Studies falsify the claim that sex & porn addicts “just have high sexual desire”

Porn addiction naysayers often claim that individuals with either sex addiction or porn addiction do not have addiction, they simply have high libidos. David Ley (author of The Myth of Sex Addiction), is one of the most vocal critics of porn addiction, and often claims that “high sexual desire” explains away porn addiction.

You may have seen Ley’s Psychology Today blog post with the catchy title: “Your Brain on Porn – It’s NOT Addictive”. The Ley blog post is not about the science behind YBOP. Instead, it’s about a single EEG study, whose lead author is Nicole Prause. Both Ley and Prause claim that the study’s (Steele et al., 2013) findings support the premise that porn/sex addiction is nothing more than “high sexual desire.”

Contrary to claims by Ley and study author Nicole Prause, Steele et al., 2013 reported greater cue-reactivity to porn correlating with LESS desire for sex with a partner (but not lower desire to masturbate to porn). To put it another way – individuals with more brain activation and cravings for porn would rather masturbate to porn than have sex with a real person.

Greater cue-reactivity to porn coupled with lower desire for sex with real partners aligns with the 2014 Cambridge University brain study on porn addicts. The actual findings of Steele et al., 2013  in no way match the concocted headlines or Ley’s blog post assertions. Five subsequent peer-reviewed papers say that the Steele et al. findings actually lend support to the porn addiction model (as opposed to the “high sexual desire” hypothesis): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. For more this extensive critique exposes unsupported claims put forth in the press and the study’s methodological flaws.

In 2015, Nicole Prause published a second EEG study (Prause et al., 2015), which found LESS neural response (with brief exposure to still images) for frequent porn users when compared to controls. This is evidence of abnormally reduced sexual desire in compulsive porn users. Put simply, chronic porn users were bored by static images of ho-hum porn (its findings parallel Kuhn & Gallinat., 2014). These findings are consistent with tolerance, a sign of addiction. Tolerance is defined as a person’s diminished response to a drug or stimulus that is the result of repeated use. Six peer-reviewed papers agree that this study actually found desensitization/habituation in frequent porn users (a sign of addiction): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The results of Prause’s second EEG study indicate LESS sexual arousal – not higher desire. In fact, Nicole Prause stated in this Quora post she no longer ascribes to the “high libido as sex addiction” hypothesis:

“I was partial to the high sex drive explanation, but this LPP study we just published is persuading me to be more open to sexual compulsivity.”

Since Prause has flip-flopped, where is Ley’s and others continued support for the “porn/sex addiction = high libido” claim? Below are several recent studies that tested and falsified the “high libido = sex/porn addiction” claim:

1) “Is High Sexual Desire a Facet of Male Hypersexuality? Results from an Online Study.” (2015) – Researchers found virtually no overlap between the men with hypersexuality and the men with “High Sexual Desire”. Excerpt from the paper:

“The study findings point to a distinct phenomenology of High Sexual Desire and Hypersexuality in men.

2) “Hypersexuality and High Sexual Desire: Exploring the Structure of Problematic Sexuality” (2015) – The study found little overlap between high sexual desire and hypersexuality. Excerpt from the paper:

“Our study supports the distinctiveness of hypersexuality and high sexual desire/activity.”

3) “Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours” (2014) – A Cambridge University fMRI study comparing porn addicts to healthy controls. The study found that porn addicts had lower sexual desire and greater difficulty achieving erections, yet had greater cue-reactivity to porn (similar to Steele et al. above). Excerpts from the paper:

“On an adapted version of the Arizona Sexual Experiences Scale [43], CSB subjects compared to healthy volunteers had significantly more difficulty with sexual arousal and experienced more erectile difficulties in intimate sexual relationships but not to sexually explicit material (Table S3 in File S1).”

CSB subjects reported that as a result of excessive use of sexually explicit materials….. experienced diminished libido or erectile function specifically in physical relationships with women (although not in relationship to the sexually explicit material)…

4) “Patient Characteristics by Type of Hypersexuality Referral: A Quantitative Chart Review of 115 Consecutive Male Cases” (2015) – Study on men with hypersexuality disorders. 27 were classified as “avoidant masturbators,” meaning they masturbated to porn one or more hours per day or more than 7 hours per week. 71% of the compulsive porn users reported sexual functioning problems, with 33% reporting delayed ejaculation.

5) “Erectile Dysfunction, Boredom, and Hypersexuality among Coupled Men from Two European Countries” (2015) – This survey reported a strong correlation between erectile dysfunction and measures of hypersexuality. Excerpt:

Hypersexuality was significantly correlated with proneness to sexual boredom and more problems with erectile function.”

6) “Adolescents and web porn: a new era of sexuality (2015) – This Italian study analyzed the effects of Internet porn on high school seniors, co-authored by urology professor Carlo Foresta, president of the Italian Society of Reproductive Pathophysiology. The most interesting finding is that 16% of those who consume porn more than once a week report abnormally low sexual desire compared with 0% in non-consumers (and 6% for those who consume less than once a week). From the study:

“21.9% define it as habitual, 10% report that it reduces sexual interest towards potential real-life partners, and the remaining, 9.1% report a kind of addiction. In addition, 19% of overall pornography consumers report an abnormal sexual response, while the percentage rose to 25.1% among regular consumers.”

7) Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption: The Brain on Porn” (2014) – A Max Planck study which found 3 significant addiction-related brain changes correlating with the amount of porn consumed. It also found that the more porn consumed the less reward circuit activity in response to brief exposure (.530 second) to vanilla porn. In a 2014 article lead author Simone Kühn said:

We assume that subjects with a high porn consumption need increasing stimulation to receive the same amount of reward. That could mean that regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system. That would fit perfectly the hypothesis that their reward systems need growing stimulation.”

A more technical description of this study from a review of the literature by Kuhn & Gallinat – Neurobiological Basis of Hypersexuality (2016).

“The more hours participants reported consuming pornography, the smaller the BOLD response in left putamen in response to sexual images. Moreover, we found that more hours spent watching pornography was associated with smaller gray matter volume in the striatum, more precisely in the right caudate reaching into the ventral putamen. We speculate that the brain structural volume deficit may reflect the results of tolerance after desensitization to sexual stimuli.”

8) “Unusual masturbatory practice as an etiological factor in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual dysfunction in young men” (2014) – One of the 4 case studies in this paper reports on a man with porn-induced sexual problems (low libido, fetishes, anorgasmia). The sexual intervention called for a 6-week abstinence from porn and masturbation. After 8 months the man reported increased sexual desire, successful sex and orgasm, and enjoying “good sexual practices.”

9) Pornography use: who uses it and how it is associated with couple outcomes” (2012) – While not a study on “hypersexuals”, it reported that 1) porn use was consistently correlated with low scores on sexual satisfaction, and 2) that there was no differences in sexual desire between the porn users and the non-users.

10) Sexual Desire, not Hypersexuality, is Related to Neurophysiological Responses Elicited by Sexual Images (2013) – This EEG study was touted in the media as evidence against the existence of porn addiction. Not so. In line with the Cambridge University brain scan studies, this EEG study reported greater cue-reactivity to porn correlated with less desire for partnered sex. To put another way – individuals with more brain activation and cravings for porn would rather masturbate to porn than have sex with a real person. Study spokesman Nicole Prause claimed that porn users merely had high libido, yet the results of the study say something quite different. Four peer-reviewed papers expose the truth: 1, 2, 3, 4. Also see the extensive YBOP critique.

11) Modulation of Late Positive Potentials by Sexual Images in Problem Users and Controls Inconsistent with “Porn Addiction” (2015) – Another SPAN Lab EEG (brain-wave) study comparing the 2013 subjects from the above study to an actual control group (yet it suffered from the same methodological flaws named above). The results: compared to controls “individuals experiencing problems regulating their porn viewing” had lower brain responses to one-second exposure to photos of vanilla porn. The lead author, Nicole Prause, claims these results “debunk porn addiction”. What legitimate scientist would claim that their lone anomalous study has debunked an entire field of study? In reality, the findings of Prause et al. 2015 align perfectly with Kühn & Gallinat (2014), which found that more porn use correlated with less brain activation in response to pictures of vanilla porn. Prause’s findings also align with Banca et al. 2015 which is #4 in this list. Lower EEG readings mean that subjects are paying less attention to the pictures. Put simply, frequent porn users were desensitized to static images of vanilla porn. They were bored (habituated or desensitized). See this extensive YBOP critique. Five peer-reviewed papers agree with YBOP: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5.

12) Use of pornography in a random sample of Norwegian heterosexual couples (2009) – Porn use was correlated with more sexual dysfunctions in the man and negative self perception in the female. The couples who did not use porn had no sexual dysfunctions. A few excerpts from the study:

In couples where only one partner used pornography, we found more problems related to arousal (male) and negative (female) self-perception.

The couples who did not use pornography... may be considered more traditional in relation to the theory of sexual scripts. At the same time, they did not seem to have any dysfunctions.

13) Masturbation and Pornography Use Among Coupled Heterosexual Men With Decreased Sexual Desire: How Many Roles of Masturbation? (2015) – Masturbating to porn was related with decreased sexual desire and low relationship intimacy. Excerpts:

“Among men who masturbated frequently, 70% used pornography at least once a week. A multivariate assessment showed that sexual boredom, frequent pornography use, and low relationship intimacy significantly increased the odds of reporting frequent masturbation among coupled men with decreased sexual desire.”

“Among men [with decreased sexual desire] who used pornography at least once a week [in 2011], 26.1% reported that they were unable to control their pornography use. In addition, 26.7% of men reported that their use of pornography negatively affected their partnered sex and 21.1% claimed to have attempted to stop using pornography.”

14) Men’s Sexual Life and Repeated Exposure to Pornography. A New Issue? (2015) – Excerpts:

Mental health specialists should take in consideration the possible effects of pornography consumption on men sexual behaviors, men sexual difficulties and other attitudes related to sexuality. In the long term pornography seems to create sexual dysfunctions, especially the individual’s inability to reach an orgasm with his partner. Someone who spends most of his sexual life masturbating while watching porn engages his brain in rewiring its natural sexual sets so that it will soon need visual stimulation to achieve an orgasm.

Many different symptoms of porn consumption, such as the need to involve a partner in watching porn, the difficulty in reaching orgasm, the need for porn images in order to ejaculate turn into sexual problems. These sexual behaviors may go on for months or years and it may be mentally and bodily associated with the erectile dysfunction, although it is not an organic dysfunction. Because of this confusion, which generates embarrassment, shame and denial, lots of men refuse to encounter a specialist

Pornography offers a very simple alternative to obtain pleasure without implying other factors that were involved in human’s sexuality along the history of mankind. The brain develops an alternative path for sexuality which excludes “the other real person” from the equation. Furthermore, pornography consumption in a long term makes men more prone to difficulties in obtaining an erection in a presence of their partners.

15) Understanding the Personality and Behavioral Mechanisms Defining Hypersexuality in Men Who Have Sex With Men (2016)

Further, we found no associations between the CSBI Control scale and the BIS-BAS. This would indicate that lack of sexual behavior control is related to specific sexual excitation and inhibitory mechanisms and not to more general behavioral activation and inhibitory mechanisms. This would seem to support conceptualizing hypersexuality as a dysfunction of sexuality as proposed by Kafka. Further, it does not appear that hypersexuality is a manifestation of high sex drive, but that it involves high excitation and a lack of inhibitory control, at least with respect to inhibition owing to expected negative outcomes.

16) Hypersexual, Sexually Compulsive, or Just Highly Sexually Active? Investigating Three Distinct Groups of Gay and Bisexual Men and Their Profiles of HIV-Related Sexual Risk (2016) – If high sexual desire and sex addiction were the same, there would only be one group of individuals per population. This study, like the ones above, reported several distinct sub-groups, yet all groups reported similar rates of sexual activity.

Emerging research supports the notion that sexual compulsivity (SC) and hypersexual disorder (HD) among gay and bisexual men (GBM) might be conceptualized as comprising three groups—Neither SC nor HD; SC only, and Both SC and HD—that capture distinct levels of severity across the SC/HD continuum.

Nearly half (48.9 %) of this highly sexually active sample was classified as Neither SC nor HD, 30 % as SC Only, and 21.1 % as Both SC and HD. While we found no significant differences between the three groups on reported number of male partners, anal sex acts, or anal sex acts

17) The effects of sexually explicit material use on romantic relationship dynamics (2016) – As with many other studies, solitary porn users report poorer relationship and sexual satisfaction. Employing the Pornography Consumption Effect Scale (PCES), the study found that higher porn use was related to poorer sexual function, more sexual problems, and a “worse sex life”. An excerpt describing the correlation between the PCES “Negative Effects” on “Sex Life” questions and frequency of porn use:

There were no significant differences for the Negative Effect Dimension PCES across the frequency of sexually explicit material use; however, there were significant differences on the Sex Life subscale where High Frequency Porn Users reported greater negative effects than Low Frequency Porn Users.

18) Male masturbation habits and sexual dysfunctions (2016)It’s by a French psychiatrist who is the current president of the European Federation of Sexology. While the abstract shifts back and forth between Internet pornography use and masturbation, it’s clear that he’s mostly referring to porn-induced sexual dysfunctions (erectile dysfunction and anorgasmia). The paper revolves around his clinical experience with 35 men who developed erectile dysfunction and/or anorgasmia, and his therapeutic approaches to help them. The author states that most of his patients used porn, with several being addicted to porn. The abstract points to internet porn as the primary cause of the problems (keep in mind that masturbation does not cause chronic ED, and it is never given as a cause of ED). Excerpts:

Intro: Harmless and even helpful in his usual form widely practiced, masturbation in its excessive and pre-eminent form, generally associated today to pornographic addiction, is too often overlooked in the clinical assessment of sexual dysfunction it can induce.

Results: Initial results for these patients, after treatment to “unlearn” their masturbatory habits and their often associated addiction to pornography, are encouraging and promising. A reduction in symptoms was obtained in 19 patients out of 35. The dysfunctions regressed and these patients were able to enjoy satisfactory sexual activity.

Conclusion: Addictive masturbation, often accompanied by a dependency on cyber-pornography, has been seen to play a role in the etiology of certain types of erectile dysfunction or coital anejaculation. It is important to systematically identify the presence of these habits rather than conduct a diagnosis by elimination, in order to include habit-breaking deconditioning techniques in managing these dysfunctions.

19) The Dual Control Model – The Role Of Sexual Inhibition & Excitation In Sexual Arousal And Behavior (2007) – Newly rediscovered and very convincing. In an experiment employing video porn, 50% of the young men couldn’t become aroused or achieve erections with porn (average age was 29). The shocked researchers discovered that the men’s erectile dysfunction was,

related to high levels of exposure to and experience with sexually explicit materials.

The men experiencing erectile dysfunction had spent a considerable amount of time in bars and bathhouses where porn was “omnipresent,” and “continuously playing“. The researchers stated:

“Conversations with the subjects reinforced our idea that in some of them a high exposure to erotica seemed to have resulted in a lower responsivity to “vanilla sex” erotica and an increased need for novelty and variation, in some cases combined with a need for very specific types of stimuli in order to get aroused.”

20) Online sexual activities: An exploratory study of problematic and non-problematic usage patterns in a sample of men (2016) – This Belgian study from a leading research university found problematic Internet porn use was associated with reduced erectile function and reduced overall sexual satisfaction. Yet problematic porn users experienced greater cravings. The study appears to report escalation, as 49% of the men viewed porn that “was not previously interesting to them or that they considered disgusting.” (See studies reporting habituation/desensitization to porn and escalation of porn use) Excerpts:

This study is the first to directly investigate the relationships between sexual dysfunctions and problematic involvement in OSAs. Results indicated that higher sexual desire, lower overall sexual satisfaction, and lower erectile function were associated with problematic OSAs (online sexual activities). These results can be linked to those of previous studies reporting a high level of arousability in association with sexual addiction symptoms (Bancroft & Vukadinovic, 2004; Laier et al., 2013; Muise et al., 2013).”

In addition, we finally have a study that asks porn users about possible escalation to new or disturbing porn genres. Guess what it found?

Forty-nine percent mentioned at least sometimes searching for sexual content or being involved in OSAs that were not previously interesting to them or that they considered disgusting, and 61.7% reported that at least sometimes OSAs were associated with shame or guilty feelings.”

Note – This is the first study to directly investigate the relationships between sexual dysfunctions and problematic porn use. Two other studies claiming to have investigated correlations between porn use and erectile functioning cobbled together data from earlier studies in an unsuccessful attempt to debunk porn-induced ED. Both were criticized in the peer-reviewed literature: paper 1 was not an authentic study, and has been thoroughly discredited; paper 2 actually found correlations that support porn-induced ED. Moreover, paper 2 was only a “brief communication” that did not report important data.

21) Altered Appetitive Conditioning and Neural Connectivity in Subjects With Compulsive Sexual Behavior (2016) – “Compulsive Sexual Behaviors” (CSB) means the men were porn addicts, because CSB subjects averaged nearly 20 hours of porn use per week. The controls averaged 29 minutes per week. Interestingly, 3 of the 20 CSB subjects mentioned to interviewers that they suffered from “orgasmic-erection disorder,” while none of the control subjects reported sexual problems.

22) Study sees link between porn and sexual dysfunction (2017) – The findings of an upcoming study presented at the American Urological Association’s annual meeting. A few excerpts:

Young men who prefer pornography to real-world sexual encounters might find themselves caught in a trap, unable to perform sexually with other people when the opportunity presents itself, a new study reports. Porn-addicted men are more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and are less likely to be satisfied with sexual intercourse, according to survey findings presented Friday at the American Urological Association’s annual meeting, in Boston.

23) “I think it has been a negative influence in many ways but at the same time I can’t stop using it”: Self-identified problematic pornography use among a sample of young Australians (2017) – Online survey of Australians, aged 15-29.  Those who had ever viewed pornography (n=856) were asked in an open-ended question: ‘How has pornography influenced your life?’.

Among participants who responded to the open-ended question (n=718), problematic usage was self-identified by 88 respondents. Male participants who reported problematic usage of pornography highlighted effects in three areas: on sexual function, arousal and relationships. Responses included “I think it has been a negative influence in many ways but at the same time I can’t stop using it” (Male, Aged 18–19).

In short, the evidence is piling up that internet porn erodes normal sexual desire, leaving users less responsive to pleasure. They may crave porn, but that is more likely evidence of an addiction-related brain change known as “sensitization” (hyper-reactivity to addiction-related cues). Cravings certainly cannot be assumed to be evidence of greater libido.

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