Despite differing opinions regarding whether porn addiction is a diagnosable psychiatric condition or simply a public health issue, it is a growing concern in America and around the world. About 40 million Americans visit porn websites on a regular basis and a 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 porn at work every year.

As with drugs, some people use porn for the first time just out of curiosity and do not progress to regular use. Many turn to porn during periods of increased stress and stop when their stress levels go back to normal. For other people, porn use can become an addiction.

What Is Porn Addiction?

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

Like other process addictions, porn addiction has provoked some skepticism in the mental health community. Some experts proposed adding it to the fifth edition of the DSM-5 as a subtype of hypersexual disorder, but DSM reviewers ultimately excluded it from the manual due to a lack of evidence supporting its inclusion.

Currently, the only process addiction in the DSM is a gambling disorder. However, porn addiction can be treated 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 a treatment plan for a porn addiction.

Depending on its effect to a person’s life, a mental health expert may treat porn addiction as a sexual dysfunction, an impulse control disorder or a non-substance-related addictive disorder. Talk therapy can be used to help people explore the effects of their porn use and learn how to respond to their triggers to use porn.

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Signs and Symptoms of Pornography Addiction

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

  • A person uses drugs or alcohol in large amounts or over a longer period of time than needed.
  • The person feels an ongoing desire to stop, reduce, or control their use of drugs or alcohol.
  • A person spends a great deal of time to obtain drugs or alcohol or recover from them.
  • The person using a substance feels strong cravings to use it that requires a significant effort to resist.
  • A person continues to use a substance despite its negative effects on their work, home life or physical health.

Similar criteria can be used to informally diagnose a person with a porn addiction. Using this model, porn addiction symptoms can include:

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

A simple definition of a pornography use disorder is any use of porn that causes a negative impact on a person’s life. Some of the earliest signs of porn addiction are continued use of porn 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 job.

People who are addicted to porn may not have suffered external impacts, 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 reasons for someone to seek help for porn addiction. Clinicians often use perceived addiction to decide whether a person needs counseling for problems related to porn use.

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What Causes Porn Addiction?

Like any other addiction, the causes of porn addiction can be mental or physical. Some people use porn to cope with undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions. People who have suffered sexual abuse or assault can use porn to explore sexual feelings they do not feel safe to talk about or pursue with others. People who have become isolated due to symptoms of anxiety or depression may use porn to counter that loneliness and isolation.

When people use porn to try to cope with unresolved trauma or other psychological pain, they are at an increased risk of establishing a pattern of regular 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 states.

Research suggests that what causes porn addiction is similar to what causes substance addiction. Reward pathways in the brain that release or respond to dopamine can become thrown off after regular porn use. This occurs because porn triggers exaggerated versions of natural events.

In other words, porn can trigger a flood of dopamine in excess of what a person might feel from sex. Physically, what causes addiction to porn is the repeated pursuit of this state of arousal in combination with avoidance of the negative states that follow.

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Effects of Porn Addiction

The impact of porn addiction can be severe. One of the most common reasons that people seek treatment for porn 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 money problems and job loss.

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Porn Addiction Statistics

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

The Kinsey Institute found that 9% of pornography users had tried and failed 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 the people who self-identify as sex addicts suffer serious money problems and almost half lose their spouses. Nearly a third lose their jobs over their compulsive sexual behavior.

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Porn Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Because porn addiction is not a formal clinical diagnosis, it has not been included in many studies. However, existing research on behavioral addictions and substance use disorders shows that 64% of people with compulsive sexual behavior and 38% of people with internet addiction have a co-occurring drug or alcohol use disorder at some point in their life.

Rates of co-occurring porn addiction and alcohol use disorders may be especially high, since alcohol is frequently used to lower sexual inhibitions. People can use a wide variety of drugs to intensify the dopamine surge porn causes or to reduce feelings of shame that arise when they use porn. This puts people with porn addictions at high risk of developing other use disorders.

People who are addicted to porn often struggle with depression and anxiety after using porn. This can lead to chemical imbalances in the brain that can cause withdrawal symptoms. Feelings of guilt, shame or moral conflict over porn use can also trigger anxious thoughts and negative mood states.

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 treatment options for porn addiction include CBT, acceptance and commitment therapy, DBT and psychodynamic therapy

People who struggle with inner conflicts between their faith and their porn use can benefit from faith-based treatment, while people whose porn use is having a negative impact on their relationship with a loved one may 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 and with other addictions including substance use disorders. Fortunately, integrated care plans 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 porn 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.

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