Brain Science, Porn and Human Trafficking

Brain Science, Porn and Human Trafficking

Why is porn so addictive? What’s the connection between porn and human trafficking?

I’m thrilled to present this guest post by my friend Kathrine Lee, CEO and Founder of Pure Hope Foundation, and author Interrupted.

“I am often asked about the connection between pornography and trafficking. Although I do not work for Fight the New Drug, I have found there is no better place to start to get information and support about the intersection of these two issues. This is a compilation of articles they have published on the addictive nature of pornography and the link of porn and human trafficking. Please visit our website Pure Hope Foundation and Fight The New Drug for more information.”    — Kathrine Lee

Frequent porn consumption tends to escalate. Because of porn’s addictive nature, porn consumers usually need an ever-increasing dosage over time in order to feel the same level of enjoyment, and they often have to seek out more extreme and hard-core forms of porn. Porn consumers can reach a point where they enjoy porn less and less, but want it more and more.

Have you ever wondered how pornographers who charge for their material stay in business when there’s so much porn available for free? As Wendy Seltzer—an attorney and fellow at Yale Law School—explained, the answer is actually pretty simple: once porn consumers get hooked, they’ll want more and more. “Seeing [free porn] just whets their appetite for more,” Seltzer said. “Once they get through what’s available for free, they’ll move into the paid services.”

How can pornographers be so sure? The answer is right there inside the brain.

Like any potentially addictive substance, porn triggers the release of dopamine into a part of the brain called the reward center (a.k.a. reward pathway or system). Basically, the reward center’s job is to make you feel good whenever you do something healthy, like eating a great meal, having sex, or getting a good workout. The “high” you get makes you want to repeat the behavior again and again. (See How Porn Affects The Brain Like A Drug.) Your brain is hardwired to motivate you to do things that will improve your health and chance of survival. Simple.

Well…not quite so simple. Researchers have recently discovered that the reward center is actually two different brain systems, a “Liking” system and a “Wanting” system, that work in different—sometimes opposite—ways. Understanding how they work helps explain why porn can be habit-forming and why consuming porn is often an escalating behavior.

The Liking System

The “Liking” system is a tiny portion of the reward center. It provides the enjoyable feelings you get when you win a game, share a kiss, or experience any natural, healthy reward. Unfortunately, it also lights up for counterfeit rewards like cigarettes, drugs, or porn, which is why addictive substances feel enjoyable at first.

When something activates your reward center and you feel that intense high from the “Liking” system, your brain starts producing a chemical called CREB. CREB acts kind of like a set of brakes on the reward system. Normally it makes the pleasure fade and leaves you feeling satiated and ready to get on with your life. (See How Porn Can Become Addictive.)

But if the “Liking” system gets stimulated too much over time (as often happens with drugs or porn), CREB levels build up until your whole pleasure response goes numb.Some researchers believe that an excess of CREB is the reason addicts experience tolerance, which means that they feel less enjoyment from the stimulant and need to use more of it to reach a high. In fact, too much CREB floating around in your brain can dull the enjoyment of anything, which may be why addicts often feel bored, detached, and depressed, as recent brain science demonstrates

The Wanting System

The “Wanting” system is a much larger area in the reward center, and it causes the brain to rewire itself in response to intense pleasure. With the help of a protein called DeltaFosB, the “Wanting” system builds new brain connections so you can remember the experience and repeat it later. Porn changes these pathways in the brain.

It’s called the “Wanting” system because those new nerve connections make you crave the pleasurable experience. The more often the experience is repeated, the stronger those nerve connections become, and the stronger the cravings grow. DeltaFosB is sometimes called “the molecular switch for addiction” because it reinforces cravings and, if it builds up enough in the brain, it can switch on genes that leave the consumer more vulnerable to addiction.

DeltaFosB doesn’t just make you remember the pleasurable experience itself; it also forms connections to details associated with the experience. These associations (called “cues”) are found with all kind of addictions. For a smoker, a cue may be the smell of cigarette smoke. An alcoholic may develop pathways triggered by the sight of a bottle or the voice of a drinking buddy. Cues can be anything the brain associates with the experience. For a porn consumer, it may be the memory of a porn scene or a place or time of day he or she can be alone with the internet. For an addict, the whole world starts to seem like a collection of cues and triggers leading them back to their addiction. Gradually, the porn pathways become sensitized, meaning they are easily triggered by the cues that are all around.

Wait! Didn’t we say that CREB dulls the nerves, making them less sensitive? Now we’re saying that DeltaFosB makes them more sensitive. Well, which is it?

Actually, both. Remember, we’re talking about two different brain systems. With repeated exposure to porn, the “Wanting” system grows more sensitive to the cues that cause cravings. At the same time, the “Liking” system grows less sensitive to pleasure. That’s the awful irony of any addiction: the user wants it more and more, even while he or she likes (enjoys) it less and less.

Porn is an escalating behavior because as some consumers develop tolerance, the porn that used to excite them starts to seem boring. Predictably, they often try to compensate by spending more time with porn and/or seeking out more hardcore material in an effort to regain the excitement they used to feel. Many porn consumers find themes of aggression, violence, and increasingly “edgy” acts creeping into their porn habits and fantasies.

When Porn Isn’t Enough

And when porn isn’t enough, men turn to playing out those fantasies in real life and go buy sex. And that is just the beginning of where pornography and trafficking intersect.  It is been said that pornography is the rocket fuel for the demand for sex-trafficking.

There are all kinds of connections, big and small, between pornography and human trafficking.

  • There are incidental connections, like the fact that exposure to pornography has been shown to make viewers less compassionate toward victims of sexual violence and exploitation. Porn can lead to an increased risk of violence
  • There are “supply-and-demand” connections: the simple fact that pornography—especially when viewing habits and fantasies involve violence or other fetishes—increases the demand for sex trafficking, as more and more viewers want to act out what they see.
  • There is the “training manual” connection: the well-documented fact that porn directly informs what goes on in trafficking. Traffickers and sex buyers get ideas from porn, and then make their victims watch as a way of showing them what they’ll be expected to do, so that the violent fantasy concocted by some porn director and his or her actors becomes the reality for some trafficking victim. 
  • And then there is the risk factor connection: the fact that, along with poverty and substance abuse, a child growing up in a home where pornography is regularly consumed is far more likely to be trafficked at some point in his or her life. 

What can YOU Do?

So, what can we do? First, we can educate those we love on the harmful effects of pornography. There are great resources available to help. Here are just a couple: Find a Celebrate Recovery group in your area and/or visit Join Fortify to engage in science based support for lasting change.

Next we can explore areas where we can make a positive impact. It’s becoming more and more possible for regular people to play an active role in the fight against sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. New technological developments and classic on-the-ground action are both important, and Fight the New Drug has put together a list of five ways that we can all be active participants in the global struggle to end sex trafficking. Please check out more ways you can help!

More references and information on the addictive nature of porn and human trafficking available here

Tweetables: why not share this post? 

  • Brain science shows how strongly porn and human trafficking are connected. Porn is not a victimless crime! But there are things you can do about it.  Tweet that

Watch Our Webinar

On Tuesday evening, January 28, 2020, Kathrine Lee and Dr Carol hosted a free webinar; What does the Super Bowl have to do with Human Trafficking, Porn and YOU? 

We addressed more about the brain science behind porn and human trafficking, what the super bowl has to do with this, and some practical steps and resources to help you become part of real change. 

Watch the replay here.


 

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