I was staring at an inbox overflowing with emails about porn. Not spam, but hundreds of personal emails from people I'd never met, detailing their relationships with Internet pornography.
The emails were in response to a piece I wrote for Salon, in which I described the history of my Internet porn use. It began in pre-pubescence and continues to infect my intimacies today, despite an ongoing four-year boycott. Through the honesty of my digital pen pals, I found out I wasn't alone in having problems with porn or being disoriented about what that said about me. I mean, I'm not really a porn "addict" or anything, right? But if I'm not, then what am I?
Fortunately, some of my readers felt like they had discovered resources to understand, if not resolve, their porn-related tensions. This cadre of anonymous porn veterans pointed me towards a cache of research, which launched me on a rather academic investigation with some of the world's leading experts on "porn addiction," to find out what's been going on inside my head and what it says about who I am.
What Happened to my Brain?
There's not a consensus on the science of how porn affects the brain, but there is a lot of information on the topic. So much that it can be difficult to sift through.
Marnia Robinson and Gary Wilson, a science writer and science teacher who are married and the founders of YourBrainOnPorn, are leading voices in the space. They admit that they don't have the academic credentials, but think they've compiled some reliable information from years of following the research.
I sat down to watch Wilson's TED talk -- now viewed over 900,000 times -- with the proud skepticism of a recent university graduate. Wilson laid out his hypothesis: "natural addictions" arising from needs like food and sex have essentially the same neurochemical effect on the brain as drug-related addictions by hijacking evolutionarily useful mechanisms.
The continuous stream of new sexual mates in Internet porn overrode my normal satiation mechanisms for sex.
Wilson cites one such evolutionary mechanism called the "Coolidge Effect." This describes how male sheep typically take longer to ejaculate when having sex with the same ewe, but can ejaculate with a new partner in about two minutes every time. Wilson says that mammals developed tools designed for binging on natural rewards in case they needed to pack away food after a hefty kill or got their moment as Alpha male.
According to Wilson's theory, Internet porn perverted this evolutionary mechanism. It tricked my brain into thinking that I had the opportunity to procreate with limitless new mates, prompting repeated "hits" of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation. These persistent spikes of dopamine triggered the release of another chemical -- ΔFosB -- that's necessary for binging on rewards like sex and food.
With a reward like food I would eventually get full and my brain would cease its excitement for new bites. But the continuous stream of new sexual mates in Internet porn overrode my normal satiation mechanisms for sex, causing ΔFosB to accumulate in my brain. The accumulated ΔFosB ultimately led to physiological changes -- a numbed pleasure response, hyper-reactivity to porn, and an erosion of willpower -- that resulted in my cravings and addiction-like symptoms.
According to Wilson, Internet porn's power to sustain arousal with mass numbers of novel mates at-a-click has sensitized many people's brains to porn sex rather than real sex, leading to a wave of porn-induced brain-based sexual dysfunction. This is distinct from past pornography, because even fiends flipping through magazines could only fool their brain into thinking that there were a dozen or so different partners at a time with whom they could copulate.
Wilson contends that these new Internet porn "addicts" tend to exhibit specific symptoms related to these new conditions of porn, like compulsive novelty seeking and mutable (shifting) sexual tastes. This can further exacerbate stress if users' porn-based sexual fantasies morph to the point where they clash with their self-identified sexual desires or orientation.
Wilson's theory resonated with me, as did the trove of candid narratives of porn addiction and recovery hosted on YourBrainOnPorn.com that color the portrait of a user I can understand -- who can't get it up or can never cum, who watches gay porn or fetishes like "scat" despite having no real-world interest in those scenarios, and who spends hours a day masturbating with a tight-squeeze "death grip" that just can't be matched by vaginal sex.
While I was tempted to run with these corroborating accounts, I recognized that anecdotes were just that, and I wanted to see more rigorous investigations before drawing any conclusions.
The critics of YourBrainOnPorn.com feel the same way. They point out that there has never been a study that specifically examines the brain changes of Internet porn users with the scientific robustness of a randomized control trial, so the brain changes that Wilson and Robinson speculate are occurring in heavy porn-users have not actually been observed.
It's true, but that standard might not be feasible here. In 2009, University of Montreal professor Simon Lajeuness tried to set up such a study, but was thwarted because he "could not find any adult men who had never viewed sexually explicit material."
In lieu of such a study, Wilson and Robinson link to a slew of studies that show how the underlying brain changes observed in all addicts have already been seen in the brains of overeaters, compulsive gamblers, video gamers, and more recently in "Internet addicts" (including porn-watchers).
These changes include desensitization (reduced responsiveness to pleasure), sensitization (hyper-reactivity to addiction-related cues), abnormal white matter (a weakening of the communication between reward circuits and the frontal cortex) and hypofrontality (a decrease in frontal-lobe gray matter that is involved in impulse control and decision-making).
Still, the lack of scientifically rigorous research that isolates Internet porn users from other "Internet addicts" has forced Wilson and Robinson to cite testimonials -- and is why the couple's detractors cry "anecdotal pseudoscience!" and "mass hypochondria!" Sometimes, Wilson and Robinson do seem to get carried away, like by claiming that ex-Internet porn addicts are a valid, albeit "informal," control group to study this phenomenon (but, of course, they're not randomly selected, so there may be a common trait among these folks that made them use and stop using that could affect their results).
If the duo comes off as overzealous in their defense of the legitimacy of porn addiction, it may be because their counterparts are so dogmatically dismissive. Well-known sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein argues in The Humanist that these "addictions" are likely secondary to other root causes like bipolar disorder, OCD, borderline personality disorder, or just masturbating too much, and that focusing on porn masks the problem -- and the individual's responsibility to deal with his own immature decision-making. Dr. Klein categorically refutes the addiction model, stressing that most people who watch porn have no problem with it. He declares, "[U]sing porn does NOT cause brain damage, erectile dysfunction, or loss of sexual interest in one's mate."
Klein elaborated on his perspective on a January episode of the Savage Love Podcast with the celebrated sex advice columnist Dan Savage (who backs him up):
When a lot of people who label themselves as sex addicts or porn addicts say, "I'm out of control," what they're really mean is "You know, it would be really uncomfortable to make different decisions about sex than the ones that I'm making. When I'm lonely it would be really uncomfortable to not look at porn."
On air, Dr. Klein constructed a straw man of a porn addict who is too undisciplined "to stop looking at porn for five minutes," too unwilling to address the emotional roots of his behavior, and too socially inhibited to have a "decent" relationship alternative. I was feeling exhausted at the thought of contorting myself to fit this description, but gave up even trying when Dr. Klein informed me by email that I was more alone than I thought: "[I] do NOT see the epidemic of young men with porn-created erection problems that Robinson wants to help ... she's probably making a sampling error."
One researcher claims that Internet porn can lead to chronic masturbation, but that the masturbation itself is the primary issue.
However, Dr. Klein's critics note that he has been defending pornography against censorship since the 1980s (apparently to the adoration of the industry; he is listed as a "porn star" on Adult Video News' website) and assert that he has not adequately taken into account just how different Internet porn is from its antecedents.