The issue of whether porn addiction is real has produced a storm of controversy. Yet all this noise may be distracting us from a graver risk to healthy sexuality: sexual conditioning of adolescents.
I monitor a number of popular online recovery forums. I have read self-reports of thousands of otherwise healthy young men who heal severe symptoms, including sexual dysfunctions (anorgasmia, delayed ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, loss of attraction to real people) by removing a single variable: Internet porn use.
Although addiction is sometimes assumed to be their only risk, I now believe unanticipated sexual conditioning causes many of their symptoms. Some can quit with ease and have only mild withdrawal symptoms. Yet they need many months to achieve normal sexual function with real partners.
So far, almost no research has investigated sexual conditioning directly. This means that polls asking men about “addiction to porn” may produce results that still leave us all somewhat in the dark.
Certainly, a lot of young men know they have problems they suspect are porn-related. According to a nationwide 2014 poll, 33 percent of males ages 18 to 30 think they may be addicted or are unsure if they may be addicted.
Might there be even more who have never considered that porn might be related to their symptoms? Fifty-four percent of 16- to 21-year-old Canadian males now report sexual problems: problems with orgasm (11 percent), low libido (24 percent) and, most commonly, erectile dysfunction (27 percent). Those percentages are higher than in middle-aged men, and young males now report more sexual problems than females.
Other recent studies also reveal alarming rates of erectile problems in men under 40, even within the U.S. military. So far, researchers have not inquired about porn use.
Why might today’s young men be reporting addiction and sexual dysfunctions in unprecedented numbers? Two reasons: High-speed Internet porn is potent brain-training and ubiquitous, and youngsters tend to start watching it when their brains are most prone to addiction and sexual conditioning.
Internet porn is not like porn of the past. It’s what Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen termed a “supernormal stimulus,” an exaggerated imitation of a reward we all evolved to seek: sexual arousal.
From a neuroscience perspective, something epic occurred in 2006. Galleries of short porn clips appeared featuring the hottest few minutes of an unending supply of videos. Sexual stimulation releases the highest natural levels of dopamine, and these “tube sites” (they stream instantly like YouTube videos) could amplify and prolong arousal with surprising, shocking and anxiety-producing content, all of which release dopamine. Searching and seeking for the “right” clip, as well as anticipation of what the next click will bring, also raises dopamine. This ability to click for a dopamine hit every time arousal drops was not possible with Playboy, VHS, or dial-up.
Chronically elevated dopamine is the trigger for the brain changes that lead to addiction. This well-researched and established set of changes is behind the key indications of addiction: hyperreactivity to cues, declining response to everyday pleasure, decreased ability to handle stress, and loss of self-control.
However, what some of us haven’t realized is that drug addiction only occurs because it hijacks mechanisms that evolved for other functions — above all, for sex. Recently, scientists learned that first sex and amphetamine both condition the brain to “remember and repeat” by altering the identical nerve cells in the brain’s reward center. Other natural rewards are enticing, but they don’t produce the same “bang.” That’s why we know the difference between climaxes and cookies, and which to make top priority!
An adolescent brain’s job is to wire up everything connected with sex so he can eventually reproduce successfully. To this end, his baseline dopamine is somewhat lower than in adults, making daily life dull. Yet his response to thrills is much greater than adults’. That is, he releases more dopamine for novelty, sexual excitement, searching and surprise — all elements of online porn.
A 13-year-old can line up 20 tabs of crazy 3-minute clips and click from one to the next, keeping his dopamine elevated indefinitely. And he can do this every day, with every masturbation session, for years before his first sexual encounter.
He risks two types of sexual conditioning. The first is conscious. He thinks he is learning about “adult sexuality” and “how to do it” based on daily video sessions. Recently, researchers thought to ask 16- to 18-year-old teens about anal sex, and were amazed to find that neither males nor females enjoyed it, but both felt compelled to do it. Said the researchers, “The main reasons given for young people having anal sex were that men wanted to copy what they saw in pornography, and that ‘it’s tighter’.”
The second type of sexual conditioning is unconscious. Some of today’s teen brains wire their owners’ sexual arousal so tightly to screens, constant novelty, isolation, and watching other people have sex that when opportunity finally knocks, real sex feels like an alien experience.
These young people’s situation is even more precarious because, by adulthood, their brains will have pruned away billions of nerve connections based on the use-it-or-lose-it principle. On the forums I monitor, young men sometimes need many months longer to recover erectile function than men who did not grow up with streaming porn.
In the last few years, more than 75 brain studies on Internet addicts have come out showing the same fundamental changes seen in substance addicts’ brains. Still, some sexologists have clung to the fiction that these findings are irrelevant for Internet porn users. Now, researchers are starting to look directly at porn users’ brains.
In July 2014, Cambridge University addiction neuroscientists revealed that porn addicts’ brains light up in response to porn video clips much as cocaine addicts’ brains light up for powder (in contrast with controls). More than half of the addicts scanned (average age 25) reported difficulty with erections or arousal with real partners, though not with porn. The Cambridge researchers also found that the younger the user, the more powerfully his brain responded to porn clips.
In May 2014, JAMA Psychiatry published a study by the Max Planck Institute. It found that years and hours of porn use correlated with loss of grey matter in the brain’s reward system. Lead researcher Kühn stated that study results “could mean that regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system.”
Interestingly, none of the Max Planck subjects met the diagnostic criteria for addiction and yet their brains evidenced some of the changes seen in drug addicts. Perhaps one day youthful sexual dysfunctions will be explained by similar changes happening in the sexual centers of young porn users’ brains, in concert with reward circuitry changes.
I am not interested in telling people what to do, and I don’t want to start banning things. But modern pornography poses serious risks to its users. Addiction is only one. It is past time we understood these risks and educated our children about how neuroplasticity and sexual arousal potentially interact.
** If you or someone you know has a pornography addiction, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule an Addictions Initial Assessment.