The Effects of Pornography

Pornography Addiction and the Co-occurring Effects 

Danielle Daniel
California Southern University
June 2018

      With a multi-billion dollar industry, and over 20 million websites (Harper & Hodgins 2016), pornography impacts an estimated of 66% of men and 41% of women in the United States (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014) and has been found to have significant co-occurring effects that permeate not only the individual but their family, children, social life and even the workplace (Hilton 2009).  Why is something that some argue is “normal” not only a problem but also an addiction of the worse kind?  

Just because something is accepted as the norm, does not mean it is normal.

      Research shows that pornography addiction has various physical alterations on the brain, including shrinkage of the frontal lobe and dysfunction of neurotransmitter release, causing an endogenous chemical addiction (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014), (Hilton & Watts 2011).  There has also been shown to have a correlation with pornography addiction and co-occurring mood, anxiety and substance use disorders (Harper & Hodgins 2016), (Southern 2008).  Pornography addiction causes a spectrum of dysfunction in one’s ability to think, cope, make decisions and manage emotions effectively therefore leading to feelings of loneliness and eliciting a myriad of other negative emotions. Various forms of treatment has shown to be helpful once the person fully submits to help and is willing to make changes in their lives, gaining back their impulse control and restoring their brain to healthy neurochemical interactions. Here is what you need to know before you click a link taking you deep into the dark side of the web.
An addiction in general can be defined as “a loss of control over a substance or behavior” (Van Wormer & Davis 2016, pg. 6).  An addiction represents an actual pathology forming in the memory and learning areas of the brain (Hilton 2009) accompanied with compulsive and impulse control problems (Romer et al. 2018). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, fifth edition, DSM-V, describes the class of addictions as “causing clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (APA 2013, pg. 585).  

Because of the complexity of pornography addiction, it has been described as a behavioral addiction, a compulsive disorder, a sexual dysfunction disorder and an impulse control disorder (Harper & Hodgins 2016), (Dawson & Warren 2012).  

      Pornography is not just your average addiction, unlike many others where you need a physical substance or money to sustain the addiction, like a drug, alcohol or gambling, with pornography, one can simply access the content for free from a cell phone in their pocket. The internet is not subject to regulations, therefore it has allowed this industry to grow out of control through the world wide web, exposing and ensnaring many who innocently stumble upon it.  In years past, pornography access was limited to having to physically acquire the material via an adult bookstore or other public store to purchase the content. This extra step provided a safety barrier for many who avoided the shame, guilt, or judgement from others when being seen purchasing this type of material. This barrier no longer exists and it now has become a mass problem because it allows the user to remain anonymous, therefore avoiding social shame, have easy access, and complete affordability (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014).  

      Another factor proving even more complications is that pre-adolescent boys are being exposed at ages younger and younger to pornography, enticing the addiction before they’ve even had a chance to develop their impulse control area of their brain. 

 One study done with 191 university students in Canada, found that problematic pornography use was more prevalent among single males who were exposed at an early age (Harper & Hodgins 2016).  In this study the mean age of first exposure was 12.78 years old. The study also reported that the boys felt curiosity and arousal at first exposure followed by feelings of awkwardness, confusion and guilt.  Early exposure was correlated with not only development of the addiction to pornography, but also increased delinquent behavior, risky sexual behaviors in adolescence, substance abuse, developed misconceptions about sex and sexuality and an increased predisposition for sexual aggression (Harper & Hodgins 2016).  

      Research is showing that addictive pornography use has been associated with many other negative consequences throughout one’s life such as poor psychosocial functioning (Harper & Hodgins 2016),  relationship breakdowns (Duffy et al. 2016), lack of perseverance, impulsivity (Romer et al. 2018), lack of motivation (Harper & Hodgins 2016), maladaptive coping, courtship disorder, intimacy dysfunction (Southern 2008), anxiety, depression (Harper & Hodgins 2016), (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014), (Southern 2008), mood disorders (Dawson & Warren 2012), obsessions and compulsions (Southern 2008), alcohol use (Harper & Hodgins 2016), (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014), problematic cannabis use and gambling (Harper & Hodgins 2016) and other addictive behaviors (Southern 2008).  Three case studies  in one research review highlighted the development of pathogenic obsessive and compulsive behaviors including maladaptive coping skills (Southern 2008) from pornography use.

      Another study on Swedish adolescent boys found that pornography consumption was negatively associated with more deviant and illegal acts, including sexual acts and a decrease in sexual satisfaction with a real partner (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014). Furthermore pornography has been correlated with inducing violent attitudes and violence towards women (Harper & Hodgins 2016), (Hilton & Watts 2011), acting out through other paraphilias, contracting sexually transmitted infections (Dawson & Warren 2012), dysfunctions in sexual arousal and orgasms, loss of libido, loss of interest in a real partner, development of rash misconceptions of reality on sexuality and relationships, and blaming negative attitudes towards a spouse or even their own mother due to the developed disrespect towards women (Hilton 2010).

 Still think pornography is normal? These co-occuring negative effects can be detrimental to the functioning and quality of life of the person and their family, causing years of heartache, loss and a great deal of negative emotions that are difficult to manage. 

Many addicts are in a strong form of denial and are unaware to the fact they are addicted or how it has affected their lives. 

They misinterpret the negative effects they are experiencing that pornography is not at the root of the problems in their problems, but in turn can blame others and outside circumstances. Addicts tend to regress developmentally back to a younger stage of development causing them to cope as if they were at underdeveloped age which then causes even more isolation with those around them (Carnes 2001).

      With all these negative effects from the addiction comes a wave of negative emotions such as increased feelings of embarrassment, fear (Dawson & Warren 2012), dissatisfaction with one's own life and relationships, higher levels of distress  (Harper & Hodgins 2016), and increased feelings of isolation (Duffy et al. 2016).  However, this negative state becomes a norm for that person, therefore blinding them to the negative effects developed into their life because of pornography, in fact because they develop an attitude of blame towards others, they don’t see that the dissatisfaction, distress, relationship difficulties etc. have occurred because of their pornography addiction (Hilton 2010).

      Recently I surveyed 65 people and asked them what negative emotions feel like to them, and the responses I received back were quite descriptive and horrifying at the same time. People wrote words such as feeling heavy, claustrophobic, icky, anxious, doomed, painful, irritated, unsettling, foggy, drowning, dull ache in chest, hopeless, depleted, ugly, self-betrayed, lonely, no way out, concrete in their veins, exhausting, bondage, hollow, empty, disoriented, doubting, toxic, like you are being pushed down, paralyzing, crippling, isolating, suffocating, dark, fuzzy, powerless, confined, restrictive, worthless and much much more. Some even described feeling stuck in mud, or in a tsunami, or like being buried alive. Negative emotions take a toll on the physical body affecting our health and our ability to function at the optimum level and capability.

 So why does pornography seem to send one’s life spiraling with all these detrimental consequences of mood, emotions, co-addictions and behaviors?  

Because it changes the brain, exposing you to a myriad of other negative effects. In a study completed in Berlin, Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, 64 healthy adult males participated who had a wide range of pornography use per week, the study found that even those not at the addictive level of pornography use, showed alterations to the brain (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014).  This study was conducted using structural imaging scans with a  3-T Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner and found that the gray matter volume of the right caudate of the striatum were smaller with those participants that had more pornography use.  Addiction studies on drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines and even alcohol, have also shown that there is a decrease in volume in the striatum, therefore showing that pornography in deed biologically has similar effects as other addictions (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014).  This same study also showed that with more intense exposure to pornographic stimuli, there was a downregulation, or wearing down, of the natural neural networks with dopamine and the reward response in the mesolimbic center in the brain meaning the person would require more and more to get a reward response similar to how one builds up a higher threshold or tolerance for alcohol consumption therefore in order to feel the effects has to consume more (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014).  This same effect was also seen in the Canadian study where University students reported having to search hundreds of different images and videos of more extreme material in order to try and feel satiated (Harper & Hodgins 2016).  This behavior therefore shows that pornography use can create problems with tolerance, obsessiveness and habituation patterns.

      Pornography use also had a negative effect correlated with the connectivity of the right caudate to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when exposed to more hours of pornographic content (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014).  The prefrontal cortex is crucial in our executive functioning such as impulse control, reasoning, personality, behavior flexibility, attention, organizing, future planning, decision making, social interactions, etc.  Having a compromised functioning prefrontal cortex is one of the biggest neurological concerns in all addictions due to the impact it has on the addicts ability to maintain and manage their life including relationships, finances, career etc.  

Sometimes the addict doesn’t see how this is affecting them because they can’t see how their life would have been different if they didn’t have this addiction.  

The cerebral effects and dysfunction from pornography such as the atrophy of the frontal lobe, is similar to the effects seen in patients with a traumatic brain injury, strokes, or tumors, which is called hypofrontal syndrome.

 The key elements in hypofrontal syndrome are impulsivity, compulsivity, emotional lability, and impaired judgment, and all these traits are common among these patients and pornography addicts (Hilton & Watts 2011).  In a comparative study done on different addictions measuring atrophy in the brain, sexual addiction was highlighted as the addiction causing the most cerebral atrophy, or shrinkage in various brain regions compared to that of cocaine, methamphetamine, and obesity (Hilton 2010).

      In a normally stimulated sexual pleasure, signals to different neural networks are communicated in the mesolimbic reward center, including the release of dopamine (Harper & Hodgins 2016).  With pornography, a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine is produced in excess in the nucleus accumbens, which then acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, as a drug inside the brain, which can actually physically change the makeup of the brain (Hilton 2010).  The chemical structure of dopamine is closely related to epinephrine and norepinephrine or in other words, adrenaline, and noradrenaline therefore when endogenous dopamine (or dopamine produced inside the brain) is released at unprocessable amounts, it is a highly dangerous and addictive drug right in the center of your brain.  Endogenous opiates which provide euphoria in sexual pleasure can be addictive as well when released in these excessive amounts and sexual hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin that are released during sexual orgasm may cause bonding to the pornography rather than a human being (Hilton 2010).

     It is evident from the physical changes on the brain from virtually viewing pornography, it can induce problems managing the real world, especially that of relationships and bonding. 

 Often times the addicts behavior is reported as being short, curt and impatient, which are all functions of the prefrontal cortex that is compromised. They are also easily dissatisfied, disrespectful, especially in regards to women, cynical and unhappy.  Those addicted to pornography carry feeling of shame, disgust and guilt because of the perversion that they find hard to shut off in their mind. They will start to lie to cover up this secretly led life of extreme sexual arousal, which can lead to mistrust among family and employers. Even though the addict may get a”high” from the splurge on the web, they often times feels trapped or stuck in their addiction, mourning the loss of the life and person they used to be before being a slave to their bodily desires. Depression and loneliness commonly co-occur with pornography addiction because of the malfunction in the brain and its neurotransmitters inducing the feelings of hopelessness in being able to quit and restore themselves to a life free and full of peace, trust, and love again.

      The good news is there is hope in treatment, but like any other substance addiction, 
it cannot be done alone.

 Among the very first steps are full honesty with supportive family members and wronged loved ones (Carnes 2001). Without this, there is no accountability, and taking accountability rather than blame as previously was practiced, is the only true way to gain power over the addiction and begin to see oneself as having self-dominion instead of being dominant by their bodily desires. Often times these situations are so humiliating that the state of humility can give one not only the desire but the strength to take back control of their life.  

      Outpatient treatment is usually effective with therapeutic techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)  in order to provide structure in managing compulsive behaviors.  CBT has been shown to provide clinically significant improvement in sexual addiction (Dawson & Warren 2012).  A comprehensive treatment for pornography addiction would also need to entail a relapse prevention plan, an intimacy enhancement and lovemap reconstruction along with new coping skills training (Southern 2008).  Group based treatment is also highly recommended and effective such as the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step process. Groups such as these sometimes are the hardest on the ego, which is why they can have a deep impact on change with its effects of breaking down that ego and meeting with a community of support, accountability, plus positive relationships. These supports have been shown to prevent relapse and higher compliance to treatment (Dawson & Warren 2012).

      Church or faith supports have proved to be highly beneficial in the quitting process whether that be in confiding with a trusted church advisor and/or participating in services and activities (Carnes 2001), (Hilton 2010).  Also treating the entire family as a whole is very important in the healing process as those family members who have been negatively affected will need to take part in and be supportive to the healing journey (Carnes 2001). People who have successful quit their pornography addiction have reported more positive changes in their lives such as an increase in their creative ability, a higher sense of self-worth, return of libido, and improvement in their personal relationships (Harper & Hodgins 2016).

      With a holistic approach to treatment, looking at diet, exercise and other natural forms of intervention can drastically help not only manage emotions, but also encourage healthy brain function. Many foods can positively influence dopamine levels in the brain such as bananas. One study examined all the nutritional benefits from consuming a banana and found that it is a good source of not only antioxidants and Vitamin A, but also that their phenolic constituents contributed to producing l-dopa and dopamine (Pereira & Maraschin 2015).  The vitamin folate has also been studied and shows many benefits with positively influencing the brain in the activity of not only dopamine neurotransmitter but also that of serotonin and norepinephrine (Maurizio & Mischoulon 2009).  Folate can be found in foods such as avocados, beets, garbanzo beans, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, lentils etc. Very few supplements contain folate, but rather contain the synthetic form which is folic acid, however there are a few whole food based vitamins, or vitamins constructed from actual food forms, that have the natural form of folate in them. Bee pollen is another natural dietary aide that may help in restoring dopamine levels in the brain. A study found that propionic acid which is a commonly used food additive, caused depletion of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. In this study they tested the effects of bee pollen on rats treated with propionic acid resulting in neurotoxicity in their brains and found that the bee pollen was effective in reversing the neurotoxic effect of the propionic acid and ameliorated the neurotoxicity (Al-Salem et al. 2016).  

Psychoaromacology can also have a positive influence on supporting healthy brain function. 

When looking at the effects of aromatic compounds, studies sometimes isolated compounds within a plant aromatic and sometimes it studies the plant compound as a whole. One study examined the effects of lemon essential oil, high in limonene metabolites and found that after ingestion of the lemon oil, it had a strong effect on monoamine neurotransmitter release as seen in rat brain slices (Fukumoto et al. 2006).  Monoamine neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine all of which have previously discussed as needing regulation in the brain when healing from addictions. Another study done on just the compound limonene, which is found high in rind of citrus fruits where the essential oil is present such as on lemon, grapefruit, orange, tangerine etc. found that limonene may have effect on inhibiting methamphetamine induced hyperactivity in rats via the ability of limonene to reverse the meth-induced elevated levels of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (Yun 2014). The nucleus accumbens is the reward center of the brain where dopamine fires at high amounts in addiction, leaving the individual depleted because of the over-pleasurable activity. This study holds some promising information of the possible capability of limonene to modulate the activity of dopamine in the brain.

      A study done with Valeriana wallichi pathchouli alcohol chemotype, an ayurvedic aromatic medicine, found with internal administration in mice, that it may increase the levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the forebrain (Sah et al. 2011). Carvacrol, a monoterpene phenol, found in many aromatic plants, especially that of oregano and thyme essential oil from a study found that with the oral administration of the compound carvacrol, using various testing methods on the mice, that carvacrol interacted positively in the brain with the dopaminergic system (Melo 2011). Oregano and thyme are herbs we generally use in cooking. The aromatic compounds that sit on the leaf of these herbs contain the compound carvacrol, therefore cooking with fresh herbs, rather than dried, will have greater benefit as well as using the herbs in their essential oil form where the aromatic compounds have been extracted using a proper distillation method to preserve the benefits of these compounds can provide an additional benefit to the brain.
      Lastly, the best form of treatment would be prevention. 

Creating awareness around the effects of pornography can help empower even young boys to choose not to indulge when a friend invites them. Also bringing awareness to the misconception that pornography is simply viewing sex will help create a stronger judgement for the individual. There is nothing normal about pornography, it is not just two people having sex. It uses sexual agression, brutality, rapes, and often obscene or gory images even to that of killing during erotica to continue to excite the viewers neural network. Many images in fact are only of the body of the woman, cutting her off at the neck and viewing her as an object rather than a real human being with a face (Carnes 2001).

      Outreach to schools or community organizations such as churches or afterschool facilities to educate young children can save them from a life of drastic consequences. The best prevention would be for parents to kindly discuss the reality of pornography with their children, providing a safe and non-judgemental space for children to trust in talking to their parents in regards to these dangers. This way it comes from a trusted adult and the child can have a chance to say no and escape years of a possible addiction that has been shown to cause havoc on ones life. Parents can also install filters on their internet system as well as not allow individual computers to be in private spaces, alway keeping the computer screen in public view (Hilton 2010).  Little steps such as these will bring strength to the individual to resist the urge and satisfy the curiosity of the world in the deep dark web and help them avoid many years of devastating negative effects.
      Though pornography addiction can have severe physical effects and cause life altering circumstances, there is hope in healing and recovery.  

 Even imaging of the brain has shown with abstinence and recovery, affected brain areas start to heal (Hilton 2010). Dr. Patrick Carnes who has been ahead of the research in treating this addiction for many years even before it has been recognized by the American Psychological Association, has found that honesty is the key to keeping the person grounded in reality and connected in their relationships (Carnes 2001).  A holistic approach is desirable due to the strong gut-brain connection and implementing prevention can positively influence the course of one’s life as well as seeking intervention can get one’s life back on track from the devastating effects of the deep dark web.


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