Pornography and the Male Brain

Much has been written on why porn is an issue for women. This blog will address a less public problem: Why is it a problem for men, and how does it affect their relationships?

High-speed Internet porn may be the fastest moving, most global influence on male sexuality, sexual performance, and relationship dynamics in history. When researchers began to study porn’s influence on college-age males, they were unable to find a sufficient number of young men who didn’t use porn to comprise a control group.

Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse found that most boys begin to seek pornography by age 10, an age marking a sudden fascination with sex. This developmental fascination with sex is neither new nor abnormal. What is new, and troublesome, is that Internet porn is far more compelling than porn of the past. Because of its endless novelty, easy access, and unrelenting availability, internet porn is ubiquitous—and addictive. It has everything to do with the neurobiological disposition of males, characterized by the Coolidge Effect.

The Coolidge Effect is an interesting phenomenon that drives the sexual behavior of male mammals. It’s name derives from an alleged conversation between President Calvin Coolidge, his wife Grace, and a farmer. While the president and first lady were touring a farm, the farmer proudly showed Mrs. Coolidge a rooster that “could copulate with hens all day long, day after day.” Mrs. Coolidge coyly suggested that the farmer tell that to Mr. Coolidge, which he did. The President thought for a moment and then inquired, “With the same hen?” “No, sir,” replied the farmer. The president retorted, “Please tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

Novelty plays a central role in male sexual arousal. Animal studies show that nature works to keep the male fertilizing willing females, particularly when new ones are nearby. However, a male mammal needs more and more time between copulation and subsequent arousal to copulate with the same mate. If you keep introducing new females, however, he can get the job done far more quickly. He will keep repeating the cycle until utterly exhausted. It is the male mammalian arousal pattern, the Coolidge Effect, which explains the explosion of Internet porn and its addictive effect on men.

For porn-viewing males, it’s not images of nudity and sex per se, but the novelty of an ever-new supply of those images that sends arousal skyrocketing. Males brains and bodies fire up for each new image. Men’s old, mammalian evolutionary programming perceives each new “mate” on the screen as an opportunity to pass on their genes. The male brain, in order to keep the male “fertilizing” the screen, releases a “hit” of the neurochemical dopamine for each new image or scene. Eventually the man will tire, but as long as he keeps clicking, he can keep on going – and so will his dopamine. This process is addicting. Of course, even though the hunt for the next arousing scene is almost endlessly compelling, the viewer is not just looking. He is masturbating himself to orgasm. In having sex with his human partner, after orgasm he might soon roll over and sleep. But as each new “mate” enters the room, he soon experiences new arousal. This is essentially what happens with Internet porn. The male sees see more stimulating new “mates” in ten minutes than his hunter-gatherer forefathers would have in several lifetimes. Even though technology has changed, our hunter-gatherer brain has not. There has been little time to adapt to changed circumstances.

The male neurobiology registers porn as a genetic goldmine. The heavy porn user’s brain carefully clusters all the elements of porn viewing, e.g., being alone, searching, clicking, voyeurism, novelty, etc., into a neurological package that is the “perfect storm” to create addiction in the male. This addictive pattern has come to be called arousal addiction.

Momentarily putting aside the disastrous effects of porn on real relationships with real women for a moment, what effect does heavy porn use have on men’s live in general? This comment from one young man is emblematic.

I’ve been to psychologists and psychiatrists for the last 8 years. Have been diagnosed with depression, severe social anxiety, severe memory impairment, and a few others. Have tried Effexor, Ritalin, Xanax, and Paxil. Dropped out of two different colleges. Been fired twice. Used pot to calm my social anxiety.

This kind of effect, as you can easily imagine, would have profound effects on scholastic performance, health, and everyday goal setting and goal achievement. Now let’s bring social and sexual interaction into the mix. The same man adds this.

I’ve been approached by quite a few women (I guess due to looks/status), but they quickly flew away due to my incredible weirdness. I’ve been a hardcore porn addict since about 14.

Real sex, in contrast to porn, includes conversation, courtship, touch, smells, pheromones, intellectual and emotional connection, and so on. What does a male who has been on an exclusive diet of pornography since puberty do with a real partner? Often nothing.

In a TED talk called The Demise of Guys, psychologist Philip Zimbardo notes that arousal addiction symptoms are easily mistaken for other conditions, such as ADHD, social anxiety, depression, performance anxiety, OCD, and so on. Healthcare providers assume these conditions are primary—perhaps the cause of addiction—but not the result of addiction. As a consequence, porn-addicted males are medicated without inquiring about the possibility of Internet addiction. Many never realize that they could reverse their symptoms by changing their behavior.

One Dutch study found that porn, more than any other online activity, has the highest potential to become addictive. Gary Wilson, in his TEDx talk, The Great Porn Experiment, notes that the ancient neurobiological wiring that compels us toward food, sex and bonding, registers extreme versions of these natural rewards uniquely valuable. “That is, we get extra dopamine for high-calorie food and novel hot babes. Too much dopamine can override our natural satiation mechanisms.” He continues, 

For example, give rats unlimited access to enticing junk food, and almost all of them will binge to obesity. This is also why 4 out of 5 adult Americans are overweight and half of them obese—that is, addicted to food. In contrast to natural rewards (read: sex and food) drugs such as alcohol or cocaine, will only hook about 10-15% of users, whether humans or rats. This binge mechanism for food and sex was once an evolutionary advantage. It helped us ‘get it while the getting was good.’ Think of wolves stowing away 20 pounds of meat per kill. Or it’s mating season and you’re the alpha male. What if mating season never ends? All those hits of dopamine do two things: First, they tell your brain that you’ve hit the evolutionary jackpot. Second, and very important, they trigger a molecular switch called DeltaFosB, which starts to accumulate in your brain’s reward circuit. With excess chronic consumption of drugs or natural rewards, this build-up of DeltaFosB (starts to change brain and) promotes a cycle of binging and craving. If the binging continues, it can lead to the brain changes seen in all addicts.

Wilson adds,

The simplified dominoes of addiction are: excess dopamine over time leads to DeltaFosB addiction-related brain changes, leading to more binging, leading to more dopamine, leading to more DeltaFosB, leading to more brain changes. First a numbed pleasure response kicks in, so that everyday pleasures leave our porn addict dissatisfied (desensitization). At the same time, other physical changes make him hyper-reactive to porn (sensitization). Everything else in his life seems boring, but porn really fires up his reward circuit. Finally, his willpow
er erodes as the CEO of his brain, the frontal cortex, becomes inhibited. I can’t emphasize this enough: All addictions share these same neurological underpinnings and are triggered by the same molecular switch, DeltaFosB.

Now, fortunately, there is a growing group of males who are abstaining from Internet porn. As they share information about symptoms of porn addiction and methods of recover, heavy porn users are voluntarily giving it up by the thousands. Even more than cognitive and emotional decline, these males are being driven by erectile dysfunction. Philip Zimbardo notes that “Internet porn is killing young men’s sexual performance,” adding, “Young guys are flaming out with women.”

Many males don’t figure out the connect between porn use and erectile dysfunction until they quit. Here is another comment from the same young man, after quitting porn use.

For the last two years I’ve been experimenting, and finally realized porn was an issue. I stopped it completely two months ago. It has been very difficult, but so far incredibly worth it. I’ve since quit my remaining medication. My anxiety is nonexistent. My memory and focus are sharper than they’ve ever been. I feel like a huge ‘chick magnet, and my ED (erectile dysfunction) is gone too. I seriously think I had a rebirth – a second chance at life.

This is good news, but the longer young males have been using high-speed internet—starting at a time when their brains are at their peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity—the more vulnerable they are to addiction, the more deeply embedded is the mental conditioning from porm, and the longer it takes for erectile function to return. But for men who stay the course, the benefits are worth the effort:

I feel like the next Sir Isaac Newton or Leonardo da Vinci! Since I quit (porn and masturbation) a month ago, I’ve literally: started a business, taken up piano, been studying French every day, been programming, drawing, writing, started managing my finances, and have more awesome ideas than i know what to do with. My confidence is sky high. I already feel like I can talk to any girl. I’m the same guy who took 2 and a 1/2 extra years to graduate from college – because of (porn-induced) procrastination and depression.

A treasure trove of information, from which much of this blog was drawn, can be found at Some men recover on their own, but for many the fellowship and tools of 12-Step addiction programs such as Sex Addicts Anonymous ( and Sexaholics Anonymous ( ‎not only provide the immediate and ongoing support needed for withdrawal and recovery, but provide a setting for rebuilding the social interaction skills that have atrophied through years of porn use.