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How My Obsession with Extreme Porn Impacts What Arouses Me

“I still have a sexual appetite. But I’m not sexually aroused and it’s not because he’s some ugly potato, it’s because of the lingering effects of watching so much extreme porn.”

By September 20, 2021No Comments

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For a lot of people who say porn is healthy and harmless, they tend to celebrate porn as something that allows consumers to safely explore their sexuality or simply be “open-minded.”

What many people don’t understand is that porn can not only impact a person’s ability to maintain a healthy sexual relationship, but that pornography can become addictive and can rewire the brain. It can even influence what someone finds sexually arousing, too.

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, and hear from someone who has personally experienced this.

What is “desensitization”?

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 

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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.

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.

Sexually bored

When someone regularly consumes porn, they can become accustomed to being aroused by the imagery and endless novelty found in porn.Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Griffiths, M. D., Potenza, M. N., Orosz, G., & Demetrovics, Z. (2021). Are sexual functioning problems associated with frequent pornography use and/or problematic pornography use? Results from a large community survey including males and females. Addictive Behaviors, 112, 106603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106603COPY Hilton D. L., Jr (2013). Pornography addiction - a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 3, 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767COPY  Pretty soon, natural turn-ons and real relationships aren’t enough, and many porn consumers find they can’t get aroused by anything but porn.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 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.0102419COPY 

Thirty years ago, when a man developed erectile dysfunction (ED), it was almost always because he was getting older—usually past 40—and as his body aged it became more difficult to maintain an erection.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  Chronic ED in anyone under 35 was nearly unheard of.  But those were the days before internet porn. These days, online message boards are flooded with complaints from porn consumers in their teens and 20s complaining that they can’t maintain an erection. They want to know what’s wrong with their body, but the problem isn’t in the penis—it’s in the brain.

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While research on the links between compulsive porn consumption and sexual dysfunctions is ongoing, many therapists and clinicians are reporting a rise of patients seeking help for such problems.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  The term “porn-induced erectile dysfunction,” for example, was coined by Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, the Director of Men’s Health and a Clinical Professor of Urology at Harvard Medical School. Speaking about porn-induced erectile dysfunction, Dr. Morgentaler said, “I’m worried—I’m worried about the impact of porn on men and on women… A lot of the men who grow up now watching internet porn… learn their sexuality and how to get stimulated down there in a way that is not mimicked by actual sex. What porn has figured out is what really works for the brain… It’s maximum stimulus.”Culture Reframed. Generation X-rated. Retrieved from https://parents.culturereframed.org/adolescent-brain/COPY 

Ironically, despite porn’s promise of improving consumers’ sex lives, there is growing evidence that porn consumption is linked to sexual dysfunction. Research indicates that compulsive pornography consumption is directly related to erectile dysfunction,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  sexual dysfunction for both men and women,Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Griffiths, M. D., Potenza, M. N., Orosz, G., & Demetrovics, Z. (2021). Are sexual functioning problems associated with frequent pornography use and/or problematic pornography use? Results from a large community survey including males and females. Addictive Behaviors, 112, 106603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106603COPY  problems with arousal and sexual performance,Sun, C., Bridges, A., Johnson, J. A., & Ezzell, M. B. (2016). Pornography and the Male Sexual Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(4), 983–994. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0391-2COPY  difficulty reaching orgasm,Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Griffiths, M. D., Potenza, M. N., Orosz, G., & Demetrovics, Z. (2021). Are sexual functioning problems associated with frequent pornography use and/or problematic pornography use? Results from a large community survey including males and females. Addictive Behaviors, 112, 106603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106603COPY  and decreased sexual satisfaction.Szymanski, D. M., & Stewart-Richardson, D. N. (2014). Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Correlates of Pornography Use on Young Adult Heterosexual Men in Romantic Relationships. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 22(1), 64–82. https://doi.org/10.3149/jms.2201.64COPY 

In one neuroscientific study on compulsive pornography consumers, researchers found that in 11 out of 19 subjects, porn consumption had lowered the consumers’ sex drive and/or ability to maintain arousal in real-life sexual encounters, yet were still able to sexually respond to porn.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.0102419COPY 

So let’s hear from someone who has experienced this phenomenon in real life.

“Nothing my husband does arouses me.”

We got an email from one woman who was compulsively hooked to porn since the age of 12. Now married, she shared with us how her years of porn consumption still deeply affects her ability to have a quality, intimate sex life with her husband and how she still deals with the effects of years of watching degrading and humiliating porn:

“I know men have issues with erectile dysfunction because of porn; they can’t get an erection because porn has distorted their ability to become aroused. Well, turns out it’s the same for women.

Nothing my husband can do, is willing to do, can arouse me. And it’s not like he’s only willing to try a handful of mundane things. He is not, however, willing to mistreat me, call me names, degrade me, or use bondage of any sort—things that we feel have no business in the bed of equal partners, man and wife. But it’s these things to which I tied my arousal during my addiction. I don’t want any of these things in our bedroom but without them… no go.

Yes, a woman’s inability to become aroused doesn’t prevent sex from happening like a man’s inability, but my lack of arousal means an experience that should be beautiful and pleasurable is miserable and incredibly painful. I still have a sexual appetite. I’m still sexually attracted to my husband. But I’m not sexually aroused and it’s not because he’s some ugly potato, it’s because of the lingering effects of watching so much extreme porn. I deny him something that is an important part of our marriage, and my own sexual appetite is perpetually frustrated, I’m continuously unsatisfied, because of my own actions years ago.”

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There is hope for healing

If the research about the changeability and neuroplasticity of brains and how they can be conditioned through experiences is to be believed, we can see that the brain can be conditioned and trained into wanting something that the consumer didn’t want before. The good news is, neuroplasticity works both ways. If porn pathways aren’t reinforced, they’ll eventually disappear, so the same brain mechanisms that lay down pathways for porn can replace them with something else.

If the time has come for you or someone you love to begin that healing process, read on to learn more about how to get help.

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 unwanted porn habit, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

Fight the New Drug may receive financial support from purchases made using affiliate links.

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