, I think the porn industry is causing a huge problem in relationships and society in general. The porn industry takes advantage of the uninformed public by charging for the porn. Then the pharmaceutical companies sell us drugs to treat the side effects.

porn profits chart from AFA Interestingly, the Chinese Taoists noticed long ago that orgasm is potentially addictive. They believed it depleted one's physical reserves while having the opposite effect on sexual desire.5

After an immediate postcoital letdown, there is a rapid psychological rebound and an intensification of erotic interest [and wet dreams].

This insight also suggests a cure for sexual addiction: "When the ching is full, one is free of lustful thoughts." In other words, when one avoids setting off feelings of depletion (low dopamine), one's sexual frustration declines.

Making porn more addictive

It should be apparent that just as gambling is related to the evolutionary reward for “successful hunting and gathering,” porn addiction is related to the reward for “successfully engaging in fertilization behavior.” (Both the search for food/wealth and the desire for sex are driven by the reward circuitry of the brain.6) Of the two activities, the second is likely more important from an evolutionary perspective. Unlike ‘gathering,’ which may serve to attract potential mates (and aids survival), sexual stimulation has the direct potential for passing on one’s genes (an organism's reason for being, from an evolutionary perspective). In short, it is likely that from a brain-design perspective, porn is potentially an even more addictive activity than gambling. Dutch scientist Holstege used brain imaging to view the effects of ejaculation on the brain and discovered that the brain images were reminiscent of brain scans of those shooting heroin. His conclusion? We’re all sex addicts. It is only when we can successfully harness the more analytical part of the brain that we can control our sexual desire.7 Alas, porn producers see it as their job to insure that a porn user does not engage the analytical part of his brain. One way they do this is to use imagery that raises testosterone levels in the viewer. Testosterone tends to make one more lustful (testosterone raises dopamine, the craving neurochemical), more irascible, and less fully in control.8 Said one female-to-male transsexual who took testosterone in connection with a sex change,

I felt like I had to have sex once a day or I would die. ... I was into porn as a girl, but now I'm really into porn.

Porn images naturally raise testosterone, but domination themes increase it even more – perhaps because males are “rewarded” for striving for the alpha male position in a tribe, troop, or other group. Whatever the reason, the result is that domination themes in porn are as calculated as lacing cigarettes with extra nicotine; they make porn more addictive. (So are "risky" or "shocking" themes like anal sex and underage encounters. Both register as "super-stimulation" because of their shock value.) 'Boredom' signIt also appears that men have greater vulnerability to highly stimulating addictions. In a 2006 study men released markedly more dopamine than women in response to amphetamine.9 This helps explain why stimulating activities such as watching sports, off-track betting and violent porn hook men so easily. It seems that evolution favored selection of the genes that encourage men to pursue things. Once upon a time those things were primarily game, status, territory and mates. Today's pursuits include ever-present “opportunities” such as video games, betting, porn-induced orgasms. Men are programmed to pursue something. If they aren’t out on the savanna, they will seek stimulation elsewhere. The traits that served our ancestors are now creating distorted outcomes, such as corporate greed (think of Rupert Murdoch) and invading Iraq. This characteristic suggests that those who wish to recover from porn addiction need to keep themselves very busy and/or engage in a practice that promotes inner equilibrium, such as meditation, tai chi, sacred sexuality, and so forth.

Regaining balance

So what can men do? Here’s a report of a study that suggests that moderation protects the brain's vulnerable reward system.equilibrium10 When scientists fed rats sugar in a “binge pattern,” they found that within 10 days the rats had a measurable addiction to sugar. If they didn’t get it on schedule, they demonstrated actual physical withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, chattering teeth and anxiety. The scientists equated that those symptoms with lower-than-usual dopamine levels (brought about by higher-than-usual levels when the rats were bingeing on sugar). The scientists noted that:

"Without these neurotransmitters, the animal begins to feel anxious and wants to eat sweet food again." The rats exhibited behavioral changes even when sugar was replaced with the artificial sweetener saccharin. "It appears to be the sweetness, more than the calories, that fuels sugar dependence," says Hoebel. Although researchers still don't understand how people can curb their sugar cravings, they do know that withdrawal symptoms and dips in dopamine levels aren't evident when meals are moderate and regularly scheduled.

These rats showed an addiction and withdrawal response to a substance as harmless, and indeed vital to existence, as sugar. (Sugars are present even in fruits, vegetables and grains.) It is the excess, not the substance, that sets up the potential for addiction. Sex is as natural as sugar, but when we use it in a binge pattern, as many porn users do, then it has the potential for addiction. In one afternoon at the computer a man can view a cornucopia of erotica - more visual erotica than a hunter-gatherer ancestor would have seen in a lifetime. In short, a single afternoon of porn constitutes a binge from the primitive part of the brain’s perspective. Also note that the rats reacted to saccharine as if it were real sugar. Reward circuitry doesn't seem to be able to evaluate the differences between junk food sex and sex with a close, trusted companion, even though the latter has greater potential for a lasting sense of satisfaction.11 Finally, here’s a bit more science that points to why the cycle of high-dopamine-followed-by-low-dopamine can distort a porn user's thinking and leave him vulnerable to addiction. In 2006 scientists artificially lowered people’s dopamine levels and then tested them psychologically.12 Like addicts, they had difficulty resisting short-term rewards, despite long-term negative consequences. The control group, whose dopamine levels had not been lowered, had no such problems. The scientists described the affected subjects as suffering from

poor emotion-based decision making, characterized by shortsightedness, and thus difficulties resisting short-term reward, despite long-term negative consequences.

Again, intense over-stimulation of the reward center can lead to a drop off of dopamine, leaving one susceptible to the addiction cycle. Whether science formally labels the result an addiction, the underlying risk remains. The design of our brain's reward circuitry leaves us highly vulnerable to today's flood of junk food and junk visuals like porn. Both can affect us in a way that decreases our free will.

Withdrawal symptoms

Before leaving the issue of whether porn is addictive, let's consider these experiences:

  • A hundred porn viewers genuinely tried to stop viewing porn for two weeks. Over half were honest enough to admit that they failed.13
  • "My ex told me that he knew porn was an "addiction" for him. He used that term, and he said he wanted to stop and that because he couldn't porn had "ruined his life." He also showed me a scar from masturbating to the point of bleeding because he was unable to stop. stone carving of lust
    He said porn made him want to cheat all the time, and made him constantly fantasize about "nasty" sex with strangers, and young (teen) girls. The girls on some sites he viewed were so young that they did not yet have breasts.
    Pornography lead him to seek out in real life the graphic sex he was viewing online, and he ended up seeking escorts because of the ads that went along with the porn. He was also soliciting underage girls advertising their "adult" services online. He would ask them to participate in the illicit activities he'd seen online. He increasingly wanted to do what he saw, and he began treating all women like they were "submissive" (a big buzz word in porn and escorts ads) objects, including me.
    He would become agitated, irritable and mean when he could not look at porn because I was home, and he would become so angry and abusive due to frustration that I would unwittingly give him what he wanted by leaving. He would also abandon me places and run home and get online. He routinely had unprotected sex too - not thinking of reality or consequences like abortion, and STDs.
    I have spoken to many guys in various forums who claim that their main problem with porn is that they cannot stop even when they want to."14 NOTE: If your partner is abusive due to porn use, and unwilling to heal his dependence, realize that you did not cause it, you cannot control it, and you cannot cure it. The first step is his, and you are not obliged to stick around until he takes that step. Often addicts can be helped best by hitting bottom as swiftly as possible. Your departure may help him awaken to what is actually going on in his life.
  • 'Now that he's stopped looking at pornographic websites, Josh's body is suffering from withdrawal symptoms. For the last two weeks, Josh says he's been getting headaches and feeling irritable and anxious. "You wouldn't expect this because, you think, 'It's material that you choose to look at,'" he says. "But, I mean, drugs are things that you choose to take." '15
  • "I'd like to stress that undergoing this cleansing process is not easy and as with most addictions, abruptly putting a stop to it results in some sort of withdrawal syndrome. I don’t know if anyone can relate to this but in protest to the discontinued sensual stimulation induced by porn, my body reacts by: vomiting, muscular tremors, profuse sweating, indigestion, constipation, the urge to throw rocks at passing cars, and death. Well not really death but something really close to it."16

MYTH THREE: “Those who suggest porn is harmful are anti-sex and/or religious extremists.”

If a child only wanted to eat Twinkies, and the parent said, “that’s a really bad idea, Dear,” would that prove that the parent was anti-food? A parent wants the best possible man contemplating bombnourishment for a child over the long haul, and acquiring a stronger craving for Twinkies poses a risk to his wellbeing. Porn is like junk food. It can easily promote unhealthy isolation or shallow, risky relationships. It therefore interferes with relationships that have the greatest potential to nourish us. In this respect porn itself is anti-sex, even if it is pro-orgasm. Moreover, like junk food, porn can give rise to an unruly addiction. No one should be made to feel guilty for being attracted to Twinkies or porn. Both foods with high fat and sugar and sexual stimulation are predictable cravings, given the way our brains evolved over millions of years. Yet both have the potential to become unhealthy addictions because of the vulnerability of the reward circuitry of the brain. In short, both urges call for careful management, with regular, balanced nourishment, and an avoidance of substances and activities that over-stimulate the reward circuitry of the brain. Neither urge should frivolously be labeled "harmless." People who claim that those who are anti-porn are anti-sex appear to be locked into a “feast or famine” mentality where sex is concerned. In effect they are saying that others don’t like sex unless they also approve of the extreme behaviors strategically marketed to porn users. This point of view may simply be evidence of “addict-think.” An addict believes he must choose between “pain of withdrawal,” which a porn addict understandably projects outward and sees as unwarranted sexual repression, or “the relief of indulgence,” which he equates with unrestrained expression of his addiction. Those locked in the cycle have forgotten what equilibrium feels like, and with the help of the media's widespread tacit approval of porn use, their numbers grow daily. The porn industry is similar to the tobacco industry - driven by the addictions of its users. This demand, which both industries do everything in their power to increase, makes it hard to curb porn production. However, there is much that can be done to educate potential users and existing users about the true risks of using porn, what the symptoms of a porn addiction look like, and how to seek recovery if hooked. porn keyboard with P*O*R*N keys removedPerhaps those who are anti-porn, rather than being anti-sex, are justifiably concerned about the welfare of their fellow man.17 Delving into porn is not unlike hopping into a car without brakes. Yet, the porn user will not perceive his danger, because the primitive part of his brain will sound out a loud, unconditional “Go for it!” every time. Because such gut feelings arise at a subconscious level and humans are used to relying on them to make countless daily decisions, the porn user will be sure his urges reflect his will. Sadly, he may one day find that his will is no longer under his command, and that he is using porn to self-medicate - that is, to ease the misery of the withdrawal phase of the addiction cycle. At that point, he is hooked. Humanity could also benefit from a greater understanding of sacred sex practices. They offer a way to discover a sense of wellbeing by achieving inner balance. Sex can be managed by making love frequently, but with the emphasis on giving and relaxation, while avoiding pursuit of orgasm. Gradually, this practice allows lovers to slip out of the addictive cycle of high and low dopamine that is inherent sexual gratification. balanced male and female dancersPorn users may seem an unlikely group to apply these principles. Yet, those who realize that they are addicted are often more motivated than the average person to try something radically different. It may be that as humanity evolves in its understanding of sex, "the last shall be first." For an in-depth look at porn's effects on the brain, visit our sister-site Your Brain On Porn.