Pornography addiction is not real according to leading psychologists -here's when porn can be unhealthy

Pornography addiction is not real according to leading psychologists -here's when porn can be unhealthy
Porn addiction isn't recognized by the American Psychological Association as a true "addiction."mikroman6/ Getty Images
  • Porn addiction is not a true "addiction" according to the American Psychological Association.
  • Social, cultural, and religious mores may lead some to view their pornography habits as addictive.
  • If watching porn disrupts or negatively impacts your daily life or relationships, seek therapy.

Viewing erotic content like porn and pornographic images is on the rise. In 2019, alone, one of the world's leading porn sites, PornHub, received on average 115 million visits per day.

All that free, readily-accessible on screen erotic content has got some folks thinking they're addicted to it. But is porn addiction real? Important: Sex addiction has been used in the past by perpetrators of sexual violence as an explanation for their acts of agression. This has been debukned by mental health professionals as this article will go on to discuss.
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Is pornography addictive?

Pornography addiction is not recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a mental health problem or disorder, like drug or alcohol addiction.

Moreover, according to the DSM-5 (Manual of Mental Disorders - the world's authoritative guide on psychological disorders) pornography and sex addictions are not a psychological disorder. Some disorders the DSM-5 does recognize are addictions to gambling, alcohol, drugs, and most recently, online gaming.

The reason for this comes down to neurochemistry. While watching porn may activate similar pleasure circuits in the brain as, say, alcohol or heroine, most experts agree that doesn't mean you can become addicted to watching porn in the same way.
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That's because addiction to substances, for example, not only activates your brain's pleasure circuits, it actually changes your brain chemistry so that you can no longer release feel-good chemicals like dopamine as effectively without the help of the drug you're addicted to.

And as far as researchers can tell, this is not the case for porn addiction. So what's going on instead? The more likely scenario is that porn addiction is more closely related to a type of compulsive, obsessive, or habitual behavior than substance abuse or addiction. In fact, people develop compulsive, obsessive, and habitual connections to many things in their lives, especially if those things alleviate anxiety or fulfill a sense of longing or loneliness.
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There's also the fact of the matter that - much like the rest of sexuality - enjoying erotic content is often done in secret and without context. In fact, most of the US has no or purposefully incorrect sexuality education - especially for young adults. This creates an environment for folks to misunderstand the erotic entertainment they are enjoying.

Therefore, what people refer to as porn addiction is essentially a conflict of values that's leading you to think you're addicted, says Nicole Prause, PhD, a neuroscientist who researches sexual psychophysiology and is a practicing psychologist at Happier Living.

For instance, a large 2020 study published by the APA found that people's cultural, moral, or religious beliefs may lead them to believe they are addicted to pornography, even if they don't actually watch a lot of porn.
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"If you think you are struggling with pornography, it is most likely that you are actually struggling with a conflict of your own personal values around your sexual behaviors, and not really the porn itself," says Prause.

How much porn is too much?

At what point does your pleasure from watching porn become problematic? There's no clear answer to this because it varies from person-to-person, which makes it extremely difficult for researchers to know where to draw the line.

Moreover, Prause says people who struggle with their pornography viewing almost always have an underlying disorder - most commonly depression - that requires treatment.
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"By promoting 'pornography addiction,' research-backed treatments are delayed while people continue to suffer," says Prause.

Overall, what sex therapists see most often is a lack of other social and sexual connections and difficulties accessing other coping mechanisms.

People who feel they have a problematic connection with porn might experience symptoms like:

  • Feeling guilt, shame, or remorse after watching porn
  • Not being able to stop watching porn, despite wanting to
  • Tendency to engage in risky behaviors that could jeopardize your career or social life
  • Feeling emotionally distanced from romantic partners
  • Feeling less satisfied with your real life sexual connections

How to stop watching porn, if you think you're watching too much

If you feel like you're watching too much, or if you're neglecting your work, relationships, or responsibilities to watch porn, you can take steps to remedy this:
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  • Understand the impact on your life: Be honest with yourself about how viewing pornography is affecting your life and address any negative consequences it is causing. If porn is affecting your relationship with your partner, having an open conversation about what you need more of in the relationship can help.
  • Sit with your fears about reducing your intake: The thought of watching less porn may pose a challenge because there is probably a reason - whether it's an underlying medical condition or it's the only time you grant yourself permission to experience physical pleasure - why you're choosing to watch porn. Recognizing this reason and admitting why you're scared to watch less porn can be an important step in the healing process.
  • Formulate an action plan: Make a plan to help you break out of old patterns and fill your life with more activities. This can include focusing more on other activities that give you pleasure such as hobbies, sports, and friendships.
  • Seek therapy: Seek help from a qualified sex therapist therapist or counselor. You can find one via the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. According to Prause, there is a research-backed form of therapy that can help if your porn habit is inconsistent with your values. Known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it involves helping you identify your values and live in a more meaningful manner that is consistent with your belief system.
  • Get screened for other mental health conditions: You should consider getting screened for other mental health conditions, like depression, so that you can get treatment if required. Extreme anger, frustration, or sadness, excessive worry or fear, or obsessive thoughts or behaviors are some signs that you may have a mental health condition. Organizations like Mental Health America provide screenings and diagnosis based on symptoms.

Insider's takeaway

Researchers are divided on whether watching excessive amounts of porn is a psychological disorder, a product of repressive views about sexuality, or a manifestation of another mental health condition.

Watching porn, masturbating, and exploring your sexuality can in fact be beneficial to your sex life. "Women report overwhelmingly positive effects from viewing pornography, primarily as a method of increasing their sexual drive for a partner or experiencing sexual pleasure. When couples view pornography together they tend to report a more satisfying sex life," says Prause.
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Nevertheless, if you feel like you're watching too much porn, you should seek help from a qualified professional.

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