I started regarding pornography as addictive after a friend, a physician’s assistant working in a urology clinic approached me with concern. He told me that several emerging adult men, ages 18-25, were coming into the clinic with problems associated with Erectile Dysfunction (ED). This is an unusual problem in this age range.
When he examined them, he found them to be healthy with no physical explanation for their ED. Most of these men, in fact, were particularly fit individuals.
Further assessment revealed the common denominator amongst these young men was their high consumption and daily viewing of pornography. This sparked some important questions about pornography that I would like to explore. It also raises the issue of whether or not pornography is addictive.
Why is pornography so powerful?
The simple answer is that pornography acts like a drug in the brain. It can become very powerful in some individuals.
Researchers Love, Laier, Brand, Hatch, and Hajela (2015) conducted and published a review of several studies exploring the neuroscience of internet pornography. What they found and reported is compelling. Studies examining the neuroimaging results of subjects who viewed internet pornography reveal brain region activation similar to craving and drug cue reactions for alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine.1
People who identified as engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors showed more reactivity in the brain compared with those who identified as non-compulsive. Thus, viewing pornography, especially when it becomes compulsive in nature, activates the same underlying brain networks as alcohol and other drugs.
These studies offer profound evidence that the compulsive and consistent use of pornography is potentially as powerful as drug use. A detailed review and discussion of studies on the neuroscience of pornography use can be found at the Your Brain on Porn website.2
Other posts on addiction:
Is viewing pornography an addiction?
It is reasonable to declare that not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes addicted to alcohol. The same can also be said for internet pornography. Not everyone who views pornography will become addicted.
The journey to becoming addicted to pornography most likely follows the same pattern as drug addiction. For example, at some point, a person is exposed to pornographic images and begins to experiment with pornography.
This experimentation may progress to abuse and then, dependence. The individual views more and more in-depth types of pornography. And, also starts to experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop. Then, for some, addiction sets in due to a variety of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
Addictive behaviors and the chronic brain disease of addiction
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) acknowledges that engaging in addictive behaviors, apart from alcohol and other drug use, can be a common manifestation of the chronic brain disease of addiction.
In their definition of addiction, ASAM presents an important section on the “Behavioral Manifestations and Complications of Addiction.” This section provides strong indicators that addiction can also manifest in sexually compulsive behaviors including internet pornography.
The following are excerpts from ASAMs long definition of addiction highlighting these behaviors (the bold has been added for emphasis)3:
- Excessive use and/or engagement in addictive behaviors, at higher frequencies and/or quantities than the person intended, often associated with a persistent desire for and unsuccessful attempts at behavioral control.
- Excessive time lost in substance use or recovering from the effects of substance use and/or engagement in addictive behaviors, with significant adverse impact on social and occupational functioning (e.g. the development of interpersonal relationship problems or the neglect of responsibilities at home, school, or work)
- Continued use and/or engagement in addictive behaviors, despite the presence of persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problems which may have been caused or exacerbated by substance use and/or related addictive behaviors.
Thus, internet pornography behaviors may reach the level of addiction when they are accompanied by the following:
- unsuccessful attempts to stop
- impairment in social and occupational functioning
- the presence of persistent or recurrent physical and psychological problems
Am I addicted?
How can someone tell if they are addicted to pornography? Besides the behaviors and symptoms described above, some great researchers have put together instruments that measure sexual compulsivity and internet pornography use.
For example, Grubbs, Volk, Exline, and Pargament (2015) revised and validated a brief measure of internet pornography addiction. It is called the Cyber Pornography Use Inventory (CPUI-9).4
There are nine questions in the instrument. They can be rated on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely). Or the questions can be answered true or false. The total score provides an assessment of perceived porn addiction.
The potential for Internet pornography addiction and the factors that make up such addiction can be found within the intent of the questions. These include a person’s efforts to access internet pornography, the emotional distress caused by viewing pornography, and a person’s perceived compulsivity to the behavior.
Questions related to compulsivity:
- I believe I am addicted to Internet pornography
- Even when I do not want to use pornography, I feel drawn to it
- I feel unable to stop my use of online pornography
Questions related to access efforts:
- At times, I try to arrange my schedule so that I will be able to alone in order to view pornography
- I’ve refused to go out with friends or attend certain social functions to have the opportunity to view pornography
- I have put off important priorities to view pornography
Questions related to emotional distress:
- I feel ashamed after viewing pornography online
- I feel depressed after viewing pornography online
- I feel sick after viewing pornography online
What help is available for pornography addiction?
For those who are grappling with internet pornography use or addiction, help is always available.
- Books by the renowned author Patrick Carnes such as Out of the Shadows and A Gentle Path can be incredibly helpful in gathering more information and starting a recovery journey
- Specially trained psychologists, counselors and marriage and family therapists can be incredibly helpful in the process
What is most important is once a problem such as Internet pornography is realized, you need to reach out to meaningful help. Holding onto hope and developing new and healthier ways to cope is always possible.
1. Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of internet pornography addiction: A Review and update. Behavioral Sciences, (5), 388-423.
2. Your Brain on Porn. https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/brain-scan-studies-porn-users
3. American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). Long Definition of Addiction. https://www.asam.org/quality-practice/definition-of-addiction
4. Grubbs, J.B., Volk, F., Exline, J.J., & Pargament K.I. (2015). Internet pornography use: Perceived addiction, psychological distress, and the validation of a brief measure. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 41(1), 83-106.
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this post was first published on June 20, 2017. It has been reviewed and updated for republication on March 2, 2020.