Can Internet porn be addictive? The short answer is: yes. However that’s similar to asking whether drinking causes alcoholism: not necessarily. One has to consider relativity when calling anything “addictive.” If it’s a problem then it’s a problem. Arguing whether it’s one thing or another doesn’t change the outcome.
Tens of millions “normal” people look at internet porn sites everyday and most can do so without becoming addicted. Unfortunately however, some of those tens of millions find it difficult to control their viewing and use.
On-line pornography has been shown to be the internet activity most likely to lead to compulsive disorders. A Cambridge University study found that an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure; reacts in people who compulsively use pornography upon seeing explicit material, the same way an alcoholic’s brain reacts to seeing a drink.
Even if Internet Porn may not be physically addictive, it’s certainly plausible that it’s emotionally, or psychologically addictive. With repeated use, one learns to associate sexual pleasure with specific stimuli. The brain has plasticity, so that it is continually shaped by experience, and, by extension, this includes sexuality. To accommodate this, the brain is able to constantly create new, and re-create existing neural pathways. The strength and the number of pathways are determined by the importance a given activity is assigned, and potentially gives preference to that activity over others. Because sexual activity involves such intense pleasure, it takes far less repetition to create strong pathways as it might with other activities. For example, Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter involved in the fight-or-flight response, as well as sexual arousal and memory, is released during sexual activity, helping imprint emotional experiences, making them quicker and easier to retrieve.
People don’t become addicted to porn because of personality defects or a failure of discipline, but because their brains are designed to learn by pleasurable and rewarding experiences.
“Occasional” vs. “habitual” use are where the lines of addiction get crossed. Occasional use of internet porn is coaxed by excitement. Habitual use is reinforced by novelty, excitement and pleasure. Because natural opiates, like dopamine, are released during orgasm, it reinforces which images are arousing, and worth returning to—repeatedly. An “occasional” user might settle for an arousing-enough image or clip, while a “habitual” user might extend a two hour session twenty more minutes to find an image worthy of orgasm. An “occasional” user may not need more intense porn to activate a state of arousal, while a “habitual” user does. This is due to the brain response to novel experiences by releasing dopamine. Frequent experiences like these potentially overload the brain, so it has to reduce its natural production of dopamine and the corresponding receptors in response.
Thinking of Internet porn simply as a means for relieving sexual urges isn’t complete, because “relieving” implies satiation. The gratification porn offers is short-lived, so indulging in it frequently is actually less satisfying, leaving a person only craving more. The brain actually has two separate pleasure systems: one for exciting pleasures, and the other for satisfying pleasures. Exciting pleasures are those fueled by dopamine and anticipation. It’s like a stimulating-appetizer before a desired meal, that is never served. As a result, the user is left craving the actual thing: kissing, touching, tastes, smells and a connection with an actual body and actual person. The satisfying system is activated by satiation—having the desired meal, or sex with an actual person.
When a habitual user initially engages in porn, opiates and dopamine are released, shutting off the portions of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety, so the mind can focus more intensely on achieving sexual euphoria. This focus is, in part, achieved through the release of serotonin, which also produce feelings of well being and satisfaction. This response obviously isn’t limited to the use of porn. Evolution relies on the human body to produce endogenous opiates during climax to provide a sense of euphoria in order to motivate the survival of the species. But evolution didn’t stop at motivation, and took into consideration the long view. For example, the contractions during male orgasm trigger the release of Oxytocin, the same hormone that bonds parents and newborn babies. In addition to Oxytocin, Vasopressin and endorphins, additional bonding agents, are also released, providing that after-orgasm calm and strengthening attachments. Unfortunately, the brain as organ, doesn’t “know” to differentiate attachment between another person and internet porn.
Habituation to porn is the process of learning how to respond to porn progressively. Initially the brain responds to the specific stimulus, but with repetition it responds to related stimuli. For example, due to the prolonged mental fantasizing involved in pornography, the brain stimulates higher levels of testosterone which increases sexual desire and the need for more sexual activity. Because testosterone has slow rate of metabolism, sexual awareness remains heightened longer so that any signal (external or internal) is more likely to trigger sexual arousal. Once habituated, very little is needed to trigger arousal. In addition, the brain rewards these triggers with a shot of dopamine. Again, because dopamine thrives on novelty, it’s almost inevitable that a person will become desensitized to what they originally found arousing. This is why a person must seek out more explicit material, to counter this desensitization. This often means seeking material the person may’ve previously had an aversion or even repulsion to, in order to achieve the dopamine reward they first experienced. But often they can’t find an adequate stimulus, and the pursuit actually distracts them from experiencing even ordinary masturbatory pleasure.
These effects can often go well beyond masturbation. As a habituated user becomes increasingly hyper-responsive to porn he becomes less responsive to the physical pleasure of a real partner. In part this is because he isn’t able to induce such immediate dopamine surges as he can using porn, so the signal to the penis is too weak to achieve erection. In the absence of this control, sex with a partner lacks a feeling of novelty, or causes frustration having to reduce “pure pleasure seeking” due to reciprocity, or a partner’s sexual limits. This usually has little to do with attraction, but that his sexual arousal has become conditioned by porn. This can be confusing and demoralizing to men, because despite feeling extremely attracted to their partners, they cannot get adequately aroused. These are otherwise normal, confident, healthy, sexually-experienced men. Yet when they go back on line, the ability to achieve an erection returns.
If you’re wondering whether your internet porn use is habitual or addictive, try masturbating without using it. If you can—without hassle, deliberation, or annoyance, you’re probably not “addicted.” But if you can’t, or if your deliberation is demeaned by annoyance and you wind up Googling your favorite arousal phrases, then you have something to consider.
If you did find yourself Googling arousal phrases, it shouldn’t be surprising, but it isn’t impossible to stop. Whether you call it habituation or addiction, if it’s a problem, it’s a problem. The first step in solving the problem is recognizing and accepting it. The next is wanting to quit, developing an understanding of why you should, and accepting this with sincerity.
One’s definition of abstinence, limits, or even allowances, may change as one’s understanding of their addiction evolves. Initially however there must be an absolute and definitive abstinence from internet-related sexual activity, and a reason for doing so that has conviction. For example: “I will no longer use internet pornography, because I lose valuable time, sleep, personal integrity, and feel lousy about myself afterwards.” When one starts drifting into thoughts of porn, they need an absolute response that supersedes those thoughts. Resistance to the cues of addiction is initially weak, and when a person thinks about avoiding them, the desire to heed their urges becomes even more intense. That is why reasons not to heed to porn need to be concrete, have personal conviction, and be based on porn’s consequences (perhaps the erectile dysfunction experienced when having sex with a partner).
Addictions are difficult to curb, not just because of the activity’s influence, but because of the duality of the addict. They certainly want to stop the behavior, but they really don’t want to miss out on the fun. The association with pleasure learned through internet porn has been by far more strongly reinforced than the initial abstinence from it. Extricating one’s self from an addiction requires conscious, gradual differentiation of self-related roles. Initially it may be like simultaneously being the prisoner and the prison guard.
Begin to be aware of the triggers that contribute to deceptive thoughts and exposure to porn-persuasive temptations. Triggers vary person to person depending on the types of porn and activities they engaged in. Simply being home alone is enough to cause a person to go to their computer seeking porn. Think ahead and come up with activities that will detract from the inevitable temptations. Create counter responses to porn-triggers; associate porn and its triggers with something negative or toxic, and recall that it steals away the intimacy and actual sexuality of relationships.
Recall that your brain has plasticity and can unlearn just as it can learn; and that triggers and temptations will lessen and pass. The old pathways for addictive behaviors won’t necessarily go away. Dopamine-driven habits learned through repetition which have created massive numbers of pathways and cues to seek pornography are extremely difficult to ignore. Simply avoiding bad habits won’t change undesired behavior. To break bad habits, bad behaviors need to be replaced with better ones. That’s why activities and counter responses are so important, because each time a temptation is resisted, resistance is reinforced, and new neuropathways are created. By intentionally creating new pathways a person can begin to manage the cravings for porn and avoid its pull, so that over time the paths to porn use will diminish. Whatever rewarding activity is pursued, it needs to be an activity that is reoccurring. Building new rewarding neural pathways requires time and ongoing repetition. For example, exercise is an excellent activity, because it triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, and gives pleasure which, in turn, rewards new activities and grows new neuronal connections.
You don’t have to do it alone. Think of a drug addict trying to quit by hiding his drugs from himself. He’ll recover his drugs far faster than he’ll maintain his abstinence. Addictions aren’t maintained so much by substances or activities as they are by secrecy, especially the shame and isolation explicitly involved with pornography. It may be helpful to include another person, such as a therapist or a friend, to bear witness, provide accountability and support, so your brain’s wiring doesn’t get the best of you before you unlearn your addiction to internet porn.
Products such as Internet accountability software can be used to protect against online temptation. Such software monitors a person’s Internet use and reports it to a trusted friend or therapist. This forces a person to pause before they click on porn sites and consider what they are doing. This may sound like it takes away the person’s own ability to resist temptation, but it actually provides practice resisting temptation, contributing to the creation of new pathways.