The Elephant in the Room

An elephant exists in the bedroom of many marriages today. It is an issue that affects quite a large number of couples, and yet it is also an issue that elicits such a strong amount of shame and pain, that many people struggle in silence. It is the issue of pornography use. In 2002, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported that 56% of divorces involved one party having “an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.”1 As this statistic was reported in 2002, it is likely that this percentage has increased since then, as the use of pornography is also increasing. From 2001 to 2007, internet porn went from a $1-billion-a-year industry to $3-billion-a-year in the US.2 In 2006, revenue from online subscriptions and sales to pornographic material was $2.8 billion, up from $2.5 billion in 2005, according to estimates from Adult Video Network.3 In 2008, the most recent year we have the numbers for, the adult industry made more profits than the NFL, NBA, and NBL combined.4 Because the issue is so pervasive, it is all but guaranteed that everyone knows someone who struggles with this issue. Although the issue is prevalent, it is at the same time an issue that most people, including those affected by it, know little about. Why is pornography so appealing to so many people? Why is the habit so hard to break? And is there any hope for those who are caught in its grip?

To address the first question, why is pornography so appealing, it is important to understand that many psychologists and neuroscientists are now recognizing pornography use as a chemical addiction, the same as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.  Porn users become addicted to the chemicals their own brains produce during the viewing of pornographic images and masturbation (as the two behaviors are nearly inseparable).  Our brains produce five primary chemicals during sexual activity.

  • dopamine – narrowly focuses attention, causes us to ignore negatives, triggers feelings of ecstasy and arousal, and creates a powerful dependency
  • norepinephrine – generates exhileration and energy, increases memory capacity, and “sears” experiences into the brain
  • oxytocin – called the bonding chemical. Also produced by women during labor and birth, and while she nurses
  • serotonin – creates a deep feeling of calmness, feelings of satisfaction, and releases stress; sometimes called the “natural Prozac.”
  • vasopressin–  released by men, it is a bonding and commitment chemical.


How these chemicals affect us depends largely on the circumstances under which they are produced. Although the present society likes to think all sexual experiences are equal and that the only thing that matters is that all partners are consenting, research is pointing to the idea that there is such a thing as a healthy and unhealthy sexuality.  Although the same neurochemicals are produced, they produce vastly different outcomes during different sexual experiences.  For example, in a loving, committed relationship, dopamine narrowly focuses a person’s attention on one’s partner, causes each to ignore any negatives, and triggers feelings of ecstasy. During sexual intimacy the couple creates a healthy dependency on one another. Outside a loving relationship, however, such as in the viewing of porn, the person narrowly focuses on the images and on the perceived positives, ignoring any possible negatives that may come from continuing with the viewing of porn. The person does not think about the possible detriments to one’s family, employment, or if the action is consistent with one’s own moral beliefs. Rather than forming a dependency on other people who are committed to the viewer, the viewer forms a dependency on the images or objects, such as the computer.

In a healthy marital sexuality, norepinephrine generates exhilaration and the partners can recall every little detail of their beloved’s features. Remembering the special intimate moments they’ve shared with one another can be a buoy during trials. In lust, however, norepinephrine also causes feelings of exhilaration, and the pornographic images are seared into the brain, coming up again in great detail sometimes years afterwards, causing great struggle to those who wish to be freed from these memories.

Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, floods the body during sexual climax. Its purpose is to bond the sexual partners together for life. Oxytocin is the same hormone that begins labor and causes labor to progress in pregnant women. It is present in high amounts following childbirth and during breastfeeding. Oxytocin can bond the couple with one another just as powerfully as parents with their newborn child. Outside a loving relationship, however, such as with pornography and masturbation, science has shown that the person does NOT get the full release of oxytocin. He or she releases only a small amount. So while many people turn to porn when they are feeling lonely, they only get the hint of the experience of actually bonding with another, leaving their need for closeness unsatisfied. This reality often causes even more intense feelings of loneliness and isolation than prior to viewing porn, which may lead them going back to try to fill the void again with porn, which it will never fill.

In a committed relationship, serotonin gives the couple a sense of satisfaction and calmness. It relieves stress and the partners feel more able to meet the demands of daily life. In lust, however, the sense of calmness and stress release cause many to use pornography as a form of self-medication to give them relief from the pressures of life.

Vasopressin is produced by men. In a healthy marital relationship, each act of intercourse reinforces his commitment and dedication to the relationship, to his wife, and to his family. With pornography, however, vasopressin reinforces a man’s commitment to himself, to the stimulating circumstances, or to masturbation.

This cocktail of powerful chemicals can make people who’ve accidentally stumbled across porn for the first time progress quickly through the stages of addiction:

1) curiosity,

2) pleasure-seeking,

3) stress relief, to finally

4) dependency or full addiction.

Many neuroscientists are discovering what many people who have struggled to overcome various sexual addictions have discovered for themselves: Relying on will power alone doesn’t work. Not only is will power alone insufficient to overcome a pornography addiction, many find their addiction becomes worse over time. This is due to the Coolidge Effect. Similar to those addicted to other drugs, those addicted to pornography find that the things that used to give them a rush or high no longer do. So as one who is addicted to alcohol will need larger amounts of alcohol to experience its effects, those struggling with pornography will find they need increasingly taboo and hardcore material to experience its effects. The Coolidge Effect is the reason why the fastest growing market in pornography today, due to high demand, is for child pornography. Contrary to popular belief, pedophiles do not typically start out looking at children. They are normal people who begin viewing softcore, adult women, but eventually need more taboo, more deviant material. Thankfully, science is also showing what DOES work to help people overcome addiction. The brain is incredibly neuroplastic, meaning that it can heal and, with time and effort, can be rewired. People struggling with addictions can create new pathways in their brain, and they can create new connections that actually heal sex addiction.

For those who struggle with unwanted sexual behaviors, or for those who know someone who struggles, it’s important to know that pornography use is an actual chemical addiction and that, with help, healing is possible. It is also important to know that you are not alone. You don’t need to suffer in silence and without support anymore.


Though a small blog post could never do justice to this very common issue, I want to let any readers know of resources that are available to them.

  • The RECLAiM program, is an online, anonymous program that uses the Brain Science of Change to help people overcome pornography addiction and other unwanted sexual behaviors. I am hearing personal stories all the time of marriages that have been saved, and people who have been freed through RECLAiM’s approach. RECLAiM also offers support and help to the partner.
  • Fighting for Your Marriage: Hope and Healing for Wives of Porn Addicts. This book is written for wives whose husbands have strayed sexually with the use of porn.
  • Rescuing Our Youth from the Porn Trap: Parent Primer –  93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to internet pornography before the age of 18. Though many are aware of the problem, few are willing to rescue those trapped in this addictive and damaging activity.


1. Jonathan Dedmon, “Is the Internet bad for your marriage? Online affairs, pornographic sites playing greater role in divorces.” Press Release from The Dilenschneider Group, Inc., Nov. 14, 2002. (accessed Nov. 21, 2013).

2. Jon Mooallem, “A disciplined business,” New York Times, April 29 2007. (accesseed Nov. 21, 2013).

3. Matt Richtel, “For pornographers, Internet’s virtues turn to vices,” New York Times, June 2, 2007. (accessed Nov.21, 2013).

4. Jeannie Hannemmann, “A Call to Awareness and Action” (presentation, Reclaim Sexual Health Conference, Appleton WI, October 27, 2011).
Posted by: April