Is Pornography Addiction a Myth?

The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

The stigmas of addiction and mental health have seen a small reprieve in recent years, as awareness and treatment have become more widespread and more available to people of all backgrounds and ability levels. Despite the decrease in stigma, there lingers still a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion regarding some mental health concerns, including addiction. This is perhaps never more true than when an addiction occurs in response to something that may not immediately be considered harmful or problematic, leading many to wonder: is pornography addiction real, or is it a myth? To answer the question, we must first understand what addiction is and isn’t, and how addiction to pornography might present itself.

Addiction: A Definition

The definition of addiction can be loosely identified as the heightened desire to participate in an activity or partake of a substance, when compulsion and harm are present. A more thorough definition acknowledges the need for compulsion, escalation, and accelerated appetite to be present in order for something to be qualified as an addiction. Addiction is also differentiated from simple cravings or desire through the degree of harm incurred; someone who craves soda, for instance, is not likely to experience extreme bodily or mental responses when denied that soda, but someone who is addicted to a substance may experience a spike in anxiety and physical symptoms of withdrawal when faced with the possibility of not being able to partake or engage with the substance or activity fueling the addiction.

Addiction can also be quantified in terms of consequence severity. Regularly eating potato chips may not be advisable, but it is unlikely to lead to an escalation in behavior that results in the possibility of losing relationships, getting into trouble with the law, and losing work opportunities. Addiction is often at the root of these issues and far more, and can often be identified as the root of problems at work, at home, and even in school or in general societal and social interactions. While addiction can exist without severe consequences, most addiction is accompanied by escalation, or an increase in the behavior being exhibited or substance being used. In the example of pornography, a weekly viewing may turn into a compulsive viewing during bathroom visits at work, suggesting the presence of addiction rather than simple desire or preference.

Can Pornography Be an Addiction?

The answer to this question is surprisingly complicated. Some psychologists wholeheartedly suggest that pornography can be an addiction, because it can prompt addictive behavior. Others argue that because sex is a natural impulse, it cannot be qualified as an addiction, just as the overconsumption of sugar does not qualify as an addiction. People who have experienced addictive behavior in response to pornography use have additional opinions, suggesting that the use of pornography can adversely affect an individual’s life just as much as gambling or shopping can—two behaviors that do qualify as a separate, recognized addiction. The consensus hasn’t not yet arrived, as there is often some confusion regarding the difference between sex addiction and pornography addiction.

Sex Addiction Versus Pornography Addiction

The existence of sex and pornography addiction has been contentious historically, as some have suggested that sex addiction is literally impossible, because sex is a natural impulse and is biologically necessary for the species to survive and therefore cannot be addictive. Others belie that position, and argue for the possibility of sex addiction. It is important to note that sex addiction and pornography addiction are usually considered two separate issues—sex addiction is identified as compulsive behavior regarding sex as a whole, while pornography addiction involves viewing pornography, and may not necessarily include sexual acts (though it often does).

Potential Treatment Avenues

Treatment for pornography addiction typically follows the same standard route as other addictions, which may even include participation of 12-step groups made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, understandably called Sexaholics Anonymous. Meeting attendance is not usually considered the only avenue to take when seeking help for this type of addiction, but is often considered a complementary step to consistently manage the symptoms of addiction to sex or pornography. Treating pornography addiction usually involves ongoing therapy of some kind to uncover the root of the addictive behavior, and may involve medication to treat underlying conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or a neurological or personality disorder that can act as a risk factor for compulsive pornography use. Because pornography addiction is not currently recognized as a disorder, however, most mental health professionals do not treat the addiction, but instead treat the many factors surrounding the addiction.

Is Pornography Addiction a Myth?

Articles about pornography range far and wide, but there is some consensus as to the possibility of experiencing compulsive behavior with regard to pornography—compulsive behavior that can qualify as addictive behavior. Although pornography addiction is not currently recognized as a condition in the DSM—the manual used to determine various mental health disorders and diagnoses—addictive disorders as a whole are, as are impulse control disorders, both of which can fall under the purview of unhealthy and excessive pornography use. Even in the absence of a dedicated disorder, people can experience a compulsive drive to use pornography when it is detrimental to their work, relationships, and life overall—behavior that is typically classified as that of someone who is experiencing addiction.