How Porn Rewires Your Brain

Porn addiction is a subset of sex addictions. It is when a person loses the ability to control whether they watch porn or not, despite the negative consequences. The addict may or may not masturbate or use toys; in fact, they may not even orgasm or enjoy watching it.

Everyone has a “reward centre” in their brain that releases a chemical called dopamine when aroused by situations, experiences, visual stimulation, food, or emotions. While it is a naturally occurring chemical, most abused substances will trigger a dopamine response without anything external happening. In regards to porn, it means that a person will have a burst of dopamine without even leaving the couch or computer screen. This starts to rewire the pathways and, like any other dopamine releasing agent, it becomes tolerant and requires more and more stimulation.

As this altered state of the reward centre continues to demand stimulation, a person is compelled to seek out more of the activity that discharged the dopamine. When the tolerance level is reached, much like with drugs, the body searches for a “higher dose” of dopamine release. This is often when people start watching porn that is normally against their values (ex. videos of abuse, sadomasochism, humiliation, orgies, rape based fantasies, etc.). They may find themselves seeking out their stronger “drug of choice” through other means like chat lines, bathhouses, fetish parties, and online. When the addict forms an intimate connection with things like this, it hijacks the brain and forms a bond to the stimulation, then diminishes the connection and bond that was meant for the partner. Those changes combined with overstimulation of the reward centre start to desensitize “normal” values and beliefs, and start to normalize sexual behaviours of violent nature and objectification of others.

This becomes unmanageable and the addict may start to act in deceptive ways. They might set up fake email accounts, start to avoid family or social functions, spend more time on the internet, become moody, show a lack or decrease in intimacy with their partner, and their sexual habits may change drastically. Perhaps the person wants or does it harder, faster, different, or rougher and out of character.

“As tolerance to sexual excitement develops, it no longer satisfies; only by releasing a second drive, the aggressive drive, can the addict be excited. And so—for people psychologically predisposed, there are scenes of angry sex, men ejaculating insultingly on women’s faces, angry anal penetration, etc…Sites show us the Oedipus complex is alive; spanking sites sexualise a childhood trauma; and many other oral and anal fixations.” (Source)

Professionals believe that sex addictions are often formed in response to mental health states. The desire to escape a harsh reality may lead an addict to self-medicate with substance abuse, whether it’s porn, drugs, or alcohol. It is used in response to stress, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or unresolved trauma from neglect or abuse, either during childhood or adult life.

Studies show that those who are in their young teens are at higher risk to develop a porn addiction, therefore making them a higher risk for sex addictions.  This can lead to poor relationship skills, distorted views of people, values, and the world; increased violence toward women, and using other substances during sexual intercourse. Teenage girls are especially at risk for low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges due to the overwhelming pressure of fulfilling the false sense of reality of women that is often found in porn.

Addiction 101 states that “research indicates environmental factors are equally at play. For instance, if someone was neglected or abused in childhood, their risk of addiction jumps, just as it does if they were exposed to addictive substances or behaviours early in life. (The younger the person is when he or she first uses an addictive substance or starts an addictive behaviour, the greater the risk of developing an addiction.)” 

Addiction causes a breakdown of relationships, families, employment, and other circles. Individuals with the addiction also are at risk to poor relationships, lack of intimacy, physical and emotional risks, depression, anxiety, legal issues, physical injury due to compulsive masturbation, and sexual dysfunction. It’s important to remember that no matter how much they have to lose, a person with an active addiction may not be able to control themselves. Almost every addict has tried to cut down, control, or eliminate their addiction which can lead to feelings of failure, shame, and guilt when unsuccessful.

In a survey performed by Porn Addiction 101 of wives of identified sex addicts, 70% of women met the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition embodied by feelings of powerlessness, invasive thoughts and memories, and avoidance of triggers [brought on by their partner’s addiction.]” They often suffer from low self-esteem/worth and feel angry, lonely, depressed, betrayed, rejected, isolated, shameful, and humiliated. However, with the proper supports and professional help, the active addiction can turn into active recovery.

A woman once told me she felt out of control, but whenever she tried to find help, she was either judged or encouraged to “explore her sexuality and new sense of freedom.” This woman was using sex as a form of validation, and her addiction got to the point where no partner could even come close to activating her reward centre. The problem with this particular addiction is that you can’t just remove it and be in active recovery. Like food and water, we all need intimacy and connection to survive, so we need to discover the root and cause of the addiction, then figure out how to work intimacy back into our lives. Eventually, she was able to rewire her reward centre to work on intimacy and not the act of sex itself.

Throughout my research, it was challenging for me to understand the gender divide that exists in this topic. Men are often portrayed as the “sexual deviants,” and women are often ignored in serious matters such as this. If a woman identifies as having one of the sex addictions, if it is taken seriously, she is told it must be a medical reason and therefore a medication will help stop it. If a man identifies as having one, he is quickly referred to see a professional for help. When she reaches out to her partner or friends, it is often mocked as women cannot have a sex addiction and men are viewed as having a normal relationship with sex.  

Lastly, it is important to note, whether you are the person with the addiction, a family member or friend, recovery is always possible. I shared with you just a fragment of what sex/porn addiction entails. If you or a loved one (male or female) needs more information, please reach out for help— you do not have to live a double life anymore— there is help for you to redefine what recovery looks like to you.

Jennifer Hearn BSW
Counsellor
Aurora Recovery Centre

 

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