According to the writer Gary Wilson, author of Your Brain on Porn, not only is internet pornography addictive, it can also cause erectile dysfunction and leave men bored and unaroused by their partner. As the addiction unfolds, many also find that it takes ever more extreme and disturbing images to produce the same effect. Unfortunately, so easy is it to access internet pornography that many do so at a young age. In 2012, for example, the U.K.'s Daily Mail newspaper reported that children as young as eight were viewing internet pornography and that the vast majority had done so by 18.
Two questions naturally arise. First, how do you distinguish addiction from excessive use. And, second, if people really do become addicted to internet pornography, why does it happen?
You know you have an addiction when the desire to view such images becomes compulsive. In fact, for many it becomes a habit. Some even find that they no longer enjoy what they are doing. Thus the porn addict resembles the drug addict who has simply become dependent. Some addicts even describe masturbation as a tedious chore – akin to shaving or brushing their teeth before setting off to work.
According to Wilson, part of the problem is the endless variety. Someone could literally spend hours each day searching out new images or videos without coming to the end. In this respect, addicts are victims of their evolutionary programming. We are, in a sense, all addicts, addicted to sugar, sex, fatty foods, and so on. If we weren't, no one would survive or reproduce. And when someone eats a piece of steak, for example, their brain releases the neurotransmitter "dopamine." They receive a little "hit" of pleasure to encourage them. And the same thing happens when they use internet pornography. To put it another way, they are being rewarded for doing something that helps them survive or reproduce.
But evolution has also programmed us to seek out new partners so as to increase our chances of passing on our DNA. This is especially true of young men and is known as the "coolidge effect." It is also true of animals. For example, place a ram with the same female sheep for a few months and then put him with a new one and he will ejaculate more quickly. Internet pornography tricks the brain into believing you are encountering multiple new partners. And every time you find an exciting new video or image, you receive your dopamine hit. But consider for a moment how unnatural that is. Yes, human beings evolved to seek out new partners, but not to encounter 20 or 30 of them minutes after waking up in the morning! And yet that is what the brain experiences when a man surfs the porn channels while he lies in bed with his Iphone.
In a sense then, people do not become addicted to pornography but to the dopamine hits. And they also grow addicted to novelty. For young men in particular, they become addicted to the sense of hunting as well. Every time they go online they hunt down a new man or woman. To make matters worse, constant exposure blunts or numbs the pleasure response. In order to recover the pleasure he once enjoyed, the addict must seek out ever more unusual, extreme, or bizarre material.
First, and most obviously, an addiction to internet porn affects relationships. Many find that actual, flesh-and-blood humans no longer excite or arouse them. They have trained themselves to respond to the flickering, flashing images on a screen rather than the touch of real skin. Indeed, those who spend months or years addicted to internet pornography often associate orgasm with certain rituals and habits: kneeling or leaning forward; the tight grip of their hand; bright, flashing colors; even the smell of floor polish or computer cleaning wipes! When they then attempt to make love to a real partner, they are so unfamiliar with the warmth of another body, the touch and caress, or the smell of perfume, that they feel nothing at all.
Many also report literal numbness in the penis. More generally, there is erectile dysfunction. For example, Carlo Foresta, a professor at the University of Padua and head of the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine, found that the majority of young men he treated for sexual problems had been using internet pornography since their early teens. Some become caught in a downward spiral. They use internet pornography every day for months on end, become addicted, meet someone in the real world with whom they wish to start a relationship, go to bed, find they cannot perform, feel crushed and humiliated, and so return to the safety and comfort of a life online. If the humiliation was especially bad, they may come to associate physical partners with fear and online images with pleasure and relaxation.
Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist, once wrote of the coming generation as one "mentally adrift, unable to comprehend the difference between virtual and real, with a constant hit of addictive dopamine created by endless interaction with a computer screen rather than with real people, and consequent mental degeneration." Civilized life depends on human empathy. Without the ability to recognize and imagine another person's fear and pain we cease to be fully human. Internet pornography severs the link between sex and intimacy, affection, or love, encouraging men to see women as objects to be used and then discarded.
Of course, the vast majority of addicts do not become rapists or abusers, in spite of the alarming newspaper stories. However, many do find that they need ever more unpleasant and disturbing images to become aroused. These often include videos simulating rape and, in the most extreme cases, even child pornography. Because the addict is now living in a world of fantasy, usual standards collapse. In 2008, for example, the U.K.'s Independent ran a story about the wives of men prosecuted for viewing images of child abuse. One recalled her husband exclaiming, "but the children were smiling" – a horrifying example of what such addictions can lead to.
For those fighting such an addiction, the good news is that the brain is malleable, or "plastic," meaning that its neural connections change in response to new stimuli and new situations. An internet porn addiction may cause damage and may take time to undo, but it causes no permanent harm.
Obviously, you must begin by stopping. The general view seems to be that it takes around three months to "reboot" the brain. If you fear that you may be developing an addiction, avoid all pornographic images for three months – even photographs of models in magazines. And stop masturbating completely. At first, you may find that you "flatline," meaning that the libido drops and the penis seems to shrivel or "go cold." You could also draw up a chart and tick off each day.
Once the reboot is complete, the next stage is "rewiring". In essence, you must rewire the brain or arousal system to associate sex and orgasm with real people rather than with flashing images on a screen. In order to do that, you need a partner. Ideally, your partner will be patient and understanding and will not pressure you for sex. You need someone prepared to spend weeks, maybe even months, just touching, kissing, and holding hands, or simply lying in bed with you. This will help you grow used to touch once again (or maybe for the first time). For a while, erections may be unpredictable and difficult to sustain, possibly due to performance anxiety. After all, most recovering addicts will have had numerous failures with real partners, failures that in turn created fear, tension, and thus the expectation of more failure.
Finally, you need to re-establish intimacy. Obviously, in order to do so you must spend time with a real person. And when you are together, forget sex. Internet pornography teaches men to see women as little more than objects in a fantasy game. Intimacy is the polar opposite of a porn experience. Just go for a walk in the park, hold hands, and chat. Ask your partner silly, trivial questions: which books would she take with her to a desert island? What was the first film she saw? What was the best moment of her life? And spend more time with family and friends. If you are physically isolated (as many recovering addicts are) just go outside. Sit in bars and cafes and listen to other people talking and interacting.
Finally, be wary of "triggers" and "binges." The problem with an internet porn addiction is that the temptation is always there. We now spend a huge amount of time online, and knowing that endless images are just a click away can prove irresistible (rather like a recovering alcoholic whose fridge is full of beer and wine). Even a quite innocuous image in a magazine or newspaper may remind the individual of some much-loved video and act as a trigger, persuading him to go back. Once this happens, a binge often results. In other words, the addict cannot just watch that one video, masturbate, and then leave it there. Instead, he will do so obsessively for days on end before he can bring it under control.
Of course, not everyone agrees that such an addiction even exists. And many suspect those who do of some ulterior motive – usually a moral or religious objection to masturbation itself. But the idea seems persuasive, especially given the central role sex and orgasm plays in life. And, even if the experts prove that pornography addiction doesn't exist, the sheer number of stories you can find on the support forums demonstrates that for many that is how it feels.