Body Image

How internet pornography feeds sex addicts’ desires

People who show compulsive sexual behaviour are driven to search more for new sexual images than their peers, according to a new study.

In a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, researchers also report that sex addicts 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 young adults. 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 healthy volunteers. Significantly, these regions – the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala – were regions that are also activated in drug addicts 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.

Chain of actions

“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.”

Search for novelty

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 images available online helps feed their addiction, making it more and more difficult to escape."

This article was originally published on the University of Cambridge website.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Can a colour encourage creativity and innovation?

The story behind the universally favoured colour - blue.

It was sought after by many artists. It was searched for in the skies and deep oceans. It was the colour blue. Found rarely as a pigment in nature, it was once more precious than gold. It was only after the discovery of a semi-precious rock, lapis lazuli, that Egyptians could extract this rare pigment.

For centuries, lapis lazuli was the only source of Ultramarine, a colour whose name translated to ‘beyond the sea’. The challenges associated with importing the stone made it exclusive to the Egyptian kingdom. The colour became commonly available only after the invention of a synthetic alternative known as ‘French Ultramarine’.

It’s no surprise that this rare colour that inspired artists in the 1900s, is still regarded as the as the colour of innovation in the 21st century. The story of discovery and creation of blue symbolizes attaining the unattainable.

It took scientists decades of trying to create the elusive ‘Blue Rose’. And the fascination with blue didn’t end there. When Sir John Herschel, the famous scientist and astronomer, tried to create copies of his notes; he discovered ‘Cyanotype’ or ‘Blueprints’, an invention that revolutionized architecture. The story of how a rugged, indigo fabric called ‘Denim’ became the choice for workmen in newly formed America and then a fashion sensation, is known to all. In each of these instances of breakthrough and innovation, the colour blue has had a significant influence.

In 2009, the University of British Columbia, conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. While the red groups did better on recall and attention to detail, blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination. The study proved that the colour blue boosts our ability to think creatively; reaffirming the notion that blue is the colour of innovation.

When we talk about innovation and exclusivity, the brand that takes us by surprise is NEXA. Since its inception, the brand has left no stone unturned to create excusive experiences for its audience. In the search for a colour that represents its spirit of innovation and communicates its determination to constantly evolve, NEXA created its own signature blue: NEXA Blue. The creation of a signature color was an endeavor to bring something exclusive and innovative to NEXA customers. This is the story of the creation, inspiration and passion behind NEXA:

Play

To know more about NEXA, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of NEXA and not by the Scroll editorial team.