Why Pornography Harms

In the church, we have often talked about the same sex marriage controversy and how it poses a threat to both religious liberty and the family unit. However, the elephant in the room that is rarely publicly discussed in evangelical circles is pornography, an evil that arguably poses just as much threat (if not a bigger threat) to the family unit. A 2008 study of 813 college students from six different college campuses  revealed that of young men aged between 18 and 26, a whopping 86% admitted to having viewed pornography in the past year [1]. 48.4% admitted to viewing pornography on a weekly basis. 19.3% admitted to viewing pornography nearly every day. It is a popular myth that pornography is only a guy problem. But, of the young women in the same age range, 31% confessed to having viewed pornography in the last year, and 3.2% confessed to having viewed pornography on a weekly basis. What was particularly striking is that 67% of young men and 49% of young women believed that pornography use is acceptable, which means that many young men (87% of whom were users) were viewing pornography even though they regarded it as an unacceptable practice.

Pornography addiction is a plague upon the modern professing church, and while it is well and good to be criticizing the same sex marriage agenda, evangelicalism would do well to remove the plank from its own eye before removing the speck from another’s. Many within the church are willing to take a stand against the gay agenda, but how many are willing to examine their own hearts and deal with the elephant in the room that is pornography?

But what about church leaders? How are they fairing in keeping their minds pure? According to a 2002 survey of 1351 pastors, conducted by Rick Warren’s website Pastors.com, 54% confessed they had looked at online pornography within the past year and 30% of those had visited within the last 30 days. And that’s just the honest ones!

Many people don’t realize that there are some solid scientific reasons for thinking that the viewing of pornography is harmful to the brain. Pornography is not merely a moral issue, for it hard wires the brain in unhealthy ways. In this blog post, I am not going to present any moral or theological arguments for avoiding pornography — although there are plenty of those. Instead, I am simply going to look at the scientific facts and show why I think the behavior of viewing pornography is harmful, regardless of where you stand on issues of religion and ethics.

The Brain’s Reward System

In 1954, researchers James Olds and Peter Milner were studying the neural networks of the brain.[2] During the course of their experimentation on laboratory rats, they found that inducing electric shocks in the septal area of the brain triggered the reward response. The reward responses of the brain brought the rats so much pleasure that, when given the choice, the rodents chose their reward switch over food, even – in the worst case – obsessively flipping the reward switch at 5 second intervals. The rodents would rather starve themselves to death than let go of the deadly stimulus. The rats were willing to literally pleasure themselves to death.

You might think these laboratory rodents were stupid for choosing the reward switch over their food. But, really, this scenario is quite analogous to the way that human addiction works. Addiction can be defined as the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences.[3] In the case of the laboratory rats, they persisted in flipping the pleasure switch even when it meant missing out on food needed for their survival. In the case of smoking cigarettes, the addiction to nicotine causes the smoker to persist even at the cost of greatly increasing his risk of lung cancer. Even having developed lung cancer, the smoker may continue to smoke. Alcoholics with liver cirrhosis may continue drinking even having been advised by doctors that doing so will mean certain death. Users of pornography may continue to look at pornographic images even when it is costing them relationships or their career. Are such people just stupid? No. The reason why people find it so difficult to walk away from an addiction is that all forms of addiction result from structural alterations in the brain that render it increasingly difficult to stop.

During porn use, the same reward system that was induced in the brains of those laboratory rodents is triggered. The result is the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, causing the user to have a feeling of euphoria or ecstasy similar to the ‘high’ experienced by class A drug users.


What can be unhealthy about that, you might ask? Surely, the bath of dopamine experienced by a habitual porn user is something to be sought, not discouraged – right? For sure, the initial euphoria may bring about a sense of temporary bliss – a feeling of excitement, relaxation and escape from pain. But, as with all addictions, addiction to pornography starts when you begin to need increasingly more stimulation in order to achieve the same dopamine surge. Moreover, the brain begins to develop a dependency on this stimulation, and cravings begin to develop when access to the stimulus is denied.

What does this mean? For drug addicts, it normally leads to increasing the level of drug use in order to attain the same “high” achieved the first time. For pornography users, it may lead to an increase in porn use, or – more commonly – it will lead to the user seeking out greater variety of arousing images. The type of pornography sought for rarely stays static. As the brain becomes desensitized to the rush of neurochemicals, the individual frequently seeks out more and more extreme, degrading and deviant images to satisfy the craving. What may have started out as very soft-core pornography quickly escalates into hard-core pornography. I dare say that most users of violent or child pornography did not consume such images when they first began seeking out pornography.

Imagine a frog that is placed into a pot of boiling water. The frog will immediately, instinctively, jump out of the pot. Now imagine a frog is placed into a pot of cool water, which is very gradually heated to boiling point. In this case, the frog is much less likely to jump out of the pot. A frog may thus be boiled by placing in cool water and slowly increasing the temperature. In like-manner, if you were to show a hard-core pornographic image to someone with no prior exposure to pornography, such an individual would likely turn away in disgust. The way that pornography ensnares its victims, however, is to introduce them to soft-core pornography first, and then gradually increase the temperature to the point that they become desensitized, and even accustomed to hard-core pornography – which may even contain horrific acts of violence against women that they would never have dreamed of looking at before. And by “violence against women” I don’t mean the theatrical sort of violence you might expect in a movie – but real violence, and real pain.

How Pornography Isolates and Imprisons Its Victims

So frequently it only takes a single, even unintentional, exposure to pornography for it to gain a foothold in your life. This is why one must always make the effort to guard and protect one’s eyes. The famed philosopher Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, once wrote about a man called Alypius who was dragged by his friends, against his wishes, to see the gladiatorial fights. On the way to the fight, he protested,

Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them.

As the crowd roared upon the fall of one of the gladiators, curiosity got the better of Alypius, and he opened his eyes only briefly to see what all the excitement was about. Augustine wrote that he was thus,

…struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamor was raised. […] For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him there. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others.

How similar is this story to the way in which many become hooked on pornography – what begins as a mild curiosity suddenly begins to grow into an addiction.

The feeling of euphoria that comes from pornography, and pornography’s ability to temporarily numb emotional pain is what makes it highly addictive. It has even been suggested that pornography is more addictive than class A drugs such as cocaine and heroine. Even when someone sets their will towards quitting porn use, within a short time of being away from the pornography, it’s almost as though there is a voice inside their head that begs them to look once more at the pornography. It is this craving that makes pornography extremely difficult to battle, and it is also why relapses are common.

Pornography is like a Venus Flytrap, seducing its unsuspecting prey with the promise of tasty nectar. Smelling the sweet nectar, an insect lands upon the leaves and trips the trigger hairs on the outside of the trap. In less than a second, the leaves clamp shut, trapping the insect. Even then, small insects still have a chance to escape because the leaves have not closed tightly. However, as the insect struggles, the cilia within the leaves tighten the grip on the prey, clamping more strongly around the unfortunate victim. Within minutes, the trap has formed an airtight seal and the process of digestion begins. Likewise, the porn trap does not form a tight clamp around its prey to begin with. The more and more one exposes themselves, however, the more the porn trap clamps tighter and tighter, eventually digesting all that its victim holds dear.

Imagine having to walk across quicksand to acquire something highly desirable. After one or two steps, you have not yet reached the point of no return. It is still possible to go back. After you take a few more strides forward, you begin to realize the danger you are in, and try to go back. To your horror, you discover that you can’t – you’re trapped.

Such is the way of pornography addiction.

The Greek poets wrote about a mythical creature called a siren. These beautiful, yet dangerous, creatures are portrayed as seductively attractive women who lured unsuspecting sailors to their doom, with their enchanting music and hypnotizing voices. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is warned by the goddess Circe about the sirens:

Next, where the Sirens dwells, you plough the seas; Their song is death, and makes destruction please. Unblest the man, whom music wins to stay nigh the cursed shore and listen to the lay. No more that wretch shall view the joys of life His blooming offspring, or his beauteous wife! In verdant meads they sport; and wide around lie human bones that whiten all the ground: The ground polluted floats with human gore, And human carnage taints the dreadful shore. Fly swift the dangerous coast: let every ear be stopp’d against the song! ’tis death to hear! Firm to the mast with chains thyself be bound, Nor trust thy virtue to the enchanting sound. If, mad with transport, freedom thou demand, Be every fetter strain’d, and added band to band.

The sirens were cannibals. They would lure unsuspecting mariners, oblivious to the danger they were in, to their island, to be shipwrecked on the rocky coast. What a metaphor for pornography! The mariners thought they would be able to leave when they pleased, but the sirens’ seduction would rob them of their passage home. So it is with pornography. People believe that they will not be ensnared. “I can quit whenever I want” is a common self-deception. The reality is not so simple.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus instructed his men to plug their ears with beeswax. He himself, curious to know what the sirens sounded like, asked to be tied tightly to the mast, saying,

Me, me alone, with fetters firmly bound, the gods allow to hear the dangerous sound. Hear and obey; if freedom I demand, be every fetter strain’d, be added band to band.

As he approached the island, he heard the voice of the sirens, calling out to him,

Oh stay, O pride of Greece! Ulysses stay! Oh cease thy course, and listen to our lay! Blest is the man ordain’d our voice to hear, The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear. Approach! Thy soul shall into raptures rise! Approach! And learn new wisdom from the wise! We know whate’er the kings of mighty name achieved at Ilion in the field of fame; Whate’er beneath the sun’s bright journey lies. Oh stay, and learn new wisdom from the wise!

Like pornography, the sirens may have been able to offer a temporary feeling of bliss or ecstasy. They promised Odysseus that his “soul shall into raptures rise!” Ultimately, though, just like pornography, pursuing the sirens would lead to his destruction. It is curious that Odysseus even still begged his men to release him from the mast even though he was well aware of how dangerous the sirens were. He presumably was able to see the human bones from the sirens’ previous unfortunate victims. This is closely analogous to the manner in which addiction works – where the feeling of immediate euphoria is sought for despite known adverse consequences.

How Pornography Destroys Your Appetite

Dopamine isn’t the only chemical to be released in the brain during porn use. Other “feel good” chemicals that are released include epinephrine (or adrenaline), endorphins, and serotonin. The problem is that, by overloading the brain with these pleasure chemicals, one reduces the body’s natural ability to release them in normal life situations.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is involved in emotional euphoria and elevating mood.[4] Increasing serotonin levels can elevate the mood of people suffering from depression, but one side effect of increased serotonin levels is a decrease in the male sexual response. This means that sexual interest diminishes with an increase in serotonin levels, and it also means that interest in intercourse with a real partner diminishes with pornography use. In women, low serotonin levels may lead to depression, but in males depleted levels of serotonin have been linked to aggression and impulsivity.[5]

How Pornography Affects Your Ability to Bond

Other chemicals, called oxytocin and vasopressin, are responsible for binding men to the object of their affection.[6, 7] Indeed, studies involving prairie voles have indicated that, following mating, females show a preference for their partner over a stranger, whereas this partner preference is destroyed in the mating female by infusion of an oxytocin receptor anagonist.[8]

These chemicals are released during human male sexual arousal, and particularly at the time of ejaculation.[9] As might be expected, these chemicals are also released during pornography use. Is it possible that, with the repeated viewing of pornography, a man is causing himself to grow attached to many images on a screen rather than an actual human being? How does this affect his ability to form an exclusive monogamous relationship with a real person? There is not yet, to my knowledge, unambiguous data to fully address this question, but it is certainly something worth thinking about. Can any woman really compete with a continuous, never-ending, stream of novelty?

Another chemical, norepinephrine (or noradrenaline), burns the object that caused arousal into the memory. This enhances the pair bonding, as the brain is designed to store memories of intimate experiences. Do you really want to enter marriage with these sorts of explicit images of multiple women seared permanently into your memory?


Like a computer virus, pornography hijacks and literally rewires the brain. It alters the way we view people, and it changes our ideas about sexuality and relationships. Just as a carnivorous predator isolates its prey from the herd, so pornography leads its victim to a feeling of isolation, where it is hard to find the support and help they need.

Don’t be like the lab rats we introduced at the beginning of this article. The rodents would rather starve themselves to death than give up the deadly stimulus – likewise, users of pornography often persist in hitting the porn “pleasure switch”, even though it might lead them to relationship or even career death.

Those hours spent staring at a computer screen continuously clicking and anxiously anticipating the next arousing image could well be spent doing far more productive things.

The only way out of the “porn trap” is to quit cold turkey. Most users will find this challenging to do on their own, and so it is important that you seek the right support. Find a friend in whom you feel you are able to confide and ask him/her to hold you accountable.

Beauty is far more than skin deep. If you are able to focus only on the exterior, you will never be able to enter into marriage and truly love a woman for who she is. Real love involves selflessness and sacrifice. Pornography is driven by selfishness and lust.

Literature Cited

[1] Carroll, J.S., Padilla-Walker, L.M., Nelson, L.J., Olson, C.D., Barry, C.M., and Madsen, S.D. (2008) Generation XXX: Pornography Acceptance and Use Among Emerging Adults. Journal of Adolescent Research 23(1), 6-30.

[2] Olds, J., and Milner, P. (1954) Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 47(6), 419-427.

[3] Angres, D.H., and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). “The disease of addiction: origins, treatment, and recovery”. Disease-a-Month 54 (10), 696–721.

[4] Young, S.N., and Leyton, M. (2002) The role of serotonin in human mood and social interaction. Insight from altered tryptophan levels. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior 71(4), 857-65.

[5] Seo, D., and Patrick, C.J. (2008) Role of Serotonin and Dopamine System Interactions in the Neurobiology of Impulsive Aggression and its Comorbidity with other Clinical Disorders. Aggression and Violent Behavior 13(5),383-395.

[6] Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P.J., Fischbacher, U., and Fehr, E. (2005) Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature 435, 673-676.

[7] Insel, T.R., Winslow, J.T., Wang, Z., and Young, L.J. (1998). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and the neuroendocrine basis of pair bond formation. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology 449, 215-224.

[8] Insel, T.R., and Young, J.L. (2001) The neurobiology of attachment. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2, 129-136

[9] Murphy, M.R., Seckl, J.R., Burton, S., Checkley, S.A., Lightman, S.L. (1987) Changes in oxytocin and vasopressin secretion during sexual activity in men.Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 65, 738-741.