Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW, CSAT
Internet pornography is, without question, a super-stimulant. What I mean by that is that pornography is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, and its ability to stimulate users is beyond the norm. Stated another way, digital pornography is man-made, and it brings more intensity than what nature typically provides.
For an easily understandable example, consider coca leaves. These leaves are chewed by workers in the mountains of Brazil and elsewhere as a mild stimulant while they labor. Chewing the leaves helps workers deal with physical exertion at a high altitude, but the workers do not get high or addicted. When these leaves are refined into cocaine, however, this mild stimulant becomes a highly addictive, man-made super-stimulant.
Two hallmarks of all super-stimulants (both substances and behaviors) are the related phenomena of tolerance and escalation. Tolerance occurs when a drug or behavior starts to lose its neurochemical impact (because the brain adjusts to the external stimulus by turning down the volume, so to speak). Escalation occurs when users recognize the effects of tolerance and respond by using more of or more intense versions of a drug or behavior so they can once again achieve the high they seek.
With substances, tolerance and escalation are relatively easy to identify and understand. For example, the first time a person uses an intoxicant, very little is needed. A few beers will get the person high. Then, as their drinking continues over time, they may need a six-pack to achieve the same effect. Down the line, they may switch to hard alcohol or illicit drugs because beer just doesn’t get them where they want to go. Then one day they find themselves in a dark alley with a needle in their arm and no idea how they got there.
Tolerance and escalation with pornography can be equally dramatic, though it’s usually not as obvious to either the user or those who love and care about the user. Typically, early porn use tends to be relatively vanilla, and that’s more than enough to generate the intensity and arousal desired by the user. Eventually, though, tolerance kicks in, and both more porn and more intense versions of porn are needed. Then one day the porn user realizes that he or she is using imagery that violates his or her personal values and that might have seemed disgusting back when he or she first experienced porn.
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If you or someone you care about is struggling with pornography, 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.