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Why Many Porn Consumers Watch Porn that Previously Disgusted Them

Did you know that porn consumption can escalate every bit as much as substance abuse or any other addictive behavior?

Did you know that porn consumption can escalate every bit as much as substance abuse or any other addictive behavior?

To understand how, let’s take a look at the brain science regarding novelty.

The brain science of novelty

In a pair of interesting studies that were replicated with both menKoukounas, E., & Over, R. (2000). Changes in the magnitude of the eyeblink startle response during habituation of sexual arousal. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38(6), 573–584. doi: 10.1016/s0005-7967(99)00075-3Copy  and women,Meuwissen, I., & Over, R. (1990). Habituation and dishabituation of female sexual arousal. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 28(3), 217–226. doi: 10.1016/0005-7967(90)90004-3Copy  college students were hooked up to instruments that measured their arousal and interest, and were then shown the same pornographic scene multiple times in a row.

You can imagine what happened—arousal and interest, for both the men and women, were initially very high, but habituation quickly set in, and their interest and level of arousal waned dramatically. Then, after many viewings, right as the subjects’ boredom was reaching maximum levels, the researchers suddenly and without warning switched to a brand new pornographic film.

Related: How Porn Can Become An Escalating Behavior

What do you think happened? Were the subjects just so bored and “over it” that they continued in their disinterest? Nope! Bam! Arousal and interest levels immediately shot right back up to where they were before.

This phenomenon is often referred to as “The Coolidge Effect.” The Coolidge Effect has been demonstrated time and again, in all sorts of research settings.Ventura-Aquino, E., Fernández-Guasti, A., & Paredes, R. G. (2018). Hormones and the coolidge effect. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, 467, 42-48. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mce.2017.09.010Copy Hughes, S. M., Aung, T., Harrison, M. A., LaFayette, J. N., & Gallup, G. G. (2021). Experimental evidence for sex differences in sexual variety preferences: Support for the Coolidge Effect in humans. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(2), 495-509. doi:10.1007/s10508-020-01730-xCopy 

Put a male and female of just about any type of animal together and they will mate, and mate, and then get bored with each other. But replace one of them with a new partner, and even if they’re exhausted from mating with the last one, they will attempt to mate again. We are often driven toward sexual novelty. Researchers have surmised that this is because we are driven by a deep biological need to reproduce as often as possible.

What this means is that what the porn consumer really wants is not just more porn, but new porn: new people, new imaginary partners, new situations.Banca, P., Morris, L. S., Mitchell, S., Harrison, N. A., Potenza, M. N., & Voon, V. (2016). Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of psychiatric research, 72, 91–101. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017Copy 

And as luck would have it, internet pornography offers them exactly the endless variety of sexual “partners” and situations to attempt to gratify that desire.Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017Copy 

Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and New York Times best-selling author of The Brain That Changes Itself, explains, “Pornography satisfies every one of the prerequisites for neuroplastic change. When pornographers boast that they are pushing the envelope by introducing new, harder themes, what they don’t say is that they must, because their customers are building up a tolerance to the content.”Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.Copy 

Related: How Porn Can Change The Brain

Consumers may also be drawn to other aspects of pornography: secrecy, shock value, taboos, shame. All of these things offer varying ways to feed a desire for novelty and excitement.

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Watching content that previously disinterested or disgusted them

For consumers who consistently view this type of material, it is possible to find their sexual interests eventually deviating in very unexpected directions.

In one 2016 study, researchers found that 46.9% of respondents reported that, over time, they began watching pornography that had previously disinterested or even disgusted them.Wéry, A., & Billieux, J. (2016). Online sexual activities: An exploratory study of problematic and non-problematic usage patterns in a sample of men. Computers in Human Behavior, 56, 257-266. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.046Copy  These findings are consistent with other research that demonstrates that changing tastes and escalating is not an uncommon experience amongst consumers of porn.Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Zsila, Á., Griffiths, M. D., Demetrovics, Z., & Orosz, G. (2017). The development of the problematic pornography consumption scale (PPCS). The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 395–406. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1291798Copy Downing, M. J., Schrimshaw, E. W., Scheinmann, R., Antebi-Gruszka, N., & Hirshfield, S. (2016). Sexually explicit media use by sexual identity: A comparative analysis of gay, bisexual, and heterosexual men in the united states. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(6), 1763–1776. doi: 10.1007/s10508-016-0837-9Copy 

Related: How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding Of Healthy Sex

None of this is to say that these results are guaranteed, or that everyone who consumes porn will find themselves viewing material they once found disgusting. (In the above study alone, if 47% reported they did have that experience, that means 53% did not.) It is only to say that, when we talk about the potential forms of escalation among porn consumers, it has the potential to be far more than a matter of time.

How your brain can heal

The good news is, change is possible! Research and the experiences of thousands of people have demonstrated that the effects of desensitization can be managed and largely reversed.Young K. S. (2013). Treatment outcomes using CBT-IA with Internet-addicted patients. Journal of behavioral addictions, 2(4), 209–215. https://doi.org/10.1556/JBA.2.2013.4.3Copy Nathanson, A. (2021). Psychotherapy with young people addicted to internet pornography. Psychoanal.Study Child, 74(1), 160-173. doi:10.1080/00797308.2020.1859286Copy 

In fact, even in cases of serious substance and other addictions, research shows that the brain can heal over time with sustained effort.Pfefferbaum, A., Rosenbloom, M. J., Chu, W., Sassoon, S. A., Rohlfing, T., Pohl, K. M., Zahr, N. M., & Sullivan, E. V. (2014). White matter microstructural recovery with abstinence and decline with relapse in alcohol dependence interacts with normal ageing: a controlled longitudinal DTI study. The lancet. Psychiatry, 1(3), 202–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70301-3Copy Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2015). Gambling disorder and other behavioral addictions: recognition and treatment. Harvard review of psychiatry, 23(2), 134–146. https://doi.org/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000051Copy Rullmann, M., Preusser, S., Poppitz, S., Heba, S., Gousias, K., Hoyer, J., Schütz, T., Dietrich, A., Müller, K., Hankir, M. K., & Pleger, B. (2019). Adiposity Related Brain Plasticity Induced by Bariatric Surgery. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 290. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00290Copy 

Research also indicates that, while guilt can motivate healthy change, shame actually fuels problematic porn habits.Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B. N., & Hardy, S. A. (2011). The roles of shame and guilt in hypersexual behavior.18(1), 12-29. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.551182Copy  So if you’re trying to give up porn, be kind to yourself and be patient with your progress. Like anything, it takes time for the brain to recover, but daily efforts make a big difference in the long run.

Think of it like a muscle that gets bigger and stronger the more you use it—the longer you stay away from porn, the easier it is to do so. All it takes is practice.

This is a selected excerpt from one of our Get The Facts articles. Click here to read the full article, “How Porn Can Become An Escalating Behavior.”

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