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Your brain on porn

From erectile dysfunction to depression, watching porn rewires the brain
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TIMOTHY LAW/THE VARSITY
TIMOTHY LAW/THE VARSITY

Pornography. We all know of it, and some of us love it. Though we might not be so keen to admit it openly, most of us have probably stumbled upon a slightly not-safe-for-work video in our time on the internet. 

Whether or not users care to confess their habits, the numbers don’t lie. Porn consumption has become increasingly prevalent over the years, with some of its more popular streaming websites such as Pornhub receiving well over 30 billion visits in 2018. With the modern ability to access these websites quickly, anonymously, and for free, it’s no wonder these numbers are so high.

However, this isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. While pornography comes with the promise of satisfaction, the effects that regular use has on the structural and behavioural elements of the brain are anything but satisfying — one of the long-term impacts of seeking out these services is, in effect, a rewiring of the brain.

Why do we consume porn?

There are likely numerous reasons why pornography is so popular — namely, sex is interesting and important to many people. There’s no shame in having sexual desires and interests. 

Sociologically speaking, teenagers and young adults are more inclined to consume pornographic content out of curiosity. After all, in a society where it’s still taboo to talk about sex, the internet is a place where people believe that many of their questions about sex and sexuality can be answered without judgement from others. 

Is this the right answer, though? Certainly, there are better choices for sexual education, especially when you look at the inaccuracies contained within the industry. Furthermore, popular porn websites often contain concerning content — which is an entirely different story. Instead of providing the gratification we expect, a lot of online pornography appears to largely serve in objectifying the woman and weakening the man — psychologically preying on generations of young adults. 

The soft to hard(core) pipeline

When you hear the word ‘porn,’ you might think of the type of media that is available on more explicit websites. The idea of porn isn’t always concrete though — there are depictions of sexual content everywhere, from movies to music videos. This slow, subtle inclusion of explicit content in modern media has led to popular desensitization. Some things aren’t nearly as shocking anymore.

The same is true for explicit pornography — you build up a certain concerning tolerance to explicit content the more you watch it. Analytics from the internet’s beloved Pornhub actually support this notion — ‘vanilla’ sex isn’t as interesting to its users anymore, who are opting for categories that lean more toward topics of violence, incest, and pop culture.

The biology of addiction

Damaging the dopamine reward system may not be on your list of Friday night activities — but if you’re planning on using incognito mode, it might be. 

A look into the neurobiology of addiction shows that natural behaviours such as sex and eating have evolved to activate the dopamine reward system because they are necessary for survival from an evolutionary standpoint. While this is an important adaptation, pornography addiction takes advantage of it in a significant way.

Though there may be differences in the way the reward system is activated as with drugs or alcohol, an individual’s ‘tolerance’ to any dopamine-inducing stimulus can increase if they are continually exposed to it. In terms of porn, this means that regular viewers become more disconnected from reality, relying on videos rather than actively participating in partnered sexual activity. This struggle to have meaningful relationships is harrowing, especially when a multibillion dollar industry lies behind all your choices.

In a more physically evident capacity, some research has strongly linked increased rates of erectile dysfunction and lowered libidos to pornography use, though porn is certainly not the only piece of the puzzle. In younger adults, rates of erectile dysfunction are currently much higher than they should be, and evidence suggests that porn may be a contributing factor. 

Porn and the brain

Do you remember how old you were the first time you came across porn online? Was it maybe younger than you’d like to admit? If so, you’re not alone — the age at which people begin to view pornographic content has unfortunately decreased over the years. 

At a time when the mind is still malleable and feeble, excessive consumption of something like porn hardly has benefits. Plasticity — the brain’s ability to adapt based on experiences — is more prevalent in younger adults. While this is a useful trait, it’s concerning when applied to the idea of teenagers and young adults watching porn, as this is an experience that may take advantage of neural plasticity.

Is there hope for those who are negatively afflicted? Some reports have shown that sexual function can improve again once porn viewing is decreased, but there is still much to learn about the effects that the porn industry has on the human mind. 

While some of this may be speculative, it still offers something to think about. The supposed freedom that comes from the ability to view adult entertainment appears to be affecting us in a negative way — instead of freeing us, it may be suppressing us.