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How Porn Can Become an Escalating Behavior

Research indicates that porn consumers can become desensitized to porn, often needing to consume more porn, more extreme forms of porn, or consume porn more often in order to get the same response they once did.

By May 12, 2021July 15th, 2021No Comments

We’ve all heard stories from smokers or former smokers that include something like, “It started with one cigarette, but eventually, I was smoking ten packs a day.” It’s one of the hallmarks of substance abuse: escalation. Users need more and more of their drug of choice to “get the same high,” and their pattern of abuse is driven by their need for greater quantity. This is especially true when the abuse is spiraling into addiction. But what about porn? Can porn consumption be an escalating behavior as well?

It’s easy to understand how a smoker might need five or ten cigarettes to get the same buzz they used to get from one, but no one says, “I had to watch that scene five times to get the same feeling I used to get watching it once” about pornography. On the contrary, porn consumers get bored with scenes once they’ve seen them. (It’s called “habituation.”Kowalewska, E., Grubbs, J. B., Potenza, M. N., Gola, M., Draps, M., & Kraus, S. W. (2018). Neurocognitive Mechanisms in Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder. Current Sexual Health Reports, 10(4), 255–264. doi: 10.1007/s11930-018-0176-zCOPY ) Multiple viewings generally result in less response, not more.

Related: How Porn Can Affect The Brain Like A Drug

But despite those differences, porn consumption can escalate every bit as much as substance abuse or any other addictive behavior. To understand how, let’s take a look at the brain science regarding desensitization and novelty.

Desensitization

Not to be confused with sensitization (which is also interesting, and involves becoming highly “sensitized,” or “triggered,” by certain things associated with porn consumption),Pekal, J., Laier, C., Snagowski, J., Stark, R., & Brand, M. (2018). Tendencies toward Internet-pornography-use disorder: Differences in men and women regarding attentional biases to pornographic stimuli. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7(3), 574–583. doi: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.70COPY  desensitization refers to a numbed pleasure response, or inability to achieve the same “high” a consumer once did. Desensitization results from too much dopamine—the so-called “pleasure chemical.” Your brain generates different amounts of it in response to all sorts of experiences, from kissing, to looking at something beautiful, to eating a great meal. Dopamine is your body’s way of telling you, “This is awesome. We should do this as often as possible.” Certain activities, like drug use and porn consumption, turn up your brain’s dopamine production as high as it can go.

The more time you spend at those elevated levels, the more your brain’s dopamine receptors (the parts of the brain that respond to dopamine) start to “plug their ears.” Think of them as little referees becoming more and more oblivious to complaining players and screaming fans, or the way you no longer hear your parents yelling at you to put your socks in the laundry and stop scrolling through TikTok.Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., Fowler, J. S., Tomasi, D., Telang, F., & Baler, R. (2010). Addiction: Decreased reward sensitivity and increased expectation sensitivity conspire to overwhelm the brain's control circuit. BioEssays, 32(9), 748–755. doi: 10.1002/bies.201000042COPY 

Desensitization also shouldn’t be confused with habituation, which basically just refers to your brain being bored with a picture or video it’s already seen. Habituation is a common response to all kinds of things we consume frequently from movies to music to food, and everything in between, and it occurs relatively quickly.Kowalewska, E., Grubbs, J. B., Potenza, M. N., Gola, M., Draps, M., & Kraus, S. W. (2018). Neurocognitive Mechanisms in Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder. Current Sexual Health Reports, 10(4), 255–264. doi: 10.1007/s11930-018-0176-zCOPY  It’s basically the brain looking at something it’s seen before and saying, “Meh. I’m getting tired of that.” Desensitization is a much more complicated, chemical process that takes place over time with repeated abuse. It’s basically the brain looking at something, even if that something is brand new, and saying, “Meh. It takes a lot more than that to get my attention.” Multiple studies have demonstrated the existence of desensitization in porn consumers,Banca, P., Morris, L. S., Mitchell, S., Harrison, N. A., Potenza, M. N., & Voon, V. (2016). Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of psychiatric research, 72, 91–101. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017COPY Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 827. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.93COPY Albery, I. P., Lowry, J., Frings, D., Johnson, H. L., Hogan, C., & Moss, A. C. (2017). Exploring the Relationship between Sexual Compulsivity and Attentional Bias to Sex-Related Words in a Cohort of Sexually Active Individuals. European addiction research, 23(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1159/000448732COPY  including one study that demonstrated how the level of desensitization correlated directly with the extent of compulsive porn consumption.Albery, I. P., Lowry, J., Frings, D., Johnson, H. L., Hogan, C., & Moss, A. C. (2017). Exploring the Relationship between Sexual Compulsivity and Attentional Bias to Sex-Related Words in a Cohort of Sexually Active Individuals. European addiction research, 23(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1159/000448732COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Negatively Impact Love And Intimacy

The real question isn’t so much like, “Do porn consumers become desensitized?” They do. The question is, “How do porn consumers respond to that desensitization?” In the case of smokers, it’s a simple matter of smoking more and more cigarettes. And to some extent, escalating porn consumption can also be just a simple matter of quantity, as porn consumers have more and more viewing sessions, and as those viewing sessions get longer and longer.

But look closer, and the real escalation is in what those consumers of porn are viewing.

Novelty

In a pair of interesting studies that were replicated with both menKoukounas, E., & Over, R. (2000). Changes in the magnitude of the eyeblink startle response during habituation of sexual arousal. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38(6), 573–584. doi: 10.1016/s0005-7967(99)00075-3COPY  and women,Meuwissen, I., & Over, R. (1990). Habituation and dishabituation of female sexual arousal. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 28(3), 217–226. doi: 10.1016/0005-7967(90)90004-3COPY  college students were hooked up to instruments that measured their arousal and interest, and were then shown the same pornographic scene multiple times in a row. You can imagine what happened—arousal and interest, for both the men and women, were initially very high, but habituation quickly set in, and their interest and level of arousal waned dramatically. Then, after many viewings, right as the subjects’ boredom was reaching maximum levels, the researchers suddenly and without warning switched to a brand new pornographic film. What do you think happened? Were the subjects just so bored and “over it” that they continued in their disinterest? Nope! Bam! Arousal and interest levels immediately shot right back up to where they were before.

This phenomenon is often referred to as “The Coolidge Effect.” The Coolidge Effect has been demonstrated time and again, in all sorts of research settings.Ventura-Aquino, E., Fernández-Guasti, A., & Paredes, R. G. (2018). Hormones and the coolidge effect. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, 467, 42-48. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mce.2017.09.010COPY Hughes, S. M., Aung, T., Harrison, M. A., LaFayette, J. N., & Gallup, G. G. (2021). Experimental evidence for sex differences in sexual variety preferences: Support for the Coolidge Effect in humans. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(2), 495-509. doi:10.1007/s10508-020-01730-xCOPY  Put a male and female of just about any type of animal together and they will mate, and mate, and then get bored with each other. But replace one of them with a new partner, and even if they’re exhausted from mating with the last one, they will attempt to mate again. We are often driven toward sexual novelty. Researchers have surmised that this is because we are driven by a deep biological need to reproduce as often as possible.

What this means is that what the porn consumer really wants is not just more porn, but new porn: new people, new imaginary partners, new situations.Banca, P., Morris, L. S., Mitchell, S., Harrison, N. A., Potenza, M. N., & Voon, V. (2016). Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of psychiatric research, 72, 91–101. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017COPY  And as luck would have it, internet pornography offers them exactly the endless variety of sexual “partners” and situations to attempt to gratify that desire.Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY 

Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and New York Times best-selling author of The Brain That Changes Itself, explains, “Pornography satisfies every one of the prerequisites for neuroplastic change. When pornographers boast that they are pushing the envelope by introducing new, harder themes, what they don’t say is that they must, because their customers are building up a tolerance to the content.”Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Change The Brain

Consumers may also be drawn to other aspects of pornography: secrecy, shock value, taboos, shame. All of these things offer varying ways to feed a desire for novelty and excitement. And for consumers who consistently view this type of material, it is possible to find their sexual interests eventually deviating in very unexpected directions. In one 2016 study, researchers found that 46.9% of respondents reported that, over time, they began watching pornography that had previously disinterested or even disgusted them.Wéry, 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:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.046COPY  These findings are consistent with other research that demonstrates that changing tastes and escalating is not an uncommon experience amongst consumers of porn.Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Zsila, Á., Griffiths, M. D., Demetrovics, Z., & Orosz, G. (2017). The development of the problematic pornography consumption scale (PPCS). The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 395–406. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1291798COPY Downing, M. J., Schrimshaw, E. W., Scheinmann, R., Antebi-Gruszka, N., & Hirshfield, S. (2016). Sexually explicit media use by sexual identity: A comparative analysis of gay, bisexual, and heterosexual men in the united states. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(6), 1763–1776. doi: 10.1007/s10508-016-0837-9COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding Of Healthy Sex

None of this is to say that these results are guaranteed, or that everyone who consumes porn will find themselves viewing material they once found disgusting. (In the above study alone, if 47% reported they did have that experience, that means 53% did not.) It is only to say that, when we talk about the potential forms of escalation among porn consumers, it has the potential to be far more than a matter of time.

The good news is, change is possible! Research and the experiences of thousands of people have demonstrated that the effects of desensitization can be managed and largely reversed.Young K. S. (2013). Treatment outcomes using CBT-IA with Internet-addicted patients. Journal of behavioral addictions, 2(4), 209–215. https://doi.org/10.1556/JBA.2.2013.4.3COPY Nathanson, A. (2021). Psychotherapy with young people addicted to internet pornography. Psychoanal.Study Child, 74(1), 160-173. doi:10.1080/00797308.2020.1859286COPY  In fact, even in cases of serious substance and other addictions, research shows that the brain can heal over time with sustained effort.Pfefferbaum, A., Rosenbloom, M. J., Chu, W., Sassoon, S. A., Rohlfing, T., Pohl, K. M., Zahr, N. M., & Sullivan, E. V. (2014). White matter microstructural recovery with abstinence and decline with relapse in alcohol dependence interacts with normal ageing: a controlled longitudinal DTI study. The lancet. Psychiatry, 1(3), 202–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70301-3COPY Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2015). Gambling disorder and other behavioral addictions: recognition and treatment. Harvard review of psychiatry, 23(2), 134–146. https://doi.org/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000051COPY Rullmann, M., Preusser, S., Poppitz, S., Heba, S., Gousias, K., Hoyer, J., Schütz, T., Dietrich, A., Müller, K., Hankir, M. K., & Pleger, B. (2019). Adiposity Related Brain Plasticity Induced by Bariatric Surgery. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 290. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00290COPY  Research also indicates that, while guilt can motivate healthy change, shame actually fuels problematic porn habits.Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B. N., & Hardy, S. A. (2011). The roles of shame and guilt in hypersexual behavior.18(1), 12-29. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.551182COPY  So if you’re trying to give up porn, be kind to yourself and be patient with your progress. Like anything, it takes time for the brain to recover, but daily efforts make a big difference in the long run. Think of it like a muscle that gets bigger and stronger the more you use it—the longer you stay away from porn, the easier it is to do so. All it takes is practice.

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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