Despite controversies regarding whether pornographic addiction is a diagnosable psychiatric condition or simply a public health issue, it is a growing concern in America and around the world. Approximately 40 million Americans visit pornography websites on a regular basis and one-third of all internet downloads in the U.S. are related to porn. Despite risks of job loss or legal problems, millions of people access pornography at work every year.

As with drugs, some people use porn for the first time out of curiosity and never progress to regular use. Many turn to porn during periods of increased stress and stop visiting pornography websites when their stress levels return to normal. For other people, porn use develops into a harmful addiction.

What Is Porn Addiction?

Porn addiction is a process addiction. Also called behavioral addictions, process addictions are compulsive behavior patterns in which a person repeatedly engages in an activity despite the negative consequences that follow from it. The repetitive behaviors associated with process addictions typically escalate over time in a way that resembles substance addiction.

Like other process addictions, pornography addiction is a controversial concept that has provoked skepticism and resistance in the mental health community. Some professionals proposed adding it to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a subtype of hypersexual disorder, but DSM reviewers ultimately excluded hypersexual disorder from the DSM-5, citing a lack of evidence to support its inclusion as a psychiatric condition.

Currently, the only process addiction included in the DSM is gambling disorder, which is listed as a “non-substance-related addictive disorder.” Despite similarities between gambling addiction and other process addictions, these other behavioral addictions have been excluded pending further research and clarification. However, porn addiction is one of many conditions clinicians can treat even without a formal diagnosis or insurance billing code. While clinicians cannot formally diagnose porn addiction using the DSM, they can use similarities between it and other DSM disorders to develop porn addiction treatment plans.

Depending on its effect on a person’s life, a mental health professional may treat pornography addiction as a sexual dysfunction, an impulse control disorder or a non-substance-related addictive disorder. Through talk therapy, clinicians can help people explore the effects of their pornography use and learn how to respond to triggers to use porn without engaging in the behavior.

what is porn addiction infographic

Signs and Symptoms of Pornography Addiction

What is porn addiction, then? It can help to first understand how clinicians define substance addiction. While there is no formal diagnosis of “substance addiction” in the DSM, people are diagnosed with a substance use disorder when they meet two or more of the following criteria:

  • A person takes a substance in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than intended.
  • The person using a substance experiences a persistent desire to stop, reduce, or control use of the substance.
  • A person spends a great deal of time in activities needed to obtain a substance or recover from its effects.
  • The person using a substance experiences strong cravings to use it that require significant psychological effort to resist.
  • A person continues using a substance despite its negative effects on their personal relationships, work performance, home life or physical health.

A clinician can use similar criteria to informally diagnose a person with a pornography use disorder. Using this model, porn addiction symptoms can include:

  • Using pornography in greater amounts or over longer periods of time than intended
  • Trying to stop using porn and not being able to,
  • Having difficulty controlling porn use,
  • Using pornography in situations that impose physical dangers
  • Continuing to use pornography despite negative effects on work or relationships.

Understood most simply, a pornography use disorder is any use of porn that causes negative consequences in a person’s life. Some of the earliest signs of porn addiction are continued use of pornography despite the unpleasant feelings or negative impacts it causes. For example, a person with a porn addiction might use porn at work, get caught, lose their job but continue using it afterward, even at a new workplace.

Conversely, people who feel addicted to porn may not have suffered external consequences from using porn but might feel shame or anxiety about their porn use. In fact, inner moral or religious conflict about porn use is one of the most common factors among people who seek treatment for porn addiction. Clinicians often use perceived addiction and subjective distress to determine whether a person requires counseling for problems related to pornography use.

signs and symptoms of porn addiction infographic

What Causes Porn Addiction?

As with any other addiction, the causes of porn addiction can be psychological or physiological. Some people use pornography to cope with undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions like depression, anxiety or trauma-related disorders. People who have suffered sexual abuse or assault can sometimes use pornography to explore sexual feelings they do not feel safe to talk about or pursue with others. People who have become isolated in response to symptoms of anxiety or depression may use pornography to counter loneliness and sexual isolation.

When people use pornography to try to cope with unresolved trauma or other psychological pain, they are at increased risk of establishing a pattern of regular and compulsive porn use. People who have suffered trauma often learn to dissociate from emotions and memories related to the trauma. Porn use can become a way to prolong or intensify these dissociative states.

Research has revealed that what causes porn addiction physically is similar to what causes substance addiction. Reward pathways in the brain that release or respond to dopamine can become dysregulated in response to regular pornography use. This occurs because pornography is a “supernormal stimulus,” or an artificial product that triggers exaggerated versions of natural reactions.

In other words, the visual overstimulation of porn can trigger a flood of neurochemicals in excess of what normal sexual interaction releases. Physiologically, what causes addiction to porn is the repeated pursuit of this exaggerated and even euphoric state of arousal in combination with avoidance of negative states that follow from temporary depletion of dopamine and serotonin.

causes of porn addiction infographic

Effects of Porn Addiction

The consequences of porn addiction can be severe. One of the most common reasons that people seek treatment for pornography use disorders is the impact of porn use on their intimate relationships.

Frequent porn use can lower relationship quality in many different ways. For example, it can make it more difficult for men to experience arousal in response to sexual stimuli other than porn. It can also cause couples to experience a steady decline in sexual and other kinds of intimacy. Using porn significantly increases the risk of infidelity and loss of long-term relationships. Additional effects of porn addiction can include financial problems and job loss.

effects of porn addiction infographic

Porn Addiction Statistics

Porn addiction statistics show that pornography use is a significant public health concern. About 25 percent of internet search queries, or 68 million searches per day, are related to pornography, and 35 percent of all Internet downloads are porn-related. About one-third of pornography viewers are women.

Statistics also show a widespread incidence of problematic porn use and addiction. The Kinsey Institute found that 9 percent of pornography users had tried unsuccessfully to stop using porn. One survey showed that almost half of American families said porn use was a problem in their homes. Over half of people who self-identify as sex addicts suffer serious financial problems and almost half lose their spouses. Nearly a third lose their jobs over their compulsive sexual behavior.

porn addiction statistics infograhic

Porn Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Because pornography addiction is not associated with a formal clinical diagnosis, it has not been included in many prevalence and comorbidity studies. However, existing research on behavioral addictions and substance use disorders shows that 64 percent of people with compulsive sexual behavior and 38 percent of people with internet addiction experience a co-occurring substance use disorder in their lifetimes.

Rates of co-occurring pornography addiction and alcohol use disorders may be especially high, given the frequency with which people use alcohol to lower their sexual inhibitions. People can use a wide variety of substances to intensify the dopamine surge porn causes or to reduce feelings of self-consciousness or shame that arise when they use pornography. This puts people with porn addictions at high risk of developing other dependence-related disorders.

People who are addicted to pornography often experience symptoms of depression and anxiety after using porn. Imbalances in dopamine and serotonin, as well as other neurological effects of pornography use, can cause psychological withdrawal symptoms. Feelings of guilt, shame or moral conflict over pornography use can also trigger anxious thoughts and negative mood states. Co-occurring pornography and substance addictions intensify these psychological effects and increase the risk that people will develop co-occurring depression or anxiety disorders.

Treatment for Porn Addiction

Fortunately, despite a lack of clinical consensus or widespread acceptance of porn addiction as a diagnostic category, there are many options for porn addiction treatment. The primary method of treatment is therapy. Effective therapeutic interventions for porn addiction include cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy. People who struggle with inner conflicts between their faith and their pornography use can benefit from faith-based treatment, while people whose pornography use is having a significant effect on their relationship with a partner can benefit from couples counseling. Peer support and 12-step groups can provide additional support.

Porn addiction recovery is possible. The first step toward healing is often realizing that misuse of pornography is not an isolated source of shame, but a widely shared condition and a sign of inner pain in need of healing. Often, porn addiction links with other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and with other addictions including substance addictions. Fortunately, integrated treatment programs can help people address multiple conditions as part of one path toward recovery.

If you struggle with substance use and are concerned that your use of pornography has become an addiction, please contact The Recovery Village. A representative can help you explore treatment options at a wide range of facilities and find one that meets your needs.

Webroot.com. “Internet Pornography by the Numbers: A Significant Threat to Society.” Undated. Accessed January 10, 2019.

Grant, Jon E., Potenza, Marc N., Weinstein, Aviv, and Gorelick, David A. “Introduction to Behavioral Addictions.” American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Volume 36(5): 233-241. Published September 1, 2011. Retrieved January 10, 2019.

Weir, Kirsten. “Is Pornography Addictive?” Originally published in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 45, No. 4. Published April 2014. Retrieved January 10, 2019.

Grubbs, Joshua B., Volk, Fred, Exline, Julie J., and Pargament, Kenneth I. “Internet Pornography Use: Perceived Addiction, Psychological Distress, and the Validation of a Brief Measure.” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Volume 41, No. 1. Published December 16, 2013. Retrieved January 10, 2019.

Grubbs, Joshua B., Perry, Samuel L., Wilt, Joshua A., and Reid, Rory C. “Pornography Problems Due to Moral Incongruence: An Integrative Model with a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Archives of Sexual Behavior. Published August 3, 2018. Retrieved January 10, 2019.

Love, Todd, Laier, Christian, Brand, Matthias, Hatch, Linda, and Hajela, Raju. “Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update.” Behavioral Sciences, 5(3): 388-433. Published September 18, 2015. Retrieved January 10, 2019.

Muusses, Linda D., Kerkhof, Peter, and Finkenauer, Catrin. “Internet pornography and relationship quality: A longitudinal study of within and between partner effects of adjustment, sexual satisfaction and sexually explicit internet material among newly-weds.” Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 45: 77-84. Published April 2015. Retrieved January 10, 2019.