Over the last 10 years I have met an increasing number of men who have told me that they feel that watching pornography has become detrimental to their sexual functioning. They struggle to get aroused, to get or maintain an erection and to ejaculate with a partner. This trend has become widespread with increasing numbers of men accessing sex therapy through NHS clinics for sexual problems, attributed to an addiction to internet pornography. Sometimes the man is unable to get an erection at all without using pornography and this is referred to as Porn Induced Erectile Dysfunction (PIED).
These men have become desensitised to arousal with their partners.
What’s the problem with porn?
Many of these men have grown up having access to pornography from a young age and have used this as their main source of sex education. This is problematic because it sets up unrealistic expectations not only about male and female bodies which are often hair free and surgically enhanced but also about the subtleties of learning about desire and arousal through foreplay and communication. Penetrative sex will dominate often with multiple partners and there is little consideration for female sexual arousal and response. Ultimately pornography is a scripted choreographed performance, far removed from real life sex and this is proving detrimental to young people’s sexual develop.
How porn rewires the brain…
Gary Wilson, a freelance consultant and author has written an interesting book titled: Your Brain on Porn – Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction. He proposes that a growing body of research in neuroscience is confirming what many individuals have discovered for themselves – internet pornography can be very addictive and ultimately damaging. Wilson is clear to point out that he is an atheist. This is not a moral issue for him but an issue of science and behaviour.
When having sex or watching pornography, dopamine – a neurotransmitter – is released into a region of the brain responsible for emotion and learning, and gives the viewer a sense of craving. It also creates a sense of heightened pleasure by activating the rewards circuitry in our brains that make us feel good and plays an important role in memory. This is the same dopamine response that drug addicts experience. The next time the viewer gets the urge for more sexual pleasure, small surges of dopamine are released in the brain, reminding the user how good it was when they got their fix last time.
Are there long-term effects?
When viewing pornography norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin serotonin and endorphins all contribute to an experience that is highly focused and very stimulating. Over time this lays down a reward circuitry that results in the viewer becoming increasingly bonded to the source of pleasure and seeking out the high from this can become a compulsive behaviour. This is particularly challenging when a person wants to reduce or stop watching pornography, because the brain circuitry has been reinforced to repeat the addiction-forming behaviour.
Over time, the brain starts to moderate the dopamine that is released, by reducing the dopamine receptors needed for viewing pornography. In response to this, viewers will look for new and novel stimulation to get the increased levels of dopamine, which then gives them the same high. This is why so many users of pornography tell me they end up viewing really hardcore material, material that they can even find repulsive or shocking.
What can you do if you think you, or your partner, might have a problem?
The encouraging news is that whilst pornography addiction is on the increase so does the support for people caught in the trap. There are an increasing number of young men forming support forums for men and women (compulsive use of pornography is not just a male problem) to share their experiences and lots of advice about how to stop.
Gabe Deem is the founder of rebootnation.org
Alexander Rhodes has started NoFap.com
Noah Church has set up addictedtointernetporn.com
Gary Wilson www.yourbrainonporn.com
These websites take you through the steps to ‘Reboot’ your brain. This is the term used for recovery to internet pornography addiction. Reboot involves a period of time without any sort of artificial stimulation and masturbation and enables the neuro pathways that have developed whilst watching porn to wither away and the brain to return to its ‘original’ settings. This is not an easy process but it can be done and these forums are full of encouraging self-help stories.
Other sources of support
For specialist counselling for sex and porn addiction go to:
Gary Wilson, Your Brain on Porn – Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction, Commonwealth Publishing, 2014.
Paula Hall, Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction, Routledge, 2012.
Paula Hall, Sex Addiction: The Partner’s Perspective, Routledge, 2015.
This blog was first published in Sorted magazine