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What is porn addiction?

We characterize porn addiction as a phenomenon of the brain marked by compulsive use of pornography which proves difficult to stop despite negative consequences, and which often worsens over time.

To date, the American psychological community has yet to officially recognize porn addiction as a disorder. However, a building body of scientific evidence and thousands of personal stories from our community leads us to conclude that the unprecedented availability of pornography in the era of the Internet has resulted in an undeniable problem, one that is destructive to individuals and, consequently, society as a whole. This problem has come to be called “porn addiction” by many, including those of us in the community here at NoFap®.

Our understanding of porn addiction is largely compiled from analysis of our surveys and the thousands of personal stories our users have posted to our forums, as well as reports gathered from other porn recovery websites. We bring to bear as much current brain science as we can to this body of anecdotal evidence. One of the main goals of NoFap is to increase interest in the topic of porn addiction in order to spur further scientific study, which will in turn deepen our understanding of porn addiction. Until the scientific community fully validates or corrects the claims made by our users, we acknowledge that our claims are not popularly held.

Markers of Pornography Addiction

Not all porn use can be characterized as addictive use, but individuals may consider their porn use addictive if it has any or all of the following markers:

  • An increase in pornography use over time. Someone with porn addiction may go from using porn a couple times a week to using it many times a day.
  • An increase in the intensity of pornography used. As with any addiction, porn addiction provides diminishing returns on the addictive “hit,” and users may need an increasingly intense experience to find satisfaction. Just as an alcoholic may start with beer and later seek out hard liquor in ever-increasing quantities while their system builds a tolerance to alcohol, those with porn addiction may seek out more graphic, taboo, or deviant porn after “softcore” or “vanilla” porn stops delivering what the addiction craves.
  • An inability to easily stop pornography use despite negative consequences. A porn user may find that their porn use leads to bad things happening in their relationships, family, health or career, yet cannot get themselves to stop. This is THE telltale sign of addiction.

Symptoms of Pornography Addiction

We have found among our community that pornography addiction has been associated with both physical and psychological symptoms. Members of the community have reported that engaging in heavy pornography use has caused or worsened these symptoms while quitting porn has alleviated or eliminated them.

Physical

  • Sexual dysfunctions, such as erectile dysfunction and delayed ejaculation
  • Decreased sensitivity from overstimulation
  • Fatigue

Psychological

  • Low self-esteem or -confidence
  • Sense of shame
  • Low mood or agitated mood*
  • Lack of motivation
  • Decreased libido
  • Disinterest in sex in favor of porn
  • Clouding of consciousness, or “brain fog”

* While some individuals in the community have claimed that quitting pornography has helped them along with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, etc… we do not advise anyone to quit porn as a means of treating any psychological disorder or condition. In fact, the rebooting process can in some cases cause a temporary “flatline” of emotions, and quitting any addiction can put one at risk for emotional upset. If you are in treatment for depression or any psychological problems we strongly recommend you continue that treatment and let your doctors and counselors know you are trying to quit an addiction. If you feel you may have depression and are not in treatment, we advise you to seek out professional help.

How Porn Addiction Works

A growing body of scientific research characterizes both substance and behavioral addiction as disorders involving the reward system of the brain. The reward system is a group of neural structures which help us learn from our environment by reinforcing behavioral responses to certain stimuli. These structures include circuits of neural pathways which, over the long course of evolution, developed to activate when we seek out things that benefit us.

When we encounter beneficial stimuli, our reward system gives us pleasurable feelings by releasing chemicals manufactured within the brain called neurotransmitters. Because we want more of these good feelings, we seek out more of the stimuli. Each additional time we encounter these stimuli, we release more neurotransmitters, get more pleasure, and reinforce our drive to yet again seek out that stimuli.

This process is fundamental to how we learn to interact with our environment. It’s how we learn to seek out behaviors that are good for our survival and the survival of our species, behaviors like eating food, having sex, and spending time with people we enjoy.

Addiction is a disorder of this reward system, and since the reward system is all about learning, researchers have called addiction a kind of “pathological learning”. We learn to crave things in excess of what is healthy, to the point where we actually learn behaviors that are detrimental rather than beneficial for our survival. Therefore, we conclude the problem we call pornography addiction is a phenomenon which develops when the reward system is distorted in such a way that we pathologically learn to crave pornography.

But how did pornography come to be seen by our brains as a beneficial stimuli that should seek out? Our brains couldn’t have developed to view pornography as beneficial, because in the primitive world where the human brain evolved pornography didn’t yet exist! The solution here is that our brains aren’t built to see porn as beneficial, but they are built to see sex as beneficial. After all, only individuals who find sex pleasurable are going to pass along their genes. This is beneficial to the survival of the species.

The hitch, of course, is that certain key structures within the reward system of our brain simply are not able to distinguish between pornography and sex. In part, the reward system includes our “upper brain” prefrontal cortex, which can make sophisticated decisions and distinctions. But the parts of the reward system involved in sensing pleasure and storing memory are in the “lower brain” limbic system.

The limbic system is not very choosy. It evolved millions of years ago, long before humans developed refined thinking. Nothing in this primitive part of the brain was baked in to distinguish, say, fruit from candy bars, or sex from masturbating to pornography. The prefrontal cortex can make these distinctions–which is why we can make these distinctions–but as far as the limbic system is concerned, if you’re eating a colorful handheld snack packed with sugar, you’re eating fruit! And if you’re sexally aroused, looking at sexually aroused people, feeling genital pleasure, and climaxing… well, you’re having sex!

The question remains, then, how do our brains progress from having a limbic system that confuses pornography with sex to developing a disorder where we compulsively seek out pornography? It’s a complex riddle that researchers have not fully untangled. However we do know that one key to the riddle is that modern pornographic stimuli are different in nature than the sexual stimuli that were available to our evolving primitive brains. Pornography is more available, more novel, and more intense than any sexual experience our brains evolved to handle, and can easily overwhelm the limbic system.

Problem 1: Porn is More Available than Primitive Sex

Our reward system was not built to handle the current widespread availability of pornography. This is not a flaw of our brain. This is a flaw in our modern environment. The reward system does a good job of getting us to seek out things that make us feel good, but it did not evolve to do a great job of putting on the brakes when we encounter too much of a good thing. Our reward system didn’t evolve to self-limit, because in the primitive world, it never had to limit itself!

The primitive environment our brain evolved in provided all the limits we needed. Sex and food only ever posed a threat to the survival of an individual (or his genes) if there wasn’t enough of it. That’s the reality our limbic systems evolved to handle, and it’s the reality our limbic systems still see.

But we now live in a world where sex and food can pose a threat to survival if we have too much! Our brains have not had a chance to evolve to meet this reality. We have brains wonderfully designed by evolution to handle a world of scarcity, but which find themselves woefully unprepared for a world of abundance.

To frame this in another way which may be more relatable to those not addicted to porn, consider the classic case of a brain prepped for scarcity but stranded in a world of abundance: our cravings for sugars and fats. We find sugar enjoyable because we’re wired to seek out sugar, but in craving sugar our reward systems don’t differentiate between the occasional piece of fruit foraged from the jungle and the massive supply of candy bars found in convenience stores. Our reward system treats all candy bars as those rare pieces of ripe fruit and encourages us to eat as many as we can get our hands on while we can. If an individual’s reward system is able to overcome the other parts of the brain which discourage overeating, that individual is going to end up eating a lot of candy bars!

Problem 2: Pornography is More Novel than Primitive Sex

Likewise, the reward center of our brain doesn’t distinguish between the limited novel sexual experience of an attractive mate from a distant clan and the practically unlimited novel sexual experiences now available at any time on any of the electronic boxes we carry around.

More than just abundant sexual stimulation, our reward system is built to crave novel sexual stimulation. The reward centers of evolving humans didn’t merely seek to have a lot of sex to maximize their chances of passing on their genes; they sought to have a lot of sex with a lot of different people, thus ensuring a wider spread of our genes. Therefore, our reward systems are primed to seek novel sexual stimuli–sex with people we’ve never had sex with before. This can be observed in a phenomenon behaviorists call the Coolidge effect: mammals of either gender will seem disinterested in having sex with a partner they’ve just had sex with, but will show renewed sexual interest when presented with a new partner to pair with.

This craving for novelty is why most porn users, whether they are addicts or not, would not be satisfied to simply look at one picture or video for the rest of their lives. If they owned only one picture, they’d get bored with porn pretty quickly! Prior to the Internet, porn users often had a stash of magazines and videotapes to use, and would add to their collection every so often to keep things from getting too stale. Now that we all have high speed Internet access, there is an unlimited amount of new porn available on demand 24/7, and no porn user need ever be bored! (Rather, it is now impossible for one human to watch all the pornographic content that now exists!) Once a certain performer or sexual act or kink gets too familiar, there are always new performers and acts and kinks to explore!

Problem 3: Pornography is More Stimulating than Primitive Sex

There is a phenomenon found in many animals where a counterfeit or unnatural stimulus with exaggerated features will elicit a response that is more intense than the response elicited by the natural stimulus. This phenomenon is known as a supernormal stimulus.

For example, cuckoo birds lay their eggs in a surrogate bird’s nests. The cuckoo eggs elicit a supernormal brooding response in the surrogate bird, who will prefer to hatch the cuckoo egg over their own eggs. Male stickleback fish will more ferociously attack decoys than they will real invaders as long as the decoys are painted red, making them a supernormal stimulus for the fish. And the julodimorpha beetle has been observed preferring the stimulating golden curves of empty beer bottles over female mates; they will attempt to mate with the bottles and continue doing so until they die.

Humans are not immune to the effects of supernormal stimuli. Porn addicts who flock to videos of actresses with body parts surgically enhanced beyond normal limitations, or cartoons images of characters with body parts drawn to proportions beyond what even surgery can do. Fantasy has no limitations. Even sexy romance novels and erotica are catering to our craving for the supernormal, plunging us into the intensity of narratives and relationships authored to stimulate our deepest sexual and emotional needs, but which would never occur in the real world.

Of course, for many porn addicts, the Internet itself becomes a superstimulus: an endless supply of erotic material that becomes more attractive to them than any one sexual partner or relationship could ever be.

On a chemical level, this supernormal intensity is delivering to us a neurochemical payload that is stronger than any primitive sexual stimulation would incur. And since the reward system is designed to impel us to learn by repeating and reinforcing our behaviors, exposure to supernormal stimuli makes us crave further exposure to supernormal stimuli.

When pornographers combine intense stimuli with novel stimuli, they create ever-kinkier products with a potential of snagging more and more porn users into porn addiction. Porn producers aren’t doing this out of malice or cunning. They are simply using creativity and free-market principles to find out what sells. This leads to ever-devolving trends in pornography production. Mainstream porn is not becoming tamer and more vanilla. It is becoming kinkier and more seductive. While some may find this disturbing from the viewpoint of sexual moralism, the leadership of NoFap finds it disturbing because it means, quite simply, that pornographers are getting better at creating pornography addicts.

Tolerance: When the Abundant, Novel, and Supernormal Becomes the New Normal

A common marker for the progression of any addiction is tolerance. Tolerance occurs when an addict no longer gets the same payoff from stimuli that used to “do it” for them. Most people are familiar with alcohol or drug tolerance. An alcoholic may start with a few beers a night to drinking a couple six-packs or switching to hard liquor; a heroine addict may start with a bump every now and then only to die from an overdose years later because he needed to mainline large doses daily to get his fix.

In a pornography addiction, tolerance seems to build when a user needs to look at more porn, more novel porn, more intense porn, or a combination of these in order to satisfy themselves. This is where pornography addiction gets dangerous.

If an addict builds up a tolerance to porn, he may need it more abundantly. Just spending 10 minutes cruising porn sites may not be enough, and he will begin spending more and more time with porn until it begins cutting into his career or family life.

Or he may need porn that is progressively more novel, searching for videos with actresses and sexual acts he’s never before seen. Many porn addicts on NoFap report shock when they realize that a certain kink or fetish they once found stomach-turning is now the only thing that can get them off. The addictive quest for novelty in porn has lead some porn addicts to search for extreme, taboo and even illegal material.

Porn addicts may also search for ever more super-stimulating porn, searching for videos, images and stories which provide a more intense dose of fantasy. They need porn that depicts a more intense, unrealistic version of bodies, sex, and relationships. This can mean anything from searching out images of more extreme body enhancements, to buying HD video that shows sex in higher detail than one can ever see in real life, to seeking more violent and abusive bondage videos, or reading erotic stories that draw them deeper and deeper into a fantasy that seems more appealing than real life. The result here is that genuine real world sex and relationships will be less and less appealing to the porn addled mind. Porn addicts in relationships will find their partners less and less appealing, while porn addicts without relationships will see less and less reason to be in one.

The chemical mechanism of sensitization seems to involve a protein called deltafosb. As the reward system of the brain floods with more neurotransmitters in response to pornography, deltafosb builds up in the cell nuclei, enhancing the neurotransmitters–particularly dopamine–prompting them to have a greater effect. The result is one of diminishing returns: more stimulating material needs to be viewed, because over time it provides less and less pleasure. For more information on the specifics of this, check out our friends over at Your Brain on Porn.

Fallout

One of the more notorious effects of tolerance to sexual stimuli happens when a male porn addict finds himself in a real-world sexual situation. The allure of a normal sexual partner barely registers a libidinous response, leading to what has been termed PIED: porn-induced erectile dysfunction. Having a sexual encounter fizzle due to PIED can be a tragic experience, especially for young men and teenagers who are just beginning to familiarize themselves with the sexual dimensions of their lives and identities. The numbers of young men experiencing erectile dysfunction would have been unthinkable in decades past before the Internet made porn so widely available. Studies show between a 600% and 3000% increase in erectile dysfunction among young men since the emergence of Internet pornography.

Two other physical effects prevalent among reports from porn addicts are delayed ejaculation (among men) and genital desensitization. Delayed ejaculation (DE) is a problem where a man may be able to achieve an erection while finding it difficult or impossible to reach sexual climax, which can in turn lead to frustration during sex. While the phenomenon of DE is well-documented as a side effect of anxiety disorders or the use of certain medications, it has not been well-studied among porn addicts and its causes are unclear. We theorize that in the case of porn addiction, DE has the same underlying causes as PIED. However, it may also be partially related to the phenomenon of genital desensitization reported by many porn addicts. Genital desensitization seems to be a temporary numbing or neuropathy caused by over-stimulating the nerves of the genitals during masturbation. A phenomenon which has come to be called “death grip” can occur among men and women who handle their genitals too tightly, and the use of over-stimulating toys can also contribute to the problem of desensitization. This seems to acclimate the genitals to an intensity of sensation that orificial sex is unable to match, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction when it’s time to have sex with a partner. Members of the NoFap community and other sexual health resources suggest that taking a break from masturbation–or simply switching to a softer touch or a gentler toy–can reduce or eliminate this symptom.

More insidious than the physical effects of porn addiction is its reported effects on the addict’s emotional and psychological well-being. Porn addicts report that in addition to being physically incapable of performing during sex, they find themselves altogether less interested in having sex. While some may speculate this is due to discouragement after experiencing sexual performance issues, most of our users report a decreased libido for real sex after having satiated their sexual appetite with porn. Furthermore, tolerance toward sexual novelty and superstimulation may be a contributing factor to loss of libido. The brain of a porn addict may be so acclimated to videos, images and stories of impossible partners or exaggerated sex acts that more commonplace sexual experiences are simply not enough to arouse.

Anecdotal reporting among the NoFap community suggests a strong consensus that porn addiction is a contributing factor, if not the cause, of a wide range of other emotional and psychological issues including anxiety disorders, social anxiety, and depression. It is not uncommon to find that among any population of addicts, many start down the path of addiction as a means of self-medication for issues which are poorly treated, untreated, or subclinical. By self-medicating with porn, an addict may be escaping from or denying an underlying problem without treating it, which may in turn only compound that problem–leading to more self-medication and the development of an addictive pattern. And, as with any addiction, porn addiction may be part of a larger addictive routine which includes co-addictions or even codependent relationships.

On that note, relationships, family, work, and school issues are often the presenting problems in a porn addict’s life. Some may not wake up to the problem of their addiction until their children find their porn stash or their spouse is unable to deal with their emotional or sexual withdrawal. Others may skip classes in order to watch porn when class time is the only time they can count on privacy in their dorm room. Still others may be reprimanded or fired from work for cruising porn sites on the company’s dime. These anecdotes are only too common in reports from members of our community.

Beyond the personal fallout of porn addiction is the social fallout suggested by the sum of each individual story. What is society losing when a family is torn apart by porn addiction? Is the next great innovator failing to innovate because she spends too much time with porn?

Who Gets Hooked, and Why

Today, everyone has a brain built to seek out novel sexual experiences and everyone has access to porn, but not all people are addicted to porn. It’s difficult to say why any one person develops a porn addiction while another person does not. However, we feel that part of the answer is that porn addiction often develops when a person, however unconsciously, uses their reward circuitry to train their brain to seek out porn in response to certain common triggers. For example, a person will consistently turn to pornography when they are bored and alone, or as a way of making themselves feel better when they have uncomfortable emotions.

Triggers

The physical structure of the brain can be changed by repeating behaviors due to a mechanism called neuroplasticity. For instance, when a top athlete trains at jumping hurdles on a track, she is training her muscles, but also rewiring the synapses of her brain to more quickly respond to her thoughts and environment when jumping hurdles on a track.

Similarly, a person who habitually uses pornography when he is bored in his bedroom is priming his neural circuitry to more quickly think of pornography whenever he is bored in his bedroom. A person who uses pornography to distract herself from feeling lonely late at night is training her neural circuitry to more quickly crave pornography whenever she feels lonely late at night. Through the mechanism of neuroplasticity, these people have literally reshaped their brains to the point where it’s difficult for them to think of anything except pornography in certain situations. This is why certain situations become triggers the prompt porn usage.

Addiction makes a full circle when the addictive behavior causes conditions which then trigger the need to once again act out the addictive behavior.

For instance, John uses porn when he’s bored or lonely. Feeling lonely on a Friday evening, instead of calling up some friends, he goes to his favorite porn site and masturbates for a couple hours. Since he looked at porn, he missed his chance to find friends to hang out with, so he just watches videos for another hour or two until he feels bored enough that he turns to his go-to solution for boredom: more porn.

Other compulsive or addictive behaviors can be added to this cycle. Candice uses porn when she feels ashamed of herself. Saturday morning she sleeps in and misses an appointment. Ashamed, she goes to her favorite erotic fiction site and spends a couple hours reading pornographic stories. Afterwards, she feels ashamed of wasting the day reading stories on her favorite taboo subjects, so she makes herself feel better by shopping online. Regretful of once again giving into her shopping compulsion, she spaces out from her guilty feelings by reading more porn.

At this point, porn addiction has become a snake eating its own tail.

There is Hope: Rebooting

The process of abstaining from pornography, masturbation, or even orgasm altogether to overcome sexual addictions is dubbed rebooting. By allowing the porn addicted brain to unplug from pornography, much of the damage inflicted by heavy pornography use may be repaired. This is almost like restoring your brain to “factory settings” – hence, a reboot.

The science behind the brain’s ability to heal from addiction is based on the same science behind the ways the brain gets twisted by addiction. Neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword, able to shape our neural pathways to create unhealthy behaviors, but also able to reshape our brains back to normal functioning.

NoFap’s mission is to facilitate users and empower them to help each other while they undergo the reboot process. For more on the reboot process, see our page on rebooting!

About NoFap®

NoFap® is a comprehensive community-based porn recovery website. We give our users all the tools they need to quit porn, gain control over compulsive sexual behaviors, and live a higher expression of their sexuality.

NoFap helps people overcome their sexual addictions so they can heal from porn-induced sexual dysfunctions, improve their relationships, and ultimately live more fulfilling lives.

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