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What you should know about the addiction aspect of pornography

Addiction can manifest in many forms. Individuals can find themselves addicted to chemical substances, in addition to processes and behaviors. Process addictions, such as a pornography addiction, are equally as damaging to the brain as substance-related addiction, and therefore can lead to significant impact on one’s mental health. 

The Bible’s teaching on sexuality and the inherent dignity of all people should lead us to declare that pornography is a moral scourge, with spiritual consequences for all of those involved. But as we seek to serve those affected by it, research has provided us an opportunity to also understand the physical realities pornography inflicts upon a person. 

Today, more than half of the global population has access to the internet. While the growth of access to the internet can be viewed as something positive in general, it can also be viewed as something negative, or harmful. The ability to access internet pornography is now easy and anonymous and has opened the door for a serious health crisis. Pornography has even been referred to as the “new drug” to fight in the world of addictions. 

Pornography: What, when and where

Sexual material on the internet can take a variety of forms ranging from educational information about sexual practices to real-time, virtual sex shows. It is difficult to define but many scholars agree that at the most basic level, pornography is any sexually arousing material used as a sexual outlet. 1Grubbs, J. B., Kraus, S. W., & Perry, S. L. (2019). Self-reported addiction to pornography in a nationally representative sample: The roles of use habits, religiousness, and moral incongruence. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. 8, 88–93.

Pornographic material can include:

  • sexually explicit photographs in magazines,
  • movies,
  • internet images or online audio,
  • webcam footage,
  • computer-generated pornography,
  • and sexually explicit pictures texted via mobile devices (Giordano, 2021).

With the emergence of virtual reality (VR) came the arrival of VR porn, which creates unique experiences from two-dimensional pornography. 2Elsey, J. W. B., van Andel, K., Kater, R. B., Reints, I. M., & Spiering, M. (2019). The impact of virtual reality versus 2D pornography on sexual arousal and presence. Computers in Human Behavior. 97, 35–43.

And pornography can be classified as softcore, hardcore, and illegal/deviant. 3Doring, N. M. (2009). The internet’s impact on sexuality: A critical review of 15 years of research. Computers in Human Behavior. 25, 1089–1101.

The pornography industry is estimated to make approximately 16.9 billion dollars each year, and their product is primarily viewed on the internet. 4Pornography facts and statistics: The recovery village. (2021, February 25). Retrieved December 1, 2022, from

How is pornography being accessed? Data from PornHub Insights—part of the largest online pornography company in the world—revealed that 86% of the site’s traffic comes from mobile devices. Moreover, using smartphones to access free pornography online is the most common means of viewing pornographic material. 5Herbenick, D., Fu, T. C., Wright, P., Paul, B., Gradus, R., Bauer, J., & Jones, R. (2020). Diverse sexual behaviors and pornogprahy use: Findings from a nationally representative probability survey of Americans aged 18 to 60 years. Journal of Sexual Medicine. 17, 623–633. & Ma CM, Shek DT. Consumption of pornographic materials in early adolescents in Hong Kong. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol. 2013 Jun;26(3 Suppl):S18-25. doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2013.03.011. PMID: 23683822.Therefore, pornographic material can be accessed anytime, anywhere, via smartphones.

How porn affects the person and the brain

Easy access to the cyber pornography industry is an emerging health crisis. Individuals who struggle with addictive disorders may find themselves:

  • engaging in addictive behaviors more frequently over time,
  • may spend an increased amount of time seeking the behavior,
  • may experience increased desires to engage in the behavior,
  • may also experience an inability to decrease their engagement.

Addiction is considered a progressive disorder, which, over time, may begin to cause negative implications on one’s psychological, physical, and interpersonal aspects of life.

Pornography can literally rewire the brain. Viewing pornography begins to change the brain long before one may meet the criteria to be considered a compulsive viewer.

Sex is a naturally rewarding activity, activating the release of several neurotransmitters such as dopamine during sexual arousal and endogenous opioids during sexual consummation. 6Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Penguin Group. Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes one feel good, causing individuals to search and seek a pleasurable reward. The viewing of pornography engages the reward circuit in the brain each time viewers click for new content. And research supports the conclusion that continued pornography use can lead to neuroplastic change,7 ibid. & Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography addiction- A supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology, 3, 20767. particularly in the arousal template. 8Carnes, P. J. (2001). Cybersex, courtship, and escalating arousal: Factors in addictive sexual desire. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. 8, 25–78. & Carnes, P., Delmonico, D. L., & Griffin, E. (2007). In the shadows of the net: Breaking free of compulsive online sexual behavior (2nd ed.). Hazelden.

The sensations experienced when the reward (the material) is obtained (through a click), begin to fire together, causing neurons in the limbic system to rewire together. The limbic system supports long-term memory, behaviors, and emotions while ultimately storing the content viewed on internet pornography for the brain to retrieve again if wanted later.

Those who are “addicted” to pornography may view greater amounts and times of pornography. Recognizing that the use is hindering functioning in other areas of life, yet feeling as though one is unable to refrain and or stop viewing the material is common. When pornography begins to “hijack” the brain, viewers may find that their viewing of content poses physical and social risks.

A 2014 survey reported that 63% of men and 36% of women have engaged in watching pornography at work. 9Hesch, J. (2018, June 30). 2014 survey: Find out how many employees are watching porn on company time. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from Pornography viewing is also linked to relationship and sexual problems. In almost 60 studies, the outcome showed that pornography viewing reduced relationships and sexual satisfaction (Your Brain On Porn, 2021).

A study conducted in Sweden in 2013 explored the impact that pornography viewing has on the brain. Using a 3-T Scanner for images of participants’ brains, researchers found that pornography viewing frequently had a significant impact on the gray matter within the brain. It was evident in the scans when patients’ brains were activating pornography material, which supports neurons anticipating a reward. Due to the anticipation, additional striatal neurons 10The striatum contains neuronal activity related to movements, rewards and the conjunction of both movement and reward. Striatal neurons show activity related to the preparation, initiation and execution of movements (Hollerman et al., 2000) are fired in hopes of a greater reward, causing an increase in gray matter.11 Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 827. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.93

The stimulation from the pornography viewing is known to stimulate other areas of the brain causing an increase in the dysfunction of the circuit which can lead to drug seeking, and negative behavioral changes. Past studies for internet addiction (IA) have also shown changes in the brain including but not limited to decrease pre-frontal cortical thickness and decreases in function. The prefrontal cortex is a multifaceted region of the brain that controls one’s ability to learn new rules, exhibit executive functioning, and decipher amongst conflicts such as good and bad, present consequence and future consequences.

Types of pornography viewers

The three main types of pornography viewers include: recreational, highly distressed non-compulsive viewers, and compulsive viewers.

Recreational: One study indicates that 75.5% of recreational viewers of pornography reported that on average they watched just under 30 minutes of pornography a week.12 Vaillancourt-Morel, M., Blais-Lecours, S., Labadie, C., Bergeron, S., Sabourin, S., & Godbout, N. (2017). Response to editorial comment: “profiles of cyberpornography use and sexual well-being in adults”. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 14(1), 87. doi:10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.11.320 Recreational viewers self-report that the viewing of the cyberpornography does not cause distress, and it feels enjoyable. Users in this category report their lifestyle functioning has not be changed due to viewing the material, and it has not negatively impacted their relationship or sex life. 

Highly distressed non-compulsive: The second classification is called a highly distressed non-compulsive viewer. Nearly 13% of pornography viewers belong in this category of use. These viewers average 17 minutes a week but view the use as disturbing. 13Ibid. It is reported that use of pornography amongst this group was initiated to increase self-esteem and provide a soothing experience. 

Compulsive: The third category is an unhealthy attachment to pornography called compulsive pornography viewers account for approximately 12% of viewers, and the majority of those in this category are men. Those viewers in this category watch nearly 4.5 times the minutes of pornography each week than recreational viewers, and 7 times more than highly distressed non-compulsive viewers. Viewers in this category report giving up previous pleasure resources in their life to consume viewing more pornography, and many reported that they were unable to stop viewing pornography. 14Ibid.

Helping those with porn addictions

It is necessary to support those who are struggling with pornography, especially those classified as compulsive, thus experiencing an addiction to pornography. Currently 35% of downloads from the internet are pornographic. 15Pornography facts and statistics: The recovery village. (2021, February 25). Retrieved December 1, 2022, from Pornography can lower self-esteem and create many negative physical, psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual consequences for individuals. It is important that individuals have access to a safe space where they can talk about their struggles and seek help. 

The impact that pornography has had on our culture and its people cannot be overstated. Every family and every congregation will experience its destructive consequences. The Church must be aware of this threat and its impact, proclaim the forgiveness of Christ, and provide resources to assist affected individuals in their journey to repentance, health, and wholeness.  

If you or someone in your life is addicted to pornography, please visit or talk with a trusted pastor and a local mental health provider.

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