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How Do Men’s Brains Respond To Porn? Depends On Their Sex Drives

It's their individual sex drives that make the neurological difference, scientists say.

Men’s brains are not especially sensitive to porn—it’s their individual libidos that dictate their unique neurological responses. Men have higher sex drives, on average, not more reactive brains. When asked about how men’s brains respond to porn, psychophysiologist and neuroscientist Nicole Prause directed Fatherly to one large fMRI study that addressed this very question. Initial differences appeared but, “when they controlled for sex drive, the sex difference was gone,” she says.

This is just one of many, many misconceptions people have about what porn does to men’s brains, Prause says. As the founder of Liberos, a biotech company that researches sexual psychophysiology and affective neuroscience extensively, she set these myths straight in a conversation with Fatherly.

How is it possible male and female brains respond similarly to porn, when the actual responses of men and women to porn are clearly different? What’s the disconnect?

It’s just an intensity issue. When you look at an fMRI, it creates what’s called a bold signal. If you show an average man a porn film and an average woman a porn film, then the same areas of the brain are generally active. However, the intensity of the bold signal, many people have said it’s just stronger in men. That is, it’s the same areas that are active—it’s just the signal that’s stronger.

When we say that men have higher sex drives and are more responsive to porn, what do we mean, practically? What are the neurological or physiological implications?

Stronger sex drive just means you’re more sensitive to those cues. We actually did a study that might be my favorite study, it was very simple. We actually showed people porn that was kind of romantic, and then a different class of porn that was very explicit. We found that people whose brains responded more strongly to the weak sexual stimuli had more sex partners in their lives.

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Higher-drive people are more reactive to any sexual cue. They’re just like “Yep, that’s sex. That’s also sex. Yep, we think that’s sex too” [and so they have more sexual partners throughout their lives]. People who have lower drives, their threshold is a little higher. You’ve gotta show them something explicit so their brains are like “Okay, okay. That’s sex. We want sex now, fine.” You gotta give them more to get their mind into a sexual mode. It makes sense that would predict their real life sexual partners. You can actually show someone sexual images in a lab and make a reasonable guess as to how many sexual partners they’ve had.

Could men be more responsive overall, because they tend to have more sex partners?

Yeah, that could totally be. But I don’t think there’s ever been longitudinal study on this subject.

So what does watching porn look like in the brains of people with lower sex drives?

Low sex drive looks a lot like depression in the brain. That is, the areas like the ventral striatum that are strongly associated with rewards and motivation in general, are typically under-reactive in people that are depressed. They’re also under reactive in people who have low sex drives. Which is not to say that people with low sex drive are depressed, but it does make sense that they’re part of the same system.

What about higher drive people? What does porn look like in their brains?

When we study people who have higher sex drives, when they view a sex film their alpha is more strongly suppressed. Alpha is a measurement in an EEG of cortical idling, so it’s kind of just hanging out. If your alpha dives, it means something just grabbed your attention. So any time you show people porn, alpha decreases because they’re engaging with it, but people with high sex drive, their alpha is even more strongly suppressed.

What else happens in the brain when a person watches porn?

The somatic sensory cortex has unique representations for each of the body parts, including the genitals – representations of the penis and clitoris become active when you’re watching sex films even though those areas of your body are not being touched. That’s maybe one unique thing about sexual rewards is that it engages somatic sensory areas. It’s like when rehearse doing something in your head, like you imagine playing a piano piece. Even though you’re not in front of a piano, you’ll play it better next time because cognitive rehearsal counts. The same thing appears to happen with sex films.

Is that part of the argument for using porn to increase sexual desire?

Yes, but people who report getting aroused by sex films say that they identified with one of the characters in the film. I think that’s an important part. Porn is only a secondary reinforcement, a symbol for sex. Porn is like money. We don’t really want money, we want what money can get us: primary reinforcements. Sex is the actual, primary reinforcement. Porn is just a cue, or secondary reinforcement, for actual sexual stimulation. Part of why porn and actual sex likely look so different in the brain is that secondary and primary reinforcements are processed differently in the brain.

What are some other common misconceptions you’ve encountered about how porn affects people’s brains?

I see the misconception all the time that porn bathes the brain in dopamine. Sometimes people will call porn a “superstimulus” and it is definitely not. It does not do anything outside of what the body and brain can already generate by itself. Dopamine increases when you’re watching porn, but only in areas of the brain where it traditionally increases with other types of rewards as well. Dopamine does spike with cocaine and it does happen with porn, but it happens with a million other things we don’t consider addictive. There’s nothing that special about it. It’s just our brain doing its reward thing.

Do these misconceptions about dopamine add to confusion about porn addiction?

For something to be considered an addiction, it has to meet a lot of different criteria, and if it doesn’t meet all of them then it can’t be called an addiction. It is true that the same areas of the brain that show reward during cocaine use and cigarette use are active during porn viewing, but that is necessary but not sufficient hypothesis or prediction of the addiction model.

For instance, if someone has a problem with methamphetamines and you show them a picture of someone using them, or a problem with gambling, and show them a picture of someone gambling, their brain tags that more strongly by having a higher reactivity. That does not exist for porn. We tested that in people who thought they were addicted to porn and found that they had a lower response, if anything. So porn addiction does share some features with other addictions, but it has to have all of them to be able to call it an addiction. And it’s missing some really core ones.

That’s not to say porn consumption cannot be a serious problem, right?

These are still people who need help, but we need to figure out what the real problem is in order to help them. And there are all these programs and therapists and supposed treatments for it, but there is no empirically supported treatment for it. There’s no scientifically proven intervention, and I would much rather figure out what’s actually going on and what’s really the problem with their porn use, instead of just saying it’s an addiction, sending them to some random center, and pumping them for money.