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How new technology gets us addicted to porn

Computers with high-speed internet connections have affected the world, similar to the printing press. We got new jobs, new ways to study, travel, have fun and have sex. So how does technology transform our sex urges and can watching porn become addictive?

Adult content over the years

Pornography has materialised our dirty dreams for millennia, but with the advent of 3D and VR, it’s becoming more tangible, exciting, and … disturbing. This global porn industry is worth almost $100 billion, that is a 10% of the global market. The significance of the adult movie industry waas humorously portrayed in HBO's Silicon Valley geek TV series.

Today you can enjoy an X-rated clip on your mobile device practically anywhere. In 2008 only 1% of mobile users were able to stream adult content from their phones. In a decade the number rose to 75%. In 2006, 34% of people accessed online porn, while most users were still served by magazines and DVDs. Today almost all users have easy access to porn sites.

Pornographic art existed in various shapes and forms since ancient times, but the past two decades of high-speed internet connection changed everything.

If your sexual experience was limited to the pages of a girlie mag or a porno movie, now you can watch it at home, on a plane or in a library 24/7.

It would take 173 years to watch the 1.5 million hours available on one site PornHub.

How it works

Lewd visuals are stimulating to look at because they set off a reward system — an old part of the brain. It encourages actions which raise our chances of survival and pass on our genes to the next generation. This part favours food, sex, love, and friendship above all else, as well the thirst for knowledge and exciting novelty. These are needs that bring us essential pleasure.

This pleasure is made possible by the production of dopamine, which is responsible for the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we’re happy. It has an apparent purpose — makes us want something good for survival and reproduction. Once we’ve tried that, we want to do more and more to feel that way again. Looking at an attractive scantily clad body is a great way to raise dopamine levels.

dopamine level can be raised by drugs and unhealthy food
The more dopamine we get, the greater our desire to get the reward. If you are artificially stimulating your desire regularly with drugs or unhealthy food, the dopamine levels will rise and demand more and more satisfaction and reward, basically turning into an addiction/Michael Prewett via Unsplash

If the levels are not high enough or it is virtually non-existent, your body will respond with total indifference to either a once loved chocolate bar of a promising sexual encounter.

Modern porn may be referred to as a supernormal stimulus — bigger brighter and more attractive than the regular ones. They’re so strong, they force birds, butterflies and other living things to abandon their real-life spouses, their eggs and nests. For example, female birds were so mesmerised by brightly coloured plastic eggs. They abandoned their lot less colourful and more modest eggs.

The supernormal stimuli are so powerful the brain starts to desire them automatically. They’re all around us — high-calorie sodas, greasy rich fast food, likes on social media.

In terms of pornography, the supernormal stimulus is incited by the never-ending feeling of novelty. Our reward system loves it because curiosity and love for exploring are essential for survival. Especially if that novelty is the new sexual partner, you can use to multiply. This phenomenon is known as the Coolidge effect. It clearly shows how sexual novelty controls our actions. It is also observed in animals. Even male rats placed with a group of female companions will eventually get bored of all the attention and will immediately refocus on the newly arrived lady rat. He’d have sex with every new partner till he gets exhausted. Other experiments also prove similar behaviour in women. Since reproduction is the top priority, a new partner will inevitably induce a rise in dopamine. 

sexula relations of people have socio-cultural and historic implications
However, the sexual relations of people are a lot more complicated as socio-culture and personality kick in, but the sexual novelty is still a powerful drive/Markus Winkler via Unsplash

X-rated videos have a significant impact on our brain. First of all, HD porn offers us a wide choice of extraordinary, physically perfect partners, accessible and eager for contact.

When we browse through the porn site, we “change” partners every couple of minutes scratching that “novelty” itch and therefore raising the dopamine level.

Secondly, it’s an exotic experience you might have never attempted in real life, like threesomes, group sex or a bizarre Kama Sutra position. Thirdly, video content is taking over, and porn is one of the areas that benefit the most, as the high resolution and editing out all the boring and awkward moments leave a concise and “to the point” piece that affects our brain a lot more than some static photo of another centrefold.

Such intoxication with supernormal stimuli might send your reward system into overdrive, almost like cocaine or amphetamines.

This is what happens when there is an overproduction of dopamine. To maintain the chemical balance, your brain gives an order to cut down on dopamine’s production. As a result, the smaller natural rewards such as healthy eating, regular sport, real-life relationships become plain and tasteless, no longer bringing the necessary amount of joy. You look for more extreme ways to get dopamine. But the higher the dopamine levels are, the more unsettled and unhappy you feel. 

Porn addiction

The last edition of DSM-5 in 2013 included game addiction as a disorder, but porn was still not on the list. It is mostly because so far, the approach to studying these conditions was possible only through the symptom analysis and only recently psychiatry got a chance to study the actual organ that gets sick — the brain.

porn can be addictive
Porn is not as addictive as, say, narcotics, but like any compulsive behaviour, it might be harmful in case of excessive consumption/Photo by Dainis Graveris on SexualAlpha

And once the system is broken, it can lead to other pretty tangible conditions from anxiety to erectile dysfunction and inability to reach orgasm with a real partner. 

The symptoms and the consequences of overconsumption of the adult content are very similar to internet addiction.

There is also experience of the people from online groups like NoFap, where millions of users share their stories of porn addiction. However, these data arrays are yet to be properly collected and analysed by researchers.