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Who gets Addicted to Pornography and Cybersex?

Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a simple answer to this question.  As with all addictions, the contributing factors are usually many and complex.  The interplay of factors  that result in one person becoming addicted, while another escapes this fate, can be extremely subtle and difficult to unravel. 


man holding smart-phone
The internet makes pornography Accessible, Affordable and Anonymous

Seemingly insignificant differences in life experience, along with an individual’s genetics and biology, can result in very different outcomes for a person.  It is inaccurate and unhelpful to expect to pin-point a singular ‘cause’, as people with almost identical histories can develop very differently.  Our life path is very fragile and slight differences in experience can lead to vastly different outcomes.  Understanding this should help us to avoid placing undue blame on the person or regret about any particular circumstance of their life or particular choice they have made.  This is especially important in relation to sex addiction as the sufferer is already likely to be experiencing significant shame.


Prior to the advent of the internet, pornography addiction was mostly understood to be significantly influenced by early trauma or early attachment disruption.  While this article is not going to explore these areas, it is enough to say that a child whose confidence and self-worth are undermined through abuse, neglect, undermining or humiliation, might well grow to use sex and masturbation as a form of self-soothing  - or as a form of self-harm and confirming feelings of worthlessness.  Sex can also be an effective distraction and comfort from emotional and physical pain.


What a difference the internet makes


The internet, however, has enabled cybersex to be ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’ (to quote the film title).  The internet, particularly with the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), provides unlimited access to an unending supply of novel subjects and behaviours.

It has been understood for decades how the internet provides three of the crucial elements that help maintain porn addiction:  It enables it to be Anonymous; easily Accessible and Affordable – known as the Triple A Engine (Cooper 1998).  It is easy to see how being able to access pornography, in any form, on your smart phone, fully enables accessibility, anonymity and affordability.   These attributes are also well understood in other addictions such as online gambling. 


The way that addiction develops out of innocent pornography use is, however, particularly insidious.


The evidence of how successful the internet is at generating and maintaining pornography use and potential addiction can be seen in the number of people accessing pornographic material.  For example, in 2018, the free pornography website Pornhub reported 92 million users visiting its site each day.  This extremely high use of internet pornography, along with the harms it causes, has led around one third of American states to designate pornography as a public health crisis  (Nelson and Rothman, 2020).  The growth of recovery websites offering advice and support to people struggling with pornography use is also evidence of the scale of the problem.


With any addiction, an investigation into the contribution of previous trauma or early attachment/relationship disruption is fundamental.  However, pornography addiction requires the additional consideration of early exposure to pornographic material.   This is because it effects the development of neural reward circuitry and also the structure of the individual’s ‘arousal template’, or ‘inner map’ in the brain of what we find sexually arousing.  This template of thoughts, images and feelings operates outside of our awareness but guides our choices.  Knowing this can help us to understand how we can end up sat in front of the screen once again when we had promised ourselves that we were going to stop.  In the moment, we are literally not conscious of what is directing our behaviour.


The internet has led to children and adolescents being exposed to pornography at an increasingly early age.  Some research has found the average age of first exposure to pornography to be about 12 (Kraus and Rosenberg, 2014).  An American study found that almost 70% of young people aged 14 – 18 reported having viewed pornography (Wright et al, 2020).  Perhaps recognising the malleability of an adolescent’s brain, some pornography companies have been accused of adopting strategies to attract young users.  Once a young person has arrived on a pornography site, natural curiosity can take over and lead to repeat access.  Furthermore, the viewing of pornography can leave both male and female adolescents feeling inferior to the ‘actors’ they are viewing thus decreasing their sense of self-esteem and self-confidence and generating further need for emotional soothing and distracting – potentially through further use of pornography.


Neuroscience of pornography addiction


Sex is a naturally rewarding activity.  The experience of ‘pleasure’ comes from the activity of a range of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, during the seeking and arousal phase, and natural opioids during consummation.   That sex should be pleasurable and rewarding makes perfect sense from a ‘species survival’ viewpoint as partnered sex is vital for the production of our next human generation and the passing on of our genetic code.  The reward experienced during sexual activity encourages the repetition of the behaviour. 

However, pornography clearly does not contribute to species survival but still activates the neural reward circuitry that tells our brain that it is an important activity that should be repeated (Doige, 2007).


two kangaroos on a beech
That sex should be pleasurable and rewarding makes perfect sense from a 'species survival' viewpoint

A number of researchers have come to label pornography as a ‘supernormal stimulus’ – an artificially exaggerated version of something that is naturally stimulating and towards which, as a species, we have evolved a tendency to respond.  Examples of this are also found in the animal kingdom such as the male stickleback fish who ignore female sticklebacks in favour of artificial females with rounder bellies.  Or the birds who care for fake, brightly coloured eggs and neglect their own less colourful eggs.  What is shown is that fakes and dummies have more attraction power than the natural stimuli.


In fact anything artificial that copies, but is more exaggerated and potent in relevant elements, can become a supernormal stimulus.  It is not difficult to see how exaggerated and enhanced pornographic images and videos of perpetually available potential sexual partners would attract our natural instinct for sexual activity – they present an artificial exaggeration of an ideal, natural sexual partner who would be sought for bonding and reproduction.  But remember that this attraction is primarily happening outside of our awareness and can leave pornography addicts confused and ashamed at their continued return to adult websites.


Pornography is shown to promote more reward pathway activation than a natural stimulus and it causes a surge of dopamine release.  Given that dopamine is implicated in ‘wanting’ and ‘desire’ and it effects our behaviours of ‘seeking out’ and ‘pursuing’, the effect that pornography has on our brains starts to become clearer.  Dopamine also has a role in programming memories and information into the brain. This adaption means that when the body requires something, like food or sex, the brain remembers where to return to experience the same pleasure.  Furthermore, dopamine consolidates neural pathways related to behaviours and strengthens these neural connections.  So the recurring dopamine release that accompanies repeated pornography use strengthens the networks that pair pornography with the sense of reward.  Knowing this, we can now see how behaviours around pornography easily become compulsive and out of the user’s control.  It is additionally worth noting that dopamine release is also triggered by novelty.  Internet pornography has potentially unlimited novelty and the dopamine released by viewing it can fuel the drive for users to keep seeking new types of pornography.  Just as with drug use, pornography users develop a tolerance to the type of pornography they are viewing and often seek progressively more extreme forms just to experience the same level of stimulation – further adding to their shame and confusion.


The desensitization of our reward circuitry sets the stage for sexual dysfunctions to develop, but the repercussions don’t end there. Studies show that changes in the transmission of dopamine can facilitate depression and anxiety. In fact, porn consumers report greater depressive symptoms, lower quality of life and poorer mental health compared to those who don’t watch porn.


Another compelling finding  is that compulsive porn users find themselves wanting and needing more porn, even though they don’t necessarily like it. This disconnect between wanting and liking is a hallmark feature of reward circuitry dysregulation.

Porn use has been linked with erosion of the prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain that houses executive functions like morality, willpower and impulse control.  The function of this part of the brain remains underdeveloped during childhood which  is why children struggle to regulate their emotions and impulses. Damage to the prefrontal cortex in adulthood is termed hypofrontality, which predisposes an individual to behave compulsively and make poor decisions.  It is somewhat ironic that adult sexual entertainment may revert our brain wiring to a more juvenile state.


Despite much pornographic material being free, there are no public health warnings or obvious negative consequences – until you find you are hooked.  In a survey by Hall (2013), she found that 20% of people said that not knowing that sex could be addictive was actually the most influential factor in them becoming addicted. 


Who becomes addicted?


But sexual experimentation is healthy, commonplace and natural – so why do only some people get trapped by addiction?  What follows are some suggestions by Paula Hall (2017) a psychotherapist specialising in pornography addiction:


Managing cybersex addiction is inevitably going to require some degree of self-control.  We first learn to develop our self-control during childhood.  Often, in the context of addiction, people have been raised in a family where rules have been strict and children haven’t been able to make decisions for themselves.  Therefore the skill of ‘self-management’ is not learned.  Overly strict parenting can lead to an adolescent or adult becoming rebellious and refusing to be controlled by anything or anybody regardless of the consequences.  Alternatively, the ‘rebellion’ can be acted out in secret.  The opposite form of parenting, where there is an absence of rules and boundaries, can result in a child growing up without ever knowing the benefits of moderating their behaviour.


A vital life-skill is the ability to manage emotions and problems in a healthy way that allows validation of our difficult feelings while also being able to manage them.  A child raised in a family where emotions are suppressed grows up lacking awareness of what their feelings mean while the feelings are still operating and guiding their behaviour.  Alternatively, a family where emotions are overly expressed without restraint can be a very frightening environment for a child and can feel extremely unsafe.  Sex and pornography can be a highly effective way of diverting and distracting from painful emotions.  Of course, it does not teach us how to authentically experience and express our emotions so is only ever a ‘quick fix’.


Over 40% of people surveyed about their pornography addiction said that they were aware of secrets in their childhood family.  These may be secrets, for example, about domestic violence or poverty and personal secrets about sexuality or alcoholism.  So a child learns to keep a public persona of decency so that the less acceptable aspects of their life are not spoken about.  This family culture sets up a framework for leading a double life where living with double standards is felt as normal.  Of course, this is a perfect context in which cyber-pornography can thrive.  The experience of childhood shame is also correlated with cybersex addiction.  When a child learns that they are different  or ‘unworthy’ – maybe because of racial or religious shaming, or that they are personally bad rather than that they just made a mistake, shame is the common outcome.  Shame is perhaps the most painful and unwanted emotion and anonymous sexual activity provides emotional soothing while avoiding the risk of any further shaming that might be, unconsciously, feared from a ‘real life’ relationship.  Shame and secrecy can be a foundation for keeping a part of oneself hidden in intimate relationships– even in an otherwise loving and healthy partnership.


Many people with any kind of pornography addiction report being brought up to feel ashamed of their sexuality and therefore find it difficult to express it in a healthy way.    Wider messages from the media can teach us beliefs such as ‘men are sexual predators’, or ‘women don’t like sex’ which can then lead to secret or paid-for sexual encounters.  However, some other people are brought up to believe that sex is such a primary need that there is no requirement for the emotional consideration of self or other.  Sex then becomes an activity devoid of ongoing emotional intimacy and mutual care.


Many pornography addicts report that, as adolescents, they often experienced loneliness, low self-esteem and a sense of separateness and state this as a key element of beginning their pornography addiction.  For a very wide range of reasons, very many sex addicts in one survey reported feeling different and left out as an adolescent and attribute loneliness at that time as a key determinant of their starting to use pornography.


Summary


Given the Triple A Engine of internet pornography (described above), and the effect on neural development and structure, it is perhaps surprising that more people are not seeking help for pornography addiction. Although there are an increasing number of organisations offering support, advice and information, maybe shame and guilt prevent people coming forward to access it.  Perhaps the flood of people struggling with internet pornography addiction is yet to become apparent.



This has been just a ‘whistle stop tour’ of how a person can find themselves hooked on pornography and end up feeling trapped in a compulsive cycle of repeated use.  However, I hope it has highlighted:


  • Our natural tendency to seek sexual reward

  • The role of the porn industry in exploiting this tendency

  • The unconscious nature of what drives our motivations

  • The neurological changes that happen in response to ‘supernormal’ stimuli

  • The often small variations in life experiences that make someone vulnerable to porn use and subsequent addiction


Please note that this has been a small window into a vast and multi-layered topic.

 

Sources:

Cooper, A (1998).  Sexuality and the Internet:  Surfing into the New Millenium.  Cyberpsychology and Behaviour, 1, 187 – 193.  https://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.1998.1.187


Doige,N.  (2007)  The Brain that Changes Itself:  Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.  Penguin Group


Hall, P (2017).  Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction.  Routledge

Kraus, S & Rosenberg, H (2014).  The Pornography Craving Questionnaire:  Psychometric Properties.  Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 43, 451-462.  https://doi.org//10.1007/s10508-013-0229-3


Nelson, K M and Rothman E F (2020)  Should Public Health Professionals consider Pornography a Public Health Crisis?  American Journal of Public Health, 110, 151-153.  https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305498


Wright, PJ., Herbenick, D., & Paul, B (2020)  Adolescent condom use, parent-adolescent sexual health communication and pornography:  Findings from a US probability sample.  Health Communication, 35, 1576-1582.  https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2019.1652392

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