Porn Addiction 101

Porn addiction occurs when the person viewing pornography, with or without masturbating, loses control over whether or not he/she will engage in that behavior. Porn addicts look at and use porn compulsively, despite consequences that include:

  • An inability to form lasting social and intimate romantic relationships
  • Intense feelings of depression, shame and isolation
  • Disintegration of relationships with family, friends and romantic partners
  • Loss of many hours, sometimes entire days, to porn use
  • Loss of interest in non-porn activities such as work, school, socializing, family and exercise
  • Trouble at work or in school (including reprimands and/or dismissal) related to poor performance, misuse of company/school equipment and/or public use of porn
  • Financial issues
  • Legal issues (usually related to illegal porn use)
  • Porn use combined with drug/alcohol abuse
  • Physical injury caused by compulsive masturbation
  • Sexual dysfunction with real-world partners, including erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation and an inability to reach orgasm

Sometimes, porn addicts find themselves aroused by material that once didn’t interest them or that goes against their moral values. As such, they often experience great shame about what they’re doing; this in turn leads to a secretive, highly stressful double life. For many addicts, the stress is so extreme that it can affect their physical and emotional health.

Causes

In the same way that a sex addict doesn’t have sex primarily for the pleasure of the act, the porn addict doesn’t look at pornography primarily for sexual enjoyment. Instead, his/her addiction is a way to escape from stress and other forms of emotional discomfort, including the pain of psychological issues like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and unresolved trauma such as abuse or neglect. Alcoholics drink and drug addicts use for exactly the same reasons. So, as with other addictions, porn addicts are not looking to feel good, they want to feel less, or at least to control what they’re feeling.

As with drugs of abuse, pornography triggers a chemical response in the brain that feels pleasurable. This is fueled mostly by the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, but also by other biochemicals, such as oxytocin, adrenaline, serotonin and endorphins. Over time, porn addicts learn to abuse this naturally occurring reaction in the same way that alcoholics and drug addicts learn to abuse alcohol and drugs, intentionally triggering the pleasure response with pornography and sexual fantasy. In this way, the addict creates and uses that high as a way to avoid experiencing depression, anxiety and other stressors.

Like other addicts, porn addicts like to stay high for prolonged periods. For that reason, they’re typically much more interested in using porn to sustain their intense sexual fantasies than in reaching orgasm. In fact, for porn addicts an orgasm ends the high and catapults them back to real life, which is what they’re trying to avoid. As such, porn addicts often spends hours, sometimes even entire days, in a trance-like, zoned-out neurochemical bubble, looking at and fantasizing about porn and sexual activity without actually masturbating or having sex.

Symptoms of Porn Addiction

Both men and women can become addicted to pornography. The kind of porn that each prefers tends to differ, though. Where men tend to look at purely sexualized imagery (hardcore porn), women typically prefer erotica with at least a hint of an emotional connection (such as the book Fifty Shades of Grey). Either way, the core signs of pornography addiction are similar for both men and women, typically including some combination of the following:

  • Escalating amounts of time spent on porn use, with hours and sometimes even days lost to pornography
  • Viewing progressively more intense or bizarre sexual content
  • Continued porn use despite negative consequences and/or promises made to self or others to stop using porn
  • Lying about, keeping secrets about and covering up the nature and extent of porn use
  • Anger or irritability if confronted about the nature or extent of porn use
  • Escalation from two-dimensional porn viewing to use of technology for casual, anonymous or paid-for sexual encounters, whether in-person or via Webcams

Risk Factors

The factors that raise someone’s odds of developing an addiction to porn are the same as with other forms of sexual addiction (and addiction in general, for that matter). Since there’s been comparatively little research into the causes of sex and porn addiction, most health care professionals who treat sex and porn addicts tend to rely on studies looking at other types of addiction. Generally speaking, these studies show that genetic factors can increase or decrease the risk for addiction, usually by altering the ways in which a particular substance or activity is experienced in the body and brain. Genetic makeup also plays into many psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, among others. And it’s well-known that individuals dealing with these emotionally painful issues often choose to compulsively “self-medicate” with an addictive substance or behavior.

Nevertheless, genetics are not entirely to blame. In fact, research indicates that environmental factors are equally at play. For instance, if someone was neglected or abused in childhood their risk of addiction jumps, just as it does if they were exposed to addictive substances or behaviors early in life. (The younger a person is when he or she first uses an addictive substance or starts an addictive behavior, the greater the risk of developing an addiction.) So it appears that most porn addicts become addicted thanks to a convergence of risk factors — typically a mixture of genetic predisposition, poor parenting and early and often inappropriate exposure to pornography and/or sexual activity.

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