The darker side of pornography

Not all addictions are to drugs, alcohol or gambling. Addiction to pornography can have profound consequences. People (men use pornography more than women) who use pornography regularly have little idea of how their brains are being physically reshaped by it, and what this can mean.

Following on from my two previous blogs, this information comes from Dr Norman Doidge’s international best-seller,  The Brain That Changes Itself. There are many useful insights in this valuable book for everyone. (I’ll leave Norman alone after this week)

The Brain that changes itself

In short, the increasing Internet availability and escalation of hardcore pornography physically alters the sexual brain maps of pornography users. This can change sexual tastes, leading to problems in relationships.

Pornography may at first glance appear to satisfy instinctual evolutionary responses. However, Dr Doidge disagrees. If that was true, he explains, the explicit content of pornography wouldn’t be increasing. Hardcore pornography that shocked mainstream society 50 or more years ago is softer than 30 years ago, which is very different to the present.

Modern Man                                                Indian sex                                                                      

Hardcore ‘porn’ has evolved to contain increasingly sadomasochistic themes of , ‘forced sex, ejaculations on women’s faces, and angry anal sex, all involving scripts fusing sex with hatred and humiliation. Hardcore pornography now explores the world of perversion, while softcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago.’ (Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself, p. 102)

From the mid 1990’s Dr Doidge, a psychiatrist, began to notice an increasing number of otherwise average young men who’d begun to be disgusted by their taste in pornography. This addiction affected the relationship with their partners and their sexual impotency. What initially helped these men to get excited during sex, in the long term had the opposite effect.  They experienced an eventual decrease in pleasure in sex with their partners, despite still finding them attractive.

Frequent porn viewers develop new neural pathways in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. These pathways are strengthened by the release of dopamine in the brain during orgasm when viewing porn. As Norman Doidge says, neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that pathways are forged in our plastic brains when we do things repetitively. This is very useful for learning, overcoming brain traumas, and maintaining brain fitness.

The dark side of neuroplasticity is our ability to acquire addictions. Repeat exposure to explicit pornography reinforces pornographic pathways, changing an individual’s tolerance levels. Eventually, like drugs, higher and higher levels of stimulation are required for satisfaction. Pornography is powerful because it also hyperactivates the appetitive system, which controls the desire for food and sex, and promotes behaviours that give these rewards. For porn users, changes in brain maps for new exciting images increase at the expense of what they found a turn-on with their partners before.

Dr Doidge doesn’t just confine this change to a few people. He sees it as a ‘social shift’ in society, a danger that this higher tolerance for hardcore porn will carry over into relationships. In porn films, women are always eager and available ‘receptacles’. Doidge talks about college students who refer to women as ‘cum dumpsters’. (p.105, referring to American campus life in I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe)

Why have I written this blog? As a mother to daughters, I am concerned about women being devalued from the addictive and mind-altering power of hardcore pornography. I’d like the effects of hardcore and excessive use of pornography to be widely recognised as an addiction with detrimental side effects for women. On reading this, my 17 year old said, “Oh, I know all about that. We learnt about it in psychology at school.” Thankfully, she goes to a co-ed high school. Awareness is half the battle won, sometimes.

The good news? The same laws of neuroplasticity that enable insidious, addictive pathways to grow also allow these problematic neuronal networks to weaken when not used. A person’s appetite for porn can literally wither away when people go cold turkey. It’s a use it or lose it brain, even where sexual desire is concerned.

My thanks again to Dr Doidge for his research and insights. For more details on neuroplasticity please read his book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

Afterword – Soft porn literature for women

After months of resisting, I succumbed and read some current romantic erotica for women. Writing a romance novel, I need to know the parameters of the genre. It’s very popular, after all. Understandably, women are curious about sex and not discussing it openly can lead to ignorance, guilt from past social expectations, lack of assertion in relationships etc. Experimentation is learning.

I was surprised at my reaction to erotica (perhaps two books by different authors was too small a sample?) After my initial curiosity was sated, I quickly became desensitised to the sexual act, skimming over predictable, explicit descriptions and similes (talking to other women, I’m not the only one). My eyes glazed as female anatomy was described as various forms of sea molluscs, male anatomy described as often amusing (or is it just me?) phallic similes that would be sexier and more powerful if left unsaid. In short, there was nothing left to the reader’s imagination, like a child’s toy that offered little scope for play outside its limited parameters.

Judging by the sales of these books though, erotic fiction is here to stay and that’s a good thing for its audience. However, in literature as in everything else, there are horses for courses, prudes for dudes, charmers for farmers, vamps for champs etc.

I believe there’s still a place for ‘less is more’ in romantic fiction, especially if you have a healthy imagination. The image below is sensual even though they still have clothes on, they’re not even touching – yet!


In a crafted love story, there’s more room for the reader to imagine themselves in the story, to weave some personal magic into what is offered. I’m not saying to end at at kiss, too little IS too little. Sexual tension between well-developed characters can be more powerful than sexually explicit writing. It gives the story staying power. I hope Arafura has achieved that.

Arafura book cover

This entry was posted in Arafura, erotica, love stories, Neuroplasticity, Norman Doidge, Pornography, romance novels. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The darker side of pornography

  1. leeannewalker1 says:

    I hear you and agree! I believe that less is more when it comes to writing about sex and sexual tension is most effective when it’s understated. But that leaves me out with the current trend of erotica in ‘women’s’ fiction. I’ve always found the suggestion and build up prior to consumation, more powerful than the tawdry detailed descriptions of intercourse! Call me old-fashioned…

  2. Imelda Evans says:

    Coming late to the conversation, but I agree too! I’m just not that interested in reading about sex. I have no objection to characters having it and if it’s transformative or revelatory, then some description is fine. But I admire a light hand (so to speak) that can convey that without exhaustive detail. Anne Gracie and Kerry Greenwood are two writers I admire for their skills in this area (and many others). I know it will cost me some readers in these permissive times, that my stories don’t have detailed sex scenes, but I can only hope it will gain me others. Great post!

    • Thanks Imelda. Perhaps in these ‘permissive times’ Rules Are For Breaking, ha ha (by the way, I’m off to Australia Post for a copy now, my curiosity is piqued). I do prefer something to be left to the reader’s imagination. Did you watch the BBC series North and South (with Richard Armitage, I know you like him)? In the last episode, less could not be more!!!!!

  3. Imelda Evans says:

    Ahem. Since I have to admit to watching that last scene approximately eleventy billion times on the youtubes, I would have to agree! I hope you find a copy of ‘Rules’ and that you like it! It is available online as well.

    Seriously, it seems these days that leaving it out IS breaking the rules! But in my case, to date, it hasn’t been so much a concious decision as much as it just hasn’t come up (so to speak). If the story point has already been made, the sex itself can be taken as read, I think. I know a lot of readers like it, but personally, I’d rather have it than read about it! 😉

    • Ha, ha! I think if we, the reader, have been waiting for/wanting two characters to get it together, it works if there’s room for us to imagine ourselves in the story. Descriptions written well (not too much anatomical and mechanical detail to jolt the reader into asking questions like, “Isn’t that physically impossible?”, “How can she NOT have a gag reflex?” or “How much longer can she still breathe through that plastic bag?”) and with finesse don’t break that delicious spell for me.

      I will get ‘Rules’ online, thanks for that!

  4. suzjones says:

    I agree – less is more. I admit to reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and reached the point where I just skimmed the sex scenes. I actually found it incredulous that they were at it again…. and again… and again…..

    • Hi Suzanne. I surprised myself with that reaction too, although came across an interesting erotica short story the other day, recommended by the Australian Romance Readers Assoc, a US author. It was short and sweet, or short and sexy, short and sensual,….. something like that.
      I can’t remember if it was Anne Lamott or Stephen King who said description should start on the page, but end in the readers imagination. I like that.
      Thanks for following! 🙂

  5. cindy knoke says:

    This is brilliantly done and I am sending it on. As a therapist I have seen first hand the soul destroying of internet porn addiction~

  6. cindy knoke says:

    PS- Never read the Shades of Grey gig….struck me as pretty stupid!

  7. I eventually read it because my novel had romance in it, but didn’t get very far. Funny, a lot of detail can leave so little to the imagination. But obviously a lot of readers like it. Thanks for visiting Cindy. 🙂

  8. bethbyrnes says:

    I am so glad you wrote this post, Susan. As a psychologist, what you outlined about male dependence on pornography has been what I have contended for years. Pornography weakens men and destroys couple relationships. I have no interest in either female or male pornography. In my view, if you cannot be stimulated without them, you have a psychological problem (likely from early childhood) that needs resolution, so you can heal and interact at a deep level with your actual partner, in the moment. Great blog in general and valuable post.

    • Thanks Beth. I think I mention it in the post, but I first came across the concept in The Brain That Changes Itself. It struck me that pornography is something especially men need to know to navigate. Thanks for visiting and for your thoughtful comments.

Leave a Reply to cindy knoke Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s