A Science-Based Evaluation of Porn – It’s Even Worse Than You Think

by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry  | From American Greatness

(Editor’s note: This article about pornography is not written by an Evangelical Christian. We want you to know that it is also not written from a faith perspective. But that is exactly why we think it is so important–this man is sounding the alarm on porn from a purely secular perspective. Outside of the deep moral concerns, this is a catalog of the harm porn is causing to individuals and society at large. We cannot afford to keep our heads in the sand about this. We want to thank Intercessors for America for bringing this article to our attention. Read thoughtfully and then leave a comment with how God is prompting you to pray. And please share this article.)

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They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. I think many readers of this article will respond with outrage, and many will see it says things they already knew to be true—and I think these two groups will largely overlap. The most powerful obstacle to confronting a destructive addiction is denial, and collectively we are in denial about pornography.

Since it seems somehow relevant, let me state at the outset that I am French. Every fiber of my Latin, Catholic body recoils at puritanism of any sort, especially the bizarre, Anglo-Puritan kind so prevalent in America. I believe eroticism is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind, prudishness a bizarre aberration, and not so long ago, hyperbolic warnings about the perils of pornography, whether from my Evangelical Christian or progressive feminist friends, had me rolling my eyes.

Not anymore. I have become deadly serious. A few years ago, a friend—unsurprisingly, a female friend—mentioned that there was strong medical evidence for the proposition that online pornography is a lot more dangerous than most people suspect. Since I was skeptical, I looked into it. I became intrigued and kept following the evolving science, as well as online testimonies, off and on. It didn’t take me long to understand that my friend is right. In fact, the more I delved into the subject, the more alarmed I became.

The central contention of this article is that, however we might feel morally about pornography in general, a number of features about pornography as it has actually existed for the past decade or so, with the emergence of “Tube” sites that provide endless, instant, high-definition video in 2006, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets since 2007, is fundamentally different from anything we’ve previously experienced.

A scientific consensus is emerging that today’s porn is truly a public health menace: its new incarnation combines with some evolutionarily-designed features of our brain to make it uniquely addictive, on par with any drug you might name—and uniquely destructive. The evidence is in: porn is as addictive as smoking, or more, except that what smoking does to your lungs, porn does to your brain.

The damage is real, and it’s profound. The scientific evidence has mounted: certain evolutionarily-designed features of our neurobiology not only mean that today’s porn is profoundly addictive, but that this addiction—which, at this point, must include the majority of all males—has been rewiring our brains in ways that have had a profoundly damaging impact on our sexuality, our relationships, and our mental health.

Furthermore, I believe that it is also having a far-reaching impact on our social fabric as a whole—while it is impossible to demonstrate any cause-and-effect relationship scientifically beyond a reasonable doubt when it comes to broad social trends, I believe the evidence is still compelling or, at least, highly suggestive.

Indeed, it is so compelling that I now believe that online porn addiction is the number one public health challenge facing the West today.

If the evidence is so strong and the damage so deep and pervasive, why is nobody talking about this? Well—why did it take so long for society to admit, and respond to, the evidence on the harms of smoking? In part because, even when emerging scientific evidence is quite solid, in the best of worlds there is always a lag between specialists making a discovery and academic gatekeepers embracing it, thereby granting it the social stamp of authority of scientific consensus. In part it is because, for many of us, our background assumption is that “porn” means something similar to Playboy and lingerie catalogues. In part, it is because of widespread (and, in my view, mistaken) assumptions about what important values like free speech, gender equality, and sexual health entail. In part it is because deep-monied interests have a stake in the status quo. And in very large parts, it is because most of us are now addicts—and like good addicts, we are in denial.

Porn Is the New Smoking

… The first step is to look at the evidence on the effect of porn on the chemistry of the brain. It is an understatement to say that mammals, particularly males, are wired by evolution to seek out sexual stimulation. When we get it, a deep part of our brain called the reward center, which we share with most mammals and whose job it is to make us feel good when we do things we are evolutionarily designed to seek, releases the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is sometimes called “the pleasure hormone,” but this is an oversimplification; it would be more accurate to call it “the desire hormone” or “the craving hormone.” Crucially, the release of dopamine starts not with the reward itself, but with the anticipation of reward. The reward center’s job is to make us crave those things which we are evolutionarily designed to crave—starting with sex and food.

It’s not exactly a scoop that humans are wired to seek out sexual stimulation, is it? No, but today’s internet porn plays differently with our reward system. The design of mammals’ reward system causes something scientists call the Coolidge Effect.

It is named after an old joke: President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady are separately visiting a farm. Mrs. Coolidge visits the chicken yard and sees the rooster mating a lot. She asks how often that happens, and is told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge responds, “Tell that to the president when he comes by.” Upon being told, the president asks, “Same hen every time?” “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

Hence, the Coolidge Effect. If you place a male rat in a box with several female rats in heat, the rat will immediately begin to mate with all the female rats, until it is utterly exhausted. The female rats, still wanting sexual congress, will nudge and lick the drained animal, but at some point he will simply stop responding—until you put a new female in the box, at which point the male will suddenly awaken and proceed to mate with the new female.

It’s a good (albeit corny) joke. But the Coolidge Effect is also one of the most robust findings in science. It has been replicated in all mammals, and most other animals (some species of cricket don’t have it). The evolutionary imperative is to spread genes as widely as possible, which makes the Coolidge Effect a very suitable adaptation. Neurochemically, this means that our brain produces more dopamine with novel partners. And—this is the crucial bit—on Tube sites, each new porn scene our brain interprets as a new partner. In a study, the same porn film was shown repeatedly to a group of men, and they found that arousal declined with each new viewing—until a new film was shown, at which point arousal shot right back up to the same level as when the men were shown the film the first time.

This is one of the critical ways in which today’s porn is fundamentally different from yesterday’s: unlike Playboy, online porn provides literally infinite novelty with no effort. With Tube sites and a broadband connection, you can have a new clip—what your brain interprets as a new partner—literally every minute, every second. And with laptops, smartphones and tablets, they can be accessed everywhere, 24/7, immediately.

This can be likened to what Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen called a superstimulus: something artificial that provides a stimulus that our brains are evolutionarily wired to seek, but at a level way beyond what we are evolutionarily prepared to cope with, wreaking havoc on our brains. Tinbergen found that female birds could spend their lives struggling to sit on giant fake, brightly-colored eggs while leaving their own, paler eggs to die. An increasing number of scientists believe the obesity epidemic is the result of a superstimulus: products like refined sugar are textbook examples of an artificial version of something we’re designed to seek, in a concentrated form that doesn’t exist in nature and that our bodies aren’t prepared for.

Evolution could not prepare our brains for the neurochemical rush of an always-on kaleidoscope of sexual novelty. This makes online porn uniquely addictive—just like a drug. Some scientists believe that the reason why chemical drugs can be so addictive is that they trigger our neurochemical reward mechanisms linked to sex; heroin addicts often claim that shooting up “feels like an orgasm.” A 2010 study on rats found that methamphetamine use activated the same reward systems and the same circuitry as sex.

(Along with dolphins and some higher primates, rats are the only mammals who mate for pleasure as well as reproduction; and humans’ sex reward systems are neurologically basically the same as rats’, since they are one of the least evolved parts of our brains. These factors make the little critters excellent test subjects for experiments on the neurochemistry of human sexuality. Yes, when it comes to sex, us men are basically rats. The more you know…)

What’s more, no one is born with a reward circuitry wired in their brain for alcohol, or cocaine—but everyone is born with a hardwired reward system for sexual stimulation. Addiction research has shown that not all people have a predisposition to addiction to chemical substances—only if you have a genetic predisposition can your brain’s reward system be tricked into mistaking a particular chemical for sex. This is why some people become alcoholics even after being exposed to moderate amounts of alcohol, while others (like me) can drink heavily without developing an addiction, or why some people can have just one cigarette at a party and then not worry about it while others (like me) must have their nicotine fix every day. By contrast, all of us have a predisposition to addiction to sexual stimulus.

Another well-established evolutionary mechanism is something called the bingeing effect. We evolved under conditions of resource scarcity, which meant it was evolutionarily advantageous to have a reward system programmed to give us a very strong drive to binge whenever we hit a motherlode of something. But putting mammals wired for the bingeing effect in an environment of abundance can wreak havoc on their brains. (The bingeing effect has also been linked to obesity.)

If our reward system interprets each new porn clip as the same thing as a new sexual partner, this means an unprecedented sort of stimulus for our brain. Not comparable to Playboy, or even ’90s-era dial-up downloads. Even decadent Roman emperors, Turkish sultans, and 1970s rock stars never had 24/7, one-click-away-access to infinitely many, infinitely novel sexual partners.

The combination of a pre-existing natural circuit for neurochemical reward linked to sexual stimulus and the possibility of immediate, infinite novelty—which, again, was not a feature of porn until 2006—means that a user can now keep his dopamine levels much higher, and for much longer periods of time, than we can possibly hope our brains to handle without real and lasting damage.

Theory vs. Practice in Today’s Porn

So, that’s the theory. What about the practice? The evidence has been gradually piling up; at this point, we can say that the scientific evidence that online porn works on our brains just like cocaine or alcohol or tobacco, while recent, is very strong.

A consensus has been slow to emerge in part because of a broader issue: addiction researchers traditionally have been reluctant to use “addiction” as a label for behaviors that don’t involve chemical substances, understandably so since our therapeutic culture tends to put many things under the label “addiction.” We all collectively rolled our eyes when prominent men felled by #MeToo piously blamed “sex addiction” and announced their intention to go to rehab, and we were right to.

But our cultural need to put all sorts of dysfunctional behavior under the addiction label (“shopping addiction”!) is not the same thing as the science of addiction, and advances in brain imaging techniques have tilted the scales in favor of the view that addiction is a brain disease, not a chemical disease.

landmark 2016 paper  by Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in the New England Journal of Medicine, went over new neuroscience and brain imaging data and concluded that it supports the “brain disease model of addiction.” The scientific definition of addiction is shifting to one that looks at specific things happening inside the brain causing people to exhibit certain patterns of behavior, as opposed to whether a patient is hooked on a particular chemical compound.

Online porn fits this model. Slowly, the evidence has been piling up, and it looks, by now, overwhelming: porn does do the same things to our brains as addictive substances. …

Almost all of the neuroscience studies on this topic find the same result: online porn use does the same things to our brains as drug addiction.

But don’t take my word for it. Scientists have done many reviews of the literature. Only one review that I am aware of, from 2014, disputes the idea of online porn addiction; it’s the only review that doesn’t look at brain and brain-scan studies, and combines studies from before the Tube era and after. Meanwhile, a thorough 2015 review of the neuroscience literature on internet porn found that “neuroscientific research supports the assumption that underlying neural processes (of online porn addiction) are similar to substance addiction” and that “Internet pornography addiction fits into the addiction framework and shares similar basic mechanisms with substance addiction.” Another 2015 review found that “Neuroimaging studies support the assumption of meaningful commonalities between cybersex addiction and other behavioral addictions as well as substance dependency.” A 2018 review found the same thing:

Recent neurobiological studies have revealed that compulsive sexual behaviors are associated with altered processing of sexual material and differences in brain structure and function. … existing data suggest neurobiological abnormalities share communalities with other additions such as substance use and gambling disorders.

In January 2019, a team of researchers published a paper straightforwardly titled “Online Porn Addiction: What We Know and What We Don’t—A Systematic Review” which concluded, “as far as we know, a number of recent studies support (problematic use of online pornography) as an addiction.” It’s hard to call this anything but overwhelming evidence.

The studies have been done in numerous countries, and using various methods, from neuro-imaging to surveys to experiments and, to varying degrees, they all say the same thing.

All right, you might respond, online porn addiction may be a real thing, but does that mean we need to freak out? After all, smoking and heroin will kill you, serious cannabis addiction will melt your brain, alcohol addiction will wreak havoc in your life—compared to that, how bad can porn addiction be?

The answer, it turns out, is: pretty bad.

Let’s start with what we all know about addiction: you need more and more of your drug to get less and less of a kick; this is the cycle which makes addiction so destructive. The reason for this is that addiction simply rewires the circuitry of our brain.

 

When the reward center of our brain is activated, it releases chemicals that make us feel good. Mainly dopamine, as we’ve seen, and also a protein called DeltaFosB. Its function is to strengthen the neural pathways that dopamine travels, deepening the neural connection between the buzz we get and whatever we’re doing or experiencing when we get it. DeltaFosB is important for learning new skills: if you keep practicing that golf swing until you get it right, you feel a burst of joy—that’s dopamine—while the accompanying release of DeltaFosB helps your brain remember how to do it again. It’s a very clever system.

But DeltaFosB is also responsible for making addiction possible. Addictive drugs activate the same nerve cells activated during sexual arousal, which is why we derive pleasure from them. But we become addicted to them when DeltaFosB, essentially, has reprogrammed our brain’s reward system, originally written to make us seek out sex (and food), to make it seek out that chemical instead. This is why addiction is so powerful: the addict’s urge is really our most powerful evolutionary urge, hijacked. And since online pornography is a sexual stimulus to begin with, we are all predisposed, and it takes much less rewiring for consumption to cause addiction.

As we’ll see, this neurobiological feature of our brains has far-reaching implications for the effect porn addiction has on us: on our sexuality, on our relationships, and even on society at large.

Porn Kills the Urge for Real Sex

Porn is a sexual stimulus, but it is not sex. Notoriously, heroin addicts eventually lose interest in sex: this is because their brains are rewired so that their sex reward system is reprogrammed to seek out heroin rather than sex. In the same way, as we consume more and more porn, which we must since it is addictive and we need more to get the same kick, our brain is rewired so that what triggers the reward system that is supposed to be linked to sex is no longer linked to sex—to a human in the flesh, to touching, to kissing, to caressing—but to porn.

Which is why we are witnessing a phenomenon which, as best as anyone can tell, is totally unprecedented in all of human history: an epidemic of chronic erectile dysfunction (ED) among men under 40. The evidence is earth-shattering: since the Kinsey report in the 1940s, studies have found roughly the same, stable rates of chronic ED: less than 1 percent among men younger than 30, less than 3 percent in men aged 30-45.

As of this writing, at least ten studies published since 2010 report a tremendous rise in ED. Rates of ED among men under 40 ranged from 14 percent to 37 percent, and rates of low libido from 16 percent to 37 percent. No variable related to youthful ED has meaningfully changed since then, except for one: the advent of on-demand video porn in 2006. It’s worth repeating: we went from less than 1 percent of erectile dysfunction in young men to 14 to 37 percent, an increase of several orders of magnitude…

Imagine that we discovered that some bacteria were causing ED to jump from 1 percent to 14 to 37 percent—there would be a national panic, cable news networks would go wall-to-wall, Congress would be holding hearings every day, state and federal prosecutors would be on a hunt for perpetrators to make the Mueller and Starr investigations look like an Amazon customer satisfaction survey. Collectively, we would take very seriously the alarming possibility that anything that could cause something like this was bound to have other, likely profound, effects on human health and social life.

Last year, an article in The Atlantic went viral after it decried a “sex recession” among young people. Young people are simply having less and less sex. The author, Kate Julian, noted that the phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States but is prevalent across the West—Sweden’s health minister called its declining sex rates (even Sweden is having less sex!) “a political problem,” in part because it risks negatively impacting the country’s fertility.

Julian also noted that Japan has been a precursor, entering its sex recession earlier—and that it is also “among the world’s top producers and consumers of porn, and the originator of whole new porn genres” and “a global leader in the design of high-end sex dolls.” To her credit, she seriously looked into porn as a probable cause for the sex recession, although none of the voluminous subsequent commentary on the piece I can recall reading discussed this potential cause.

Now, a conservative like myself might think that young people having less sex might not be such a bad thing! And it is true that over the same period, pathologies such as teen pregnancies and teen STDs have declined. Except that whatever the causes, I think we can safely rule out a religious revival or a sudden upsurge of traditional values. Whatever we might believe men should do about their sexual urges, if young healthy men aren’t having sexual urges at all in massive, unprecedented numbers, that is surely a sign of something wrong with their health.

Warping the Brain

…  brains have been warped by porn.

Because porn does warp the brain. The basic mechanism of porn addiction, you’ll recall, is that when we watch porn, we get a jolt of dopamine, and when we do, we get a follow-up dose of DeltaFosB that rewires our brain to link sexual desire with porn—but not just to any porn. To the porn we watch.

Remember the Coolidge Effect: the thing that causes a veritable flood of dopamine and makes online porn a “superstimulus” that breaks our brains, unlike Uncle Ted’s Playboy collection, is novelty.

Like all addictions, online porn has diminishing returns. We need more. We need new. And the easiest way to get it—especially on Tube sites, which, like YouTube and Netflix, “helpfully” provide suggestions all around the video you’re watching, generated by algorithms programmed to keep viewers glued and coming back—is new genres. Just a click away. And there’s infinitely many.

In 2014, researchers at the Max Planck Institute used fMRI to look at the brains of porn users. They found that more porn use correlated with less grey matter in the reward system, and less reward circuit activation while viewing sexual photos—in other words, porn users were desensitized. “We therefore assume that subjects with high pornography consumption require ever stronger stimuli to reach the same reward level,” the authors wrote.

Another study, this time from Cambridge University in 2015, also used fMRI, this time to compare the brains of sex addicts and healthy patients. As the accompanying press release put it, the researchers found that “when the sex addicts viewed the same sexual image repeatedly, compared to the healthy volunteers they experienced a greater decrease of activity in the region of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known to be involved in anticipating rewards and responding to new events. This is consistent with ‘habituation’, where the addict finds the same stimulus less and less rewarding.”

But it’s not just sex addicts who show this behavior. When the healthy patients repeatedly were shown the same porn video, they got less and less aroused; but, “when they then view a new video, the level of interest and arousal goes back to the original level.” In other words, it doesn’t take much for the addiction mechanism to kick in, since we’re already genetically predisposed to seek out sexual stimulus.

The bottom line is the syndrome doesn’t just make us crave more, it makes us crave novelty. And what kind of novelty, specifically? Empirically, it’s not just any kind of novel. In practice, what most triggers the Coolidge Effect is what produces surprise, or shock. In other words, like water flowing downhill, we are drawn to porn that is increasingly taboo—specifically, more violent and degrading. …

But the key phenomenon is that virtually all pornography, very much including the “vanilla stuff,” has grown more extreme, and specifically more violent, and specifically more misogynistic and degrading towards women. Oh, nonviolent pornography still exists, if you can find it. What used to be mainstream is now niche, and vice versa.

 … The point is simply to say that something has changed, seriously, dramatically, and seemingly overnight.

We are told that people’s sexual proclivities are hard-wired from birth or perhaps from early childhood experiences, but science says they can and do change. In a famous experiment, researchers sprayed female rats—yes, rats again—with the odor of a dead rat body, which rats instinctively flee from, and introduced virgin male rats. The male rats mated with the females nonetheless—so far, so mammalian. But, crucially, when those same male rats were later placed in a cage with various toys, they preferred to play with the ones that smelled like death. The sexual stimulus had rewired their reward system. In a scientific survey of online porn users in Belgium, 49 percent “mentioned at least sometimes searching for sexual content or being involved in [online sexual activities] that were not previously interesting to them or that they considered disgusting.”

Once you are addicted to online porn, the thing that provides the biggest dopamine jolt is whatever is most shocking. And the reward cycle means you need a bigger dopamine boost every time—something newer, more shocking. And each time, DeltaFosB rewires your brain, creating and strengthening the Pavlovian mechanism by which you do become attracted to those shocking images, and in the process overwriting the neural pathways which link normal sex—you know, nonviolent, non-incestuous—to the reward center. …

Changing What We Crave

In 2007, two researchers tried to do an experiment, initially unrelated to porn, studying sexual arousal in men in general. They tried to induce the subjects’ arousal in a lab setting by showing them video porn, but ran into a (to them) shocking problem: half of the men, who were aged 29 on average, couldn’t get aroused. The horrified researchers eventually identified the problem: they were showing them old-fashioned porn—the researchers presumably were older and less internet-savvy than their subjects.

“Conversations with the subjects reinforced our idea that in some of them a high exposure to erotica seemed to have resulted in a lower responsivity to ‘vanilla sex’ erotica and an increased need for novelty and variation, in some cases combined with a need for very specific types of stimuli in order to get aroused,” they wrote.

Incredibly, porn can even affect our sexual orientation. A 2016 study found that “many men viewed sexually explicit material (SEM) content inconsistent with their stated sexual identity. It was not uncommon for heterosexual-identified men to report viewing SEM containing male same-sex behavior (20.7 percent) and for gay-identified men to report viewing heterosexual behavior in SEM (55.0 percent).” Meanwhile, in its “2018 Year in Review,” PornHub disclosed that “interest in ‘trans’ (aka transgender) porn saw significant gains in 2018, in particular with a 167 percent increase in searches by men and more than 200 percent with visitors over the age of 45 (becoming the fifth most searched terms by those aged 45 to 64).”

When this phenomenon is discussed at all, the prevailing narrative is that these men are repressed and discover their “true” sexual orientation through porn—except that the men report that the attraction goes away when they quit online porn. . . .

Porn Also Affects Relationships 

Let’s pause and review: we’ve established that today’s porn is neurochemically addictive like a hard drug, and that this addiction is having a widespread and alarming impact on sexuality, from never-before-seen rates of erectile dysfunction to the growing popularity of extreme fetishes to (potentially) the “sex recession.” That’s surely bad.

But, to play devil’s advocate, is it really that bad?

Alcoholism or heroin addiction, say, will not just wreck someone’s sexuality—which they will—but their entire lives and those of people around them. Directly and indirectly, they are responsible for countless deaths every year. It sounds like we should be concerned about porn, sure, but should we really hit the panic button?

Well, one preliminary answer is that porn addiction affects our lives beyond just sexuality—which makes intuitive sense since, after all, sex touches all areas of our lives.

First, porn affects addicts’ views of women. The idea that porn is “just a fantasy”—that watching degrading porn doesn’t make one more likely to develop misogynistic or sexual pathological tendencies any more than watching a Jason Bourne movie means you’re likely to start punching and shooting people—may or may not have been true in the Playboy era, but it’s definitely not true now.

A 2015 literature review looked at 22 studies from seven different countries and found a link between consumption of online pornography and sexual aggression.

An academic review of no less than 135 peer-reviewed studies found “consistent evidence” linking online porn addiction to, among other things, “greater support for sexist beliefs,” “adversarial sexist beliefs,” a “greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women,” as well as “a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.”

To repeat: a diminished view of women’s … morality, and humanity. What have we done?

 

Given all of that, from endemic ED to increased sexual fetishism and even misogyny, it should come as no surprise that porn addiction is having a negative impact on relationships.

A 2017 meta-analysis of 50 studies, collectively including more than 50,000 participants from 10 countries, found a link between pornography consumption and “lower interpersonal satisfaction outcomes,” whether in cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal surveys, or laboratory experiments.

Another study of nationally representative data found that porn use was a strong predictor of “significantly lower levels of marital quality”—the second strongest predictor of all the variables in the survey. This effect showed after the authors controlled for confounding variables like dissatisfaction with sex life and marital decision-making: this suggests that porn use correlates with marital unhappiness not because spouses who become unhappy turn to porn, but rather that porn is the cause of the unhappiness.

Yet another study, using representative data from the General Social Survey, polling thousands of American couples every year from 2006 to 2014, found that “beginning pornography use between survey waves nearly doubled one’s likelihood of being divorced by the next survey period.” Most terrifying, the study found the group whose probability of divorce increased the most was couples who initially reported being “very happy” in their marriage and began using porn afterward. …

The most obvious negative impact is on body image and self-esteem. A majority of women in one study described the discovery that their man uses porn as “traumatic“; they not only felt less desirable, they reported feelings of lower self-worth. Some women can experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2016 survey of men aged 18 to 29 found the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image. Further, higher pornography use was negatively associated with enjoying sexually intimate behaviors with a partner.

We can’t prove a direct causal link between porn addiction and the “sex recession,” but come on: even putting aside skyrocketing ED, given what porn addiction does to male sexuality, from the female perspective, sex with a male porn addict sounds like an experiment you don’t want to repeat—and at this point, it’s a fair bet that most young men are porn addicts.

Given all this, while we don’t have enough research yet to make a scientifically-conclusive judgment, I highly suspect a link between male (especially teen) porn use and the widely-reported and sudden increase in depression and other neuropathologies among young women. Writing as a former teenage male, I will posit that even in the best of times most teenage males are not the best kinds of human beings, especially for teenage girls; I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to be a teenage girl when close to 100 percent (as we might safely assume) of the potential relationship pool is porn-addicted.

Not that pornography only affects sexual and romantic relationships. Porn causes loneliness. In part, this is because it is true of all addiction, which typically causes powerful feelings of shame that make us want to avoid or even push away other people. And addiction causes us to engage in antisocial behavior: though I wasn’t able to find a study, there are many online testimonies of people losing their job because they couldn’t stop themselves visiting porn sites at work.

According to a study by Ana Bridges, a University of Arkansas psychologist who focuses on porn’s impact on relationships, online porn users report “increased secrecy, less intimacy and also more depression.”

Porn Addiction Causes Brain Damage

Once we understand today’s porn, it makes intuitive sense that it would negatively affect relationships, given its impact on sexuality, views of women, and the impact of any addiction on social life and well-being generally. But what about its effects on the rest of human life? Again, porn is the new smoking—and what smoking does to your lungs, porn does to your brain. How could that not affect everything we do?

How does that work? Remember, compulsive porn use causes the release of the substance DeltaFosB, whose job is to rewire our brains. This is how over time, addiction doesn’t just make someone crave more and more of something, but also insidiously turns him into a different person.

Perhaps the most striking and far-reaching discovery in neuroscience over the past 20 years has been the idea of neuroplasticity. Scientists used to think of the brain as a kind of machine, like an extremely intricate clock or circuit board, whose structure is basically settled once and for all, at birth or at some time in early childhood.

It turns out that our brain is much more complex and organic. It is constantly changing, constantly rewiring itself, constantly transforming. The various functions of our brains are performed by neural pathways, and the analogy is that they are like muscles. Aristotle was right—you are what you repeatedly do. That is largely good news, but there is one downside: neuroplasticity is a competitive process. When you “work out” one part of your brain intensely, it will essentially steal resources from nearby areas of the brain to “pump itself up” if these are left dormant.

It’s easy enough to see how that works out when someone suffers from addiction. Every time you light up, or shoot up, or watch porn, that is like an intense “workout” for one set of neural “muscles”—which drains resources away from the rest of the brain.

Specifically, the release of DeltaFosB that comes with porn use weakens our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is everything the rat brain is not; it is because humans have a big prefrontal cortex that we have civilization. This is the thinking part of the brain, which calculates risk, controls impulses, allows us to project ourselves into the future and therefore plan, and handles abstract and rational thinking. In terms of Plato’s famous chariot allegory, which describes reason as a charioteer whose job is to lead the two unruly horses, Thymoides, our temperament, and Epithymetikon, our base instincts, the prefrontal cortex is the charioteer.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that addicts develop “hypofrontality,” the technical term for an impaired prefrontal cortex. People with hypofrontality exhibit lower amounts of gray matter, abnormal white matter, and a reduced ability to process glucose (which is the brain’s fuel) in the prefrontal cortex.

Hypofrontality manifests in a decline in what psychologists call executive function. As the name executive function suggests, this is a pretty important feature of our minds. Executive function includes our decision-making faculties, our ability to control impulses, to evaluate risk, reward, and danger. Yes, just that. Scientists don’t fully understand how addiction causes hypofrontality, but it makes intuitive sense that the two should be linked. Addiction is such a bane because even as our urges for the next hit get stronger, our capacity to control urges weakens. The horses get carried away even as the charioteer’s arms go weak.

I have found close to 150 brain studies that find evidence of hypofrontality in internet addicts—which, it’s safe to assume, is nearly synonymous with internet porn addicts, at least for males—and more than a dozen that have found signs of hypofrontality in sex addicts or porn users.

That’s right: porn addiction literally atrophies the most important part of our brain.

A 2016 study split current porn users into two groups: one group who abstained from their favorite food for three weeks, and one group who abstained from porn for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, porn users were less able to delay gratification. Because this is a study with a randomly-assigned control group, it’s solid evidence for a causal link (rather than just a correlation) between porn use and lower self-control.

Here are some other cognitive problems that scientific studies have linked to porn use: decreased academic performance, decreased working memory performance, decreased decision-making ability, higher impulsivity and lower emotion regulation, higher risk aversion, lower altruism, higher rates of neurosis. These are all symptoms related to hypofrontality.

Other studies have found links between porn and high stress, social anxiety, romantic attachment anxiety and avoidance, narcissism, depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, and poor self-esteem. These aren’t direct symptoms of hypofrontality, but it’s easy to see how someone with impaired executive function would be at greater risk of developing any number of those pathologies. The studies generally find that the more porn use, the greater these problems.

So neuroplasticity means that porn addiction, by strengthening certain neural pathways in the brain, weakens others, especially those related to executive function.

But there’s another alarming implication for what neuroplasticity means for porn addiction: while we now know that, at any age, the brain is much more plastic than we previously thought, there is still no doubt that, all else being equal, the younger we are the more plastic our brains. You can learn, say, a foreign language or a musical instrument at any age, but there is a level of skill that you will only ever achieve if you start young. Our brains are always plastic, but they are still much more plastic when we are young. Furthermore, when certain pathways are solidified at a young age, they tend to stay that way, because while it is still possible to change them later on in life, it is much harder.

The Impact of Porn on the Child Brain

This brings us to another enormous taboo related to porn: say whatever you will about adults consuming it, in theory we all agree that children shouldn’t be exposed to it—yet in reality, we all know just as well that they are. In prodigious amounts. Just as we know that the porn sites do absolutely nothing to prevent kids from consuming it.

The statistics are terrifying. According to a 2013 Spanish study, “63 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls were exposed to online pornography during adolescence,” including “bondage, child pornography, and rape.” According to the British Journal of School Nursing, “children under 10 now account for 22 percent of online porn consumption under 18.”

A 2019 literature review found the following negative effects, drawing from more than 20 studies: “regressive attitudes towards women,” “sexual aggression,” “social maladjustment,” “sexual preoccupation,” and “compulsivity.” One study found “an increase in incidents of peer sex abuse among children and that the perpetrator commonly had been exposed to pornography in many of these incidents.” The review also found that “studies of girls’ exposure to pornography as children suggest that it has an impact on their constructs of self.” Among other negative effects, studies of teens more specifically found a “relationship between pornography exposure and … social isolation, misconduct, depression, suicidal ideation, and academic disengagement.”

Furthermore, “children of both sexes who are exposed to pornography are more likely to believe that the acts they see, such as anal sex and group sex, are typical among their peers.”

It’s harder to show a direct causal link scientifically, but it still stands to reason that there should be a link between the porn explosion and the widely documented explosion in mental health problems among teenagers.

While the causes of what’s been called a mental health crisis among teenagers are hotly disputed, the actual facts are not: according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an official government survey which looks at a very broad cross-section of Americans—over 600,000— “from 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent. Depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017. Twice as many 22- to 23-year-olds attempted suicide in 2017 compared with 2008, and 55 percent more had suicidal thoughts,” writes San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge.

So the teenage mental health crisis began around 2009, right after smartphones and Tube sites changed the nature of porn. Again, not scientific proof of a causal link, but certainly suggestive.

The bottom line is this: given what we know porn does to the brain, and given that we know that the younger the brain the more plastic it is, it is a near certainty that whatever porn addiction does to adults, it’s going to do to minors—except much worse. This is something we must conclude simply from knowing about the basic facts of human neurobiology, even without taking into account any negative psychological effects of exposure of children to hardcore pornography.

 

Might Porn Cause Societal Collapse?

[We excerpted a lengthy section detailing what has happened in Japan.] But what we do know is that large numbers of our civilization are hooked on a drug that has profound effects on the brain, which we mostly don’t understand, except that everything we understand is negative and alarming. And we are just ten years into the process. If we don’t act, pretty soon the next generation will be a generation that largely got hooked on this brain-eating drug as children, whose brains are uniquely vulnerable. It seems perfectly reasonable and consistent with the evidence as we have it to be deeply alarmed. Indeed, what seems supremely irrational is our bizarre complacency about something which, at some level, we all know to be happening.

A Massive Experiment On Our Brains

Another way to approach the question of how to respond is to note that we—the entire advanced world, and soon the whole world, as the prices of smartphones and broadband in developing countries keep dropping—are running a massive, unprecedented experiment on our own brains. Scientists do understand a few things about the brain, but only a few. The human brain is by far the most complex thing in the known Universe, and we are subjecting half of the human population at best, to an unprecedented kind of drug. …

It took a long time between the moment when the evidence for smoking’s link to lung cancer and a whole host of negative health outcomes became incontrovertible. And it took a long time between that moment and when we as a society accepted that evidence and decided to act. This was in part due to legitimate scientific questions early on, in part due to the influence of greedy, monied interests, and in part because of misguided pseudo-libertarian rhetoric. But also in part because so many people were reluctant to admit that their beloved, pleasurable habit, was in reality a destructive addiction—and they were all the more reluctant to admit it because they knew, deep down, that it was the truth.

I still smoke. But, at least, I have stopped lying to myself about why I do it. It’s time we as a society stopped lying to ourselves about what has become the biggest threat to public health.

By |2020-02-21T02:55:20+11:00February 21st, 2020|Children, Family, Sexual Integrity, World|1 Comment

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  1. […] bigger hits to receive the same effect. Dopamine encourages us to seek what will bring pleasure and rewires the brain so that we remember the things we need for […]

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