What Causes Porn Addiction?

Sep 18, 2023

Key points:

  • Porn addiction may be linked to elevated dopamine levels experienced during pornography consumption, leading to a dependency on these heightened levels for a sense of normalcy.

  • Possible causes of pornography addiction include imbalances in brain chemicals, alterations in brain pathways, underlying brain disorders, escaping psychological distress, drug or alcohol abuse, and a history of abuse. Co-existing mental health issues, such as mood disorders, anxiety, and PTSD, often overlap with porn addiction.

  • Seeking help from a doctor or therapist is recommended for individuals struggling with compulsive behaviors related to pornography use, and cognitive-behavioral therapy is often used in treatment.

Reviewed by Eric Patterson, LPC

In the age of ubiquitous internet access, the landscape of human sexuality has undergone a profound transformation. Never before have explicit sexual content been so readily available, accessible at the click of a button, or the tap of a screen. As a result, the topic of pornography addiction has surged to the forefront of discussions in both academic circles and everyday conversations. It's a subject that elicits curiosity, concern, and controversy in equal measure.

While the concept of addiction is often associated with substances like drugs or alcohol, the phenomenon of porn addiction raises intriguing questions about the nature of behavioral addictions and the intricate interplay of biology, psychology, and society. What leads some individuals to develop a compulsive relationship with pornography? Is it a genuine addiction, or is it simply a matter of excessive consumption in an increasingly digital world?

In one study, approximately 11% of men and 3% of women indicated some level of agreement with the statement "I have an addiction to pornography."

Signs of pornography addiction

​​Pornography addiction is a serious issue that affects people of a range of ages and all genders. It can lead to physical, emotional, and relational problems. People who suffer from pornography addiction often find themselves struggling with guilt and shame, as well as low self-esteem. There are many signs of pornography addiction so it’s important to be aware of them in order to seek help if needed.

Some common signs of porn addiction are:

  • Compulsive Consumption: Individuals with a porn addiction often find themselves consuming explicit content excessively and frequently. They may spend significant amounts of time watching pornography, sometimes to the detriment of their daily responsibilities, work, or relationships.

  • Loss of Control: A hallmark of addiction is the inability to control one's behavior. People addicted to porn may unsuccessfully attempt to cut down or quit their porn consumption repeatedly, only to relapse and return to their previous habits.

  • Escalation of Content: Over time, those with a porn addiction may find that they need increasingly explicit or extreme material to achieve the same level of satisfaction or excitement. This phenomenon is known as tolerance, and it's common in addiction.

  • Neglecting Responsibilities and Relationships: Porn addiction can lead to neglect of important life responsibilities, such as work, household chores, or academic obligations. Additionally, individuals may withdraw from social activities and neglect personal relationships, which can lead to strained connections with family, friends, or partners.

  • Negative Emotional and Psychological Effects: Porn addiction can have adverse emotional and psychological effects. Individuals may experience feelings of shame, guilt, or anxiety related to their porn consumption. They may also suffer from a decreased self-esteem, often due to their inability to control their behavior.

It's essential to remember that addiction is a complex issue, and not everyone who views pornography will develop an addiction. However, if someone exhibits several of these signs and their porn consumption is causing distress or interfering with their daily life, it may be a cause for concern, and seeking professional help or support is advisable.

The Chemistry of Addiction

Porn addiction may arise from the heightened dopamine levels individuals experience while engaging in pornography consumption and masturbation that is often associated. Since dopamine is a highly-rewarding brain chemical, a person will frequently engage in behaviors linked to high rates of dopamine. Porn addiction can be attributed to a range of factors, with many being related to mental health, although certain physical factors can also contribute to the development of this condition.

In a 2017 research investigation involving males seeking treatment for problematic pornography use (PPU), the study observed alterations in the participants' brain activity patterns that resembled those associated with addiction. Specifically, the researchers noted that the brains of individuals experiencing PPU displayed distinctive responses to erotic imagery, as well as the anticipation of such material, when compared to individuals without PPU.

Causes of pornography addiction

Porn addiction is a controversial term as it is not officially recognized as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Since it is not a recognized diagnosis, there is no unified set of symptoms. However, many people report feeling intensely compelled to watch pornography and have difficulty controlling their viewing habits.

There are several possible causes of porn “addiction” or compulsive viewing of pornography. These include biological factors, psychological.

Factors contributing to porn addiction may encompass:

  • Imbalance in Brain Chemicals: Disruptions in brain chemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine, which regulate mood, are frequently associated with compulsive sexual behavior, such as excessive pornography consumption.

  • Alterations in Brain Pathways: In cases of addiction, there can be notable changes in the neural circuits within the brain. This altered wiring may necessitate repeated exposure to porn to achieve the same level of satisfaction.

  • Brain Disorders: Certain brain conditions like epilepsy and dementia, as well as the use of dopamine-based treatments for Parkinson's disease, can adversely affect the brain region responsible for governing sexual behavior.

  • Escaping psychological distress:  Escaping psychological distress is a common motivation for those who struggle with porn addiction. Pornography can provide a short-term escape from feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. Watching porn can create fleeting  feelings of pleasure and numbness that temporarily mask the pain associated with these psychological issues. In some cases, people use pornography as an unhealthy coping strategy to avoid confronting difficult emotions and situations in their lives.

  • Drug or alcohol abuse: Drug or alcohol abuse can be a major contributing factor to porn addiction. Because drugs and alcohol are often used as a coping mechanism or an escape from reality, they can create an environment in which pornography use is more likely to occur. When someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are often less inhibited and more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including viewing pornographic material.

  • History of abuse: The history of abuse can have a significant role in the development of a porn addiction. Research has shown that people who have been exposed to abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, are more likely to turn to porn as an escape from their pain and trauma. Those who experienced childhood trauma are especially vulnerable to the lure of pornography because they are seeking comfort and familiarity.

  • Accessibility, affordability, and anonymity. Porn is generally free, readily available online, and completely anonymous for users, which encourages many people to experiment and escalate their use.

Co-Existing Mental Health Issues

Porn addiction frequently overlaps with other underlying mental health disorders.

It's important to note that these underlying mental health conditions don't directly cause porn addiction. Instead, individuals may turn to pornography as a means to escape or cope with their underlying mental health challenges, ultimately leading to the development of porn addiction. Likewise, people with porn addictions may develop symptoms of other conditions.

Examples of mental health conditions that often accompany porn addiction encompass:

  • Mood disorders (such as bipolar disorder)

  • Personality disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Depression

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

  • A history of suicidal thoughts and actions

When to see a doctor or therapist

The decision to seek help from a doctor or therapist for porn addiction can be difficult. However, if someone is struggling with compulsive behaviors related to pornography use or has difficulty controlling their urge to watch porn, it may be time to seek out professional help.

A therapist can help address underlying issues with porn. This may mean addressing co-occurring disorders or lifestyle changes. Often, cognitive behavioral therapy is used when treating pornography addiction. 

References:

Self-reported addiction to pornography in a nationally representative sample: The roles of use habits, religiousness, and moral incongruence

Pornography Addiction: Why Pornography Is Addictive? - WebMD

Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use - PMC

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