There has never been a time in history when pornography and sexually explicit materials have been so easy to access. From sexually explicit themes on mainstream TV to social media to free porn on the internet, it’s never been easier to satisfy your sexual cravings.
Along with free and unlimited access comes the potential for addiction.
Current estimates put porn addiction at impacting anywhere from 3% to 6% of the population. But the truth is that we don’t know the full extent of porn addiction.
What we do know is that porn addiction is real, it impacts lives, and it deserves recognition in the medical community and society at large.
This in-depth guide will introduce the history of pornography and its current role in society. We’ll then cover all manner of topics related to porn addiction, from causes and risk factors to signs and symptoms to side effects and to available treatment options.
If you suspect you suffer from porn addiction, you don’t have to suffer alone.
A History of Pornography
When speaking of pornography, we often imagine the images and videos so easily accessible on the internet today. From homemade video clips to full-length productions, pornography today is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Pornography as we know it today didn’t just appear out of nothingness. It has evolved over time.
You may be surprised to learn that pornography is not a 20th-century invention.
The distribution of sexually explicit materials began in the 18th century when printing technology became more readily available. Sexually explicit tractates and graphic art became widely circulated. One such example from this period was the popular Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748–49) by John Cleland.
That’s not to say that sexually explicit materials weren’t available much earlier than that. There have been depictions of sexually explicit acts almost since the time that humans could draw. It was more so that technology at the time made reproduction and distribution more accessible to all.
So how did pornography evolve from the tractates of the 18th century to the monstrosity it is today?
As with anything lucrative, pornography was adapted to fit the new technology of the times.
From the widespread print material in the 18th and 19th centuries, porn was soon revolutionized by the development of motion pictures. This led to the creation of “stag films” which were commercially available for private viewing in the 1920s.
Porn continued to be a private and expensive luxury through the 1970s. With the invention of the VCR, though, soon full-length pornographic films were being shipped to the homes of millions of Westerners.
And finally, in the 1990s and early 2000s, home internet became widely available. While porn was still pay-to-play in the earliest days, it soon became less expensive and more easily accessible until today when thousands of hours of porn are available for free if you know where to look.
Pornography Addiction: A Societal Problem
Pornography addiction is not just a problem for the individual, their friends, and their family. Porn addiction is a societal problem that must be addressed at that level for any real hope for change.
What do we mean?
Pornography, by its very nature, is an exploitative industry. It impacts everybody it touches whether you know it or not. And even if it’s consumed legally, there is a very real chance that the pornography you’re viewing has some link to unethical or illegal acts.
Consider this: pornography creates a demand for women (and even children) to be supplied for sexual use to make it. In many cases, women are trafficked to do so.
Does that mean that every porn actor is trafficked? Absolutely not. There are many porn actors who do porn out of their own free will. That doesn’t negate the fact that the demand for porn leads to trafficking, however. Just because many do it of their own volition doesn’t mean that all do.
So how sure are you that the porn films you’re watching are created with actors who truly want to be there? How can you be sure the producers and media companies connected to that porno aren’t using unethical or illegal activities to obtain the actors in their other films?
The answer is, that you can never be sure.
The fact of the matter is that sex sells. And for as long as it continues to do so, millions of women and children worldwide will be at risk of sex trafficking for the sole purpose of creating pornographic material.
Causes of Porn Addiction
Pornography addiction can happen to anyone. There are some people who are more likely to become addicted, though, based on experiences and underlying conditions. Here is a look at some of the most common causes of porn addiction.
Underlying Mental Health Disorders
1 in 5 US adults experiences mental illness each year and 1 in 6 US youth experiences a mental health disorder. These include disorders such as depression and anxiety which are the two most prevalent, but also PTSD and Bipolar.
While that alone isn’t a cause of addictive behavior, consider that the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years. Within that time frame, people tend to develop coping mechanisms and adverse behaviors.
The pleasure and feelings of instant gratification associated with porn addiction are appealing to those with untreated depression and anxiety. It provides a release for individuals just finding a way to cope.
When your relationship is on the rocks, it’s not uncommon to turn to other sources for comfort. For some, this means having an emotional or physical affair. For others, it may be gambling or alcohol. And still, for others, it may be pornography.
You may initially turn to porn when your relationship is in a tough spot because you want sexual release. That may soon turn to a reliance on porn and the dopamine hits it gives you.
Porn isn’t the answer. The wedge between you two will only continue to grow. This will make you more reliant on porn, which will further distance you from your partner, which will make you more reliant on porn. The cycle never ends.
Whether it’s part of a larger relationship problem or not, sexual dissatisfaction can also make pornography an appealing outlet. You may feel as if you have to turn to porn for sexual satisfaction because you’re not getting it elsewhere.
This can lead to dependence on porn for that satisfaction with no desire to look elsewhere for it again.
Unhealthy Sexual Norms
It’s not uncommon for individuals with an unhealthy view of sex or sexuality to form an addiction to pornography.
So if you feel shame or regret or even fear surrounding sex, you may find yourself relying on pornography for sexual satisfaction. That way you can control the interaction in a way that makes you feel “safe.”
To you, this may be a good thing. But if the use of porn turns into reliance or addiction, then it becomes an issue.
Risk Factors for Developing Porn Addiction
While anyone can develop an addiction to pornography, there are some people who are at greater risk of doing so. These include:
Early Exposure to Porn
We know that early exposure to sexually explicit materials can lead to risky sexual behaviors. The same can be said for early exposure to porn and a propensity for porn addiction. That is, the earlier you’re exposed the more likely you’re to become addicted.
An early exposure event may have been accidental, purposeful, or even forced. Either way, it can have an impact on the brain and its perception of pleasure.
Easy Access to Porn
When an addictive substance or behavior is easy to access, it becomes more possible for susceptible individuals to use and abuse it.
We see this commonly in young teens and adolescents who have unlimited access to the internet. Easy access plus privacy means an increasing amount of time spent on sexually explicit material.
Predisposition to Addiction
There’s a genetic component to addiction. This means that families with a history of addiction – whether that’s alcohol, drugs, gambling, or other vices – have a higher prevalence of addiction throughout their genetic line.
In fact, genetics play a much larger role than many people realize. Heritability is responsible for 40-60% of the population’s variability in developing an addiction!
The thing with addiction, though, is that different addictive behaviors can all fill that impulse. So while your grandfather and father may be alcoholics, and your paternal uncles may struggle with heroin addiction, you can exhibit those same behaviors in a different way. For example, porn addiction.
There are many reasons one may be socially isolated including chronic illness, anxiety, and even personal choice. Even just recently, we were all socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic! While some people are built for social isolation, others may find themselves relying on the wrong things for a dopamine hit. A common source for that hit? Media.
The longer you spend in isolation, the greater your reliance on media. For some, this may just look like binging TV show after TV show. But for those who look to porn for connection and sexual satisfaction, it can quickly spiral into an addiction.
Side Effects of Pornography Addiction
The mainstream media will have you believe that pornography is a normal part of life. After all, TV shows, movies, and music videos all rely on sexually explicit themes. Sex sells, right?
There are things the adult entertainment industry doesn’t want you to know, though. According to them, pornography is just a fun pastime. It’s just a way to let off steam.
The truth is that pornography addiction has real, life-altering side effects. Let’s look more closely at some of the more common ones.
Stunts Natural Sexual Development
If you had to guess the average age of first exposure to pornography or sexually explicit material, what would it be?
That’s right, when a child is just beginning to shape their views on sex, intimacy, and sexual partners, they’re being exposed to sexually explicit material with unrealistic and even harmful themes.
This can’t possibly be beneficial for natural sexual development, right?
For one, exposure to pornography at an early age encourages sexual behavior at a younger age. Early access to such material can also increase risky sexual practices including early sexual debut, unsafe sex (e.g., inconsistent condom use), and a high partner change rate.
These sexual practices have a plethora of risks, including:
- acquisition of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Increased transmissions of other diseases
- unintended/teen pregnancy
- substance abuse
In addition to the risks outlined above, also consider how early exposure impacts views on intimate partners and sexual relationships.
Pornography use in both males and females is associated with an increased frequency of sexual behaviors seen in porn. These behaviors often involve some level of aggression.
And while both men and women are impacted similarly by exposure, pornography usage is still very much a masculine-leaning activity. That is, men are exposed to ponorgraphy more frequently than women. This likely contributes to the misalignment of male and female sexual behaviors.
Increases Risk of STDs and Teen Pregnancy
We briefly mentioned above that early exposure to sexually explicit material can increase risky sexual behaviors. But just how much more risk is there?
We know that the earlier an individual’s sexual debut, the more likely they are to engage in risky sexual behaviors. This is likely due to numerous factors, including lack of education, lack of maturity and poor impulse control, and low levels of access to condoms and birth control.
In fact, almost half of the estimated 18.9 million STIs reported in 2000 in the United States affected adolescents and young adults.
And when it comes to unintended pregnancy, an early sexual debut along with two or more lifetime sexual partners was positively associated with unintended and/or teen pregnancy.
While you may argue that teens have always and will always explore their sexuality and have sex, you can’t argue with the fact that exposure to pornography is a major factor in early sexual debut.
Sets Unrealistic Expectations
Now that we’ve discussed the more tangible, physical risks of pornography addiction, let’s consider the impact pornography addiction has on societal and sexual expectations.
First and foremost, many of the women depicted in pornography are NOT representative of the “average” woman. Small waists, bountiful breasts, and wide hips are unrealistic beauty standards that most women do not meet.
Beyond that, consider the sex acts depicted in pornography. Deepthroating, anal sex, and BDSM immediately come to mind. While these may be sex acts you and your partner engage in willingly, they are not as commonly enjoyed as pornography will have you believe. Remember, porn is a lie.
Not to mention that much of pornography is about women pleasing men. It’s easy to see how someone addicted to porn may begin to see these expectations as realistic and then suffer from disappointment when their expectations aren’t met.
Affects Sexual Satisfaction
Speaking of sexual satisfaction, also consider that easy access to sexually explicit materials may impact what you find arousing and how you find release. This is especially true as you become desensitized to increasingly “shocking” sexual acts.
Pornography also makes it so that masturbation or sex is just a release of sexual tension. Over time, the desire for a build-up or an arousal period disappears. This can negatively impact your sex life since you and your partner are likely to be on different pages.
Increases Technology Dependence
Computers, laptops, cell phones – pornography is easier than ever to access on almost any device you can imagine. Considering that technology is required for porn consumption, it’s no surprise that a side effect of porn addiction is technology dependence.
We know that technology dependence itself can lead to addiction. It also has negative brain-health consequences, such as:
- An increase in social isolation
- Interference with emotional and social intelligence
- Interference with brain development
- Interference with sleep
- Exacerbation of mental health conditions
This technology dependence, too, can spiral into an addiction that you’re unable to control.
As your addiction grows, your technology usage will grow proportionally. You may find yourself using a device up to 20 hours per day without even realizing it.
Decreases Intimacy Between Partners
Sex and intimacy are an important part of a romantic relationship. Porn addiction can drastically impact intimacy between partners, though.
We know that men are significantly more likely to be using sexually explicit material in their relationships than women. And in cases where men consume the material individually (as opposed to together with their partners or not at all), there is a correlation with significantly less intimacy and commitment in their relationships. That isn’t even related to porn addiction, just porn usage in general. So imagine how much more prevalent those issues are when addiction is a factor.
Encourages Mental Health Disorders
We mentioned above that mental health disorders are a possible cause of porn addiction. Porn addiction can also contribute to the development or progression of a mental health disorder.
Consider that both mental health disorders and addictions have a strong genetic component. Add to that the fact that treatment for both is often significantly delayed, and it’s a perfect storm.
Individuals with a current mental health disorder may turn to porn initially as an escape or release. Once the addiction takes hold, though, the threshold needed for release increases. This may cause both the underlying mental health disorder and addiction to spiral downwards.
Impacts Daily Functioning
Addiction, and especially pornography addiction, requires a significant amount of time in your day. You may find porn viewing cutting into your workday or schoolday and it will certainly take up all of your free time.
So when will you have time to fulfill tasks that are necessary for daily functioning? These include tasks like personal hygiene or grooming, dressing, cleaning, and eating.
The answer is that, if the addiction continues without treatment, you will soon find it difficult to complete even the most basic of the above tasks. You may go days without bathing, weeks without cleaning, and you may only eat when you feel ill or faint.
The Top 8 Signs and Symptoms of Pornography Addiction
A symptom is a manifestation of the disease that is apparent to the patient himself, while a sign is a manifestation of the disease that outsiders (family members, friends, doctors) see. Below are the top signs and symptoms of pornography addiction.
You’re Always Wanting More
As you get deeper and deeper into your addiction, the desire for more will continue to increase. You may find yourself getting irritable when you’re not watching pornography. Your next thoughts are likely focused on when you can finally watch porn again. Perhaps you’re sneaking away from work or your partner to watch it. Soon you’ll have uncontrollable urges that you just give into at a moment’s notice.
The problem with addiction, though, is that it’s never enough. You could be watching pornography for more than 75% of your waking hours, but you still want more in that other 25%.
You’re Neglecting Responsibilities
As part of the desire for more, you’ll soon find yourself neglecting responsibilities so you have more time for porn. At first, this may look like pushing back on deadlines at work or neglecting to do the dishes leftover from dinner so you have more time to consume pornography.
Eventually, though, the neglect of your responsibilities will become more apparent.
Soon, you’ll entirely forego work and personal deadlines without explanation. Whatever facade you initially started with will fall apart and it will become clear to those around you that your addiction has become all-consuming.
You Lose Interest in Other Activities
It’s easy to replace your boring work and social responsibilities with a desirable task like porn viewing. But what about losing interest in activities you once enjoyed? That will happen, too, as your porn addiction deepens.
You may find yourself blowing off the activities that, at one time, made your days and your weeks worthwhile. These can be anything that you found value in, like hanging out with friends or competing in a sport or even just chilling out with a video game.
Soon, the only activity to take up your free time will be porn viewing.
You’ve ‘Lost’ Time
You look up from your laptop and it’s hours later. It’s happened to everyone at some time or another – you become so absorbed in a task or activity that you lost all track of time. But with porn addiction, the loss of time becomes more expansive and more frequent.
You’re Watching Porn in Risky Situations
Perhaps at first, you were sneaking away to watch pornography. You excused yourself at work to go to the bathroom, or you went into another room in the middle of the night so as not to disturb your sleeping partner.
As the addiction grows, though, so too do the risky behaviors.
You’ll soon find yourself sneaking porn at work, at school, or at home. After all, your phone is a convenient place to watch pornography in semi-privacy.
Over time, though, the behaviors become riskier and riskier. You begin to experiment with just how far you can go, and in some cases, you may not even care about the consequences. Do you get caught watching porn at work and get fired? Well, that’s just more time for porn!
You’re Losing Interest In Your Sex Life
With porn addiction comes the realization that sexual release can be almost immediate. There’s no need to “build up” or arouse yourself when you’re feeling constantly aroused from your continuous consumption of sexually explicit materials.
Because of this, it’s not uncommon to lose interest in your sex life. After all, sex with a partner requires more up-front work. It also requires you to worry about the satisfaction of another when porn allows you to be concerned only with your satisfaction.
Not to mention, pornography may introduce you to more “taboo” sexual acts that you don’t feel comfortable approaching your partner about. All of this combined can contribute to a loss of interest in your sex life as you find greater satisfaction in handling your sexual needs by yourself.
You Let Go of Personal Care
Aside from work and social responsibilities, you also have personal care responsibilities like eating, showering, getting dressed, and brushing your teeth.
These personal care tasks may be the first to suffer for some people, or they may be the last.
You’ve already eaten into your work time, your relationship time, and your social time. Now all that’s left is the time you spend on personal care. And as your addiction grows, you’ll soon find you’re neglecting even the most basic of hygiene tasks so you can have just a few more minutes to scratch that itch.
You Can’t Stop Without Intervention
There may come a time when you want to stop. You see how it’s negatively affecting your life, and you want to pull back to a more “normal” state of pornography viewing.
As you’ll soon discover, though, the addiction is so all-encompassing that stopping on your own isn’t possible. At this point, pornography is about more than the material itself. It’s about the dopamine hit you get every time you view it or even think about viewing it.
You may have a few successful attempts here and there. Perhaps you go a few hours or a few days without viewing porn. But the thoughts and desires creep in and intensify. Soon, you’re back to justifying your old viewing behaviors.
How is Pornography Addiction Diagnosed?
Presently, pornography and sex addiction are not classified as mental health disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
There is a lot of debate in the mental health community surrounding this decision, especially considering behavioral addictions were added as a new section to the DSM-5. However, only pathological gambling was included.
So what does this mean for individuals seeking a diagnosis?
While you won’t be officially diagnosed with pornography or sexual addiction, there are many therapists who recognize the condition unofficially. They will work with you to overcome such behaviors as they would with a binge eater or gambler or alcoholic.
Don’t let the unofficial status of pornography addiction stop you from seeking help because it is available.
Is It Possible to Recover from a Pornography Addiction?
Can an alcoholic overcome their alcoholism? Can a drug user stop abusing drugs? We know that people can and do recover from other addictive behaviors. There is no reason why you can’t recover from a pornography addiction if that’s what you want.
Just like alcohol, drugs, and gambling, you cannot overcome your addiction unless it’s your desire to do so. The desires of those around you may prompt you to seek help, but only your desire can keep you accountable.
So yes, it’s absolutely possible to recover from pornography addiction. But it will take determination and personal growth to do so.
The Best Treatment Options for Pornography Addiction
So you’re ready to seek treatment for pornography addiction. Good for you! It’s a huge step and one that you should be proud of. But how do you go about doing it? The treatment options below are your best steps forward.
When it comes to treating addiction, any addiction, therapy can be a helpful tool in your toolbox. It’s not the answer to all of your problems, but working with a licensed therapist can help you to understand the problem and address it in a healthy way.
When it comes to addiction treatment, there are certain types of therapy that work better. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a psycho-social intervention technique that aims to challenge cognitive distortions and improve emotional regulation. The core belief of CBT is that thoughts influence feelings, feelings influence behaviors, and behaviors influence thoughts.
As such, to stop an undesirable behavior, one must transform their feelings to transform their thoughts. Only once a new, healthier thought process is established is one able to overcome those behaviors.
There are support groups for just about any common human experience, from grief to alcohol abuse and yes, even porn addiction.
While joining a support group to talk about such a personal and embarrassing problem may seem difficult, it can be a great way to gain a support system. After all, the people in the support group are struggling with the same issues and understand what you are going through better than anyone else.
Groups like Porn Addicts Anonymous aim to destigmatize porn addiction so everyone feels comfortable reaching out for the help they need. And like the name says, anonymity is taken very seriously by all members of the group.
While medication is not typically prescribed for porn addiction itself, there may be an underlying mental health condition that would benefit from pharmaceutical intervention. While a drug that targets anxiety or depression won’t solve all of your problems, it can give you the edge you need to address your addiction head-on.
If you suspect you have an underlying mental health condition contributing to your porn addiction, speak with your doctor. They may prescribe you a medication like an SSRI, or they may refer you to a psychiatrist for proper diagnosis.
While hypnosis isn’t for everyone, it can be a safe alternative to medication when administered by a trained therapist or medical professional.
Hypnotherapy is often considered to be an “out there” practice. However, years of research have proven varying levels of efficacy when used to treat different conditions.
While we won’t get into the complexities of how it works, its underlying mechanism helps you to gain control over your emotions and feelings. It helps you to regulate your body so you can overcome conditions such as anxiety and even addiction.
Just like therapy, hypnosis is not a cure-all. It does require you to put in work and effort.
Porn Withdrawal: What It Is and How to Treat It
You may be thinking, “porn withdrawal isn’t a real thing.”
After all, porn isn’t a substance or drug that can contribute to chemical dependency.
While you’re right that porn isn’t a chemical of its own, it can contribute to chemical dependency. That chemical is dopamine, a hormone naturally produced by the brain.
Am I Experiencing Porn Withdrawal?
Withdrawal from sexually explicit materials can be just as intense as withdrawal from gambling, drugs, and alcohol. While you don’t have the obvious chemical component that is seen in withdrawal from drugs and alcohol, there still is a chemical dependency that must be overcome.
Dopamine, also known as the “pleasure hormone,” is a chemical that the brain uses to reward you for feel-good actions. When you do something the brain perceives as pleasurable, more dopamine is released as a reward. Your brain will quickly associate that activity with pleasure and release dopamine when viewing it or even thinking about it.
Over time, though, you will develop a tolerance to dopamine levels. The porn that once brought you pleasure just won’t have the same edge. You’ll find yourself seeking out more intense pornography or watching it for longer and longer periods of time.
As you seek out riskier behaviors to get that hit, you’ll develop what is known as dopamine dysregulation.
So what happens when you try to stop watching porn?
While the effects of natural dopamine withdrawal have not been studied, the effects of stopping dopamine-enhancing drugs have been studied. These types of drugs, known as dopamine agonists, are commonly used to treat Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
When you stop a dopamine-seeking addiction, you may experience the following symptoms:
- Panic attacks
- Sleep disturbance
- Orthostatic hypotension
- Diaphoresis (Excessive sweating)
The intensity of the symptoms will vary depending on the length of addiction, length of abstinence from porn, and your body’s own dopamine-dependence thresholds.
How is Porn Withdrawal Treated?
Porn withdrawal is expected when you seek out treatment for pornography addiction. The only way to stop watching porn is cold turkey, so the symptoms will likely hit quickly.
Since porn withdrawal is a natural side effect of porn addiction treatment, it itself doesn’t have a treatment. Instead, you can manage the symptoms.
A few things to try to help you manage your symptoms include:
- Deep breathing
- Healthy eating
- Melatonin (to regulate sleep patterns)
The good news is that the symptoms of porn withdrawal are not life-threatening.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pornography Addiction
If you have more questions about pornography addiction, we have answers. Here are just some of the most frequently asked questions on the topic.
Is Porn Addiction Recognized by Medical Professionals?
Porn addiction is not included in the latest iteration of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5. That doesn’t mean, however, that medical professionals deny the existence of such an addiction. Most medical professionals will recognize that porn addiction is a condition, even if they only believe it to be a symptom of a larger issue (e.g. depression).
How Do I Know If I’m Addicted to Porn?
Addiction will look different for everyone. Common signs of porn addiction include the inability to stop even when you know it’s detrimental to your health, a constant craving for more, and a loss of interest in other areas of your life.
The key here is that you have a problem if you recognize it as a problem. So if you don’t like your current relationship with porn, don’t be afraid to seek help even if you don’t believe that what you have is a full-blown addiction.
Is It Possible to Overcome a Pornography Addiction?
As with any addiction, be it alcohol or drugs or the internet or porn, it is possible to overcome it with hard work and a strong support network. You may fail numerous times before you finally “get clean,” but recovery is always possible.
For many people, this may include going “NoFap” to control their sexual urges altogether.
Am I A Bad Person If I’m Addicted to Porn?
Addicts, no matter their “drug” of choice, are not bad people. You are not a bad person for being addicted to porn. If you hate who you are as an addict, you can seek treatment.
Who Can Become a Porn Addict?
Anyone, regardless of age or sex or race or socioeconomic status, can become addicted to porn. Porn addiction doesn’t discriminate.
How Long Does It Take to Overcome Porn Addiction?
Unfortunately, there’s no solid timeline for the treatment of addiction. Everyone will have their own recovery journey which could take a few months to a few years.
How Do I Seek Treatment for Porn Addiction?
Asking for help is the hardest part. When you’re ready, you have a few options. First, speak with your doctor about your concerns. They may refer you to a therapist or porn addiction specialist to help you with the process. You can also reach out to support groups, like Porn Addicts Anonymous, for a list of contacts in your area.
If you watch porn on occasion, or even on a regular basis, but it doesn’t interfere with your daily life and responsibilities, then you likely have a healthy relationship with the sexual medium.
But if you have tried to stop watching porn and have been unable to do so, it’s time to seek out the help of a mental health professional.
Porn addiction can have a major impact on your mental health, physical health, and all areas of your life. You don’t have to wait to seek help until it’s too late. You can overcome your addiction with the proper motivation and supports in place.