Porn Escalation: Why Does This Happen?

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Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW, CSAT

Most porn users, even those who are not addicted, find that their use of porn escalates over time. They spend more time online looking at it and they increase the intensity of the imagery they use. Often, they tell themselves they will only go online for a few minutes and they won’t be looking at that type of stuff this time, only to find themselves lost for hours in a sea of visuals that violate their personal values.

This is the “escalation” that is common with porn use. If you’ve experienced it yourself (or seen it in a loved one), you know how frustrating it is. A promise is made to self and/or others; a boundary is set. And then the promise is broken; the boundary is crossed.

But why? What is it about pornography that continually draws users in and pushes them toward more extreme imagery?

To answer this question, we must first understand the ways in which pornography affects the human brain. This starts with an examination of pleasure and why we experience it.

  • In the human brain, a small portion of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) controls the experience of pleasure, desire, and motivation. For simplicity’s sake, this region is sometimes referred to as the pleasure center or the reward center.
  • The reward center is activated (we feel pleasure) when we engage in naturally occurring, life-affirming stimuli such as eating, playing, learning, being sexual, helping others, etc. These activities are rewarded because they ensure, in various ways, survival of both the individual and the species.
  • This pleasure response is two-pronged, involving the release and reception of various neurochemicals—mostly dopamine but also adrenaline, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and a few others.
  • Some brain cells release these neurochemicals, other brain cells receive them, and both actions must occur before we experience pleasure. It’s like a lamp. It doesn’t turn on until you plug it in and complete the electrical circuit.
  • When pleasure is experienced, the reward center tells the mood, memory, and decision-making regions of the brain how much it enjoyed eating, playing, learning, being sexual, helping a friend, or whatever. This encourages us to engage in these life-sustaining activities again in the future. In short, it creates desire and motivation and ensures our survival.

That’s awesome, right? Intelligent design at its finest.

However, the reward center can be manipulated. For instance, alcohol, addictive drugs, and intensely stimulating behaviors (like viewing pornography) can be used to artificially stimulate the system, flooding the brain with unusually high levels of dopamine (and related neurochemicals)—anywhere from two to ten times the amount provided by normal pleasurable activity. And, as is the case with all pleasurable experiences, this enjoyment-related information is conveyed to areas of the brain dealing with mood, memory, and decision-making, creating motivation to repeat the behavior.

Is it any wonder that we sometimes want to go back for more, more, and still more?

Unfortunately, that’s only the first part of the story. And it’s not the ugly part. The ugly part is this:

  • The brain is highly adaptive. It “heals itself” based on the inputs it receives and the actions it takes. For example, when the brain is repeatedly overstimulated, as occurs with the heavy use of pornography, it recognizes the ongoing neurochemical imbalance and adjusts (heals) by reducing the amount of dopamine that is released and the number of receptors that can absorb the dopamine.
  • As the brain adjusts in this fashion, pornography has less of an impact, so the viewer must use more of it or a more intense version of it to achieve the desired neurochemical reward. And then the brain adjusts yet again.
  • Despite this continual loss of the ability to experience pleasure from pornography, the mood, memory, and decision-making regions expect the same feeling. The desire and motivation remain. Thus, the user feels compelled to engage in the behavior, despite the loss of in-the-moment pleasure.
  • Thus, the viewer must continually use more pornography and more intense pornography to achieve the desired neurochemical rush. This is how porn use escalates.

In this way, liking pornography transforms into wanting/needing pornography. When this happens, compulsivity and addiction take over. Even though the stimulus (pornography) no longer provides the pleasure it once did, the user wants and needs to continue.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with porn addiction, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.