Surprising Ways Pornography Shapes The Brain
Recently I was asked to give a talk at a local High School on the impact of pornography on the brain. Still considered a taboo subject, I was impressed with the forward thinking and desire to provide information to High School students that may impact future choices. This is a brief recap of the talk.
Historically, pornographic images have been around for hundreds of years. Images have been carved in stone and have been found by archeologists throughout the world. In the last century, how pornography is viewed has changed, from having to travel to a bad part of town to purchase a magazine or a video in person, to the ability to obtain images without leaving the home. In the last twenty years, pornography has moved into mainstream society.
With the advent of high-speed Internet, users are now able to access pornography anonymously, have total access to millions of images, mostly for free. The triple-A engine of accessibility, affordability and anonymity took the effort, cost and public judgment out of the equation. There are 420 million adult online webpages, and anyone can access these for free. According to Gizmodo, an Internet usage tracking company, 25% of all search engine requests are related to pornography. Supporting this statistic, the American Psychological Association Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology states that 50-99% of men are using pornography while 30-86% of women are using. While the estimated range is vast, it still points to a large percent of the population.
Religious groups that believe pornography is bad actually reflect similar statistics. According to data from Focus on the Family, 54% of pastors self reported watching pornography last year. It also found women self reported pornography use with 34% of female readers of Today’s Christian Woman intentionally accessing adult content and 17% stating they struggled with addiction to adult content.
Why does this matter? Effects of pornography gathered from self reports show users have difficulty reaching orgasm, experience delayed ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and no longer are aroused by real people. While symptoms do improve when they stop visiting online sites research shows 1/3 of men, 18-30 years old, believe they are addicted to pornography or are unsure.
The biggest sexual organ you have is actually your brain. Sexual stimulation releases the highest natural quantities of dopamine. Internet porn sites allow users to jump around keeping dopamine elevated longer. When dopamine is elevated long term, it leads to brain changes that are associated with addiction such as hyper reactivity cues. Think of a smoker seeing a cigarette commercial and wanting a cigarette. This results in an individual feeling a loss of self-control, a reduced ability to cope with stress, and a lowered response to everyday sources of pleasure.
Why is this important for teenagers to know? Teenager brains are different than adults and are still forming. Teen brains are tasked with neuronal wiring so they can reproduce in the future. Resting dopamine levels are lower than adults and as a teenager responds to a stimulus, the amount of dopamine released is considerably greater. Because of this, their brains are more at risk for pornography addiction. In addition, learning about sex based on pornography is unrealistic. Associating sexual arousal to screens on the computer and phone leads to not being able to be aroused by real people. Finally, what happens is that no human being can compete with the vast amount of images the brain has been exposed to resulting in losing the appetite for real world encounters.
The intention of sharing this information is not for the purpose of judgment or shame. The purpose of sharing this information is for teenagers to be aware of what is happening to their developing brain and make informed choices. Well done to the High School that is willing to explore such a heavy topic that is often not spoken about!