There are no scientific studies that say porn is addictive, right?

Printer-friendly version

Research is beginning to confirm that pornography addiction is a true addiction, like gambling

Not anymore. Soon this faq will be obsolete. See this page which is continuously updated - Brain Studies on Porn Users

See this 2015 paper by two medical doctors: Sex Addiction as a Disease: Evidence for Assessment, Diagnosis, and Response to Critics (2015), which provides a chart from that takes on specific criticisms and offers citations that counter them. For a thorough review of the neuroscience literature related to Internet addiction subtypes, with special focus on internet porn addiction, see - Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update (2015). The review also critiques two recent headline-grabbing EEG studies which purport to have "debunked porn addiction".

Recent studies assessing brain structure & functioning of Internet porn users:

  1. Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption: The Brain on Porn (2014) - A German fMRI study which found 3 significant addiction-related brain changes correlating with the amount of porn consumed. It also found that more porn use correlated with less reward circuit activation while viewing sexual photos. Researchers stated their findings indicated desensitization, and possibly tolerance, the need for greater stimulation.
  2. Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours (2014) - The first in a series of Cambridge University studies found the same brain activity as seen in drug addicts and alcoholics. It also found that porn addicts fit the accepted addiction model of wanting "it" more, but not liking "it" more. The researchers also reported that 60% of subjects (average age: 25) had difficulty achieving erections/arousal with real partners, yet could achieve erections with porn.
  3. Enhanced Attentional Bias towards Sexually Explicit Cues in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours (2014) - The second Cambridge University study. An excerpt: "Our findings of enhanced attentional bias... suggest possible overlaps with enhanced attentional bias observed in studies of drug cues in disorders of addictions. These findings converge with recent findings of neural reactivity to sexually explicit cues in [porn addicts] in a network similar to that implicated in drug-cue-reactivity studies and provide support for incentive motivation theories of addiction underlying the aberrant response to sexual cues in [porn addicts]."
  4. Novelty, Conditioning and Attentional Bias to Sexual Rewards (2015) - Compared to controls porn addicts preferred sexual novelty and conditioned cues associated porn. However, the brains of porn addicts habituated faster to sexual images. Since novelty preference wasn't pre-existing, porn addiction drives novelty-seeking in an attempt to overcome habituation and desensitization.
  5. Neural Substrates of Sexual Desire in Individuals with Problematic Hypersexual Behavior (2015) - This Korean fMRI study replicates other brain studies on porn users. Like the Cambridge University studies it found cue-induced brain activation patterns in sex addicts which mirrored the patterns of drug addicts. In line with several German studies it found alterations in the prefrontal cortex which match the changes observed in drug addicts.
  6. Sexual Desire, not Hypersexuality, is Related to Neurophysiological Responses Elicited by Sexual Images (2013) - This EEG study was touted in the media as evidence against the existence of porn addiction. Not so. This SPAN Lab study, like #5 below, actually supports the existence of porn addiction. Why? The study reported higher EEG readings (P300) when subjects were exposed to porn photos. Studies consistently show that an elevated P300 occurs when addicts are exposed to cues (such as images) related to their addiction. However, the study had no control group for comparison, which made the findings uninterpretable. In line with the Cambridge studies, the authors reported greater cue-reactivity to porn correlated with less desire for partnered sex. Nether finding matched the headlines. Read more.
  7. Modulation of Late Positive Potentials by Sexual Images in Problem Users and Controls Inconsistent with "Porn Addiction" (2015) - Another SPAN Lab EEG study comparing the 2013 subjects from the above study to an actual control group. The results: compared to controls porn addicts had less response to photos of vanilla porn. The lead author, Nicole Prause, claims these results debunk porn addiction, yet these findings align perfectly with Kühn & Gallinat (2014), which found that more porn use correlated with less brain activation in response to pictures of vanilla porn. In other words, "porn addicts" were desensitized and needed greater stimulation than non-addicts. Big surprise (read more).
  8. HPA axis dysregulation in men with hypersexual disorder (2015) - The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis is the central player in our stress response. Addictions alter the brain's stress circuits leading to a dysfunctional HPA axis. This study on sex addicts (hypersexuals) found altered stress responses that mirror drug addiction.
  9. Increased sensitivity to erotic reward cues in subjects with compulsive sexual behaviors (2015) - This upcoming fMRI study compared reward center activity of controls to compulsive porn users. Compared to controls compulsive porn users had far greater reward center activity and attentional bias when exposed to sexual cues. Both findings align with the two Cambridge studies (above), and the accepted model of addiction - incentive sensitization.
  10. Ventral striatum activity when watching preferred pornographic pictures is correlated with symptoms of Internet pornography addiction (2016) - Finding #1: Reward center activity (ventral striatum) was higher for preferred pornographic pictures. Finding #2: Ventral striatum reactivity correlated with the internet sex addiction score. Both findings indicate sensitization and align with the addiction model. The authors state that the "Neural basis of Internet pornography addiction is comparable to other addictions."
  11. Neurobiology of Compulsive Sexual Behavior: Emerging Science (2016) - Excerpt: "Given some similarities between CSB and drug addictions, interventions effective for addictions may hold promise for CSB, thus providing insight into future research directions to investigate this possibility directly."

Together these brain studies found:

  1. The 3 major addiction-related brain changes: sensitization, desensitization, and hypofrontality.
  2. More porn use correlated with less grey matter in the reward circuit (dorsal striatum).
  3. More porn use correlated with less reward circuit activation when viewing sexual images.
  4. More porn use correlated with disrupted neural connections between the reward circuit and prefrontal cortex.
  5. Addicts had greater prefrontal activity to sexual cues, but less brain activity to normal stimuli (matches drug addiction).
  6. 60% of compulsive porn addicted subjects in one study experienced ED or low libido with partners, but not with porn: all stated that internet porn use caused their ED/low libido.
  7. Enhanced attentional bias comparable to drug users. Indicates sensitization (a product of DeltaFosb).
  8. Greater wanting & craving for porn, but not greater liking. This aligns with the accepted model of addiction - incentive sensitization.
  9. The younger the porn users the greater the cue-induced reactivity in the reward center.
  10. Higher EEG (P300) readings when porn users were exposed to porn cues (which occurs in other addictions).
  11. Less desire for sex with a person correlating with greater cue-reactivity to porn images.
  12. More porn use related with lower LPP amplitude when viewing sexual photos: indicates habituation or desensitization.
  13. Dysfunctional HPA axis which reflects altered brain stress circuits.

Neuro-Psychological Studies on Porn Users (with excerpts):

  1. Watching Pornographic Pictures on the Internet: Role of Sexual Arousal Ratings and Psychological-Psychiatric Symptoms for Using Internet Sex Sites Excessively (2011) - Results indicate that self-reported problems in daily life linked to online sexual activities were predicted by subjective sexual arousal ratings of the pornographic material, global severity of psychological symptoms, and the number of sex applications used when being on Internet sex sites in daily life, while the time spent on Internet sex sites (minutes per day) did not significantly contribute to explanation of variance in IATsex score. We see some parallels between cognitive and brain mechanisms potentially contributing to the maintenance of excessive cybersex and those described for individuals with substance dependence
  2. Pornographic picture processing interferes with working memory performance (2013) - Some individuals report problems during and after Internet sex engagement, such as missing sleep and forgetting appointments, which are associated with negative life consequences. One mechanism potentially leading to these kinds of problems is that sexual arousal during Internet sex might interfere with working memory (WM) capacity, resulting in a neglect of relevant environmental information and therefore disadvantageous decision making. Results revealed worse WM performance in the pornographic picture condition of the 4-back task compared with the three remaining picture conditions. Findings are discussed with respect to Internet addiction because WM interference by addiction-related cues is well known from substance dependencies.
  3. Sexual Picture Processing Interferes with Decision-Making Under Ambiguity (2013) - Decision-making performance was worse when sexual pictures were associated with disadvantageous card decks compared to performance when the sexual pictures were linked to the advantageous decks. Subjective sexual arousal moderated the relationship between task condition and decision-making performance. This study emphasized that sexual arousal interfered with decision-making, which may explain why some individuals experience negative consequences in the context of cybersex use.
  4. Cybersex addiction: Experienced sexual arousal when watching pornography and not real-life sexual contacts makes the difference (2013) - The results show that indicators of sexual arousal and craving to Internet pornographic cues predicted tendencies towards cybersex addiction in the first study. Moreover, it was shown that problematic cybersex users report greater sexual arousal and craving reactions resulting from pornographic cue presentation. In both studies, the number and the quality with real-life sexual contacts were not associated to cybersex addiction. The results support the gratification hypothesis, which assumes reinforcement, learning mechanisms, and craving to be relevant processes in the development and maintenance of cybersex addiction. Poor or unsatisfying sexual real life contacts cannot sufficiently explain cybersex addiction.
  5. Empirical Evidence and Theoretical Considerations on Factors Contributing to Cybersex Addiction From a Cognitive-Behavioral View (2014) - Dysfunctional use of sex mediated the relationship of sexual excitability with cybersex addiction (CA). The results of the study show that there are factors of vulnerability to CA and provide evidence for the role of sexual gratification and dysfunctional coping in the development of cybersex addiction.
  6. Cybersex addiction in heterosexual female users of internet pornography can be explained by gratification hypothesis (2014) - Results indicated that Internet porn users rated pornographic pictures as more arousing and reported greater craving due to pornographic picture presentation compared with non-users. Moreover, craving, sexual arousal rating of pictures, sensitivity to sexual excitation, problematic sexual behavior, and severity of psychological symptoms predicted tendencies toward cybersex addiction in porn users. Being in a relationship, number of sexual contacts, satisfaction with sexual contacts, and use of interactive cybersex were not associated with cybersex addiction.
  7. Prefrontal control and internet addiction: a theoretical model and review of neuropsychological and neuroimaging findings (2015) - Consistent with this, results from functional neuroimaging and other neuropsychological studies demonstrate that cue-reactivity, craving, and decision making are important concepts for understanding Internet addiction. The findings on reductions in executive control are consistent with other behavioral addictions, such as pathological gambling. They also emphasize the classification of the phenomenon as an addiction, because there are also several similarities with findings in substance dependency.  Moreover, the results of the current study are comparable to findings from substance dependency research and emphasize analogies between cybersex addiction and substance dependencies or other behavioral addictions.
  8. Implicit associations in cybersex addiction: Adaption of an Implicit Association Test with pornographic pictures. (2015) - Recent studies show similarities between cybersex addiction and substance dependencies and argue to classify cybersex addiction as a behavioral addiction. In substance dependency, implicit associations are known to play a crucial role. Results show positive relationships between implicit associations of pornographic pictures with positive emotions and tendencies towards cybersex addiction, problematic sexual behavior, sensitivity towards sexual excitation as well as subjective craving.
  9. Symptoms of cybersex addiction can be linked to both approaching and avoiding pornographic stimuli: results from an analog sample of regular cybersex users (2015) - Results showed that individuals with tendencies toward cybersex addiction tended to either approach or avoid pornographic stimuli. Additionally, moderated regression analyses revealed that individuals with high sexual excitation and problematic sexual behavior who showed high approach/avoidance tendencies, reported higher symptoms of cybersex addiction. Analogous to substance dependencies, results suggest that both approach and avoidance tendencies might play a role in cybersex addiction.
  10. Getting stuck with pornography? Overuse or neglect of cybersex cues in a multitasking situation is related to symptoms of cybersex addiction (2015) - Individuals with tendencies towards cybersex addiction seem to have either an inclination to avoid or to approach the pornographic material, as discussed in motivational models of addiction. The results of the current study point towards a role of executive control functions, i.e. functions mediated by the prefrontal cortex, for the development and maintenance of problematic cybersex use (as suggested by Brand et al., 2014). Particularly a reduced ability to monitor consumption and to switch between pornographic material and other contents in a goal adequate manner may be one mechanism in the development and maintenance of cybersex addiction.
  11. Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting (2015) - Study 1: Participants completed a pornography use questionnaire and a delay discounting task at Time 1 and then again four weeks later. Participants reporting higher initial pornography use demonstrated a higher delay discounting rate at Time 2, controlling for initial delay discounting. Study 2:  Participants who abstained from pornography use demonstrated lower delay discounting than participants who abstained from their favorite food. The finding suggests that Internet pornography is a sexual reward that contributes to delay discounting differently than other natural rewards. It is therefore important to treat pornography as a unique stimulus in reward, impulsivity, and addiction studies and to apply this accordingly in individual as well as relational treatment.
  12. Sexual Excitability and Dysfunctional Coping Determine Cybersex Addiction in Homosexual Males (2015) - Recent findings have demonstrated an association between CyberSex Addiction (CA) severity and indicators of sexual excitability, and that coping by sexual behaviors mediated the relationship between sexual excitability and CA symptoms. The aim of this study was to test this mediation in a sample of homosexual males.  Questionnaires assessed symptoms of CA, sensitivity to sexual excitation, pornography use motivation, problematic sexual behavior, psychological symptoms, and sexual behaviors in real life and online. Moreover, participants viewed pornographic videos and indicated their sexual arousal before and after the video presentation. Results showed strong correlations between CA symptoms and indicators of sexual arousal and sexual excitability, coping by sexual behaviors, and psychological symptoms. CA was not associated with offline sexual behaviors and weekly cybersex use time. Coping by sexual behaviors partially mediated the relationship between sexual excitability and CA. The results are comparable with those reported for heterosexual males and females in previous studies and are discussed against the background of theoretical assumptions of CA, which highlight the role of positive and negative reinforcement due to cybersex use.

While we wait for further brain studies on porn use, over 130 brain studies have already confirmed that "Internet addicts" develop the same major brain changes that occur in all addictions  However, these studies did not separate out porn addiction from other types of Internet addictions. Who uses the Internet for only porn? (See: Internet Addiction Summaries, Recent Internet Addiction Brain Studies Include Porn, and Internet Addiction Studies Containing Excerpts About Porn).

Why so few studies on porn users? Sexual politics discourage isolating porn use from other forms of Internet activities. Unfortunately, this could be obscuring the increased vulnerability of those pursuing cybersex/porn. A 2006 Dutch study found that erotica had the highest addictive potential of all Internet applications. No wonder. Internet erotica is an extreme version of a natural reward that we're all wired to pursue: apparent mating opportunities.

So yes, there is evidence of Internet addiction, which includes some porn use, and one strong study isolating self-identified porn addicts. Meanwhile, the “little scientific evidence” argument is not a sound argument where there has not been much in-depth study. Keep in mind that the tobacco companies long used the "little scientific evidence" argument to defend against the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that cigarettes were lethal. In fact, they hired doctors to do commercials assuring smokers that "Smoking is good for your lungs."

Science marches faster with less controversial behavioral addictions. Every month, new studies appear showing addictive processes in the brains of others who have used super normal versions of natural rewards to excess (gamblers, over-eaters, video gamers etc.). This is why, in 2011, the 3000 doctors of the American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) came out with a public statement clarifying that behavioral addictions (sex, food, gambling) are fundamentally like substance addictions in terms of brain changes.

We all have the brain reward circuitry that makes food and sex rewarding. In fact, this is a survival mechanism. In a healthy brain, these rewards have feedback mechanisms for satiety or ‘enough.’ In someone with addiction, the circuitry becomes dysfunctional such that the message to the individual becomes ‘more’, which leads to the pathological pursuit of rewards and/or relief through the use of substances and behaviors.— The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)

Here's a excellent peer-reviewed journal article of where addiction neuroscience is with respect to porn addiction: Pornography addiction – a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity (2013).

As stated, researchers have already looked into the brains of over-eaters, Internet users and video gamers (and drug addicts). In each case, researchers have discovered that non-drug stimuli at sufficient intensity cause three major brain changes caused by addiction - desensitization, sensitization, and hypofrontality.

Moreover, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of Internet porn addiction. Self-reports of distressed users—more and more of them in their twenties or even younger—recount:

The assumption among non-addiction experts is that these users are a tiny minority with preexisting conditions that make them uniquely vulnerable to addiction ('impulsives' or 'novelty-seekers,' perhaps). Yet when they stop overstimulating their brains, many bounce back to excellent emotional health. This suggests that "normal" brains are vulnerable to today's hypersexual stimulation.

The fact that not everyone who uses porn uses it to a point where it interferes with his life doesn’t prove it cannot cause addiction. Not everyone who uses alcohol becomes an alcoholic, yet alcohol is unquestionably potentially addictive. Some experts meanwhile hesitate to label compulsive Internet porn use as an addiction because past research hasn't sufficiently revealed the withdrawal and tolerance phenomena. However, it’s considered likely that the “missing” research is due to methodological challenges rather than the absence of the phenomena themselves. In the absence of formal research, here are numerous self-reports of withdrawal symptoms and evidence of tolerance culled from anonymous online posts of recovering users:

The upper limit of natural dopamine release is sex. In theory, porn cannot be higher than sex. Obviously, most people have sex without becoming addicted to it. This is very confusing, and one reason why most psychologists don't believe porn addiction exists. However, it's likely that

  1. chronic use (many hits on demand, like smoking packs of cigarettes, which is very addictive—more so than heroin use, in fact, because the latter happens with less frequency even though the buzz is bigger), and
  2. overriding natural satiation mechanisms

both contribute to dopamine dysregulation and addiction.

With respect to the first point, there are likely to be more Internet porn addicts in the making than sex addicts, because a porn user can obtain constant hits of dopamine merely by clicking, whereas a sex addict must go through an entire seduction or other ritual. With respect to the second point about overriding normal satiety, consider obese people for a moment. Brain research shows that most are addicted to food, i.e., that their dopamine receptors have declined. Yet eating fattening or sweet food releases only half as much dopamine as sex/masturbation. Overriding feelings of fullness/satiety (eating when you're not really hungry, masturbating when you're not really horny) causes dopamine dysregulation.

Dopamine levels in response to food and sex

There's also something called 'sensitization' at work in addicts' brains. For example, the reward circuitry immediately releases a special protein (DeltaFosB) when rats are given addictive drugs or access to high fat, high sugar foods, This causes the animal to crave more of the drug or the food. The craving leads to more use, and a buildup of DeltaFosB, which intensifies the cravings for more, and so on. This is behind cue sensitivity, which the Cambridge study has confirmed in porn addicts.

Time for informed choices

Now that so many Internet users have unrestricted access to today’s porn they need to be able to make informed choices about its effects. Informed choice calls for in-depth research about the longer-term effects of the frequent use of hypersexual materials. (Yet, even in the absence of the ideal research, which may never make it through ethics committees, it is wise to make personal experiments and draw your own conclusions.)

It would be good to know:

  • How many users are showing symptoms?
  • Are “impulsives” and “novelty-seekers” the only ones at risk, or can average brains become dysregulated over time?
  • How many compulsive Internet porn users had no other addiction prior to use?
  • How long does it typically take heavy users to progress from asymptomatic to symptomatic? (In this regard, most of the users who have offered their self-reports firmly believed Internet porn was harmless for years before their symptoms gradually became too severe to ignore.)
  • Are porn users inadvertently rewiring their sexual tastes as they seek escalating stimulation to “self-medicate” the discomfort of dopamine dysregulation?
  • Are youthful erectile dysfunction and numbed clitorises from vibrator use (which women report) related to dopamine dysregulation?
  • Is there a trend toward compulsive use, such that the percentage of porn addicts rises as stimuli grow more extreme?
  • Are pubescent/adolescent brains more vulnerable to porn addiction than adult brains?
  • How long does it take the brains of those adversely affected to bounce back to normal sensitivity when they quit, and what turning points reflect which neurochemical events?

Fifty years ago, as our diet was flooded with junk-food, our culture assumed that self-control would protect people against obesity—except for an unlucky few who were predisposed to become fat due to genetic vulnerability. Today, 79% of Americans have a BMI of 25+ (18.5-24.9 is normal, 30 obese), and about half of those are already at 30+. And the USA is only the eighth fattest country. As our diets have changed, so have our appetites. Our ability to register satiety has declined. Can we assume self-control is adequate protection against this phenomenon in the case of porn consumption?

Just as our ancestors didn’t have access to plentiful, cheap food calculated to titillate human taste buds, they also didn’t have access to novel sexual titillation at a mouse click. Numbed brains seek more stimulation, so the ubiquitous options to goose the brain by clicking to porn or gulping a soda constitute a risk (of further brain desensitization/appetite dysregulation) that past generations didn’t face. It’s possible that “unnatural” versions of natural reinforcers may put at risk more of the user population than do other addictive substances/behaviors.

A rapidly changing reality, such as the recent lightening-like transition from porn magazines to Internet pornography, can leave research behind the curve. Perhaps the necessary brain research on porn users and recovered porn users could help both sides of the noisy porn debate to see which fears are well grounded and which make the effects of porn more dangerous by making its use risky or forbidden.

Comments

Addiction is the use of something where you can no longer manage the use and the resulting behavior.

Unmanageability:

--Do you use it to escape life or cope with life?
--Has your social life suffered ? Have you deliberately made excuses not to do something with friends or gf in order to stay home and PMO ?
--Does it interfere with normal day-to-day activities, getting to bed at a decent hour, getting to work on time (because you PMO before work, school or social events and end up being late)
--Can you avoid doing it when you are alone, or not? Do you deliberately schedule a time to do so  ? Do you feel guilt and shame after but can't keep from repeating ?
--Has it become a "ritual"on the computer (after completing all of the work, checking email, checking the news, then you fap) or are you able to stop and leave.
--Have you spent an entire day(s) looking , stopping only to use the bathroom or eat ?
--Do you feel you "deserve" to do be able to do so ? 
--Have the scenes you remember become a regular part of your masturbation , without the computer?
--Do you use what you have viewed as part of your fantasy in sex with your woman or are you in the moment, can you block out the memory, are you serving the needs of the partner  ?

Those are some questions I can come up with as to it not being manageable--

Think back honestly and what "got you off" before and what it takes now. If it is always something a little bit more "interesting" than before (the old scenes don't do anything), you are developing tolerance . That is the pornography "hook"