Let’s Talk About The Psychology Of Pornography
Note: This piece is written from a compassionate, informative, and non-judgmental lens. Pornography consumption is a sensitive subject matter and there is a wide range of opinions associated with it. As you read, try noticing any discomfort that comes up and be mindful of your own emotion regulation. It’s important not to project a sense of personal discomfort onto others- and this applies to the digital space as well. If you are feeling overwhelmed, try taking a break and engage in soothing practices to calm your nervous system (i.e. deep breathing, movement, drinking something warm).
Several weeks ago, we did an IG live with the INCREDIBLE Sameera Qureshi of Sexual Health For Muslims (@sexualhealthformuslims). We discussed pornography use in the Muslim community and the response was so overwhelmingly positive that we just had to expand this topic into a blog post.
You can watch that full live here, you are interested!
Rooting Ourselves In Context
The truth is, there are not many spaces where Muslims can discuss comfortably topics pertaining to the impacts of pornography on our overall sexual and mental health. This is the context that inspired our IG live discussion! The lack of spaces for non-judgemental, factual, and spiritually-rooted conversations around pornography makes it challenging to have ALL the information we need to be able to make fully informed or healthy decisions about pornography use.
And this reality is in no way exclusive to the Muslim community! Most of us have not yet experienced sexual health education absent of shame and fear, regardless of religious, ethnic, and community orientation.
It is important to highlight that providing information is not equivalent to promotion. Yet, many of the systems we rely on to teach youth about sexual health are operating from a place of fear- fear that discussing what is out there will inevitably push young people towards those very things.
This fallacy has consequences:
The majority of us have never had access to holistic, healthy, and nuanced sexual education. This puts us in a vulnerable position where we can easily accept mainstream depictions of sex and sexuality at face value- and one of the most widely available depictions of sex and sexuality is pornography
The aim of this post is to:
Learn a little bit about the psychology of pornography and addictions
Help us think critically about pornography use from a sexual and mental health perspective
Holding compassionate space for curiosity around shame and sexuality
Let’s dive into this topic with self-compassion, no judgement, and respect 🙂
The Psychology Of Pornography Use
Pornography use is a highly stigmatized topic. Learning about the science behind pornography use and essentially what is going in our brains when we consume pornographic content can go a long way in combatting this stigma.
Many people falsely assume that consuming pornography and being addicted to it is the same thing. On the contrary, we can consume pornography without developing an addiction to it. It is also possible, within certain circumstances, for regular pornography use to progress into dependence and addiction.
Let’s explore the mechanisms in our brain that cause us to experience pornography use as rewarding.
The Brain And Pornography
In a basic sense, pornography activates our brain’s reward centre, which is located in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens for those who are interested! Our reward centre is activated whenever we accomplish a goal (i.e. finish a task we had been putting off) or experience something pleasurable (i.e. eating dessert, getting a text back from our crush, engaging in a form of physical activity we enjoy).
Our reward centre is also activated when we experience pleasurable sexual activity and orgasms.
The brain chemical (neurotransmitter) behind this feeling of reward or pleasure is dopamine.
Consuming pornography impacts our dopamine (reward) circuitry. The diagram below by @sexualhealthformuslims illustrated this process.
Viewing pornography activates dopamine. When pornography consumption is paired with self-pleasure and orgasm, this is further reinforced and a dopamine feedback loop emerges.
How Does Pornography Become Addictive?
This feedback loop does not necessarily become addictive if we are engaging in pornography use occasionally. However, with repeated and consistent pornography use, a pattern of addiction can begin to emerge.
Pornography begins to take on the pattern of drug use. For example, we may develop increasing tolerance, to the point that we need greater frequency or intensity of pornographic content to achieve the same level of dopamine release. Withdrawal can occur as well, where we find it difficult to tolerate the effects of NOT consuming pornography. Finally, we may develop a compulsion to consume pornography, which can feel like we don’t have control or agency over our behaviours anymore.
The more content we consume that is linked to orgasms, the more steadily the dopamine loop is reinforced.
Our brains have the potential to be re-wired- this is called neuroplasticity. This is an incredible thing. It means we can heal from trauma, shift habits, and learn new things.
In the context of pornography use, our sexual desires and interests can quite literally be rewired through pornography use and this dopamine loop.
In action, the pornography cycle of use and addiction can look like this (brought to you once again, by the amazing Sameera):
Thinking About Pornography From A Sexual And Mental Health Lens
As therapists, we are trained to look beyond the behaviour itself and explore the underlying causes of it. It’s important to note that many people do no find their use of pornography to be problematic.
However, for those that do and wish to make behavioural changes, understanding pornography use as a symptom and not the problem itself can be helpful. In these circumstances, we want to explore: what role is pornography serving in our lives? What is it accomplishing or compensating for? Are we using pornography to meet needs that are not being met?
Pornography As An Escape
Pornography use can be a form of escape from challenging emotions and life circumstances. One particular study found that a substantial portion of participants were using pornography as emotional escapism, alleviation from boredom, or to escape life’s problems.
Pornography can also be used as a coping mechanism for relational and sexual trauma. For some survivors of trauma (this is not to be generalized), habitual pornography use can add a level of stability to life. It may also provide an outlet for feelings and desires that are difficult to express.
No matter the specifics, we all have good reasons for behaving the way we do. And this includes behaviours that we perceive as detrimental. Understanding these reasons helps us form a more detailed and holistic picture that places pornography use in the context of our lives.
This context is also an important element of preventing or addressing the feelings of shame that many of us harbour towards pornography use and sexuality in general.
Shame And Sexuality
We can’t talk about pornography, mental health, or sexual health without discussing the shame spiral that many of us internalized from deeply flawed and harmful sexual health education.
Shame is a feeling of being deeply, inherently, unworthy. In the context of pornography use and addiction, we can experience shame about our own consumption of pornography. Shame fosters feelings of discomfort when these topics are addressed, even in an informative and progressive manner. This discomfort can also lead us to be harsh and judgemental towards others!
Remember the fear-based sexual health education we referred to at the beginning of this post? This fear-based teaching ideology is what takes root deep into our minds and fosters shame. Shame obstructs honest, informative, and vulnerable dialogue around any topic! It also prevents us from taking the necessary steps to make behavioural changes.
Building Awareness And Combatting Shame
Many of us experience shame somatically- in the body. This includes tension, a deep discomfort in the gut, and even an unpleasantly warm sensation in the body.
We are also usually aware of where the shame began- a large number of us can root shame around sexuality and sexual health education to the very systems tasked with teaching us this valuable information.
So how do we combat shame? We need to un-learn what we have been taught about sexual health and mental health and re-learn this information in non-judgemental spaces. Education is empowerment! It allows us to challenge the shameful feelings we have internalized and question their role in our lives.
Education also allows us to develop a deeper understanding of the context of our behaviours. This almost always sets us up to make better-informed choices, no matter what they are.
Before You Go…
Phew! We barely scratched the surface of this topic. Do you want to see more content around pornography and mental health? If yes, please leave me a comment below or hit up our DMS (@wellnesttherapy). We also want to give a HUGE shoutout to Sameera Qureshi, who develops rich and dynamic sexual health content that is really, truly changing lives! 💛
Until next time!
Sarah Ahmed is the co-founder and a psychotherapist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. Sarah strongly favors an integrative, trauma-informed, client-centered approach to create a healthy alliance with clients and their loved ones.