What Is Pornography Addiction?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Pornography Addiction?

Pornography addiction is a compulsive need to view pornography despite negative consequences. While many health and psychiatric professionals do not consider compulsive porn use a true "addiction," the signs and symptoms are often strikingly similar to those of behavioral addictions.

What separates a porn addiction from a keen interest in porn is the negative consequences of the behavior. With porn addiction, you spend an inordinate amount of time watching porn instead of interacting with others or completing important tasks. The behavior persists even if it harms your career, relationships, or state of well-being.

How to break a pornography addiction
Verywell / Emily Roberts

As the American Psychological Association (APA) notes, experts don't agree about the effects of pornography. Proponents suggest that it can help people improve their sex lives and provide a safe outlet for desires. Opponents believe it damage relationships, contributes to sexual aggression, and creates unhealthy or destructive behaviors.

This article discusses the symptoms and causes of porn addiction. It also covers some of the treatment options that may be helpful.

Symptoms

Arguments in support of healthy porn use don't detract from the serious harm porn addiction can cause, both to the person dealing with the addiction and those around them.

If you are concerned about your porn viewing, there are some warning signs to consider. You might have a porn addiction if:

  • You are consumed with thoughts of porn even when you are not actively watching it.
  • You view porn on your cell phone at work or in social situations where you might be seen.
  • You feel ashamed, guilty, or depressed about your porn viewing.
  • You continue to watch porn despite the harm it has had, is having, or may have on your relationships, work, or home life.
  • You experience reduced sexual satisfaction with partners when pornography is not involved.
  • You hide your porn and porn viewing from your partner and family members.
  • You get upset when asked to cut back on or stop looking at porn.
  • You lose track of time when viewing porn.
  • You have tried to quit watching porn but have not been successful.

A 2020 study found that 56.6% of participants reported watching pornography at some point during their life. The study also found that compulsive pornography use was associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Identifying Pornography Addiction

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) made some effort to categorize porn addiction in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions. The APA proposed that it be added as a subcategory of hypersexual disorder. However, the scientific board eventually concluded that there was not enough evidence to support the diagnosis.

While porn addiction is not recognized as a distinct diagnosis, it does share some symptoms associated with addiction. Someone who compulsively views porn may meet at least two of the four clinical conditions associated with addiction, namely:

  • Cravings to partake in an activity as well as failed attempts to cut down or control the activity (impaired control).
  • Failure to complete major tasks at work, school, or home and/or have given up trying (social problems).

However, porn addiction fails to meet the definition of addiction in that:

  • It is not inherently associated with risk-taking
  • It does not involve tolerance (a need for larger amounts to get the same effect) or withdrawal (an adverse reaction when stopping)

Although some argue that these behaviors or associations can occur with porn addiction, the relationship is generally inconsistent or vague.

What Research Says

Some psychiatrists have questioned whether porn addiction should be classified as a compulsive disorder along the lines of a drug or alcohol addiction. They suggest that there are changes in brain activity that are strikingly similar to what people who use drugs experience.

According to a 2015 study published in the journal Behavioral Science, an electroencephalogram (EEG) can detect changes in brain activity (specifically, a reactive event called P300) when porn is viewed. The response can occur within 300 milliseconds of viewing pornography.

The researchers argued that the same response occurs when a person who uses drugs views drug-related images. While the association on its own is hardly conclusive, it does suggest that porn addiction has a physiological as well as a psychiatric component.

A 2017 study that looked at people seeking treatment for problematic pornography use found similarities to substance use and gambling addictions. Participants in the study demonstrated increased activation in an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, which predicted an increased desire to view erotic material.

Recap

Porn addiction has been shown to cause changes in the brain that are similar to those experienced by people who use drugs. This observation suggests that both psychological and physiological factors may play a part in compulsive pornography use.

Causes

Because researchers don't agree on the definition or even legitimacy of a true pornography addiction, there is no consensus on possible causes. Those who do believe that problematic pornography use represents a real addiction believe there are a number of factors that might play a role. These include:

  • Biological factors: Differences in brain structure or chemistry may make some people more likely to develop addictions. 
  • Cultural influences: Unhealthy or unrealistic societal and cultural attitudes about sex may contribute to pornography use.
  • Other mental health conditions: People who have other addictions or who are struggling with another mental health condition might be more likely to engage in problematic pornography use.
  • Relationship issues: Some people may view pornography when they are struggling with sexual problems or dissatisfaction within their relationships.

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) suggests that there is not enough evidence to support classifying porn or sex addiction as a mental health disorder. Instead, they suggest that characterizing porn as problematic is linked to harmful views about sexuality.

In fact, some evidence suggests that attitudes toward pornography play the greatest role in determining the distress that it causes.

Treatment

If your porn viewing has become compulsive, is interfering with how you feel about yourself, and has impacted your ability to function in your relationships, at work, and other aspects of your day-to-day life, know that you can get help.

Even though the psychiatric community does not consider porn addiction to be a true addiction, it's important that you treat your compulsive consumption of porn as though it were an addiction.

Dismissing compulsive porn viewing as "less of a problem" compared to other kinds of addiction can affect your recovery.

You don't have to confront your porn addiction alone or quit "cold turkey." A mental health professional who is experienced in treating sexual dysfunction can help you address how your behavior has impacted your life and the lives of those around you.

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) website offers an online locator tool that can help you find qualified therapists where you live. Psychology Today operates a similar locator that lets you search for a therapist by city, zip code, or name.

Working with a psychologist who can provide the most effective treatment methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), will be essential to helping you develop effective relapse prevention skills as you address porn addiction.

Coping

Whether pornography addiction qualifies as a real addiction in the traditional sense, there are things that you can do to help cope if this behavior is causing problems in your life. In addition to talking to a doctor or therapist, you can also:

  • Set goals: Just like any other behavior change, making goals and then working toward reaching them can help you get a handle on the behavior. 
  • Change your environment: Avoid triggers that might motivate you to view pornography. Make changes to the settings on your computer, phone, or internet services to make it more difficult to view pornography.
  • Enlist help: Talk to a trusted friend or a partner about what you are experiencing and ask them for support, encouragement, and help.
  • Find distractions: If you find yourself tempted to engage in the behavior when you are bored, look for other things you can do to stay busy.
  • Exercise: Staying physically active may help you find a way to refocus your energy in a healthier and more productive way.

While it may be uncomfortable exposing truths about your behaviors and thoughts, you need to confront these realities to ensure you get the treatment you need. With the right treatment, you can achieve lasting recovery from porn addiction.

By bringing your compulsive behavior into the light, you can begin to answer some important questions about yourself. These answers will guide you to resolutions that will make you happier and your life more stable and productive.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Weir K, American Psychological Association. Is pornography addictive?. Monitor on Psychology. 2014;45(4):46.

  2. Camilleri C, Perry JT, Sammut S. Compulsive internet pornography use and mental health: A cross-sectional study in a sample of university students in the United StatesFront Psychol. 2021;11:613244. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.613244

  3. Love T, Laier C, Brand M, Hatch L, Hajela R. Neuroscience of internet pornography addiction: A review and update. Behav Sci (Basel). 2015;5(3):388-433. doi:10.3390/bs5030388

  4. Gola M, Wordecha M, Sescousse G, et al. Can pornography be addictive? An fmri study of men seeking treatment for problematic pornography use. Neuropsychopharmacol. 2017;42(10):2021-2031. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.78

  5. American Assoication of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. AASECT position on sex addiction.

  6. Grubbs JB, Stauner N, Exline JJ, Pargament KI, Lindberg MJ. Perceived addiction to Internet pornography and psychological distress: Examining relationships concurrently and over time. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2015;29(4):1056-1067. doi:10.1037/adb0000114

  7. de Alarcón R, de la Iglesia JI, Casado NM, Montejo AL. Online porn addiction: What we know and what we don't-A systematic review. J Clin Med. 2019;8(1). doi:10.3390/jcm8010091