Many porn users find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or that go against what they think is morally right. And once they start watching extreme and dangerous sex acts, these porn users are being taught that those behaviors are more normal and common than they actually are.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Monkey see, monkey do”? It sounds simple, but it’s actually an illustration of some pretty complex brain science.

You see, monkeys, humans, and other mammals all have something in their brain called a “reward pathway.” [1] Part of the reward pathway’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) [2], or enriches your life with satisfying experiences and relationships. [3]

The way it rewards you is by pumping chemicals, especially one called “dopamine,” through your brain (See Porn Changes the Brain). [4] Dopamine makes you feel great, but its effects are not just temporary. While you’re enjoying that good feeling, it’s also building new pathways into your brain connecting together the different parts of the experience you had so you can remember to do that again. [5] That’s why the types of behaviors we link our pleasure response to tend to become habits and stick around. When this chemical learning process happens with healthy behaviors it helps us live well, but when it happens with secretive and unhealthy behaviors it has the opposite effect.

So when someone is looking at porn, while they think they’re just being entertained, their brain is busy at work building pathways between whatever’s happening on their screen and feelings of arousal. [6] Here’s where it gets tricky: The kind of porn a user watches can—and usually does—change over time. [7] So as their brain continually wires together what they’re seeing with feeling aroused, what turns them on can change too. [8]

A few years ago, a researcher named Jim Faust did an experiment with rats. [9] As you’d probably guess, rats usually don’t like the smell of death. But Faust found a way to change that instinct. Faust put virgin male rats in cages with female rats that had been sprayed with a liquid that smelled like dead, rotting rat. As it turned out, the drive to mate was more powerful than the instinct to avoid the smell, and the rats hit it off.

Once the male rats learned to associate sex with the smell of death, Faust put them in cages with dowels soaked in the same death smell. Consistently the male rats would play with the smelly dowels as though it were soaked in something they loved.

If you’re wondering how rats could possibly be trained to go against such a powerful natural instinct, the answer is dopamine. Since dopamine is released during sex, the rats’ brains wired together the pleasure of dopamine’s release with the rotten smell.

Sounds pretty gross, right? Well here’s the thing—remember how we said all mammals have the same reward pathway in their brain? Those rats’ preferences were rewired into their brains with the same process that many porn users’ brains go through when they look at porn. [10] And more often than not, the images their brains are wiring sexual arousal to get more and more extreme. [11]

In a 2012 survey of 1,500 guys, 56% said their tastes in porn had become “increasingly extreme or deviant.” [12] Because consistent porn users’ brains quickly become accustomed to the porn they’ve already seen (See Porn Addiction Escalates), they typically have to constantly be moving on to more extreme forms of pornography to get aroused by it. [13] As a result, just like the rats, many porn users find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or that go against what they think is morally right. [14]

And once they start watching extreme and dangerous sex acts, these types of porn users are being taught that those behaviors are more normal and common than they are. [15] 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 thought. [16] And when people believe a behavior is normal, they’re more likely to try it. [17]

Research has also found that watching degrading porn increases users’ dominating and harassing behavior toward women, [18] and leaves the user feeling less compassion for rape victims. [19] Porn watchers are also more likely to express attitudes supporting violence against women [20]—which is especially scary since those who support sexual violence are more likely to commit that kind of violence in real life. [21]  (See Porn Leads to Violence)

Obviously not everyone who looks at porn is going to turn into a rapist; but the reality is that studies have shown that even casual pornography use has the power to start changing ideas and attitudes, [22] and changes to behavior often aren’t far behind.

Click For Citations

[1] Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050060/) 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 9, 11: 1445–1449; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is a Brain Disease and It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.
[2] Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; 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; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is a Brain Disease and It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.
[3] Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol 1. Attachment.
New York: Basic Books.
[4] 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; Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108; Mick, T. M. and Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. CNS Spectrums, 11(12):944-955; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is a Brain Disease and It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.
[5] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767; Pitchers, K. K., Vialou, V., Nestler, E. J., Laviolette, S. R., Lehman, M. N., and Coolen, L. M. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience [JE1] [JE2] [JE3] 33, 8: 3434-3442; 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; Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050060/) 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; Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; 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, 109.
[7] 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; 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; NoFap Survey http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/updy4/rnofap_survey_data_complete_datasets/
[8] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 95.
[9] Pfaus, J. G., Kippin, T. E., and Centeno, S. (2001). Conditioning and Sexual Behavior: A Review. Hormones and Behavior 40: 291–321. (http://www.pphp.concordia.ca/fac/pfaus/Pfaus-Kippin-Centeno(2001).pdf)
[10] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 109.
[11] 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; 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; NoFap Survey http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/updy4/rnofap_survey_data_complete_datasets/
[12] NoFap Survey http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/updy4/rnofap_survey_data_complete_datasets/
[13] 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.
[14] 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.
[15] Zillmann, D., and 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.
[16] Zillmann, D., and 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] 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., and 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.
[18] Barak, A., Fisher, W. A., Belfry, S., and Lashambe, D. R. (1999). Sex, Guys, and Cyberspace: Effects of Internet Pornography and Individual Differences on Men’s Attitudes Toward Women. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 11, 1: 63–91; Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., and Giery, M. A.  (1995). Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of the Rape Myth. Journal of Communication 45, 1: 5–26.
[19] Milburn, M., Mather, R., and Conrad, S. (2000). The Effects of Viewing R-Rated Movie Scenes that Objectify Women on Perceptions of Date Rape. Sex Roles 43, 9 and 10: 645–64; Weisz, M. G. and Earls, C. (1995). The Effects of Exposure to Filmed Sexual Violence on Attitudes Toward Rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 10, 1: 71–84; Ohbuchi, K. I., et al. (1994). Effects of Violent Pornography Upon Viewers’ Rape Myth Beliefs: A Study of Japanese Males. Psychology, Crime, and Law 7, 1: 71–81; Corne, S., et al. (1992). Women’s Attitudes and Fantasies About Rape as a Function of Early Exposure to Pornography. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 7, 4: 454–61; Check, J. and Malamuth, N. M. (1985). An Empirical Assessment of Some Feminist Hypotheses About Rape. International Journal of Women’s Studies 8, 4: 414–23.
[20] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., and Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression and Behavior 36, 1: 14–20; 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 45:119–131; Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., and Giery, M. A.  (1995). Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of the Rape Myth. Journal of Communication 45, 1: 5–26.
[21] 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.
[22] 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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