What Exactly Is Porn Addiction?

If you can’t step away from your screen—even if you have work to finish, or need to make dinner, or walk the dog, or celebrate your 10-year wedding anniversary with the love of your life—you might wonder if you have a porn addiction. And if this unstoppable urge is causing legit problems in your life, you may think, in fact, you do.

For most people, that’s it. That’s the answer to the question. But if you’re looking for a universal definition of what porn addiction is or how many hours of watching porn makes you an addict, well—these answers don’t really exist.

Pornography addiction—along with sex addiction—isn’t an official diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM).1 That means there’s no definitive criteria for what constitutes a porn addiction to guide mental health professionals in diagnosing it.

In fact, the APA’s scientific board keeps rejecting its inclusion into the handbook for lack of sufficient evidence to label an obsession with porn as a disorder. Oh, and also—what you’re dealing with might not even be an addiction at all, neurologically speaking. Some research suggests that uncontrollable porn consumption may be more of a compulsion than an actual addiction.

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Concerned You May Have a Problem with Porn?

Take our short Porn Addiction quiz to see if you may benefit from further diagnosis and treatment.

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Keep in mind, viewing porn—even habitually—doesn’t mean you have a problem (occasional sex life spice up, anyone?). According to statistics, 40 million Americans regularly visit porn sites, and then you count COVID, so who knows how many more are tuning in.

But, if you feel a loss of control or that it’s causing other issues in your life, there are many ways to get support and regain a sense of control. (As a caveat, watching exploitive porn or child pornography is a different issue altogether, and not what’s discussed below.)

Porn Addiction or Porn Compulsion: Which is It?

One of the biggest debates around excessive porn use is whether it’s an addiction or compulsion. While both addiction and compulsion involve a lack of control and can be uncomfortable for the person dealing with it, an addiction is generally a persistent dependency on a particular substance or behavior in order to cope with life, while a compulsion describes an intense urge to do something. It’s an important distinction to make because it can drive and inform the way the issue is treated (aka, talk therapy or 12-step program) for someone who wants to change.

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To date, the studies researchers have conducted on pornography addiction have not given us enough empirical evidence to definitively say: “Hey, this is an addiction disorder! It goes in the same bucket as gambling and alcoholism, and therefore we can treat it the same way.” (Both gambling and substance use, by the way, are recognized mental health diagnoses in the DSM-5).

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the behavior and nature of problematic porn consumption for a scientific consensus to lean one way or another. And based on this lack of empirical scientific evidence, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), in its position statement, says members of its group are extra careful about pathologizing porn addiction in and of itself as a mental disorder.

“I would never look at it in terms of an addiction,” says AASECT-certified sex therapist and licensed psychotherapist Joe Kort, PhD, LMSW, MA, clinical director and founder of The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health based in Royal Oak, Michigan. “A problematic relationship with porn can be a symptom of another issue going on, and we work with clients to help them understand what exactly that is.”

What Happens in the Brain While Watching Porn?

One of the clearest indicators of psychological addiction is an emotional response in the brain, measured by a neural marker called late positive potential (LPP), a spike in brain activity seen on neuroimaging. We see increased LPP whenever addicts are presented with images of their addiction—like cigarettes for smokers, or gaming for gamblers.

But EEG tests from a pivotal study by UCLA neuroscientists in 20152showed that people who struggle with porn consumption don’t have this characteristic spike in brain activity while watching porn.

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In fact, the researchers noted that they showed decreased brain reactions while viewing the sexual images—the exact opposite of what you’d expect to see going on in an addict’s brain. The findings suggest that self-proclaimed “porn addicts” don’t quite have the same relationship with porn as a substance addict has to their drug of choice.

What’s more, in 2018, “compulsive sexual behavior disorder”—which includes compulsive porn use—was added as an impulse control disorder (aka, not an addiction disorder) in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).3

What Causes a Problematic Relationship with Porn in the First Place?

“In general, we don’t have enough healthy sex education in our culture,” Dr. Kort says. “Parents aren’t talking to their children about sex; therapists aren’t talking to their clients about sex, and our school systems aren’t talking about it to students.” He explains the cultural ramifications like this: “If a person spends three-to-five hours a day watching sports or even violent horror movies, their friends might ask them, ‘did you have fun?’ If those three hours were spent watching porn, we automatically see it as a problem.”

According to sex therapists like Dr. Kort, porn isn’t the big problem; rather, it’s the lack of sex education that helps us understand what’s healthy and what’s not healthy when it comes to sex.

“It’s easy to blame porn for relationship issues, for example, but if we had healthy sex education, then people would be able to watch porn for what it is—a cartoon of reality—without feeling so ashamed and secretive because they know that it isn’t a realistic version of love and intimacy,” Dr. Kort says.

There’s no doubt, however, that spending a substantial amount of time viewing pornography can potentially lead to serious and negative consequences.

Healthy and Not-So-Healthy Amount of Porn: Where to Draw the Line

Sex therapists say you might consider seeking help if your porn consumption is at the point of causing you to neglect important obligations like work, have relationship issues and/or problems with experiencing and enjoying intimacy in real life, or if you find that you’re using porn as a way to self-soothe.

Two of the four clinical associations with behavioral addiction can apply here when determining whether your porn consumption might be creeping into unhealthy territory:

    • Social problems. You’re missing major deadlines or obligations at home, work, or school because of the behavior.
    • Impaired control. You don’t just crave the behavior, but you’re also unsuccessful in your attempts to cut down or control it.

“We just have to be careful that when we say you experience a loss of control—that doesn’t mean you really are out of control,” Dr. Kort says. Sometimes a person’s upbringing or belief system can make even “healthy” porn consumption feel extremely shameful.

When Should You Seek Professional Help?

      • You continue watching excessive amounts of porn on repeat in spite of any problems it has caused, or is causing, in your relationships, work, or home life, and despite any attempts to manage it.
      • You continually lose track of time while watching porn.
      • Your mind is consumed with thoughts of porn all. the. time., even when you’re not watching it or don’t want to be thinking about it.
      • You feel extremely ashamed, guilty, or depressed about your porn viewing or you feel anxious trying to hide the fact that you watch it.
      • You feel like it’s interfering with or keeping you from enjoying or finding satisfaction in your own sexual experiences.

How Is a Porn Problem Treated?

If you’re struggling in this area or want to change your relationship with porn, the good news is that it’s totally possible. If your goal is to reduce your porn consumption, studies 4have shown that mindfulness and acceptance-based psychotherapy can usually be more effective than a pharmacological approach. (Although, if you do have a co-existing mental health condition such as depression or OCD, your doctor may recommend medication.)

Keep in mind that addiction-based models for recovery aim to eliminate the behavior completely (and rehab programs for watching porn do exist). “Clients often come to me saying, ‘this is causing a lot of problems—help me break this habit; get it out of my brain,’” Dr. Kort says. “There’s no such thing as an erotic-ectemy. It would actually be counterproductive—like doing conversion or reparative therapy for someone who is LGBTQ.”

More realistic for pornography issues, according to psychotherapists, are talk therapy approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which have been shown to be effective in managing and reducing these types of behaviors. ACT strategies can help an individual find ways to be comfortable with their negative feelings around viewing porn, making it easier for them to actually enjoy lower consumption rates.

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Look for a therapist who has sex therapy training. “You’ll be able to work on understanding why you’re drawn to porn in the first place,” Doctor Kort says. Maybe it’s normal for you, but it doesn’t fit into the relationship or marriage that you’re in. Maybe it doesn’t fit into your religious beliefs, and it’s causing tension.

Maybe it’s driven by a kink or fetish need that’s unmet—again talking about it within the bounds of consent—and watching porn is helpful because you can’t fulfill it otherwise. Maybe it just doesn’t match up with how you want to see yourself. “An informed therapist will help you unpack all of these things and find ways to move forward,” Dr. Kort says.

Porn Addiction FAQs

Q: Is porn addiction real?

“Porn addiction is actually a culturally-fabricated myth,” Dr. Kort says. “The reason people struggle with it is because we are a porn-shaming society and blaming porn is an easy scapegoat. The person who’s dealing with it may feel a sense of a loss of control, but that’s usually because there are other mental health-related issues going on (such as depression) that cause people to want to self-regulate or self-soothe with porn.”

Q: Is pornography addictive?

In the scientific sense, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that porn is like a physically addictive substance. Neuroscientist Nicole Prause, PhD, the lead author on a groundbreaking UCLA study that found no neurological similarity between the brain activity of porn addicts and other well-known addictions, makes it pretty clear in a release: “While we do not doubt that some people struggle with their sexual behaviors, the data shows that the nature of the problem is unlikely to be addictive.”

Q: Do I have to tell my partner if I’m struggling with porn?

Like with any personal struggle, opening up to your partner, as well as friends and family that you trust (though it may be awkward), can be a good start in overcoming a behavior you hope to change—especially if it also affects parts of their wellbeing.

You might be surprised to find that your partner can offer emotional support and that others have dealt with the same issues, reminding you that what you’re going through isn’t abnormal or anything to be ashamed of. And with the right guidance, couples can come out with even stronger, healthier sex lives: Recent studies 5have found porn use is linked to more positive than negative effects, including things like better sexual communication, more sexual experimentation, and more comfort with sex in general.

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Last Updated: Sep 14, 2020