How reducing pornography use can be harmful

I wish that I could say the title of this article and video is false clickbait, but it is not. No, I have not suddenly decided that pornography use is good for us and quitting is harmful. Rather, I’m here to tell you that merely reducing your use of pornography can cause unexpected consequences.

This article from Your Brain On Porn describes the increased risk for addiction among intermittent users (long abstinence punctuated by binges).

As you probably know if you have already read my book or otherwise learned about pornography addiction and sexual dysfunction, the brain is plastic, and desire is subject to conditioning based on what we are exposed to and what we consistently pursue and experience. We may have an innate desire for intimacy and sex, but we do not have an innate drive for screen-based voyeurism. Consistent use of pornography, however, can train us to respond more powerfully to a screen that to real people. It can desensitize us to sexual stimuli and rewire arousal to the point where actual sex just doesn’t do it for us anymore, and the only way we can become functionally aroused is with pornography.

Of course, not everyone who uses porn consistently is addicted, and even those who are may not be able to know it until they try to abstain. The hallmark of addiction is the inability to abstain even after negative consequences are recognized and one commits to quitting. Many porn users have never had a reason compelling enough to cause them to cease their consumption, so they cannot know if they are addicted or not. Two notable exemptions are religious users and those who have developed a pornography-induced sexual dysfunction (PISD).

The inability to have sex or satisfying intimacy is a powerful reason to leave pornography behind. Some with PISD are able to become permanently pornfree now that they have a good reason to do so. They may struggle with some cravings and other withdrawal symptoms, but their reason is powerful enough to carry them through. They recover from sexual dysfunction and often never return to viewing pornography. Others, however, find themselves continually relapsing, violating promises made to themselves and sabotaging their own progress and happiness–caught in a cycle of addiction. They may find that the strength of their cravings is greater and their quality of life lesser than it was before trying to quit. Even though they may be using less frequently, they can be much more distressed by it than when they were blissfully ignorant regular users.

A simple representation of the addictive cycle.

Additionally, we know from research on compulsions for drugs, food, and sex that intermittent use can be more effective at training sensitization and strong craving than regular use. Think about it this way: Our brains only make adaptations to help us develop skills and desires that we need (or that our brains are hijacked into desiring by exogenous drugs or modern super-stimuli like pornography, gaming or gambling). If we have ready and regular access to something our brains have been conditioned to desire, then there’s no need to develop extremely strong cravings for it. However, if that object of desire appears to be scarce, then strong cravings will help ensure that we take advantage of every opportunity to seize it.

If we leave porn behind completely and permanently, then eventually we find a new balance and a new normal. We learn to live without porn, and cravings will be few and far between. However, when we try to be abstinent but relapse over and over, we keep the addiction alive and can even strengthen the cravings. That’s why for an addict, using pornography even one day every several months carries a high degree of risk. Such an individual will probably rationalize that such infrequent consumption must not be a big deal, but because it can strengthen future cravings, it may very well be a big deal.

Lastly, some studies have noted a correlation between “moral disapproval” of porn use and emotional distress caused by porn use. Inexplicably, some experts go so far as to disregard the higher correlation between feeling addicted to porn and “amount of porn use,” and insist that distress about porn use is solely due to shame imposed on these users by their morals.

For the men I work with, “moral disapproval” is not the driving factor in their distress. Morality, religious teaching, social pressure, and personally held values are among the reasons some initially have to quit using, but the distress arises with their inability to control their use despite negative consequences (addiction), emerging porn-induced sexual dysfunctions, and/or their inexplicable lack of desire for partnered sex.

If you’re reading this and have fallen into intermittent use, don’t despair. You can break the cycle and live a pornfree life with the right knowledge and support. Start with my book if you haven’t read it yet. You can get the PDF free here. And if you’re looking for personal guidance, you can find ways to work with me here.