Sex

Your Brain on Porn: It's Not Addictive

What neurological research actually shows about the people who use porn.

Posted Jul 25, 2013

There has been a tremendous amount of hyperbole about porn use, with many doomsayers claiming that it triggers dangerous neurochemical changes in the brain. But groundbreaking new research says that it just ain’t so, and that people who are problem users of porn are actually people with high libidos, not people whose brains have been warped sex and porn.

Popular antiporn advocates argue that porn use is a public health issue, not a free speech issue. These advocates often assert that if individuals and society only knew the damage that porn use was causing to our brains, we would regulate it.

These fear-based arguments often invoke brain-related lingo, and throw around terms like dopamine bursts and desensitization to describe what allegedly happens in the brains of people who watch too much porn. Brain science is hot these days, and it’s attention-getting to use its lingo in arguments because it sounds so darned convincing and scientific. The problem is that there has been extremely little research that actually looks at the brains and behaviors of people using porn, and no good, experimental research that has looked at the brains of those allegedly addicted to porn. So all of these arguments are theoretical, and based on rhetoric, inference, and applying other research findings to try to explain sexual behaviors.

Fascinating, rigorous new research has now been done, which actually examined the brains of alleged sex addicts, and guess what? The results are a bit different than the rhetoric. In fact, the results don’t support that sex addiction is real, or reflective of any unique brain-related issues at all.

In research invited for submission to the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience of Psychology, authors Steele, Staley, Fong and Prause used EEG testing to examine the effects of visual erotica on the brains of people who felt they had problems controlling their porn use. Fifty-two "sex addicts," both men and women, had their brain’s electrical activity examined while they looked at erotic imagery. Sex addiction theory predicts that these individuals would show brain patterns consistent with that of cocaine addicts, who demonstrate specific electrical changes in the brain’s activity in response to drug-related cues. Sex addiction proponents, from Rob Weiss to Carnes have long argued that sex and porn are “like cocaine” in the brain.

But when EEG’s were administered to these individuals as they viewed erotic stimuli, the results were surprising, and not at all consistent with sex addiction theory. If viewing pornography actually was habituating (or desensitizing), as drugs are, then viewing pornography would lead to a diminished electrical response in the brain. In fact, in these results, there was no such response. Instead, the participants overall demonstrated increased electrical brain responses to the erotic imagery they were shown, just as shown in the brains of “normal people” in hundreds of studies.

Ah, but the sex addiction proponents might argue that this is because these porn addicts have a stronger response to sexual stimuli. This is one reason that porn and sex addiction theories are so tough to argue: They are unfalsifiable, since they present opposing things as part of their theory, and deploy very fluid arguments to explain when data or results don’t match their theories.

This is where the authors of this study were very clever. They included measures of sexual desire or libido and multiple measures of sex addiction in the questionnaires they administered to the participants. The EEG results of this study were in fact predicted by the measures of libido, and there was no relationship between measures of sex addiction and the neural measures. In other words, the EEG findings of increased response to erotic stimuli were consistent with the responses of people that have higher levels of sexual desire. The alleged sex addicts of this study have brains that look like those of other people with high libidos, who don’t identify as sex addicts.

Another part of this sophisticated analysis is that the researchers looked at different tests that measured aspects of sex addiction/hypersexuality, and at tests that measured libido. They then conducted statistical analyses to identify if any of these test results varied consistently with the difference in brain responses. Again, the tests of sexual addiction had no connection with the neural findings. But a significant portion of the change in neural responses was explainable by the participants’ level of sexual desire: When a participant reported higher levels of libido, they also demonstrated lesser neural responses to the sexual stimuli they were shown. This was a somewhat surprising finding, suggesting that people with high libido may find pornography less novel, and thus have less neural response. This is consistent with some other studies which have shown that those with high levels of sexual desire have less response to visual erotica. But this is not unique to sex addicts, and was predicted by levels of sexual desire, not symptoms of sex addiction. Higher rates of sexual addiction symptoms, no matter which of three scales of sex addiction were used, had no relationship to the neural response to the erotic pictures they were shown.

Porn addiction advocates will surely cry "Aha! There it is: Porn addicts have a LOWER response, and that's why they are addicts; they've been desensitized." But remember, it was the measure of libido that predicted decreased neural response, not measures of sex problems or even porn use. Even among the study group of problem porn users, there were varying levels of libido. And, just like other people who don't have problems controlling their porn use, it is the higher levels of sexual desire that predict this decreased effect. Lots of people with high libido have this same effect, but report no problems controlling porn use.

One can argue that this is merely one study, and only one measure of the brain’s activity. Porn addiction proponents will undoubtedly argue that other types of brain studies such as MRI’s, MEG’s, or SPECT scans will show the effects they believe are there. I’m sure others will argue that looking at an erotic still-picture is somehow different from looking at “high-speed Internet porn.” The interesting thing is that these points argue against the validity of science, by asserting that their theories are somehow more true and reliable than actual scientific research or data. In other words, will they only believe data when it confirms their theories? That's confirmation bias, not science.

This study has been criticized, but overwhelmingly, these criticisms are unfounded:

  • There was no "control group.' In fact, this study used a "within-subjects" design, in which the subjects themselves were their own control group. This is a methodologically-rigorous, well-accepted design.
  • Results of analyses which were not significant were not described in the publication. This is a common scientific practice, and the authors are usually willing to share the results of these analyses, at request.

Furthermore:

  • This study used very good scientific method, in creating a study to test the "theory" that porn use works "like" a drug addiction. This is how good science works, by testing theories.
  • Because there is no accepted definition or criteria for sex/porn addiction, the study used multiple commonly-used assessments strategies for sex addiction.
  • The use of EEG technology is an accepted method, extensively used in addiction research, and allowed a valid, useful comparison of these results to the existing research on drug and alcohol addictions. The P300 results cited in the study are internally and externally consistent with their own findings, and with prior literature, and are supportive of the interpretation that the subjects showed a neural response based on libido and sexual arousal, NOT demonstrating changes to the brain that are indicative of an addictive response. 

The increasing weight of scientific investigation, as opposed to speculation and theorizing, is indicating that sex addiction is not a distinct construct, but reflects the behaviors of individuals with higher levels of sexual desire and libido, especially as those behaviors lead people into conflict with social values around sex. Like any other human characteristic, sexual desire occurs along a spectrum, with wide ranges of individual variation. The problems and complaints reported by self-identified porn and sex addicts have to do with the context within which these individuals express or pursue their high libido, not with a unique disease.

Proponents of porn and sex addiction may do well to begin to change their dialogue, from attacking porn and sex to increasing the dialogue about how sexual desire and sexual expression can conflict with public/private social values and ideals. Rather than trumpeting the danger of porn, it may be more effective, and more evidence-based, to argue for education about varying levels of sexual desire and about the need for both society and the individual to be responsible for and responsive to those differences.