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Porn Addiction & Abuse

Some people develop a porn fascination. They continue watching movies, logging onto websites, and ordering magazines despite a desire to quit. They keep using porn even when it ruins their relationships, self-esteem, and careers.

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Pornography addiction isn’t defined within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — the document doctors use to name common ailments. But you might be familiar with what the condition is and how it can ruin relationships. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with porn addiction, help is available. Treatment can help you get back on track and regain control. Here’s what you need to know. 

Porn Addiction Statistics 

These facts and figures can help you understand how common porn addiction is and how many people are at risk:

Key Facts

  • About 12% of all websites contain pornography.[1]
  • Close to 70% of American men and 40% of American women visit porn-related websites each year.[1]
  • Nearly 45% of men watch porn at least once per month.[2]
  • Of men who used porn within the past 24 hours, 60% reported feelings of loneliness or isolation. Of men who have never watched pornography, 38% reported those feelings.[2]
  • Between 3% and 6% of people have a porn addiction. But its true prevalence is hard to estimate since the condition isn’t defined in the DSM-5.[3]

Pornography Use & Abuse: Understanding Behavioral Addiction

Porn abuse is a behavioral addiction. An action, decision, or task moves from voluntary to compulsive. Plenty of behaviors — including gambling and playing video games — can become addictive in time. Using porn is one of these behaviors. 

Behavioral addictions and chemical addictions share similarities, such as the following:[4]

  • Age of onset: Addictive behaviors tend to develop during adolescence and young adulthood. 
  • Symptoms: People experience chronic difficulties and may relapse periodically. 
  • “Before” feelings: People feel tension or a sense of arousal before they engage in the behavior. 
  • “After” feelings: People feel pleasure, relief, or gratification after they commit the act. 

People with behavioral addictions may also have narrowed interests. They spend a lot of time using porn instead of doing anything else. They may also keep using porn, even though they know it’s harming their mental health. These are classic signs of addiction, researchers say.[3]

But a behavioral addiction, like one to porn, doesn’t cause other classic chemical addiction symptoms like the following:[3]

  • Tolerance: People with behavioral addictions don’t tend to escalate their use as their addictions deepen. People with chemical addictions tend to need bigger drug doses with time. In many cases, the use of porn will escalate, but it doesn’t involve the same kind of tolerance process as substance addictions do.
  • Withdrawal: People with behavioral addictions may not feel physically sick when trying to reduce their behaviors. People with chemical addictions may feel ill when they limit their use. 

Behavioral addictions can be serious. If left in place, they can cause serious problems. But they’re not the same as chemical addictions to substances like cocaine or alcohol. 

How Does Porn Addiction Develop? 

Why can some people use porn once and never again, while other people get addicted to it? Researchers say brain chemistry could be to blame.[5]

Porn consumption triggers the release of dopamine — a chemical the brain releases in response to pleasure. Each time the person watches porn, chemical release causes a surge in pleasure and makes the behavior even more rewarding.[5]

In time, brain cells release less dopamine unless porn is present. Negative emotions like sadness or depression can cause very strong porn cravings, as this is the only way to make the negative feelings disappear. The brain won’t release dopamine without porn. [5]

Every human’s brain runs on dopamine, so anyone could develop this problem when exposed to porn repeatedly. But people with a genetic predisposition to addiction, a difficult history, or underlying mental health disorders are at higher risk.[5]

Signs & Symptoms of Porn Addiction 

Some people use porn relatively frequently, but they maintain control over the behavior.[6] But people with porn addiction are very different. 

Researchers say that people with these behavioral addictions have the following symptoms:[6]

  • Excessive time spent on the behavior 
  • Inability to control how much time they spend on porn 
  • Inability to fulfill obligations due to the porn addiction 
  • Persistence in the behavior despite the consequences 

An inability to quit is a hallmark of a behavioral addiction. People with a porn addiction may realize that their habits are harming their lives. If asked, they may even say that they hate pornography. But they can’t quit. 

Researchers say that close to 10% of porn viewers have tried to quit and weren’t successful.[7]

How Can Porn Addiction Change Your Relationships

People with porn addiction struggle internally and personally. But their behaviors can also harm others. 

Researchers say romantic relationships can be harmed when people abuse porn. For example, women with partners who abuse porn have lower self-esteem and lower sexual satisfaction.[7] In these cases, the man’s habits harm the woman’s mental health. 

Men can struggle in these relationships too. They tend to withdraw emotionally and report less intimacy and more depression.[7] As those feelings intensify, they may abuse drugs even more. 

And same-sex relationships can be similarly damaged by porn addiction. The behavior of one party directly influences the mental health of the other.

How to Get Help for an Addiction to Pornography 

Technology can help some people take steps to control their pornography use. But for others, therapy is crucial. 

People who use their computers, tablets, or phones to access pornography can benefit from tech-blocking software. A tool like Remojo can block your ability to tap into any kind of porn. This cold-turkey approach could help some people to break the link between using porn and feeling better. Close to 1,200 people per day download tools like this.[8]

Some people don’t benefit from tools like this. An abstinence-based approach enforced by tools could leave people with cravings that are too difficult to ignore.[8] Sex is an important part of a healthy life, and some people need help developing these skills. 

A typical therapy approach for behavioral addictions involves these steps:[4]

  • Identifying patterns: When do people use porn? What time of day is the abuse common? Aim to spot patterns in behaviors.
  • Naming triggers: What makes someone crave porn? Are there people, places, or things that make cravings stronger? Are feelings part of the problem? Identify contributing factors.
  • Making changes: What lifestyle changes can make porn abuse less likely? What behaviors can result in a healthier life? Think of ways to build a healthier, fulfilling life outside of porn.

Finding a healthier alternative is a core part of porn abuse recovery.[9] Abstaining from sex altogether isn’t possible. But therapy can help you find alternative behaviors (like exercise, meditation, or yoga) that can help to calm negative feelings without the use of porn. 

Finding a qualified partner is important, as porn addiction isn’t the same as a chemical addiction. A therapist who specializes in something like alcohol use disorder may not be ready to help someone who is addicted to porn. Ensure that the person you choose has experience in helping with problems just like yours. 

Updated March 8, 2024
Resources
  1. Smith S, LeSeuer J. Pornography use among young adults in the United States. Ballard Brief. Published 2023. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  2. Cox D, Lee B, Popky D. How prevalent is pornography? Institute for Family Studies. Published May 3, 2022. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  3. de Alarcón R, de la Iglesia JI, Casado NM, Montejo AL. Online porn addiction: What we know and what we don't-A systematic review. J Clin Med. 2019;8(1):91. Published 2019 Jan 15. doi:10.3390/jcm8010091
  4. Grant JE, Potenza MN, Weinstein A, Gorelick DA. Introduction to behavioral addictions. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2010;36(5):233-241. doi:10.3109/00952990.2010.491884
  5. Giordano A. Six steps for addressing behavioral addictions in clinical work. Counseling Today. Published October 5, 2021. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  6. Ballester-Arnal, R, García-Barba, M, Castro-Calvo, J. et al. Pornography Consumption in People of Different Age Groups: an Analysis Based on Gender, Contents, and Consequences. Sex Res Soc Policy 20, 766–779 (2023).
  7. Weir K. Is pornography addictive? American Psychological Association. Published April 2014. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  8. Usborne, S. Sex isn’t difficult anymore: The men who are quitting watching porn. The Guardian. Published September 6, 2021. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  9. 5 tips to overcome compulsive pornography use. National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Published September 10, 2021. Accessed September 18, 2023.
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