Can You Build Up A Tolerance To Porn?

There’s a widespread belief that, if you watch enough porn, your brain will build up a tolerance to it, meaning that you will require more and more extreme stuff in order to become—and stay—sexually aroused. Unfortunately, there hasn’t really been any compelling research to either support or refute this idea; however, a new study published in the journal Sexual Medicine suggests that the notion of porn causing a tolerance effect is probably a myth.

In this study, researchers surveyed 2,035 people from Croatia who reported being consumers of “sexually explicit media” (the scientific term for porn) in the last year. Participants ranged in age from 18-60, most (58%) were women, most (58%) were college educated, and about half (48%) were in a relationship.

Participants were asked how arousing they found 27 different pornography themes to be, ranging from mainstream genres like “amateur” and “vaginal sex” to non-mainstream themes like “fetish” and “bizarre or extreme.”

It turned out that the participants who reported being aroused by non-mainstream porn tended to be more aroused by all categories of porn (a finding that was especially true for men and for non-heterosexual women). In other words, those who were aroused by non-mainstream porn were also still aroused by mainstream porn. This pattern isn’t consistent with the idea of porn causing a “tolerance” or “satiation” effect.

It’s also worth noting that those who were aroused by non-mainstream porn didn’t report being any less sexually satisfied, nor did they evaluate their sexual interests as less healthy. So it didn’t seem to be the case that people who were aroused by kinkier stuff engaged in self-stigmatization.

In short, what these results suggest is that, at least at the overall group level, there isn’t evidence for the idea of people building up a tolerance to porn that requires them to watch more and more extreme stuff. While there have been some clinical cases of patients who say that they can only become aroused by extreme porn, it’s likely that what we’re seeing there is the exception rather than the rule. Also, we can't rule out the possibility that those individuals might be different from the rest of the population in that perhaps they had more fixed and narrowly defined sexual interests to begin with.

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To learn more about this research, see: Hald, G. M., Stulhofer, A., & Lange, T. (2017). Sexual Arousal and Sexually Explicit Media (SEM): Comparing Patterns of Sexual Arousal to SEM and Sexual Self-Evaluations and Satisfaction Across Gender and Sexual Orientation. Sexual Medicine.

Image Source: iStockphoto

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