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Here's why your brain loves porn

New figures released today reveal 94% of 14 year olds have viewed explicit material online

Ahead of her appearance at The P Word conference, Sexual & Relationship Psychotherapist Paula Hall tells Sam Hailes why pornography is an issue that the Church must address

According to the latest research, more and more young people are accessing online pornography. Is it also becoming more socially acceptable to talk about viewing porn without any sense of guilt?

Yes a lot of young people would say jokes about pornography are very common and there’s banter around it. It’s nowhere near as hidden as it used to be.

Pornography is so accessible now and I think voyeuristic tendencies are in all of us. We live in a society that is telling us that sexual exploration is healthy and looking at pornography is normal.

What effect does online pornography have on the brain?

The common denominator in all addictions is the neural chemical called dopamine. It’s a chemical we produce for our survival which makes us pursue things that are pleasurable and maintain the species like sex and food. But we know if you over stimulate dopamine you need more and more of that activity in order to get the same impact.

As you stimulate dopamine more and more, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, thinking about consequences and impulse control also becomes impaired. So you start seeking out that source of dopamine more and more while your logic is going out the window.

As you become more dependent on it, what starts as a pursuit of pleasure after a while becomes a primary coping mechanism for escaping pain. Your brain becomes wired to pornography as a primary source of pleasure.

Why do some get addicted and others don’t?

If you’ve got an addition of any kind in your family, you are more susceptible to addiction. There’s been quite a lot of research recently saying those with ADHD are more susceptible to addiction. We know people who have had difficult childhoods or trauma are more susceptible. The adolescent brain in itself is more vulnerable to addiction and that’s why it’s so important we’re educating on this.

Do you think more sex education for school children would be a good thing?

Yes absolutely. I think we should have statutory sex and relationship education in the UK. Unfortunately we still don’t. There also needs to be good guidelines about what’s covered within sex education. We need more resources for parents, youthworkers and teachers. I think the topic of pornography has to be part of that education process.

I think the risks of becoming addicted to porn need to be discussed as well. I’ve worked with hundreds of people who have been addicted but understandably because of the shame they don’t want to talk about it publicly. That means we don’t have much media representation of what this problem looks like. If you watch Eastenders or Coronation Street you will have representation of people who are drug addicts or alcohol or gambling dependent but we don’t even have many fictional characters who are talking about the problem of pornography addiction.

How can people break free from this?

It depends on the severity and on people’s motivation for change. There’s no doubt that some people who are heavy pornography users realise there’s a problem, they need to stop. And if they have a good supportive network around them and they’re really motivated to change they can do it on their own.

On the other end of the scale if the problem has been severe for many years and there’s a history of trauma issues, it may take more professional intervention to get to the root of understanding what’s driving the behaviour and giving pragmatic relapse prevention strategies. As a Christian obviously I do believe in miracle cures as well.

How can Christians campaign on the issue of pornography without coming across as an unwanted moral police of society?

Primarily what Christians need to do is focus on the consequences that pornography has on people’s lives, rather than the substance of pornography. In the same way as Christians we care about the people who become addicted to alcohol. But we don’t have to make the focus moralising about alcohol. I think that’s helpful for that to be the approach with pornography. And this is why the P Word Conference is so important – Christians need to be aware of the issues around pornography.

The reality is there are millions of people out there recreationally using pornography who feel it does benefit them. We may as Christians feel that’s not right, in the same way we don’t think blasphemy is. But it’s important to make sure we’re not moralising against people, but we’re focusing on the impact it has on people’s lives.

What are you hoping people will get out of The P Word Conference in London next week?

It will be a place where people can get up to speed in understanding the issues around pornography, the impact it has on young people, couples and the issue of addiction. I hope they will pick up some resources and ideas for how they can help people who are impacted by porn.

Paula Hall is a Sexual & Relationship Psychotherapist and the author of forthcoming book Confronting Porn: A comprehensive guide for Christians struggling with porn and churches wanting to help them.

The P Word Conference will take place at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster on 23rd June. Click here for more information

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