Many porn users find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or that go against what they think is morally right. As they watch more extreme and dangerous sex acts, these porn users gradually come to feel that those behaviors are more common and acceptable than they really are.

As you’d probably guess, rats don’t like the smell of death.

But a researcher named Jim Faust wondered whether that instinct could be changed, so he sprayed female rats with a liquid that smelled like a dead, rotting rat. When he put them in cages with virgin male rats, a strange thing happened. The drive to mate was so powerful that it overcame the instinct to avoid the smell, and the rats hit it off. Actually, that’s not so strange. The strange part was what happened next.

Once the male rats had learned to associate sex with the smell of death, Faust put them in cages with different objects to play with. The male rats actually preferred to play with the object that smelled like death, as if it were soaked in something they loved! [1]

We know what you’re thinking: “Now I know what I should have done for my science fair project!”
No, seriously, that’s pretty gross, right? You’re probably wondering how rats could possibly be trained to go against such a powerful natural instinct. Well, here’s how:

Rats, humans, and all mammals have something in their brain called a “reward center.” [2] Part of the reward center’s job is to promote healthy living by rewarding you when you do something that either keeps you alive (e.g., eating) or creates a new life (e.g., sex) , or enriches your life (e.g. building satisfying relationships). [3] The way it rewards you is by pumping a cocktail of “pleasure chemicals” through your brain. [4] (See Porn Changes the Brain.)

Those chemicals do more than make you feel great. While you’re enjoying that good feeling, your brain is also building new nerve pathways to connect the pleasure you’re feeling to the activity you’re doing. [5] It’s the brain’s way of making sure that whatever you’re doing, you’ll come back to it again. The association between the activity and the “reward” happens automatically, even if you don’t intend it, because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” [6] (See How Porn is Like a Drug.)

The reward center is usually a pretty great thing, even if it didn’t work out so well for those poor rats. Normally our brain attracts us to healthy behaviors and encourages us to form life-supporting habits. [7] But when those reward chemicals get connected to something harmful, it has the opposite effect.

The same process that rewired those rats’ preferences—connecting the pleasure they felt during sex to the stench of death—is triggered in our brains by porn. Porn users may think they’re just being entertained, but their brains are busy at work building connections between their feelings of arousal and whatever’s happening on their screen. [8] And since porn users typically become accustomed to the porn they’ve already seen and have to constantly move on to more extreme forms of pornography to get aroused, [9] the kind of porn a user watches usually changes over time. [10] (See Porn is an Escalating Behavior.)

In a survey of 1,500 young adult men, 56% said their tastes in porn had become “increasingly extreme or deviant.” [11] Just like the rats, many porn users eventually find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or that go against what they think is morally right. [12] In many cases, porn users find their tastes so changed that they can no longer respond sexually to their actual partners, though they can still respond to porn. [13]

Once users start watching extreme and dangerous sex acts, things that were disgusting or morally shameful can start to seem normal, acceptable, and more common than they really are. [14] One study found that people exposed to significant amounts of porn thought things like sex with animals and violent sex were twice as common as what those not exposed to porn believed. [15] And when people believe a behavior is normal, they’re more likely to try it. [16]

Research has also found that watching pornography affects attitudes and beliefs toward sex, women, and relationships. [17] Porn watchers are more likely to express attitudes supporting violence against women, [18] and studies have shown a strong correlation between men’s porn consumption and their likelihood to victimize women. [19] In fact, a 2015 peer-reviewed research study that analyzed 22 different studies from 7 different countries concluded that there is “little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes [supporting] sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression.” [20] (See Porn Leads to Violence.)

Obviously not everyone who looks at porn is going to turn into a rapist, but the reality is that even casual pornography use has the power to change ideas and attitudes. [21] When that happens, changes to behavior aren’t far behind. But spreading the truth about the harmful effects of porn helps limit its influence. Porn can corrupt our deepest, most basic instincts, but deep down at that same instinctive level, we know and want what’s healthy. We crave happiness and love. And every individual decision to focus on real love and real relationships moves us back toward the robust, natural lives we’re designed to pursue.

Citations
[1] Pfaus, J. G., Kippin, T. E., & Centeno, S. (2001). Conditioning and Sexual Behavior: A Review. Hormones and Behavior 40: 291–321. Retrieved from http://www.pphp.concordia.ca/fac/pfaus/Pfaus-Kippin-Centeno(2001).pdf; See also Robinson, M. J. F., & Berridge, K. C. (2013). Instant Transformation of Learned Repulsion into Motivational “Wanting”. Current Biology, 23, 282-289. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.01.016 (transforming rats’ revulsion to saltiness into attraction)
[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse: The Reward Pathway. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-i/4-reward-pathway; Volkow, N. D., & Morales, M. (2015). The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction. Cell, 162 (8), 712-725. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.07.046; Pitchers, K. K., et al. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (8), 3434-3442. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013
[3] Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 374, 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480; Zatorre, R. J., & Salimpoor, V. N., (2013) From perception to pleasure: Music and its neural substrates. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, 110, 2. doi:10.1073/pnas.1301228110; Hedges, V. L., Chakravarty, S., Nestler, E. J., & Meisel, R. L. (2009). Delta FosB overexpression in the nucleus accumbens enhances sexual reward in female Syrian hamsters. Genes Brain and Behavior, 8(4), 442–449. doi:10.1111/j.1601-183X.2009.00491.x; Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Nestler, E. J., (2005) Is there a common molecular pathway for addiction?, Nature Neuroscience, 8(11) 1445-1449. doi:10.1038/nn1578; Balfour, M. E., Yu, L., and Coolen, L. M. (2004). Sexual Behavior and Sex-Associated Environmental Cues Activate the Mesolimbic System in Male Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology 29(4), 718–730. doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1300350
[4] Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 374, 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480; Negash, S., Van Ness Sheppard, N., Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(6), 698-700. doi:10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123; Banca, P., et al. (2016). Novelty, conditioning, and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 72, 91-101. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017; Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure Systems in the Brain. Neuron, 86, 646-664. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books (108); Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). Retrieved from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/773
[5] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767. doi:10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767; Pitchers, K. K., et al. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434-3442. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013; Hedges, V. L., Chakravarty, S., Nestler, E. J., and Meisel, R. L. (2009). DeltaFosB Overexpression in the Nucleus Accumbens Enhances Sexual Reward in Female Syrian Hamsters. Genes Brain and Behavior 8, 4: 442–449. doi:10.1111/j.1601-183X.2009.00491.x.; Hilton, D.L, & Watts, C. (2011). Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective, Surgical Neurology International 2, 19. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.76977; Miner, M. H., Raymond, N., Mueller, B. A., Lloyd, M., Lim, K. O. (2009). Preliminary Investigation of the Impulsive and Neuroanatomical Characteristics of Compulsive Sexual Behavior. Psychiatry Research 174: 146–51. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2009.04.008; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books (107).
[6] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books (63).
[7] Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059; Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure Systems in the Brain. Neuron, 86, 646-664. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books (109); Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold & Co. (75).
[8] Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059; Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388; Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). Retrieved from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/773; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books (95).
[9] Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. doi:10.3390/bs6030017; Negash, S., Van Ness Sheppard, N., Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(6), 698-700. doi:10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123; Pitchers, K. K., et al. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434-3442. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013; Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Angres, D. H., & Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month, 54, 696–721. doi:10.1016/j.disamonth.2008.07.002; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. (105) New York: Penguin Books; Paul, P. (2007). Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. (75) New York: Henry Hold and Co.
[10] Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. doi:10.3390/bs6030017; Kalman, T.P. (2008). Clinical Encounters with Internet Pornography. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(4) 593-618. doi:10.1521/jaap.2008.36.4.593; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, (109); Cline, V. B. (2001). Pornography’s Effect on Adults and Children. New York: Morality in Media; Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence of Unrestrained Access to Erotica on Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27, 2: 41–44. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10904205
[11] NoFap Survey (2012) http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/updy4/rnofap_survey_data_complete_datasets/
[12] Wery, A. & Billieux, J. (2016). Online sexual activities: An exploratory study of problematic and non-problematic usage patterns in a sample of men. Computers in Human Behavior 56, 257-266. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.046; Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. doi:10.3390/bs6030017; Paul, P. (2010). From Pornography to Porno to Porn: How Porn Became the Norm. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 3–20). Princeton, N.J.: Witherspoon Institute.
[13] Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. doi:10.3390/bs6030017; Voon, V., et al. (2014). Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors, PLoS ONE, 9(7), e102419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419; Hall, P. (2013). Sex addiction—an extraordinarily contentious problem. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29(1) 68-75. doi:10.1080/14681994.2013.861898; Sun, C., Bridges, A., Johnason, J., & Ezzell, M. (2014) Pornography and the Male Sexua Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 45, 1-12. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0391-2. Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books. (130).
[14] Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence of Unrestrained Access to Erotica on Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27, 2: 41–44. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10904205
[15] Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence of Unrestrained Access to Erotica on Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27, 2: 41–44. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10904205
[16] Layden, M. A. (2004). Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science and Space, U.S. Senate, Hearing on the Brain Science Behind Pornography Addiction, November 18; Cline, V. B. (2001). Pornography’s Effect on Adults and Children. New York: Morality in Media; Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1984). Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography. In N. M. Malamuth and E. Donnerstein (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. New York: Academic Press.
[17] Weinberg, M. S., Williams, C. J., Kleiner, S., & Irizarry, Y. (2010). Pornography, normalization and empowerment. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39 (6) 1389-1401. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9592-5; Doring, N. M. (2009). The Internet’s impact on sexuality: A critical review of 15 years of research. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(5), 1089-1101. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2009.04.003
[18] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., & Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression and Behavior 36, 1: 14–20. doi: 10.1002/ab.20328; Berkel, L. A., Vandiver, B. J., and Bahner, A. D. (2004). Gender Role Attitudes, Religion, and Spirituality as Predictors of Domestic Violence Attitudes in White College Students. Journal of College Student Development 45(2):119–131.
[19] DeKeseredy, W. (2015). Critical Criminological Understandings of Adult Pornography and Woman Abuse: New Progressive Directions in Research and Theory. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 4(4), 4-21. doi:10.5204/ijcjsd.v4i4.184; Simmons, C. A., Lehmann, P., & Collier-Tenison, S. (2008). Linking male use of the sex industry to controlling behaviors in violent relationships: An exploratory analysis. Violence Against Women, 14(4), 406-417. doi:10.1177/1077801208315066; Shope, J. H. (2004), When words are not enough: The search for the effect of pornography on abused women. Violence Against Women, 10(1), 56-72. doi: 10.1177/1077801203256003
[20] Wright, P., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2015). A Meta-Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi:10.1111/jcom.12201
[21] Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P. M., (2016) Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research. Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441 (“existing research has produced consistent evidence that adolescents’ pornography use is related to their sexual attitudes.”); Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s Effect on Interpersonal Relationships. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 89-110). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute.

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