Key takeaways:

  • Unlike real-life sexual encounters, online porn allows people to satisfy their sexual desires anywhere, anytime, and to select from an almost unlimited variety of sexual content
  • Porn use is also believed to cause the brain to release dopamine, the pleasurable brain chemical responsible for the “high” many illicit drugs produce. Dopamine is also believed to cause the formation of “addiction pathways” in the brain, further suggesting that porn use could be addictive in ways similar to drugs or alcohol
  • Like many behavioral addictions (sex, social media, plastic surgery, etc.) ‘porn addiction’, like other forms of sexual addiction, isn’t a recognized condition by the American Psychiatric Association

Porn addiction or compulsion can have a devastating impact on personal relationships and quality of life. It can lead to financial and work-related issues if a person is unable to stop viewing pornographic material and abandons responsibilities.

Understanding pornography addiction

Pornographic images, videos, internet pornography, and live streaming is readily available online and has become a 12 billion-dollar-a-year industry, with Americans being the top consumers.[1] While there is not a formal diagnosis for pornography addiction in the DSM 5, a growing number of experts agree that it has many addictive qualities, and more people are reporting problematic porn use.[2]

Unlike real-life sexual encounters, online porn allows people to satisfy their sexual desires anywhere, anytime, and to select from an almost unlimited variety of sexual content. Masturbating to porn also doesn’t require a person to consider the needs, preferences, and desires of another person, and some psychologists believe this makes some people more likely to use porn as an alternative to real-life sex.[3]

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Is porn addictive?

Like many behavioral addictions (sex, social media, plastic surgery, etc.) ‘porn addiction’, like other forms of sexual addiction, isn’t a recognized condition by the American Psychiatric Association. As outlined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the only behavioral addiction that can be medically diagnosed is gambling addiction.[4] It is likely that this will change in the near future, especially because there is an increasing amount of research to support that some people are addicted to porn.[2, 5] 

Even understanding the current criteria for diagnosing alcohol and drug addiction can help people understand that some people report very similar symptoms in their use of internet porn. For example, reporting two or more of the following symptoms could qualify a person for a substance use disorder:[4]

  • Excessive time spent using or thinking about using

  • Spending more time than intended using

  • Experiencing frequent thoughts or strong urges to use

  • Negative impacts on important relationships

  • Interruptions, problems, or impairments in daily life or routine

  • Giving up other activities to use more

  • Needing to change use or using more to get the same effects

  • Experiencing physical or psychological discomfort when stopping

  • Continued use despite problems or consequences

  • Negative impacts on physical or mental health

  • Using during times when it is risky or hazardous (i.e. at work, when driving)

Porn use is also believed to cause the brain to release dopamine, the pleasurable brain chemical responsible for the “high” many illicit drugs produce. Dopamine is also believed to cause the formation of “addiction pathways” in the brain, further suggesting that porn use could be addictive in ways similar to drugs or alcohol.[5]

Porn addiction problems and consequences

Not everyone who watches porn has a problem or addiction. Like all addictions, the hallmark sign is continued use despite needing or wanting to cut back because of problems and consequences. The negative outcomes caused by porn may be different than those caused by other addictive substances.

Some porn addiction problems reported by people who describe feeling they have issues with pornography include:

  • Conflict in relationships because of porn use

  • Sexual dysfunction or being unable to become aroused during sex

  • Sexual desires becoming more extreme or developing new fetishes

  • Getting in trouble at work because of using porn 

  • Legal problems or risks associated with illegal porn

  • Cybersecurity issues and risks because of porn use

  • Financial strain because of paying for porn or online sexual encounters

  • Frequent thoughts or urges to use porn that interrupt daily routine

  • Feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after or because of porn use

  • Disrupted ability to concentrate or focus because of sexual thoughts/urges

  • Feeling unable to enjoy real-life sex without porn

  • Pressuring a partner to mimic pornographic acts they aren’t comfortable with

  • Making negative comparisons between real-life partners and porn stars

  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms from porn when not using

Porn addiction withdrawal

Most people synonymize withdrawal symptoms with substance use disorders, as the reaction to a cessation of drugs and alcohol is more physically evident. However, behavioral addictions like porn also present some withdrawal symptoms when use stops. These can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Loss of focus on daily tasks
  • Decreased libido 

What causes porn addiction?

As with most behavioral addictions, it is hard to pinpoint what the cause of porn addiction is, and some people may be more vulnerable because of genetics, psychological or neurological make-up. Also, people who are under a lot of stress or struggling with mental health issues may be more likely to develop addictions, using porn to regulate stress or emotions. Like other types of substances, heavy or frequent users may be more likely to develop addictions.

Like those who first try drugs and alcohol, people may be in denial that it is a problem or could become a problem for them, even after some early warning signs arise. Often, people who watch a lot of porn develop a “tolerance”, needing to watch more porn, more extreme or rough porn, or needing to switch to different videos more often to feel satisfied or aroused. In the brain, this may be linked to the formation of addiction pathways that will make it much harder to cut back, control, or stop watching porn.

If you feel you may have a problem with pornography or notice some of the signs of addiction, it’s best to set up an appointment with a licensed therapist or addiction counselor. While porn addiction is not currently a diagnosable condition, most counselors agree it is a problem for some people, and many have gained experience in treating people with this issue.

When is it time to stop using porn?

Once an addiction has formed, it is much harder to stop on your own. That is why it is best to recognize the symptoms of addiction early and take steps to reduce porn intake. Here are some basic steps to take in order to reduce the amount of porn you watch and possibly prevent developing an addiction:

  • Delete electronic porn and bookmarks on all your devices and discard all hard copies

  • Have someone else install anti-porn software on your electronic devices without giving you the password

  • Have a plan - choose another activity or two that you can turn to when that powerful urge hits

  • When you want to view porn, remind yourself how it has affected your life - write it down if that helps

  • Consider if there are any triggers and try to avoid them when possible

  • Put your computer, laptop, or devices in more public areas of your home (if you live with others)

  • Talk with your partner (if in a relationship) about your goal to stop or cut back on porn and ask them to help you stay accountable

  • Keep a journal to track setbacks, reminders, and alternate activities that work to help reduce stress or other difficult emotions

Pornography addiction treatment

The best way to treat porn addiction is to speak to a professional therapist or counselor. Discussing your concerns around your porn habits in a supportive environment without bias or judgment can help shine a light on the root cause of the problem, as well as allowing therapists to create a treatment plan to help combat the negative behavior.

Therapy

Speaking to a therapist about compulsions or addictions can help identify the root cause as well as establish coping mechanisms for ongoing treatment. They can also help to identify any co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or stress. CBT for porn addiction is often successful in addressing emotional triggers and developing a tool kit to manage impulses.

Those who have problems in their relationship because of porn may benefit from receiving couples therapy to address core issues, improve communication, and resolve intimacy issues. For young adults, it may be beneficial to attend family therapy for their porn addiction. 

Support groups

Support groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) offer a safe and constructive environment whereby people who suffer from addiction and compulsions towards pornography and sex can share their experiences and offer support. Some may have a more laid-back and explorative approach to support, whereas others may implement a recovery program such as the 12 Step program.

Medication

Porn and sex addictions aren’t typically treated with medication, with talk and cognitive-behavioral therapies being the preferred approach. However, some doctors may prescribe medication treatment for co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and depression.

What if porn addiction is left untreated?

Porn addiction or compulsion can have a devastating impact on personal relationships and quality of life. In extreme cases, it can lead to financial and work-related issues if a person is unable to stop viewing pornographic material and abandons responsibilities. 

Porn addiction may cause:

  • poor relationship quality

  • lower sexual satisfaction

  • Lower sex drive

  • Unhealthy sexual attitudes 

  • lower self-esteem

Should I be concerned about someone's porn habit?

While it’s possible for someone to watch porn on a regular basis without them having an addiction, some people may feel concerned about their partner’s use of porn. All relationships are different, and some people may not feel comfortable or ok with their partner’s use of porn. Open conversations about your concerns and discussing specific boundaries you can both agree on is a good first step. If this is not successful, you can consider seeking couples counseling, or encouraging your partner to seek individual treatment.

Final Thoughts

Pornography use has become increasingly common with the advent of the internet and the accessibility of free porn online. While not everyone develops a problem with porn, some people do report having experiences and problems with porn that are strikingly similar to those reported by people addicted to drugs or alcohol. 

While porn addiction is not currently diagnosable as an addiction, this will likely change in the coming years, especially as more research supports that porn addiction may be a common issue affecting people. Still, many counselors and treatment centers (especially those specializing in addiction) have experience and success in helping people overcome addictions to porn.