Porn, too much of a good thing?

Addictions seem to be an inescapable part of life. We all know the more infamous examples of gambling, alcohol, drugs; coffee or work addiction are probably less well-recognised. But have you heard of pornography addiction? A more controversial classification, porn addiction has been gaining attention in the media. However, the medical community continues to debate whether it should even be considered as such. Sex addiction according to the NHS, which can encompass excessive porn use, may be diagnosed if otherwise normal urges feel ‘out of control’. In turn, it can impact upon an individual’s professional life, relationships and finances. Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at Wellcome Trust, believes that porn use is becoming increasingly common alongside other compulsive behaviours, such as overeating and gambling. However, porn addiction remains unrecognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), produced by the American Psychiatric Association and one of the most widely recognised criteria for the classification of mental disorders. But what cannot be denied is that more and more people, particularly men, are claiming to suffer from it. Websites such as YourBrainonPorn and Reddit forums such as NoFap provide support to the huge number of men who blame internet porn for ruining their sex lives, relationships and even bodily functions. And though concern has been raised in the media about how porn is shaping young people’s attitudes to sex and consent, both important issues, less attention has been paid to its impact on physical and psychological health. But with 94% of teenagers in the UK having watched porn by the age of fourteen it’s an issue that needs to be considered.

In order to understand the problems associated with pornography usage, I asked two experts in the field for their views. They include Katie Evans, a counsellor with experience in treating gay men, as well as Silva Neves, a psychotherapist specialising in relationship therapy as well as the treatment of sex addiction. So how does porn addiction arise in the first place? Evans claims that it is partly due to its easy accessibility, as it is ‘increasingly available via technology and no longer has to be hunted out in neon-fronted shops’. Combined with the release of pleasurable chemicals in the brain, it’s hardly surprising that internet porn becomes so addictive. ‘Once something is linked to arousal it’s difficult to break. For example, even the sound of a laptop switching on could trigger a porn addict’. But like other addictions, people become hooked on porn not merely for sexual pleasure but also as a means of escape. For those suffering from difficult and negative emotions, porn can make life bearable. Neves, however, is convinced that porn is not addictive. ‘While there is no consensus on the matter, it still doesn’t fit the DSM criteria of addiction’. He stresses, though, that it can still be harmful, only not addictive. He compares pornography to alcohol, which is not a problem in itself but only when abused. However, a ground-breaking study conducted in 2014 by the University of Cambridge might have shone some light on the matter. Scanning the participants’ brains when viewing pornography, it was discovered that the same reward centres which activate for drug addicts seeing their substance of choice also activate when viewing porn. These specific areas include the ventral striatum, the dorsal anterior cingulate and the amygdala. And though further research will need to be conducted, it does suggest that perhaps pornography can be classified as addictive.

What is beyond doubt are the health problems associated with excessive porn use. As Paula Hall, chair of the Association for the Treatment of Sex Addition and Compulsivity (ATSAC) claims, ‘what I’m seeing are increasing numbers of young men who cannot maintain an erection because they’ve wrecked their appetite with pornography, their arousal threshold goes up so that a mere mortal just doesn’t do it anymore’. And sites such as YourBrainonPorn and NoFap are full of examples and discussions of the problems associated with it. I asked Neves if porn could have a negative effect on health? He argues, though, that rather than causing problems people turn to pornography if they’re already suffering from a condition, such as erectile dysfunction. This can then exacerbate a pre-existing condition. But he does acknowledge that there are some situations where it can result in harm. For instance, ‘the penis can be damaged by over-masturbation, encouraged by porn use’.  In contrast, Evans explains that issues such as delayed ejaculation, anorgasmia (inability to orgasm) or erectile dysfunction are the result of excessive porn use. There are psychological effects too. ‘It can affect self-esteem because porn may create unrealistic expectations about body image or performance. Sitting comparing yourself and others to what is seen on a screen may cause real life sex to seem disappointing and put a lot of pressure on yourself’. Neves also shares this view, as the unrealistic standards of physical attractiveness in pornography, as well as the herculean sexual acts depicted (thanks to copious editing), can negatively impact on a person’s self-image and sex life. And as Evans adds, ‘it can also be seen to lead to depression and linked to feelings of guilt and shame’. These, in turn, can cause an addicted person to become increasingly withdrawn.

So does porn affect men and women differently? And are there any differences in its effects on gay men and straight men? While stating that the effects are similar for all people, Evans has noticed some differences in consumption. Men, in general, prefer more aggressive pornography whereas women tend to go for more erotic or fantasy-based material. She also adds that ‘for some gay men, one difference I have noticed is that it can affect the view of how sex and emotional relationships might come together. For those who may have had to hide their sexuality growing up, they may not have had the same chance to explore sex, identity and relationships openly. They may have gained more education through mediums such as porn which would not only affect their view of sex and their bodies but also perhaps keep sex as something that is an act not connected to emotional depth’. Neves has also noticed these differences. So while straight men are often embarrassed to discuss their porn use, the same does not apply to gay men. He claims that this is due to the gay community’s greater openness towards sexual matters. For example, a straight man’s female partner might discourage him from using pornography, whereas a gay man is less likely to be judged for the same behaviour. ‘From my experience, gay men, therefore, seem to use pornography more, as they don’t have the same negativity surrounding its usage’.

If pornography really is addictive then it should be difficult to stop. Or so you’d expect. Though people might not suffer from classic withdrawal symptoms such as nausea or heart palpitations, both Evans and Neves do agree that ceasing use can be challenging. Its easy convenience combined with the physical need for sexual release make it difficult to overcome. Evans begins treatment by encouraging separation from the material itself, by identifying triggers and changing the use of phones and computers. But the underlying causes will still need to be dealt with. ‘The most difficult part to work through may be the bubbling up of emotions. Taking away anything that has been used to escape can cause feelings to come to the surface. That is why it is also good to get emotional support‘. Neves also claims that it can be difficult to end porn usage, as it can provide stress relief, entertainment as well as ease negative emotions. A person is far less likely to be successful in stopping if they depend on it for emotional release. ‘Treatment involves identifying why a person needed it in the first place. You cannot ignore the problems which drove them to it originally’. And though he doesn’t think that pornography can be formally classified as an addiction, that doesn’t it mean that there aren’t real problems associated with it.

Dr Neves and Evans both believe that porn can be used positively as a means of sexual exploration, and many people already successfully incorporate it into their sex lives. Their aim is to help sufferers break their dependence on it. ‘A lot of people are learning through porn alone and using it to deal with insecurities, loneliness and difficult emotions’, Evans explains. ‘Perhaps it’s about helping people through these issues, creating awareness and keeping porn as a part of the fun of exploring’.