Empty Pursuit: The Dangers of Underestimating Pornography's Effect Pt.II
Pornography is often defended as a victimless pursuit, but it deeply and unequivocally damages millions of lives.
This is not simply a moralistic statement rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics. Nor is it only a narrative informed by the victims of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation behind pornography.
It's brain science.
As a continuation of our series on the effects of pornography, we want readers to understand the science behind our commitment to fighting the ubiquitous nature of pornography in our culture.
The Brain, Porn, and Addiction
The brain is the most complex organ in the body, and arguably, one of the most complex processing systems in the world. The push and pull of intrinsic survival mechanisms, the ability to learn and adapt, and the processing of subjective emotions and experiences are nothing short of miraculous. Even today's artificial intelligence cannot reproduce these mechanisms in their entirety.
Neuroscience has made significant progress in understanding the functionality of the brain, especially how it adapts to experiences. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is responsible for the adaptability of our brain and is activated by the stimuli around us. This can be seen when children learn to walk, to speak, or to read. It is the reason we can learn new languages or develop hobbies. However, it is also responsible for the adaptations of the brain when exposed to trauma and/or in the presence of addictive behaviors (Mavikaki, 2020). Neuroplasticity makes our brains malleable, for better or for worse.
One of the key components of neuroplasticity involves the chemicals that saturate our brains in response to a stimulus. For example, fear produces adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin to simultaneously prepare the body to react to danger and nurture the mind into a more relaxed state so we can regain higher functions (because fear induces a survival state that blocks the higher functioning portions of the brain responsible for critical thinking, abstract understanding, etc.).
A similar reaction takes place within a portion of the amygdala in what is called the "reward system" of our brain when we experience pleasure. In these scenarios, our brain is flooded with dopamine, and then a correlation is formed between the experience and the reward of dopamine.
Our bodies' reactions to fear and reward are both natural and necessary. Neurological pathways are formed based on the associations our brains make with the chemicals released by our brain in response to experiences, both good and bad.
In the case of addiction, researchers are making huge strides in understanding the relationship between the neuroplasticity, the reward system in our brain, and the addictive behavior.
Dr. Valerie Voon is a leading expert on the brain science behind addiction, most notably addiction to pornography. Her study, completed in conjunction with Cambridge University, "found strong evidence of sensitization in compulsive porn users. Sensitization is hyper-reactivity to cues that lead to the craving and then to the use. To put it simply, porn users become super sensitive to things that trigger them, which then gives them the seemingly uncontrollable urge to look at porn" (Voon, 2014).
Dr. Voon was able to prove a physiological shift, as evidenced by brain scans and escalating addictive behavior, in consumers of pornography. This adaptation of the brain is created because the brain begins to associate the consumption of pornography with the dopamine that is released within the brain's reward system. As Dr. Voon noted, "These differences mirror those of drug addicts" (Voon, 2014).
Addiction lowers the individual's tolerance for stress and induces the urge to participate in addictive behavior in order to trigger the reward center to release dopamine and compensate for the stressor. In other words, when a person who is addicted to pornography experiences stress, the body compensates for the stress by relaying messages to the brain urging porn consumption. Dopamine is then released by the reward center, and the cycle is reinforced. This same cycle takes place for habitual users of cocaine (University of Michigan Health System, 2006). Like those addicted to substances, pornography addicts experience a continued decrease in a healthy stress response, an increase in the tolerance for the volume and intensity of pornography, and thereby a consistent rise in the rate of consumption.
As of today, 17 states have declared pornography a public health crisis. Correlations have been recognized between pornography and sexually deviant behavior, sexual violence, high rates of divorce and infidelity, lack of sexual satisfaction including erectile dysfunction, and increased occurrences of mental health crisis within an individual's life (Fight the New Drug, 2022). With evidence of its impact becoming more and more clear, why does pornography continue to be so pervasive in our culture?
The nature of pornography relies upon three engines to thrive: normalization, objectification, and desensitization. In the next installment, we will examine the role of each of these in the perpetuation of porn culture and the ways in which porn leads to detrimental effects for women and girls.