Fight the New Drug

Let’s Talk About Porn. Is It As Harmless As Society Says It Is?

It took decades for society to believe the science that proved smoking cigarettes was harmful, and we are learning a similar lesson with porn in our world today. And since we’re an awareness campaign, first and foremost, we’re all about getting these facts into the light.

With all this new information gathered from research and scientific studies, it is time for society to take a critical look at what’s been perpetually marketed as a relationship enhancer, harmless personal entertainment, and solid sexual education source. As convenient as it would be to believe those claims, Science and research are showing us how porn harms the brain, damages relationships, and negatively affects society as a whole.

Here are just fifteen reasons why porn is anything but harmless entertainment. If you’d like to learn and read more in-depth about a specific reason, and see more empirical sources on the issue, click the image associated with each one. After all, knowledge is power in this fight against porn.

1. Porn can change and rewire a consumer’s brain.

Believe it or not, studies show that those of us who make more frequent use of pornography have brains that are less connected, less active, and even smaller in some areas. [1] Thanks to modern science, now we know that the brain goes on changing throughout life, [2] constantly rewiring itself and laying down new nerve connections, and that this is particularly true in our youth. [3]

There’s some pretty fierce competition between brain pathways, and those that don’t get used enough will likely be replaced. [4] Use it or lose it, as they say. Only the strong survive.

That’s where porn comes in.

Porn happens to be fantastic at forming new, long-lasting pathways in the brain. In fact, porn is such a ferocious competitor that hardly any other activity can compete with it, including actual sex with a real partner. [5] That’s right, porn can actually overpower your brain’s natural ability to have real sex! Why? As Dr. Norman Doidge, a researcher at Columbia University, explains, porn creates the perfect conditions and triggers the release of the right chemicals to make lasting changes in your brain. [6]

2. A porn habit can dramatically escalate into unexpected territory.

Like any potentially addictive substance, porn triggers the release of dopamine into a part of the brain called the reward center (a.k.a. reward pathway or system). [7] Basically, the reward center’s job is to make you feel good whenever you do something healthy, like eating a great meal, having sex, or getting a good workout. [8] The “high” you get makes you want to repeat the behavior again and again. [9] (See Why Porn Is Like a Drug) Your brain is hardwired to motivate you to do things that will improve your health and chance of survival. [10]

Porn is an escalating behavior because as some users develop tolerance, the porn that used to excite them starts to seem boring. [11] Predictably, they often try to compensate by spending more time with porn and/or seeking out more hardcore material in an effort to regain the excitement they used to feel. [12] Many users find themes of aggression, violence, and increasingly “edgy” acts creeping into their porn habits and fantasies. [13] But no matter how shocking their tastes become, you can bet there will be pornographers waiting to sell it to them.

3. Porn can become an obsessive compulsion, or even an addiction.

Research shows that of all the forms of online entertainment—like gambling, gaming, surfing, and social networking—porn has the strongest tendency to be addictive. [14]

When porn enters the brain, it triggers the reward center (like we talked about before) to start pumping out dopamine, which sets off a cascade of chemicals including a protein called DeltaFosB. [15] DeltaFosB’s regular job is to build new nerve pathways to mentally connect what you’re doing (i.e. the porn you watch) to the pleasure you feel. [16] Those strong new memories outcompete other connections in the brain, making it easier and easier to return to porn. [17] (See How Porn Changes The Brain.)

As porn users become desensitized from repeated overloads of dopamine, they often find they can’t feel normal without a dopamine high. [18] Some report feeling anxious or down until they can get back to their porn. [19] As they delve deeper into the habit, their porn of choice often turns increasingly hard-core. [20] And many who try to break their porn habits report finding it “really hard” to stop. [21]

If this sounds like the classic symptoms of addiction, well….the head of the United States’ National Institute on Drug Abuse agrees. [22]

4. Porn can really alter a consumer’s sexual tastes.

The reward center (like we’ve talked about before) is usually a pretty great thing. Normally, our brain attracts us to healthy behaviors and encourages us to form life-supporting habits. [23] But when those reward chemicals get connected to something harmful, it has the opposite effect.

Porn users may think they’re just being entertained by sexually explicit content, but their brains are busy at work building connections between their feelings of arousal and whatever’s happening on their screen. [24] And since porn users typically become accustomed to the porn they’ve already seen and have to constantly move on to more extreme forms of pornography to get aroused, [25] the kind of porn a user watches usually changes over time. [26] (See Porn is an Escalating Behavior.)

In a survey of 1,500 young adult men, 56% said their tastes in porn had become “increasingly extreme or deviant.” [27] Just like the rats, many porn users eventually find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or that go against what they think is morally right. [28] In many cases, porn users find their tastes so changed that they can no longer respond sexually to their actual partners, though they can still respond to porn. [29]

Once users start watching extreme and dangerous sex acts, things that were disgusting or morally shameful can start to seem normal, acceptable, and more common than they really are. [30] One study found that people exposed to significant amounts of porn thought things like sex with animals and violent sex were twice as common as what those not exposed to porn believed. [31] And when people believe a behavior is normal, they’re more likely to try it. [32]

5. Similar to a drug, porn can affect a consumer’s brain.

Researchers have found that Internet porn and addictive substances like tobacco have very similar effects on the brain, [33] and they are significantly different from how the brain reacts to healthy, natural pleasures like food or sex. [34] Think about it. When you’re munching a snack or enjoying a romantic encounter, eventually your cravings will drop and you’ll feel satisfied. Why? Because your brain has a built-in “off” switch for natural pleasures. “Dopamine cells stop firing after repeated consumption of a ‘natural reward’ (e.g. food or sex),” explains Nora Volkow, Director of The National Institute of Drug Abuse. [35] But addictive drugs go right on increasing dopamine levels without giving the brain a break. [36] The more a drug user hits up, the more dopamine floods his brain, and the stronger his urges are to keep using. That’s why drug addicts find it so hard to stop once they take the first hit. “[O]ne hit may turn into many hits, or even a lost weekend.” [37]

What else has the power to keep pumping dopamine endlessly into the brain? If you’ve ever sat in front of a computer screen for hours in a porn trance, you already know the answer.

6. Porn can damage your sex life and sexual health.

Doctors are seeing an epidemic of young men who, because of their porn habits, can’t get an erection with a real, live partner. [38]

Study after study has shown that porn is directly related to problems with arousal, attraction, and sexual performance. [39]. Porn leads to less sex and to less sexual satisfaction within a relationship. [40] Researchers have shown a strong connection between porn use and low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and trouble reaching orgasm. [41] Many frequent porn users reach a point where they have an easier time getting aroused by Internet porn than by having actual sex with a real partner. [42] One recent study even concluded that porn use was likely the reason for low sexual desire among a random sample of high school seniors. [43] Who ever heard of that? Low sexual desire among high school seniors!

This trend of sex problems is especially serious for teens and young adults. Their brains are particularly vulnerable to being rewired by porn, [44] and they are in a period where they are forming crucial attitudes, preferences, and expectations for their future. [45]

7. Porn is full of toxic lies.

Sex is natural and normal. Porn is something entirely different.

Make no mistake, porn is a product. Pornographers have a lot to gain by driving traffic to their sites, so they dress up their product to grab your attention. That “dressing up” is exactly what makes porn so unnatural and synthetic.

Professional porn actors have a whole team of people to make every detail look perfect, from directing and filming to lighting and makeup, maybe even a plastic surgeon or two to thank. With some careful editing, a typical 45-minute porn flick that took three days to shoot can appear to have happened all at once, without a break. Film the right bodies from the right angles at the right moments, edit out all the mistakes, Photoshop away any imperfections, add a catchy soundtrack, and you have something most definitely NOT like “natural” sex with “normal” people.

Porn also makes it look like no matter what a man does, the woman likes it even though so many of the sex acts shown in porn are degrading, painful or violent. And these are just a couple of the countless lies porn sells.

8. Porn can harm love and drive a wedge in relationships.

Research shows that pornography use is linked to less stability in relationships, [46] increased risk of infidelity, [47] and greater likelihood of divorce. [48] Men who are exposed to porn find their partners less sexually attractive and rate themselves as less in love with their partners. [49] A recent study tracked couples over a six-year period, from 2006 to 2012, to see what factors influenced the quality of their marriage and their satisfaction with their sex lives. The researchers found that of all the factors considered, porn use was the second strongest indicator that a marriage would suffer. [50] Not only that, but the marriages that were harmed the most were those of men who viewed porn heavily, once a day or more. [51]

Why do porn users struggle so much in real life relationships? The science is pretty clear.

Research shows that porn users report less love and trust in their relationships, are more prone to separation and divorce, and often see marriage as a “constraint.” [52] Overall, they are less committed to their partners, [53] less satisfied in their relationships, [54] and more cynical about love and relationships in general. [55] They also have poorer communication with their partners and are more likely to agree that, in their own relationships, “little arguments escalate into ugly fights with accusations, criticisms, name-calling, and bringing up past hurts.” [56]

And if all that weren’t enough, porn also ruins a couple’s sex life. [57]

9. Porn can fuel anxiety, depression, and leave consumers lonelier than before.

“The more one uses pornography, the more lonely one becomes,” says Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who has worked with porn addicts for the last 30 years. [58] “Any time [a person] spends much time with the usual pornography usage cycle, it can’t help but be a depressing, demeaning, self-loathing kind of experience.” [59]

The worse people feel about themselves, the more they seek comfort wherever they can get it. Normally, they would be able to rely on the people closest to them to help them through their hard times—a partner, friend, or family member. But most porn users aren’t exactly excited to tell anyone about their porn habits, least of all their partner. So they turn to the easiest source of “comfort” available: more porn.

10. Porn can hurt your partner.

Studies have shown that most women—even if they believe that porn is okay for other people—see no acceptable role for porn within their own committed relationship. [60] And no wonder! The evidence that porn can harm relationships and partners is overwhelming. [61]

The fact is, porn reshapes expectations about sex and attraction by presenting an unrealistic picture. In porn, performers always look their best. They are forever young, surgically enhanced, airbrushed, and Photoshopped to perfection. [62] So it’s not hard to see why, according to a national poll, six out of seven women believe that porn has changed men’s expectations of how women should look. [63]

As writer Naomi Wolf points out, “Today real naked women are just bad porn.” [64]

11. Porn can warp healthy views of sex.

While porn is often called “adult material,” many of its consumers are well under the legal age. [65] In fact, the majority of teens are getting at least some of their sex ed from porn, whether they mean to or not. [66]

Researchers are finding that porn’s influence can and does find its way into teenager’s sexual behaviors. [67] For example, people who have seen a significant amount of porn are more likely to start having sex sooner and with more partners, to engage in riskier kinds of sex that put them at greater risk of getting sexually transmitted infections, and to have actually contracted an STI. [68]

Sociologist Dr. Michael Kimmel has found that men’s sexual fantasies have become heavily influenced by porn, [69] which gets awfully tricky when their partners don’t want to act out the degrading or dangerous acts porn shows. [70] As a result, men who look at pornography have been shown to be more likely to go to prostitutes, [71] often looking for a chance to live out what they’ve seen in porn. [72] In one survey of former prostitutes, 80% said that customers had shown them images of porn to illustrate what they wanted to do. [73]

12. Porn has a dirty little secret: not all explicit content is produced consensually.

Defenders of pornography make the argument all the time, that no matter how someone is treated in porn, it’s okay because they gave their consent. [74] In some cases it’s obvious when victims haven’t given consent, like when child pornography and human trafficking are involved. Pimps and sex traffickers often use porn to initiate their victims into their new life of sexual slavery, [75] and then they force their victims to participate in making new porn. [76]

The point is, when you watch porn, there’s no way to know what kind of “consent” the performers have given. You can’t assume, just because someone appears in a pornographic image or video, that they knew beforehand exactly what would happen or that they had a real choice or the ability to stop what was being done.

“I’ve never received a beating like that before in my life,” said Alexandra Read after being whipped and caned for 35 minutes. “I have permanent scars up and down the backs of my thighs. It was all things that I had consented to, but I didn’t know quite the brutality of what was about to happen to me until I was in it.” [77]

We’re not claiming that all porn is non-consensual. We’re just pointing out that some of it is and some of it isn’t, and when you watch it there’s no way to know which is which.

So, would you buy from a company if you knew that some, but not all, of their products were made with child labor? Would you support a store that abused some, but not all, of their female employees?

How can it be ethical to say that “porn is acceptable because participants give their consent,” when we know for a fact that some—probably much more than you think—do not?

13. Porn is inseparably connected to sex trafficking.

Here’s the thing: if a “Hollywood” version is all you know about sex trafficking, then you’re only seeing one part of a much more complex picture.

In the year 2000, in response to reports of international human trafficking, one of the broadest bipartisan coalitions in history came together to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA. [78] The TVPA defines sex trafficking as a situation in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” [79]

That word, coercion, is important. It means that a commercial sex act can be sex trafficking, even if no one was physically assaulted, even if no one was tricked or defrauded. All it takes is coercion. The moment a victim is coerced or intimidated into a commercial sex act against his or her will, sex trafficking has occurred. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime of sexual servitude, sex trafficking can happen in an instance or situation. Changes the way you think about trafficking, doesn’t it?

There are all kinds of connections, big and small, between pornography and sex trafficking. There are incidental connections, like the fact that exposure to pornography has been shown to make viewers less compassionate toward victims of sexual violence and exploitation. [80] (See How Consuming Porn Can Lead To Violence.)  There are “supply-and-demand” connections: the simple fact that pornography—especially when viewing habits and fantasies involve violence or other fetishes—increases the demand for sex trafficking, as more and more viewers want to act out what they see. There is the “training manual” connection: the well-documented fact that porn directly informs what goes on in trafficking. Traffickers and sex buyers get ideas from porn, and then make their victims watch as a way of showing them what they’ll be expected to do, so that the violent fantasy concocted by some porn director and his or her actors becomes the reality for some trafficking victim. [81] And then there is the risk factor connection: the fact that, along with poverty and substance abuse, a child growing up in a home where pornography is regularly consumed is far more likely to be trafficked at some point in his or her life. [82]

But what’s the biggest, most surprising connection between pornography and trafficking? It’s this: they’re often the same thing. We can spend hours and hours pointing out these cause-and-effect, symbiotic relationships between trafficking and porn. Those connections are real, and that’s an important conversation to have. But let’s not allow that to entrench the idea that porn and sex trafficking are always separate. Far more often than people realize, they’re not.

Here at Fight the New Drug, we know sex trafficking is a huge global problem and that this modern form of slavery is inherently, inseparably linked to the problem of pornography. Because this is an underground issue numbers are harder to come by, but if anything, the numbers reflecting what is actually happening around the globe are bigger than what has been reported. And isn’t even just one person being trafficked, one too many?

14. Porn is connected to violence.

Not all porn features physical violence, but even non-violent porn has been shown to have effects on viewers. The vast majority of porn—violent or not—portrays men as powerful and in charge; while women are submissive and obedient. [83] Watching scene after scene of dehumanizing submission makes it start to seem normal. [84] It sets the stage for lopsided power dynamics in couple relationships and the gradual acceptance of verbal and physical aggression against women. [85] Research has confirmed that those who watch porn (even if it’s nonviolent) are more likely to support statements that promote abuse and sexual aggression toward women and girls. [86]

But porn doesn’t just change attitudes; it can also shape actions. In 2016, a team of leading researchers compiled all the research they could find on the subject. [87] After examining twenty-two studies they concluded that the research left, “little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive [favorable] to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression.”

15. Porn is evolving to be more extreme, violent, and degrading than ever before.

As Internet porn grew more popular; it also turned darker, more graphic, and more extreme. With so much porn available, pornographers tried to compete for attention by constantly pushing the boundaries. [88] “Thirty years ago ‘hardcore’ pornography usually meant the explicit depiction of sexual intercourse,” writes Dr. Norman Doidge, a neuroscientist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself. “Now hardcore has evolved and is increasingly dominated by the sadomasochistic themes … all involving scripts fusing sex with hatred and humiliation.” [89] In our post-Playboy world, porn now features degradation, abuse, and humiliation of females in a way never before seen in the mass media. [90] “[S]oftcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago,” Doidge explains. “The comparatively tame softcore pictures of yesteryear … now show up on mainstream media all day long, in the pornification of everything, including television, rock videos, soap operas, advertisements, and so on.” [91]

Technology has changed not only the content of the porn young people watch, but also how, when, and at what age they watch it. By the time they turn 14 years old, two out of three boys in the U.S. have viewed porn in the last year, [92] and many are watching it on devices they have with them 24 hours a day. Wow. How can any of this be healthy?

Why This Matters

All of these issues show why we’re raising awareness and shining a light on the proven, measurable harms of porn. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that porn is harmless entertainment that has no impact on individuals or society. Get educated and fight against an industry that is tangibly harming individuals, relationships, and society.

We deserve better than what porn has to offer. We deserve real love, untainted by the toxicity of pornography. Join this global fight for love and become a Fighter.