Online porn may feed sex addicts' desire for new sexual images, study shows

November 23, 2015, University of Cambridge
Online porn may feed sex addicts' desire for new sexual images
Control is an Option to Command (cropped) Credit: Frederico Cintra/Flickr

People who show compulsive sexual behaviour – sex addiction – are driven to search more for new sexual images than their peers, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge. The findings may be particularly relevant in the context of online porn, which potentially provides an almost endless source of new images.

In a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, researchers also report that are more susceptible to environment 'cues' linked to sexual images than to those linked to neutral images.

Sex addiction – when an individual has difficulty controlling their sexual thoughts, feelings or behaviour – is relatively common, affecting as many as one in 25 . It is heavily stigmatised and can lead to a sense of shame, affecting an individual's family and social life as well as their work. There is no formal definition of the condition to help with diagnosis.

In previous work led by Dr Valerie Voon from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, scientists found that three brain regions were more active in sex addicts compared with the . Significantly, these regions – the , dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala – were regions that are also activated in when shown drug stimuli.

In the new study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, Dr Voon and colleagues studied the behaviour of 22 sex addicts and 40 'healthy' male volunteers undergoing tasks. In the first task, individuals were shown a series of images in pairs, including naked women, clothed women and furniture. They were then shown further image pairs, including familiar and new images, and asked to choose an image to 'win £1' – although the participants were unaware of the odds, the probability of winning for either images was 50%.

The researchers found that sex addicts were more likely to choose the novel over the familiar choice for sexual images relative to neutral object images, whereas healthy volunteers were more likely to choose the novel choice for neutral human female images relative to neutral object images.

"We can all relate in some way to searching for novel stimuli online – it could be flitting from one news website to another, or jumping from Facebook to Amazon to YouTube and on," explains Dr Voon. "For people who show compulsive sexual behaviour, though, this becomes a pattern of behaviour beyond their control, focused on pornographic images."

In a second task, volunteers were shown pairs of images – an undressed woman and a neutral grey box – both of which were overlaid on different abstract patterns. They learned to associate these abstract images with the images, similar to how the dogs in Pavlov's famous experiment learnt to associate a ringing bell with food. They were then asked to select between these abstract images and a new abstract image.

This time, the researchers showed that sex addicts where more likely to choose cues (in this case the abstract patterns) associated with sexual and monetary rewards. This supports the notion that apparently innocuous cues in an addict's environment can 'trigger' them to seek out sexual images.

"Cues can be as simple as just opening up their internet browser," explains Dr Voon. "They can trigger a chain of actions and before they know it, the addict is browsing through pornographic images. Breaking the link between these cues and the behaviour can be extremely challenging."

The researchers carried out a further test where 20 sex addicts and 20 matched healthy volunteers underwent brain scans while being shown a series of repeated images – an undressed woman, a £1 coin or a neutral grey box.

They found that when the sex addicts viewed the same sexual image repeatedly, compared to the healthy volunteers they experienced a greater decrease of activity in the region of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known to be involved in anticipating rewards and responding to new events. This is consistent with 'habituation', where the addict finds the same stimulus less and less rewarding – for example, a coffee drinker may get a caffeine 'buzz' from their first cup, but over time the more they drink coffee, the smaller the buzz becomes.

This same habituation effect occurs in healthy males who are repeatedly shown the same porn video. But when they then view a new video, the level of interest and arousal goes back to the original level. This implies that, to prevent habituation, the sex addict would need to seek out a constant supply of new images. In other words, habituation could drive the search for novel images.

"Our findings are particularly relevant in the context of online pornography," adds Dr Voon. "It's not clear what triggers sex addiction in the first place and it is likely that some people are more pre-disposed to the addiction than others, but the seemingly endless supply of novel sexual available online helps feed their addiction, making it more and more difficult to escape."

Explore further: Brain activity in sex addiction mirrors that of drug addiction

More information: Paula Banca et al. Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards, Journal of Psychiatric Research (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017

Related Stories

Brain activity in sex addiction mirrors that of drug addiction

July 11, 2014
Pornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behaviour – known commonly as sex addiction – similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts, according to a University of Cambridge ...

US Internet giants join effort to curb child sex abuse

August 10, 2015
Major US Internet firms have joined an effort to curb the spread of images of sex abuse of children, organizers said Monday.

Brain's response to sexual images linked to number of sexual partners

May 15, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Like most things, sex requires motivation. An attractive face, a pleasant fragrance, perhaps a sexy image. Yet people differ in their response to sex cues, some react strongly; some don't. A greater responsiveness ...

Images of pleasure and winning have unique distracting power

October 20, 2015
Images related to pleasure or winning attract attention from demanding tasks, while equally intense but negative images and those associated with losing can be fully ignored, finds a new UCL study.

Is sexual addiction the real deal?

July 19, 2013
Controversy exists over what some mental health experts call "hypersexuality," or sexual "addiction." Namely, is it a mental disorder at all, or something else? It failed to make the cut in the recently updated Diagnostic ...

Can people really be addicted to sex?

August 14, 2013
Is sex addiction real? That is, is it really a disorder, involving diminished control over behaviour?

Recommended for you

A bad mood may help your brain with everyday tasks

July 18, 2018
New research found that being in a bad mood can help some people's executive functioning, such as their ability to focus attention, manage time and prioritize tasks. The same study found that a good mood has a negative effect ...

Depression during pregnancy rises in a generation

July 18, 2018
Anxiety and depressive symptoms during pregnancy have risen by 51 per cent within a generation according to findings from a major study by the University of Bristol published last week [Friday 13 July].

Forty percent of people have a fictional first memory, says study

July 17, 2018
Researchers have conducted one of the largest surveys of people's first memories, finding that nearly 40 per cent of people had a first memory which is fictional.

Celebrating positives improves classroom behavior and mental health

July 17, 2018
Training teachers to focus their attention on positive conduct and to avoid jumping to correct minor disruption improves child behaviour, concentration and mental health.

Algorithm identifies patients best suited for antidepressants

July 17, 2018
McLean Hospital researchers have completed a study that sought to determine which individuals with depression are best suited for antidepressant medications. Their findings, published in Psychological Medicine on July 2, ...

Researchers explore how information enters our brains

July 17, 2018
Think you're totally in control of your thoughts? Maybe not as much as you think, according to a new San Francisco State University study that examines how thoughts that lead to actions enter our consciousness.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.