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Pornography: Is It Addictive?

“My husband lies. I can’t deal with it anymore. I feel like he’s cheating on me.”

“I promise to stop viewing and do so for awhile, but then I go back to it.”

“I don’t even enjoy it anymore, but I find myself viewing in between working on projects.”

Gail Unruh-Revel, LSCSW, CSAT, CST

Gail Unruh-Revel, LSCSW, CSAT, CST

For many of us, the term pornography brings up negative images — the pedophile, the cheater and, for some, even the rapist. Everything sex-related gets thrown in with the word pornography — child porn, rape porn, bestiality, consensual sex. Current research tells us that 12 percent of today’s websites are pornographic, 25 percent of all search engine results are porn-related and 35 percent of all downloads show sexualized imagery. Approximately one-third of all internet pornography users are women, up from 14 percent in 2003.1 Pornography has been called the Triple A Engine. It is easily accessible, most affordable and usually anonymous.

Can all these viewers be pedophiles, cheaters and rapists? Hardly. A lot of people view pornography.

What does it mean to be addicted to pornography?
Cambridge University researchers found that compulsive porn users react to pornography cues in the same way that drug addicts react to drug cues. In one Cambridge study2 researchers found strong evidence of sensitization in compulsive pornography users. Sensitization is the hyperreactivity to cues that lead to craving use and is considered to be the core addiction-related brain change. Other researchers are finding similar results. The brain reacts to compulsive pornography use just as it reacts to drug cues. Yes, pornography can be addictive.

What is addiction? According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.3

Does this definition fit the compulsive viewer of pornography? People who compulsively view porn do so in order to pursue what they consider to be its rewards — the high, the rush, the sexual relief. Some feel they cannot abstain and try over and over to stop with little success until they seek appropriate treatment. This compulsive viewing does cause impairment in behavioral control. For example, they may isolate themselves from family, give up time with friends and put their jobs at risk. Compulsive viewers crave the excitement, adrenaline rush and other chemicals released in the brain when they view, often oblivious to the significant problems this compulsive viewing is causing them, especially in their interpersonal relationships. They may want pornography so much that they grab any opportunity they can to engage in this behavior with which they are preoccupied. So, yes, compulsive pornography viewers certainly fit the definition of addiction.

Pornography addiction exists
Compulsive viewing can become like a ball and chain. Viewers may want to do it but don’t enjoy it much anymore and sometimes they don’t even want to do it, but feel compelled to view. They continue to view in spite of many negative consequences. While not everyone who views pornography becomes addicted, for some viewing pornography is very problematic. People have lost their jobs due to viewing on the job and then go to another job and continue viewing on the job there. For some, the fantasy world of erotica and porn becomes so real that they come to believe the people in the videos or still pictures love them. Some people’s lives come to revolve around porn viewing. They become preoccupied with when the next opportunity will be. They wake up. View porn. During break at work they view porn on their smart phone. Then there’s more porn later in the day. Some isolate in their homes to the point where most of their life is one of fantasy with few or no real world relationships. This can happen to anyone.

Identifying an addiction
Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you become increasingly withdrawn, avoiding family and friends while spending an unusual amount of time viewing pornography online?
  • Are you increasingly secretive, trying to hide what you view online and overreacting if your partner touches your phone?
  • Are you feeling preoccupied with fantasy, sexualized thoughts or preparatory activities?
  • If you are in a relationship with a significant other, are you emotionally and mentally absent from the relationship, especially during sex?
  • Do you feel trapped, that you have no choice whether to view, like pornography has a hold over you and insists you have to?
  • Do you deliberately limit social, occupational or recreational opportunities in order to keep time open for finding and viewing pornography?
  • Have you experienced unsuccessful efforts to stop, reduce or control the behavior?
  • Are you continuing to view pornography despite negative consequences such as loss of job?
  • Do you feel more frequent, more intense porn is required over time in order to get the desired result?
  • Does viewing pornography take significant time away from your occupational, academic, domestic or social obligations?

So is pornography addictive? Yes, for some people. Then for others, the viewing is a sexual outlet, is not compulsive or addictive, and does not cause problems in their relationships. What works for some does not work for others.

The important thing to ask yourself: “Is my viewing causing me problems and/or causing problems in my relationships? If so, what do I need to do about it?” Consider talking about it with someone who will have a frank, open conversation with you. Consider getting professional help.

Gail Unruh-Revel is a Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist at Prairie View’s Newton, West Wichita and East Wichita locations. Gail provides outpatient couples and marital therapy and family therapy in addition to sex addiction treatment. Other areas of interest include gender, identity or sexuality issues, sexual dysfunction and sexual offender treatment. She works with patients 14-64 years old. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 800-992-6292.

1Weiss and Schneider, Always Turned On, Gentle Path Press, 2015.
2Kuhn and Gallinat, “Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated with Porn Consumption: The Brain on Porn,” JAMA Psychiatry, 2014.
3“Definition of Addiction,” American Society of Addiction Medicine, Retrieved March 24, 2015, from http://www.asam.org/for-the-public/definition-of-addiction.