Porn addiction refers to a person becoming emotionally dependent on pornography to the point that it interferes with their daily life, relationships, and ability to function.

This type of addiction may be quite common. Some doctors consider porn addiction to be a hypersexual disorder — an umbrella term that includes behaviors such as excessive masturbation.

A 2019 study suggests that the prevalence of these disorders may be about 3–6%. However, the rates have been difficult to determine due to a lack of formal classification.

Porn addiction remains a controversial issue, with some research suggesting that it is not a real condition at all.

Keep reading to learn more about pornography addiction, including its causes, symptoms, and some ways to address it.

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A person with a porn addiction may find that their sex life is becoming less satisfying.

An addiction is more than just an intense interest in something. It is a medical condition that changes the brain and the body and causes the person to feel compelled to continue using a substance or partaking in an activity, even when doing so may cause harm.

Most research into addiction suggests that it activates regions in the brain associated with motivation and reward. Specifically, addiction alters the body’s dopamine system.

When a person with addiction initially uses the substance or engages in the behavior, they receive an intense rush of dopamine, causing feelings of pleasure and reward. Over time, their body may produce less dopamine and rely on the substance or behavior to feel the dopamine rush.

Sex can be a highly rewarding behavior, in terms of dopamine. Using pornography may also activate the dopamine system, potentially leading to addiction.

Addiction affects other aspects of the brain as well, steadily changing it, and making it increasingly difficult for the person to avoid the addictive substance or behavior.

A 2017 study of males who sought treatment for problematic pornography use (PPU) found changes in the participants’ brains that were consistent with addiction. The researchers found that the brains of the men with PPU reacted differently to erotic images — or the anticipation of them — than the brains of men without PPU.

Use of pornography may also affect people’s relationships. For example, some research indicates that pornography creates unrealistic expectations of sex.

A 2013 study found that among heterosexual male participants in couples, the use of pornography was associated with less sexual satisfaction, while the opposite was true for the female participants — pornography was associated with greater sexual satisfaction.

Accessing pornography is easy, and it can require significantly less effort than interacting with a partner. For some, this can contribute to an unhealthy cycle in which porn causes problems in a relationship, leading the person to rely even more heavily on pornography to achieve sexual satisfaction and escape the relationship issues.

Not all research supports the notion that pornography is addictive. A 2014 study emphasizes that many studies of pornography addiction have been poorly designed or biased. The authors caution that little evidence supports a causal relationship between pornography use and its purported harmful effects.

A 2015 study found that, among participants who reported excessive or problematic viewing of visual sexual stimuli, the usual brain pathways of addiction were absent.

In standard addictions, the brain shows increased activity when exposed to the addictive substance, but the participants in question instead demonstrated decreased brain activity when looking at the stimuli. This suggests that the typical addiction model may not apply.

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) argue that there is little evidence of either sex or pornography being addictive and that the idea of pornography addiction is rooted in outdated and potentially harmful cultural norms.

It is important to note that some people who claim that pornography is addictive may oppose its existence altogether or have very rigid ideas about healthy sexuality. For example, they may believe that a monogamous heterosexual relationship is the only appropriate sexual outlet.

The diagnosis of pornography addiction is controversial, and not all therapists will acknowledge it. Moreover, researchers have presented various different models of the signs.

Some healthcare professionals and counselors believe that pornography in itself is not problematic, but that it has the potential to become so, depending on the person’s viewpoint or their partner’s.

Some indications that pornography may be causing a problem include:

  • A person’s sex life becomes less satisfying.
  • Pornography causes relationship issues or makes a person feel less satisfied with their partner.
  • A person engages in risky behavior to view pornography, such as doing so at work.

Some other signs that a person may be developing an unhealthy relationship with porn include:

  • They ignore other responsibilities to view pornography.
  • They view progressively more extreme pornography to get the same release that less extreme porn once offered.
  • They feel frustrated or ashamed after viewing porn but continue to do so.
  • They want to stop using pornography but feel unable to do so.
  • They spend large sums of money on pornography, possibly at the expense of daily or family necessities.
  • They use pornography to cope with sadness, anxiety, insomnia, or other mental health issues.

Due to the controversy surrounding the idea of pornography addiction, researchers have yet to identify a clear set of causes.

A 2015 study found that believing oneself to be addicted to pornography, not actual pornography use, was the more significant cause of associated distress.

This suggests that the very idea that porn addiction exists could be a major cause of the anxiety that some people experience when viewing porn.

Meanwhile, experts and advocates who endorse the existence of pornography addiction argue that, like other addictions, this is a complex issue with a range of possible causes. Some of these causes may include:

  • Underlying mental health conditions: A person might use pornography to escape psychological distress.
  • Relationship problems: Pornography can be an outlet for sexual dissatisfaction.
  • Unhealthy cultural norms: Ideas about how people should look and behave during sex, the types of sex that a person should enjoy, and similar norms may draw some people to pornography.
  • Biological causes: Certain biological factors, including changes in brain chemistry when a person views porn, may increase the risk of addiction.

Research does not support any specific treatment for pornography addiction.

Indeed, because many researchers do not believe that pornography addiction is a real medical condition, some doctors and counselors may feel that no treatment is necessary.

Some people seeking treatment for pornography addiction may instead benefit from addressing other issues, such as relationship problems, sexual shame, or depression. Therefore, if a person opts for therapy, it is important to choose a therapist who understands and can manage these issues.

Some treatment strategies may involve:

  • Psychotherapy: This can help a person understand their relationship with porn, identify unmet sexual needs, and develop strategies for dealing with psychological distress.
  • Relationship counseling: Couples’ counseling can help partners talk about their values, determine whether porn has a place in their relationship, and cultivate deeper trust.
  • Medication: Sometimes a person uses pornography to cope with another condition. Medication may help treat the underlying issue.
  • Lifestyle changes: Some people use pornography out of boredom or exhaustion. A more healthful lifestyle may involve spending fewer hours on the computer.

A person should see a doctor if:

  • They have trouble orgasming from sex with a partner.
  • They experience an increase in sexual dysfunction, such as trouble maintaining an erection or lubricating before sex.
  • Sex becomes painful.
  • They experience, or have experienced, other addictions.
  • They experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, or another mental health condition.

A therapist may be able to help with pornography addiction and other sex and relationship issues. It may be a good idea to see a therapist if:

  • Pornography causes relationship problems.
  • A person feels guilty about their pornography use.
  • A person wants to cut down on their pornography use but feels unable to do so.

Therapists hold varying views on pornography — some may believe that all pornography use is harmful, while others may think that it is never addictive.

Anyone seeking treatment should choose a therapist whose values align with their own. Interview the therapist about their beliefs and philosophy before committing to treatment.

AASECT offer a list of certified sex therapists and counselors who endorse sex-positive treatment and research-based support.

Viewing pornography excessively can cause serious problems, whether or not it is addictive in the traditional medical sense.

Although there is disagreement about the causes of pornography addiction, treatment usually involves addressing an underlying issue, which could relate to mental health. For some people, simple lifestyle changes can help.

Receiving care from a sex-positive therapist who can identify underlying problems and offer evidence-based treatment strategies can help a person improve their relationships and regain a sense of control over their pornography use.