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Defeat Lust & Pornography 6 minute read

Why Do Men Binge on Porn?

Last Updated: September 8, 2021

Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Online Harems

A wife who stumbles on the Internet tracks of her husband’s porn tour is often shocked at the number of images and videos in this cyber harem. Why so many? Why so varied?

People, and even some scientific studies, have offered simplistic answers to explain the depth and breadth of a man’s cyber trough, but the real reasons lie in the neurochemistry of our incredible brains.

Simplistic Explanations

A prevalent explanation for the cyber brothel is that guys are acting on their evolutionary impulses to breed as many females as possible. This concept is based on a phenomenon known as the Coolidge Effect, which has been seen in testing a variety of mammals since the 1950s.

The scenario goes like this: a male rat is placed in a cage with a willing female with which he excitedly breeds until he is satiated. Though he’s no longer in the mood with the current female, as soon as another female is introduced he immediately overcomes his boredom and mates with the new gal. He becomes bored again, until a new female is introduced, and the scenario repeats itself until the male rat is physically exhausted.

Some analysts, citing these studies, believe that evolution tells guys, “Get it while the getting is good. You are exposed to a limited number of possible mates on the Savannah of life, so when the opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it.” The same can be said of eating high fat foods and engaging other behaviors that propagate the species or ensures survival. And since this applies to other mammals, it must be all-consuming for people, too.

Similarly, another simplistic explanation is that guys are not designed to be monogamous in the first place. Evolution urged them to roam, find herds of women on the open plain, and compete to mate with as many as possible. That’s why guys skip through a multitude of Internet mates or are constantly targeting new females to breed; they are not designed to find a lifelong mate but to spread their seed far and wide.

One Australian study set men and women in a room and showed them the same porn film 18 times. Initially, they were aroused, but after watching the same movie over and over, they became uninterested. But lo and behold, when a new porn flick was introduced the subjects gained new interest. This test is similar to others, so to some analysts it proves that people get bored with the same mate and need to roam to keep sex interesting.

Advances in Understanding

But more and more therapists and neurologists say these studies fall flat.

In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge argues that instincts, like that of the rat, resist change, and that human sexuality is not based on instinct. The human libido isn’t hardwired by biological urges, but rather it is often finicky and altered by an individual’s psychology, experiences, and sexual encounters.

“Much scientific writing implies otherwise and depicts the sexual instinct as a biological imperative, an ever hungry brute, always demanding satisfaction—a glutton, not a gourmet,” Doidge writes (p. 95). “But human beings are more like gourmets and are drawn to types and have strong preferences; having a ‘type’ causes us to defer satisfaction until we find what we are looking for, because attraction to a type is restrictive; the person who is ‘really turned on by blondes’ may tacitly rule out brunettes and redheads.”

Rats are only attracted by sight and scent, said Dr. Doug Weiss, an author of 23 books and a sex addiction therapist in Colorado Springs. But people have many ways to become attracted, such as sharing an affinity toward specific entertainment, politics, ideas, religion, and situations. Their childhoods and adolescence contribute to their sexual desires as do the rest of their experiences in life. People experience emotional and cognitive levels, including fantasy or imagination, that are unavailable to the rat.

“Every guy or gal reading this has seen a man or woman at a distance who they thought was attractive until that person opened their mouth,” Weiss said. “So attraction goes way beyond the physical for human beings.”

As for the studies that suggest familiarity lessens sexual interest, Weiss says, “I think the study is just flawed. There is no control group. It has no validity.”

What would a control group look like? Weiss suggests showing a Charlie Brown cartoon. Lots of people like to watch Charlie at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but show the same film 18 times and just about anyone would grow bored. Then introduce the movie Captain America and watch a group gain interest.

“Show me 12 red blocks and I’ll want to see a blue one,” he said.

So why isn’t one porn image enough?

People learn through life experience to be sexually aroused by body types, places, and situations, and this list of sexual interests can be very short or a mile long.

In the past, a single image would have been enough to arouse a man who now looks at a stream of Internet pornography to maintain the same arousal, says therapist Dr. Peter Kleponis of Integrity Restored. But overtime this man has neurologically attached his brain to be aroused when viewing a wide variety of images and acts.

“He conditions his brain to only really be sexually aroused to this constant parade of different women, of different sexual images,” Kleponis said.

The Neuroscience Behind Porn

Indeed, the variety of porn on the Internet has an appeal. But the reasons behind it are more complex than a rat’s attention to a parade of new mates.

Doidge explains that “human beings exhibit an extraordinary degree of sexual plasticity compared with other creatures” (p. 94). By “plasticity” he means that our brains and our sexuality are molded by our experiences, interactions, and other means of learning, which is why people vary in what they say is attractive or what turns them on. The brain actually creates neural pathways that say a specific type of person or activity is arousing.

This may help explain why men combing through Internet pornography often delay orgasm until they find an image “worthy” of climax.

In fact, some porn addicts have no interest in variety.

“With over 25 years of working with sex addicts, there are some men—and women for that matter—who stick to vanilla, whatever vanilla is,” Weiss said. “They are neurologically attached to vanilla, and they never up that.”

This means some people who use pornography—even addicts—never sink deeper into porn than the models of Playboy or Playgirl.

So What About 32 Flavors?

So why do some people who were once programmed for vanilla now entertain many more flavors at the ice cream bar? The brain likes novelty, Kleoponis said, especially if it perceives a possible release of dopamine or other neural chemicals that are natural rewards that provide feelings of comfort or euphoria.

“The immediate attraction will give you a little bit of a rush or a sense of novelty…but that will wear away quickly if it’s not reinforced by the neurological release of masturbation,” Weiss said.

The opiates released during orgasm help seal the deal that this new and novel sexual concept is not only arousing but worth returning for in the future. Add it to the shelf of hot stuff: this one is a keeper. With repeated interaction the arousal becomes more engrained, and with more exploration the brain adds more containers found to be exciting, even things a person once found disgusting.

Porn websites generate catalogs of common kinks and mix them together with images. Sooner or later the surfer finds a killer combination that presses a number of his sexual buttons at once. Then he reinforces the network by viewing the images repeatedly, masturbating, releasing dopamine and strengthening these neural networks. He has created a kind of “neosexuality,” a rebuilt libido that has strong roots in his buried sexual tendencies. Because he often develops tolerance, the pleasure of sexual discharge must be supplemented with the pleasure of an aggressive release, and sexual and aggressive images are increasingly mingled—hence the increase in sadomasochistic themes in hardcore porn (p. 112, The Brain That Changes Itself).

Why have pornographers added so much aggression and violence to today’s porn? Because they are trying to keep their customers satisfied. But apparently, it’s never enough.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

So if a human masturbates to a wider range of images or videos, does that satiate? The simple answer is no.

Dr. Doidge explains that porn is more exciting than satisfying because humans have two separate pleasure systems in our brains: one for exciting pleasure and another for satisfying pleasure. The “exciting system,” fueled by dopamine and anticipation, is all about appetite, such as imagining your favorite meal or a sexual episode.

The satisfying system involves actually having the meal or having sex, which provides a calming, fulfilling pleasure. This system releases opiate-like endorphins, that provide feelings of peace and euphoria.

Pornography, Doidge writes, hyperactivates the appetite system. But the satisfying system is left starving for the real thing, which includes actual touching, kissing, caresses, and a connection not only with the body but also the mind and soul. The satisfying system releases oxytocin and endorphins that says, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, Baby.”

In a nutshell, porn is so addictive because:

  • the variation of porn online exposes men to more and more body types and scenarios;
  • through masturbation a man bonds neurologically;
  • these types and scenarios are added to the list of stimuli that his brain learns is exciting and they are associated with a neurochemical reward;
  • the neural pathways are formed that make the excitement easier;
  • and yet his appetite system is better fed than his satisfying system leaving him hungry for more.
  1. I think some have misread the title of the article. “Why do men BINGE on porn?” It was not “Why do men sin?” or “Why do men look at porn?” The article clearly talks about the topic at hand, the binging part of pornography. It doesn’t talk about the problem or Porn, or the solution, but does a great job with the science portion of the topic.

  2. Michelle

    This isn’t just a male problem, and this isn’t just a male pattern of porn viewing. Females can become addicted to porn, and this is exactly how my own viewing patterns are. It has to do with reward centres in the brain and the way the internet messes with our attention spans. Also, the absolute amount of variety there is online.. you can simply click through hundreds and hundreds of pictures, each pushing the “stimulation” button.

    • Absolutely. We have a whole category of articles on our blog about women and porn addiction. (Here are the most popular ones.)

      If I write an article about women and porn addiction but don’t mention men, I’m not denying that men can also be addicted to porn; I’m only targeting my article to a specific audience. When we are gender specific in our articles, our goal isn’t to deny anything else about the other gender. I hope you enjoy the articles meant specifically for women!

  3. Rob

    Luke and Sam,
    Thank you for the post and the gracious replies to those attacking you. Your replies are thoughtful, Christ-centered, God glorifying and show in spades how to have a respectful conversation about difficult topics on which God loving men may disagree. I appreciate your heart for this work and your patience, kindness and gentleness in each reply.

    I would like to encourage writing on another aspect, that comes out of some of the vigorous responses. I imagine some of the brothers that express strong dislike for the article and responded strongly may have some triggers to porn/sin that they are only moderately aware of, if at all. I imagine there is fear and control issues at work behind some of these responses. Fear of allowing God to be the God that is sovereign over science as well as all other things. Fear of ambiguity or anything less than a precise absolute biblical answer. A short clear biblical answer allows things to be black and white, but my experience is that the world and my own mind and actions are full of a lot of gray. Gray, or ambiguity or worse chaos in my inner being often incite fear. Fear of what lies ahead, fear of being enough of a man to handle what’s coming, fear of failure etc…. Fear drives me to desire safety and comfort … and there comes a trigger to porn. If I am unaware of my fears, and even how I might have fear activated by articles like this relative to clear cut biblical answers (I would conclude your answer is not unbiblical, but an exegesis of sin according to the common grace God has afforded us in science). I believe some persons, being unaware of their fears and the reasons they cling rigidly to sharp precise biblical answers and dislike discussion of neuroscience or other dialogue that is not purely Scriptural, may have undetected triggers at work that tempt them to sin in this way. And the strange thing is, dare I say it, I imagine it is the way they have become the fearful controller/protector of biblical truth that triggers the sin.

    Again, thanks for your work and using your desire to help us be free and pure and pursue the holiness of God.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Rob. Much appreciated!

    • Harrison

      Very insightful Rob, and your point is well taken. Fear has served as a major hindrance to spiritual growth in the lives of many an addict, and surely, I am no exception. However, what you perceive as vigorous attacks in responses to the article may in fact, stem from fear of a different kind. When Paul says to the church in Corinth: Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind…..shall inherit the kingdom of God, he is affirming an absolute. Now it is right for Christians to bear each others burdens, confess each one’s sins to another and pray for one another that we may be healed (confession is painful in the highest degree, especially where sexual sin is concerned, yet nonetheless commanded), and also to rebuke, exhort, correct, etc. Unfortunately it has become standard procedure for Christians to deny such absolutes as those found in Scripture, for fear of offending. We are commanded by our Lord to make judgements, not according to outward appearance, but according to “righteous judgement”. The comments regarding neglect to mention Scripture in the assessment of the above article (which, for the record, I believe was excellent), stem perhaps not so much out of fear in thinking “outside of the box” in dealing with sin (which God will deal with whether we fail to or not, when He returns to judge the earth), nor of the gray areas which we all inevitably face, but from a deep concern, or even outrage at the fact that many professing Christians deny the authority of Scripture, deny moral absolutes (and hence accountability to God), the creation, the flood, the coming judgement, etc. Brother, it is the fear of the Lord which leads to righteousness, and by which men (and women) depart form iniquity. The fear of the Lord is the fear which trumps all other fears. From this vantage point, I can imagine nothing more “uncomfortable” than being accountable to God for my irresponsible use of my own sexuality. I wonder, is there a minute possibility that man would fear the simplicity that is in Christ, as revealed in the Scriptures, in our pursuit of His holiness? Does this fear of absolutes (black and whites, A is A, not non-A, Thou shalt, Thou shalt not) reveal anything in your own soul which needs to be confronted and dealt with. If this comes across as negative or intolerant, please forgive me. And Mr. Gilkerson, I just want to say God bless you for taking the time to respond to every one of these comments. Thank you for your ministry, through which I have been blessed, and again, though it may seem irrelevant, I encourage all Christians to examine this issue of pornography through the lens of a biblical worldview. It seems so childishly simple, but remember the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commands, for this is the whole duty of man. Amen?

    • Hi Harrrison. Yes, Amen. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

  4. Sri

    Can I get all these in my own language? I.e. Hindi

    • Sorry, Sri. We don’t have any in-house translators.

  5. nocamo33

    I appreciate your insight. I am too sinful to criticise you. I see God working in your efforts to provide light to the blind.

  6. Marie Davis

    I just want to say that this was such an encouragement to me as I raise my two sons and two daughters in a divorced situation. I have one who is addicted and the other is just beginning to be introduced to porn. I do have some prior knowledge regarding neurological pathways and the habits that are formed by our choices.

    My history as a preacher’s kid and minister myself has often left me with cliches to deal with these types of issues and many others. I have always felt that there was a practical answer and application for the wrong choices we make and I am so happy that you chose to speak plainly because this church girl has had enough of the cliches.

    Often I feel out-numbered and out-muscled when it comes to topics like this because their dad doesn’t seem to take a proactive, balanced approach in addressing these types of issues in himself nor in the kids. Thank you I feel redeemed and re-fueled for the battle to foster healthy, God-centered habits.

    Don’t stop doing what you’re doing and don’t back down off of your mission.

    • Sam Black

      Thank you Marie. As a PK kid myself, I almost heard you echoing my own thoughts. As a man and as a dad, I believe it is invaluable to know how God made us.

  7. Joshua Brooks

    Clarification: My prayer is that this article will contribute to a greater knowledge and awareness of the dangers of viewing porn and help people to effectively deal with and overcome the temptations associated with it. Oops!

    • Harrison

      I submit that the attention given to the “wiring” of the human brain is itself a distraction. The venomous snake is not the porn itself; the poison is already in our veins, in our minds, in our hearts- since the fall. I do not consider the cross of Jesus Christ to be a distraction, on the contrary, it is examining the stuff in the box which distracts me from focusing on the cross instead of the pornographic images burned into my memory banks. I can be acutely aware of the workings of my psychological machinery, and because of the condition of my heart (Jeremiah 17:9) I will voluntarily insert my hand into the spinning gears. This link may help to further clarify what I am saying. Friends, do not place your confidence in man’s wisdom, but in power of the blood of the One who was slain from the foundation of the world.

    • Hi Harrison. Powerful interview you posted. Chilling.

      I agree that a person could be distracted by physiological notions. It will probably depend on the person. A ruthless focus on the cross is the answer. But again, this post wasn’t written to spell out the solution.

  8. Joshua Brooks

    Excellent article!

    The post by Rob highlight the distracting nature of some of the comments associated with this article. Apparently, some have missed the article’s point, which is to educate people concerning the neurological complexities of the brain as a result of viewing pornography. Its purpose is to educate people so that they will be more aware of what is actually taking place when they view porn. The article achieved its purpose.

    Sam and Luke have responded well to some of the distracting comments. Their clarification on certain points where people have misunderstood the subject and purpose of the article has been done tactfully and intelligently. Keep up the good work.

    Personally, I’ve read “Wired for Intimacy” and several articles on Covenant Eyes website. The more I read about the dangers of Internet porn the more I’m equipped and empowered to continue the fight for purity (Eph 5:3; Eph 6:10; 1 Cor 10:13). We’re involved in a battle for our souls and I’m glad that we have spiritual leaders to go before us as we fight against the temptations of the world, the snares of the devil, and the malignant and enticing inclinations of our flesh (1 Pet 2:11; 5:8; 1 John 2:15-16). I’m thankful for the ministry of Covenant Eyes and need them as a future resource in “the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12).

    My prayer is that these articles will contribute to a greater knowledge and awareness of porn.

    If someone told me that walking down a certain sidewalk would cause me to get bit by a cobra, I wouldn’t walk down that sidewalk. The reason I wouldn’t walk down that particular sidewalk is because I now know there is a dangerous snake poised to strike. In fact, I would probably run the other way, regardless of whether or not I had to business to conduct down that particular street. The cobra of Internet porn, however, is no longer on the sidewalk; it has slithered into our houses and is coming into our bedroom and home office. Open the window and get out of the room. Don’t get bit by the venomous reptile of Internet porn. And, don’t forget to take your kids with you.

  9. Rob

    Interesting article Sam. My thoughts go to those comments above which seemed to detract from the relevance of the article’s intent. “Understanding the Neuroscience…..” is the article’s intent.
    Had this been an article written for an audience of those that have fallen captive to substance abuse or alcoholism, it would be irresponsible to suggest that ONLY invoking scriptures of ‘sinner’s repentance’ would be relevant to the topic while ignoring the fact that there is a spiritual AND neurological component that exists which also requires addressing the complexities of physiological recovery along WITH spiritual healing.
    In other words, it would be perfectly acceptable to most of us Christ followers to accept the relevance and importance of addressing the chemical effects on the brain caused by ‘traditional’ addictions (i.e, drugs and alcohol). In these cases, wouldn’t we expect a full followup beyond only spiritual repentance? Wouldn’t we also involve specialized professionals educated in ‘understanding the neuroscience’ of addictions for effective treatment and recovery implications? Isn’t this what this article is directing us to?
    I’m in no way a trained physician, psychiatrist, or seminarian, but to know how to treat something, I believe you also need to better understand the cause and effect of it. That’s what I glean from this article provided by Sam.

    Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that my impression of most (not all) of the individuals that claim sexual addiction is only a simple ‘sin of the will’, have unfortunately overlooked the potential physiological alterations caused by their own toxic attitudes and sinful behaviors.

    • Sam Black

      Thank you Rob, I appreciate your comments. The more we unveil God’s design in us, the better we understand how we have exchanged beauty for ashes. God’s restoration is available to us, and it is evident in the very fabric He created.

    • Harrison

      Aye. The cause and effect to which you refer are found in Scripture. To the alchohlic or drug addict, it would be irresponsible of the Christian to NOT invoke passages from the Bible concerning repentance, which is something every human being must do in order to be saved, addiction or no. That is the relevance.

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