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The Addictiveness of Pornography

If you are reading this page, you may be wondering if and how pornography can be addictive.  If this is so, read on!

For decades it was believed that pornography was addictive.  Thousands of men attested to their compulsive use of it and how it left their lives unmanageable.  However, there was no hard science to back their claims.  Fortunately we now have the neuroscience evidence to show that pornography is just as addictive as alcohol or narcotics.  
 
Understanding the addictiveness of pornography is like looking at two sides of a coin.  On the one side, we have the physical addiction to pornography, and on the other side, we have the emotional addiction.  Both need to be addressed when treating pornography addiction.

Physical Addiction

Recent research has provided us with evidence that shows how physically addictive pornography is.  Brain scans show how the brain of a porn addict is no different than the brain of a drug addict.  Science has also shown us that many of the same neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones that are released when using drugs are also released when viewing porn.  

In order to understand the physical addictiveness of pornography, we first need to understand a man’s brain.  Men are wired to be visually stimulated.  When a man sees an erotic image, he will automatically look at it and his eyes will lock in on that image.  While this is happening, chemical reactions are occurring in the brain.  Dopamine is released.  This mixes with testosterone and results in an adrenaline rush.  The man literally experiences a strong sense of excitement and even a high.  This can most easily be seen in a teenager whose body is rushing with hormones.  Just mention the word “pornography” to a teenage boy and notice how excited he gets!  Another chemical, Delta-fos-B increases the craving for more porn.

Along with this heightened sense of excitement, norepinephrine sends a message to the autonomic nervous system.  This causes the heart beat and respiration to increase.  This accounts for the fast heart beat and heavy breathing.  Norepinephrine also affects the body like adrenaline, ramping it up for sexual release.   Many men claim that when they see an erotic image it gets "burned into their brains" and is there for a long time.  Norepinephrine locks in erotic images too.  

With all this neurochemical activity a message is sent down the spinal chord to the genitals for sexual arousal.  The result is an erection.  All of this physical and emotional excitement leads to an anxiety.  The only thing that can relieve this anxiety is an orgasm.  Thus, a man will masturbate.  When an orgasm is achieved, opiate chemicals are released into the brain resulting first in a strong feeling of euphoria and then relaxation.

This process of extreme emotional and physical excitement, anxiety, orgasm, euphoria and finally relaxation is extremely pleasing, both physically and emotionally.  The brain likes it and wants more!  This will lead a man to go back to pornography and masturbation over and over again for the same result.  Thus, whenever a man is happy, sad, excited, lonely, angry, stressed, etc., he will return to pornography and masturbation.

As with any drug, after a while, a tolerance develops.  More of the substance, and a harder form of the substance, is needed to achieve the same effect.  Thus, soft porn no longer is exciting.  The man will need to move on to more extreme forms of pornography – hard core, fetish, violent, child, etc. to get the same effect.  He will also find himself spending more time online viewing pornography.  Instead of spending 20 minutes online, he is now spending several hours online.  

Along with a tolerance to pornography, a dependence develops.  A man’s body actually craves pornography and orgasm.  If he doesn’t get a ‘fix” he can experience withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, head aches, etc.  Even if he does not experience withdrawal symptoms, he might find it impossible to stop using pornography.  This is dependence.
 
For some men, the tolerance they develop eventually leads to the point where looking at any pornography is not stimulating enough.  At this point, they might be tempted to act out what they have seen in pornography.  This often leads to going to strip clubs, using prostitutes, and even anonymous sex.  This leads to the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
 
Ultimately, the pornography addict will find his life out of control.  The addiction has left his life totally unmanageable.  Many men will spend thousands of dollars on pornography and prostitutes to support their addiction.  The addiction can lead to loss of marriage, family, friends, career, and reputation.

For a more in-depth discussion of the physical addictiveness of pornography, read Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Brain (2009) by William M. Struthers.

Emotional Addiction

While it is easy to see how a man can become physically addicted to pornography, there is also an emotional addictiveness to it.  Many men start out viewing pornography because it has become acceptable in our society.  They may see it as simply “adult entertainment.”  It is accessible, affordable and anonymous.  However, there are often deep emotional reasons for why men turn to porn that they are unaware of.  Many struggle with deep emotional wounds and they turn to pornography to ease their pain.  Others turn to it out of pure selfishness and a sense of entitlement.  Ultimately, there is never a healthy reason to turn to pornography.  

Many men will initially turn to pornography to ease the pain of an unconscious emotional conflict.  Although is might ease the pain temporarily, it is not the cure.  Thus a man returns again and again for relief.  This is where the emotional addiction sets in.  Just as with the physical addiction, a tolerance develops.  More extreme forms of pornography are needed to ease the pain.  A dependence can also develop forcing the man to return to pornography again and again because he believes it’s the only thing that can ease his pain.  The continued use of pornography to ease emotional pain also allows for the physical addiction to develop.  Thus, both the physical and emotional addictions must be addressed in treating pornography addiction.

Some Emotional Conflicts that Lead to Pornography Use

  • Narcissism
    • Extreme Selfishness
    • Sense of Entitlement
  • Sexual Utilitarian Philosophy
    • The believe that it is okay to use another person for one’s own pleasure
  • Family-of-Origin Wounds
    • Abuse: Physical, Emotional and/or Sexual
    • Addiction
    • Rejection
    • Abandonment
    • Neglect
    • Divorce
  • Loneliness
  • Shame
  • Anger
  • Male Insecurity
  • Poor Body Image
  • Excessive Pressures
  • Lack of Fulfillment in Life

These deep emotional wounds often lead to Five Faulty Core Beliefs:

  1. I am unworthy of being loved
  2. If people really knew me, they would reject me
  3. I cannot count on anyone, including God, to meet my needs
  4. I must find something that I can control that will meet my needs
  5. Pornography/Sex is my greatest need and source of comfort

(Modified from Carnes, 2001)

According to Patrick Carnes (2001), a man caught up in pornography/sexual addiction will usually find himself in the following Addictive System:

 

  • Belief System:  First four core beliefs
  • Impaired Thinking: Fifth core belief
  • Addictive Cycle: Development of pornography addiction
  • Unmanageability: Addiction takes over one’s life.  The inability to control behavior leads to tremendous guilt and shame.  This reinforces the Belief System and the vicious cycle continues
  • Preoccupation: The temptation to view porn is extremely strong, a craving.  Can be triggered by sexual or nonsexual cues.
  • Ritualization: Preparing to view pornography.  This process can start days before porn is actually used
  • Sexual Compulsivity: The inability to avoid using pornography and masturbation
  • Despair: The addict experiences deep sadness, hopelessness, guilt and shame.  The addict believes the only way to deal with this deep emotional pain is to return to porn.
  • This leads back to Preoccupation, as well as through all the other points of the Addictive System

For a more in-depth discussion on the Addictive System, read Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction (2001) and In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (2007) by Patrick Carnes.

To understand the process of addiction, I have shown you both sides of the coin: physical addiction and emotional addiction.  Both go together and need to be addressed in treating pornography addiction.

The development of pornography addiction often starts with a man viewing pornography thinking it is simply “adult entertainment.”  However there is usually a deep emotional conflict that is fueling his use of porn.  While pornography and masturbation might temporarily ease his emotional pain, he finds himself going back to it over and over again.  This also allows for the physical addiction to develop.  It also fuels the five faulty core beliefs and sends him into the addictive system.  This ultimately leads to despair and a life that is unmanageable.  

Thanks to the research of people like William Struthers and Patrick Carnes, the clinical work of therapists who specialize in sexual addiction, and the testimonies of thousands of men who have struggled with pornography addiction, we now have a greater understanding of pornography addiction and how to treat it.  If you have been struggling with pornography addiction and are ready to break free, please click here for more information on getting help.