Bringing Calm to the Perfect Storm of Pornography Addiction
Pornography isn’t something new. The history of pornography dates back to antiquity, as evidenced by the sexual depictions on ancient Greek vases and the erotic frescoes of the suburban thermal baths in Pompeii. Derived from the classical Greek words, ‘pornos’ meaning ‘prostitutes,’ and ‘graphos’ meaning ‘writing,’ pornography, or ‘writing about prostitutes’ is as old as the oldest profession itself. As per King Solomon, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). Nevertheless, what has changed and set our contemporary culture of pornography consumption apart from any other era in the history of the planet is the delivery system. The advent of high-speed Internet has been the game-changer, and this not in isolation either. The ubiquitous spread of pornography throughout our society in pandemic proportions has occurred due to the convergence of a whole number of factors. These include: the outworking of the 1960s Sexual Revolution and our resultant hypersexualized culture; the repealing of Biblical law allowing for laxity in media censorship; entrepreneurial opportunism of the sex industry; and the pervasive existential suffering in our society, particularly ramped up during the COVID pandemic and its aftermath – all occurring in the context of visual-stimulus addiction from undisciplined 24/7 compulsive internet overconsumption. It’s a perfect storm, and perfectly dreadful. With porn sites receiving more traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined, it’s a pervasive problem, and has become one of the defining issues of our time. The ambition of this essay is to discuss the challenges posed by pornography, including the addictive potential and the insidious worldview challenge, and offer an approach to how we might effectively counter its detrimental effects. My hope is to provide the necessary equipping for the Christian community to not only meet this formidable challenge, but to recognize, in the process, opportunities for Gospel witness and favor.
My own unfortunate introduction to pornography was one of serendipity. I was innocently looking for an empty locker in the YMCA change-room when I happened upon a discarded Penthouse magazine, and in a moment all innocence was lost. Even as a prepubescent boy, I instinctively knew such a publication wasn’t intended for my viewing. The haughty eyes and body posture of the scantily clad beauty on the front cover screamed forbidden fruit. Yet the novelty of the pictorial grabbed my attention and the illicit potential piqued my curiosity. With hands trembling, I opened the cover and began to turn the pages. Unwittingly, I unceremoniously entered into a world of sexual sin and pagan idolatry. As the first nude images came into view, an explosion of tingly warmth shuddered through my body. It was a strange new excitement that welled up inside me, causing my heart to speed, threatening to pound out of my chest. I felt all flushed and faint, and had to close the magazine at one point, just to recover my senses and catch my breath. Having regained my composure, I reopened the magazine, and with hands sweating returned to where I’d left off. Those first gratuitous depictions of sexuality whet my appetite and stirred within me a deep desire for more. And more I would’ve consumed, had it not been for my swim mates entering the locker room, causing me to stow away my secret treasure for future private viewing. Later, when I was safely hidden behind my closed bedroom door, I pulled out the magazine once again and returned to its explicit material. The more time I spent pouring over those photographs, the more I wanted to. The seductive posturing and beckoning facial expressions captivated me, and stayed with me long after I’d hidden the pages back under my bed. Their images came to mind throughout the day, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, intruding into my thoughts at school, interfering with my studies, distracting me from my math lesson, even at church. Within a brief period of weeks, I had developed a certain level of pornography addiction, and inadvertently set into place a thought pattern in my brain that would prove indelible.
Mechanism of Pornography Addiction
The mechanism for pornography addiction shares similarities with other addicting substances and behaviours, which generally take advantage of the same neural pathways utilized in normal learned behaviors. Substance addictions, such as alcohol, tobacco, amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin stimulate the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, or reward center, as it’s commonly referred, as do other behavioural addictions, including gambling, gaming, shopping, and binge eating. This pleasure pathway is located within the superior aspect of the brain stem, known as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and is interconnected to structures deep within the brain, namely the amygdala (responsible for positive and negative emotions and emotional memory), and the hippocampus (site of processing and retrieval of long-term memories), and further connected to the prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum, which coordinates and determines behavior. This complex neurocircuitry array operates by way of positive reinforcement utilizing a sensory reward system. When the cortex has received and processed a sensory stimulus indicating a reward – such as the auditory praise for completing a task, for example, or the taste of sweet from a candy – it sends a signal activating the VTA to release dopamine into the amygdala and hippocampus, where this neurohormone binds specific dopamine receptors. These structures in turn release other neurotransmitters, including the naturally-occurring opioids, endorphin and dynorphin, and stimulate the prefrontal cortex, which results in the volitional repetition of the gratifying action – completing more praiseworthy tasks or grabbing another M&M, as the case may be. Taken together, the reward system and its connecting regions modulate pleasure, reward, memory, and motivation.
Over time, the repetitive pattern of stimulus/response leads to actual architectural changes in the brain. Cell growth and protein synthesis occur, along with an increase in the number of connecting neurons, and dopamine receptors at the junction points, resulting in enhanced neurological communication. Analogous to developing a city highway from a country road, these structural changes within the brain effectively improve transmission efficiency by speeding up and strengthening the associated neural networks. This dynamic process is responsible for the remarkable and all-important adaptability of our central nervous system. On the positive side, this neuroplasticity provides the foundation for new learning, such as playing an instrument or developing a second language, as well as healthy habit formation, like following a daily exercise regimen. On the flip side, however, this same adaptability can allow for bad habit formation, like senselessly surfing the Internet, and is susceptible to being hijacked by substance and behavioural addictions with their resultant detrimental physiological effects.
Addiction Hallmarks and Determinants
As a clinical cardiologist working in the downtown tertiary care centre in Edmonton, I come face to face with the underbelly of substance abuse on a routine basis. In addition to my role as director of our smoking cessation program, where I address nicotine addiction and provide counsel to help patients become smoke-free, I am directly involved in numerous aspects of addiction medicine. This involvement ranges from managing alcohol-related heart failure and dysrhythmias, or cocaine-induced acute myocardial infarction, to assessing for heart valve infections in febrile intravenous drug users, or to determining the suitability of a heart for transplantation in cases where the patient has been declared brain dead from Fentanyl overdose.
In the process of it all, I have become all too familiar with the four horrid hallmarks of addiction: dependency, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, tolerance, and dysfunction. Drug dependency is marked by a desperate craving for continual access to the addicting substance, and caused by the flood of dopamine into the reward circuit and resultant endorphin rush. Once the addiction is established, obsessive-compulsive behaviour follows with the development of secretive conduct and rituals. This is caused by a rise in dynorphin levels, endorphin’s evil twin. Rather than producing feelings of euphoria and pleasure, this yin-yang counter neurotransmitter is responsible for sensations of anxiety, dysphoria, and despair, which negatively reinforce continued use of the addictive drug to avoid the withdrawal state. Tolerance occurs as the elevated levels of dynorphin diminish dopamine release, resulting in a lowering of the reward threshold. As tolerance develops, increasing amounts of the stimulus is required to produce the same desired effect. General dysfunction occurs as the addiction negatively impacts the ability of addicts to function in society, often resulting in poverty and the escalation of homeless populations in our downtown areas. Addiction medicine is ugly business, and a shameful testament to the enabling liberal drug policies and legislations in our country, and increasingly so around the world.
Not all addicting behaviours or drugs exhibit the same degree of addiction. Of the natural rewards, for example, sexual stimulation has the highest potential for addiction, even more so than food, including pizza, chocolate, and ice cream. In the realm of addictive substances, cocaine, nicotine, and heroin top the list for addictive potential. The four main determinants for addiction which explain these differences in the strength of addiction are the following:
- Dopamine Release
While all addictive substances and behaviours flood dopamine into the reward circuit, some do more so than others. This differential amount of dopamine released into the neural network is the key factor that separates out the potency of addicting drugs and the addictive potential of certain behaviours, and is the primary determinant for strength of addiction. The mechanism governing the amount of dopamine released into the neural network by a given stimulus is multifactorial and in part related to genetic factors, environmental conditioning, which can have social determinants (such as its illicit nature or cultural taboo), and in the case of addicting substances, its specific pharmacological properties.
The time interval between behaviour and reward is the second most important determinant for addiction, where the more rapid the dopamine peak surge in response to the drug or behaviour, the stronger the addictive potential. As a result, the mode of drug delivery is paramount. Inhalation, snorting and intravenous injection all allow for rapid onset of drug effect, and are all rapidly addictive. This explains why cigarette smoking is so difficult to quit. With one drag on the cancer stick, the active ingredient, nicotine, gets rapid access to the bloodstream by way of the alveoli in the lungs – a surface area equivalent in size to that of a tennis court – and immediately makes its way to the nicotine receptors in the brain. Aware of this potency and wanting to rescue their shrinking market, cigarette companies have been known to provide ‘free’ samples to children in developing countries (often three cigarettes bundled together) in the hopes of hooking more customers. Sadly, as little as three cigarettes is all it takes to set the stage for lifelong addiction to smoking. In terms of behavioural addiction, the importance of timing between behaviour and reward plays out, as well. For example, the number of addicted gamblers escalated steeply with the advent of online gambling. While the thrill of potentially getting something for nothing hasn’t changed, clicking a ‘mouse’ provides a faster answer (and potential jackpot) than manually pulling down a lever and waiting for the fruits to all align, and is far more addictive. As a result, the devastation of losing one’s life savings can now occur quicker than ever before.
While the magnitude of the initial dopamine release is central to addiction potential, if there is variety of stimuli provided, then repeat dopamine surges are possible, and the potential for addiction gets magnified. This helps explain the hollow dessert leg phenomenon, when those dining out typically say ‘yes’ to perusing the dessert menu. It seems that no matter how many helpings of the main course are consumed, when the dessert menu arrives, eyes get larger than stomachs, and room is found for cake. This overriding of the brain’s satiety centre by the reward pathway forms the basis of food addiction, and has likely played a significant role in fostering the present-day obesity epidemic in our society. Entrepreneurs have capitalized on this novelty phenomenon in the marketing of their merchandise. From the various vaping products with their assorted flavors, to the variety of coolers and sours, and the explosion of craft beer options – new and different spurs consumption, counters drug tolerance, and promotes addiction. This same novelty phenomenon is true for sexual stimulation, as well. Animal studies have consistently shown that exposure to new sexual partners intensifies dopamine release. Referred to as the Coolidge Effect, sexual novelty likely explains a good portion of the allure of having an adulterous relationship. It’s not so much the specific guy or gal, but the grass-is-always-greener newness of the encounter. While variety may seem like the spice of life, when it comes to addictive stimuli, it’s a path to dependence, destruction, and death.
The easier it is to access an addictive stimulus, the more likely it will be accessed, and the more likely addiction will follow. Although those favouring liberal drug policies tend to promote the myth that narcotic legalization is the answer to the drug problem, reality hasn’t born this out. We have to say ‘no’ to drugs, not ‘go.’ The legalization of marijuana in Canada is an illustrative case in point. With cannabis shops lining our city streets and popping up at every other corner, increased consumption has followed suit, and not surprisingly, addiction to tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the active ingredient) has escalated. Even though the health risks are similar to cigarette consumption, a surprising number of my patients regularly smoke cannabis, most lulled into the misperception that because something is legal, it must be good, and in the case of ‘smokin’ a joint,’ even healthy. From the dispensing of ‘clean drugs’ at hospital sites, to round-the-clock internet accessibility for gambling, easy access fosters addiction.
Considering these four determinants of addiction, it becomes abundantly clear why internet pornography is so highly addictive, and why it’s considered a visual narcotic and often referred to as the new crack/cocaine. Online pornography not only satisfies all these determinants hands down, it does so head and shoulders above any other addictive behaviour or drug. Repetitive viewing of sexually-explicit material has been shown to cause dopamine release that exceeds levels produced by all other behavioural addictive stimuli, gambling and gaming included. It even exceeds levels enjoyed in actual sexual intercourse. When compared with many addictive substances, including nicotine, morphine, and amphetamines, pornography comes out on top, as well. Although heroin and cocaine can produce higher peak levels of dopamine release with a resultant more intense burst in pleasure pathway activation, internet pornography can keep the pleasure going. With a simple click of the mouse comes a whole new array of images, and another immediate dopamine rush. So, while the cocaine user is coming off their rocky-mountain high and plummeting into their equal and opposite reactive deep, deep low; the porn surfer can catch another wave of pleasure, and another, and another, clicking ad infinitum. The addiction takes on a life of its own, and not an addiction to pornography perse, but to the biochemical intoxication that ensues from its viewing. Taken together – the explosive dopamine surges, immediate gratification, unparalleled novelty, and resistance-free, round-the-clock anonymous accessibility – no addicting behaviour nor drug can come close to the addiction potential of internet pornography. In brief, we’ve created a monster.
Detrimental Effects of Pornography
While the harm wrought by pornography is far-reaching, extending its tentacles into all areas of our society – the church included – with untold numbers of women and children exploited by the multibillion-dollar porn industry, the pornography consumer is a casualty, as well. Under the banner of freedom of sexual expression, the powerful addiction cycle created by pornography viewing rewires the brain and traps the viewer into a state of insatiable desire for more. Ravenous pornography consumption is harmful, attacking the spiritual core of a person, and manifesting in a variety of psychosocial and biological problems, including dysfunction.
Although my medical practice as a cardiologist is pretty much above the belt, there are exceptions, and managing erectile dysfunction is one of them. Twenty-five years ago, I was considered the local Viagra Guy. It wasn’t the appellation I had hoped for when I agreed to tour the province with Pfizer and speak on the topic of erectile dysfunction, but it gave me an opportunity to meet my referring doctors, and to address their safety concerns about the use of phosphodiesterase inhibitors (the active ingredient in the little blue pill) in patients with heart disease. While those concerns have largely eased, I am still asked on occasion to see patients who suffer from impotence. These days, however, the men who struggle with erectile dysfunction aren’t just the old guys with diabetes or high blood pressure and a smoking history, but are non-smokers, otherwise healthy, and are young, some in their early twenty’s. Their problem is not one of vascular insufficiency, but internet pornography. There’s nothing actually wrong with their machinery. They don’t need fuel injection; they’ve flooded the engine. It follows then that their remedy is not a medicine, but complete abstinence. This is because unless pornography stimulation completely ceases, everything else will. Although erectile dysfunction occurs commonly in men with pornography addiction, it’s a late manifestation, and doesn’t develop until after long hours of pornography consumption, and well after permanent changes have taken place in the neurochemistry of the brain. These men have already become as dependent on porn as a heroin addict desperate for a fix, and have developed well-established obsessive-compulsive behaviours and levels of tolerance.
Tolerance is a means for the body to achieve a more stable physiological steady state, and it is what drives pornography addiction so demonically deep. The mechanism is complex and involves dynorphin-induced downregulation of dopamine receptors, as well as the accumulation of the stabilizing protein, Delta Fos-B. This “molecular switch” functions to convert acute visual stimulus responses into relatively stable neurochemistry adaptations that contribute to the long-term architectural changes in the brain that underly pornography addiction. Since Delta Fos-B is a highly stable protein with an 8-week half life, it represents a mechanism by which sexually-explicit images produce lasting changes in gene expression long after the cessation of pornography use. As a result of this physiologic tolerance, more sexual stimulation is needed to bring the desired dopamine hit, leading some to engage in increasingly risky behavior, such as looking at porn at work, consuming more extreme, or even illegal porn, or acting out sexually in other ways – such as visiting strip clubs or soliciting prostitutes. In order to achieve the same level of dopamine release and reward, increased levels of pornography novelty are required. This can include viewing alternative sexual genres and fetishes, as well as those depicting sexual violence. The more perverse and shocking, the greater the dopamine response. Considering this ever-advancing insatiable process, it’s no stretch to see how pornography consumption can lead to sexual perversion and depravity.
Guilt and shame are – understandably – commonly experienced after pornography consumption. Although these feelings can get dulled over time, they end up adding fuel to a vicious cycle of distress. The guilt and shame caused by viewing pornography spur more porn consumption, followed by more guilt and shame, followed by more porn, and so on. No amount of novel pornography, no matter how intense nor bizarre, can bring comfort or alleviate the ever-present anguish. Round and round the addiction cycle goes, until the wheels finally fall off. The brain eventually fatigues, limiting the production of dopamine, and leaving the viewer craving more but unable to reach any level of satisfaction. This imbalance in the brain leads to many problems, the least of which is sexual dissatisfaction and impotence. As the pornography consumer is consumed by their addiction, feelings of anxiety mount, along with unrelenting fatigue, lack of motivation, and the inability to concentrate. Even everyday pleasures cease to provide enjoyment. It’s tragically ironic that what began as a desire for pleasure, ends up providing only displeasure. The porn addict is left bereft of any joy in life whatsoever. Yet, despite this sorry state, they still have a persistent thirst for more. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner surrounded by “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” the porn addict is abandoned to a living hell.
Ending Pornography Addiction
Escaping the trap of pornography addiction is no simple task. In many respects, it’s more difficult than getting off substance addictions. Even coming clean from heroin addiction or quitting smoking are comparably more straightforward. This is in part because with substance addictions, there are available substitutionary treatments to help lessen withdrawal symptoms during the detoxification period. With heroin addiction, for example, there is methadone, a long-acting opioid derivative, used as a less addictive replacement for heroin, that allows for a tapering of the addiction with less addictive drug. Likewise, for quitting smoking, a whole array of medicines can be of assistance, including nicotine replacement products that can effectively eliminate cigarette cravings by providing tapering amounts of the addictive ingredient, nicotine, allowing time for the smoker to gradually kick the habit. As well, for alcohol addiction, benzodiazepines can be administered to diminish the risk of delirium tremens, which often occurs with long-time overuse of alcohol, with its attendant hallucinations, tremor, anxiety, and disorientation. However, for behavioural addictions, such as gambling, gaming, and pornography, no such medical options are available. This is particularly the case for pornography addiction. The intense dopamine surge produced from the visual sexual stimuli, as well as the tolerance that develops, makes attempting to cut down the consumption of pornography as challenging as quitting completely. So, it’s either continue on in the addiction cycle or make a cold turkey stop. No middle ground tapering is available.
Compounding this challenge for all three of these addictions is the easy access, again, particularly for pornography. It’s right there at the click of a bait, or the select of a site, or the scroll down a feed. And many have allowed those compulsive clicks, selects, and scrolls to become reflex responses in their everyday moments, dominating all their waking hours. No longer, it seems, do people strike up a conversation at the bus stop, speak with others in the coffeeshop line-up, make small talk in the elevator, or say “Good morning! What a beautiful day” to passersby. Regardless of the setting, it’s all heads down and thumbs-a-flyin’ as social media accounts are viewed, text comments are shared, and blog posts are skimmed. It’s not just distracted driving that’s a concern; now there’s distracted zombie walking, distracted exercising, distracted eating, and distracted listening, to lectures, concerts, sermons, and even loved ones. All of the in-between-times have been filled in by virtual reality and absconded by computer devices. As a result, we have dwindling concentration abilities, and seemingly, the complete loss of giving undivided attention to anything else. And then double trouble, like a match to fire, pornography enters the pandemonium. Internet obsession has provided the tinder ground for the wildfire of pornography addiction to rage in our society, and to consume untold numbers.
To calm the perfect storm of pornography addiction, involvement in this milieu of Internet madness needs to end. Radical changes will be necessary, mandating commitment, discipline, and discipleship. In particular, steadfast commitment will be required to completely abstain from all forms of pornography, discipline will be needed to develop healthy digital stewardship, and Christian discipleship will be essential to provide the foundation for the ongoing support, encouragement, and accountability required for these critical changes to take place, and kindle a new affection for our loving God. The impetus for the believer to adopt these changes (as if the detrimental effects of pornography addiction weren’t sufficient cause), is the acknowledgment that pornography viewing is sinful. And like other sexual sins, including homosexuality, adultery, heterosexual promiscuity, serial monogamy, premarital sex, and masturbation, it needs to be called out as a sin requiring confession. Apostle Paul exhorts us to “flee from sexual immorality,” emphasizing that “all other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body,” reminding us that we “were bought at a price… therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor 18-20).
This is not to say that viewing any depiction of the naked human body is sinful. Medical students studying surface anatomy are not, in doing so, engaging in sinful behaviour, nor are those appreciating Rembrandt’s nude composition of Bathsheba at Her Bath, nor Michelangelo’s sculpture of David. Pornography is neither edifying nor a proper use of artistic media, but gratuitous depictions of human sexuality. Pornography photographs may be skillfully done in terms of lighting and composition, but their content is patronizing, exploiting the sexual passions of the viewer, and presents a lie that debases God’s good gift of sex. Although Canadian law currently protects pornography under freedom of expression as an art form, this is a gross error, and considering the harmful effects that pornography has had in the exploitation of the vulnerable, objectification of women, and the causing of widespread social and community harms, such laws are shameful. As Francis Schaeffer points out, “For the Christian, art is to be used for the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God.” If pornography is considered an art form, it is an impoverished one, that distorts beauty and profanes God. While grey areas may certainly exist between artistic expression and blatant eroticism, the sexually-explicit graphic material polluting over 1/3 of the internet bandwidth and consumed daily by millions within our society – including churchgoers and their pastors – doesn’t fit into the tiny grey debatable zone. Rather, it’s unashamedly erotic, exploitive, demeaning, and dehumanizing, and its viewing is sinful. There’s no room here for game-playing about art form or rationalizing about freedom of expression, only sincere repentance and heartfelt confession.
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