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Why Is Porn So Addictive? 4 Reasons It’s Tough to Resist

Last Updated: September 9, 2021

Keith Rose

Keith Rose holds a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary and a BA in Sacred Music from Moody Bible Institute. Keith worked with the Covenant Eyes Member Care Team for 15 years. During that time, he also served as a worship leader, Bible teacher, and pastoral assistant. He lives in Rexford, Montana with his wife Ruby.

Is porn really addictive? Why do so many people have a hard time quitting?

Meet Gary, a man financially ruined by pornography. “[He] acquired a new computer and internet access last Christmas. By February, he had spent over $100,00 on internet pornography and maxed out his credit cards, several of which were newly acquired.”¹

Amy tells her story. “Four years into my marriage I was buried in guilt and shame due to a porn addiction that no one (including my husband) knew about. The secrecy was killing me inside. Every single day I wished I could stop, but I didn’t know how. Day after day I promised myself that ‘today will be the last day,’ but that always proved to be false.”

One commenter on our website shared, “I’ve dug a HUGE hole for myself with this masturbation problem and pornography addiction. It’s affecting my concentration and, most importantly, my spiritual life.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. At Covenant Eyes we hear from thousands of people—men and women, married and single, young and old. That’s a lot of people who want to quit porn. Let’s look at the question of whether porn is addictive, why that is, and what steps can be taken to get free.

Porn may feel addictive, but is it really an addiction?

In 2004, psychologist Dr. Judith Reisman testified before the United States senate that porn is an “erototoxin.”2 By this she meant that porn is a sexually poisonous substance—addictive, toxic, and deadly.

But not everyone agrees that porn is destructive.  Many feel that looking at porn everyone once in a while is perfectly normal and harmless. Aren’t the people worried about porn just a bunch of religious prudes?

Actually, they’re not!

The online forum NoFAP was started for people who want to want to quit porn—by an atheist. It now has over 850,000 members from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds.3 They all recognize the power of porn addiction and the benefits of breaking free.

Still, there’s significant debate about whether it should be called porn “addiction” or not. A lot of naysayers reject the label.

But if you’re stuck, what you call it doesn’t make a lot of difference. You can’t break the hold of porn on your life. Regardless of the consequences, you keep turning back to porn again and again. People like Gary, Amy, and hundreds of thousands of others know firsthand what it’s like to come under the power of this addictive poison. What gives it this power? Can it be broken? 

The Main Reason Porn is So Addictive

For some, it’s hard to understand the pull of porn.

“If you don’t like it don’t look at it!”

In truth, even most people who are addicted don’t understand why they’re addicted. What is it about porn that makes it so hard to quit? The short answer is “the brain.”

In The Porn Circuit, Sam Black explains the “neuro-cocktail” of chemicals in the brain that are involved when a person has sex.4 Here’s a short summary of the chemicals at work:

  • Dopamine is a chemical that sharpens your focus and gives a sense of craving. It creates the “gotta-have-it” sensation.
  • Norepinephrine creates alertness and focus. It is the brain’s version of adrenaline. It tells the brain, “Something is about to happen, and we need to get ready for it.”
  • Oxytocin and vasopressin help to lay down the long-term memories for the cells. They “bind” a person’s memories to the object that gave him or her sexual pleasure.
  • Endorphins are natural opiates that create a “high,” a wave of pleasure over the whole body.
  • After sexual release serotonin levels also change, bringing a sense of calm and relaxation.

That’s a lot going on in the brain, isn’t it? All these chemicals occur naturally when a person has sex, and the combination makes you feel GREAT. Porn activates the same chemical system. But of course, it’s not real sex. Porn overloads the brain’s natural capacity for sexual enjoyment. It leaves the viewer unsatisfied and craving more. The chemicals at work in our brain during porn use are the biggest reason it’s so addictive. 

Neuroscientist Dr. Donald Hilton says, “[P]ornography is a triple hook, consisting of cortical hypofrontality, dopaminergic downgrading, and oxytocin/vasopressin bonding. Each of these hooks is powerful, and they are synergistic.”5

Put more simply, the mixture of these chemicals activated by porn cause three problems: brain shrinkage, cravings, and chemical bonding. Working together, they create a powerful impulse to look at porn. Let’s briefly look at each.

Brain Shrinkage (Cortical Hypofrontality)

What neuroscientists call “cortical hypofrontality” is a kind of brain shrinkage. Cambridge researcher Dr. Valerie Voon found that the brains of porn addicts look a lot like the brains of drug addicts, both displaying similar damage to the frontal lobe.6

What exactly is shrinking? Specifically, it’s the part of your brain that makes rational decisions. It’s the part of the brain that puts the breaks on things that feel good but are actually harmful.

That means the more porn you watch the harder it is to make rational decisions regarding porn. The thinking part of your brain knows that you need to do homework, but the feeling part of your brain tells you that you need porn NOW. So much for sleep. The thinking part of your brain tells you that going to porn sites at work will get you fired, but the feeling part of your brain tells you that porn is more important than your job. So much for your paycheck.

Cravings (Dopaminergic Downgrading)

Dopamine is the chemical in our brains that makes us want things. It’s important because it fuels any kind of motivation—whether for food, sex, or success. When the dopamine production system is hijacked, it can result in cravings.

In his popular TED talk, Gary Wilson explains how porn, particularly the unlimited variety of internet porn, causes unnatural surges in dopamine that overwhelm the brain. When this happens, the dopamine receptors are desensitized. The same things that used to bring pleasure are no longer satisfying—often leading to riskier and risker behaviors.

Chemical Bonding (Oxytocin/Vasopressin Bonding)

When oxytocin and vasopressin are released in sex, they create a deep biological “bond” between the partners. When someone looks at porn, these chemicals form a bond with the pixels on the screen. The more porn is viewed, the stronger the bond.

Psychologist and addiction expert Dr. William Struthers writes in his book, Wired for Intimacy:

Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set the course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. They become the automatic pathway through which interactions with women are routed. The neural circuitry anchors this process solidly in the brain.7

Together, this combination of chemicals in the brain makes porn an intoxicating experience and keeps you going back for more.

3 More Reasons People Are So Addicted to Porn

Not everyone who looks at porn is addicted, but data indicates staggeringly high numbers of porn use:

  • 28,258 users are watching pornography every second.
  • $3,075.64 is spent on porn every second on the internet.
  • 1 in 5 mobile searches are for porn.

(See more data in Covenant Eyes Porn Stats).

What percentage of people viewing porn are porn addicts is difficult to determine. But trends indicate that addictive/unwanted porn usage is on the rise. In addition to the intoxicating pleasure response of the brain, there are at least three other factors that contribute to porn addiction.

1. The Triple-A Engine

One of the main things driving the sharp increase of porn addiction is what psychologist Dr. Alvin Cooper called the “triple-A engine.” Internet porn is accessible, affordable, and anonymous.8

Dr. Cooper recognized these characteristics of internet porn back in the dial-up days, years before everyone had a smartphone in their pocket with a high-speed internet connection. His triple-A engine was a hamster wheel compared to the jet-fueled porn machine we have today!

These factors make it very easy for anyone to slip into a porn-watching habit. There’s a low barrier to entry—anyone can find it, anyone can afford it, and nobody has to know about it. The triple-A engine alone can be enough to trap people in porn. But there are two other factors as well.

2. Early Exposure

Early exposure is one of the most significant determiners of porn addiction. Children are being exposed to porn at an early age, when their brains are in a highly impressionable stage of development, often before puberty. Covenant Eyes author John Fort writes:

The sad reality for nearly every adult who struggles with porn is that their compulsive porn use started in childhood. In the more than two decades I that have been working with hundreds of men and women trying to overcome pornography addiction, I have met only one who did not first start using pornography as a child.

50% of men and 10% of women who are exposed to pornography as children will develop an addiction.9 One study found the average age of first exposure is just eleven years old! This tells us an increasing number of people are being exposed at very young ages, setting the stage for a lifelong addiction.10 

3. Trauma

Licensed mental health counselor Jay Stringer says that people who have experienced trauma or abuse are more likely to be addicted to porn. Additionally, those who suffer from other trauma or who experience deep shame have a greater likelihood of addiction.

These traits do not describe every porn addict. But someone who has one or more of these characteristics is much more vulnerable to porn addiction. Not only does this help us understand the causes of porn addiction, but understanding what makes people vulnerable can be a helpful tool in the recovery process.

So, am I addicted to porn?

We’ve established various reasons why porn is so addictive. The next natural questions are 1) am I addicted? and 2) what do I do about it?

To help address the first question of “Am I addicted to porn?,” sex addiction therapist Dr. Peter Kleponis gives 6 symptoms of porn addiction. Here’s the cliff notes version:

  • Feeling High. “I feel great when I use pornography.”
  • Feeling Tolerant. “A little bit of kink or violent stuff is fine.”
  • Feeling Angry. “I get upset if I can’t watch porn.”
  • Feeling Risky. “I’ll do anything to watch porn.”
  • Feeling Like a Slave. “The urge to watch porn consumes me.”
  • Feeling Helpless. “My life is out of control.”

Notice the progression. This “gotta-have-it” feeling can leave you feeling angry or depressed when you don’t get your fix. The “high” that porn brings initially tends to decrease over time. Trying to recapture the great feelings of porn can lead a person to delve into more extreme kinds of porn.

It can lead people to take more and more risks, such as watching porn at work or even seeking out illegal porn. In their book The Porn Trap, sex therapists Wendy and Larry Maltz give a simplified list of three key indicators of porn addiction:

  1. Do you crave porn intensely and persistently?
  2. Do you find you can’t control your urges to look at porn, and fail when you try to stop?
  3. Do you continue looking at porn despite facing negative consequences?11

If you can relate with these feelings about porn, you’re likely dealing with an addiction. Once you recognize the problem, you can move on to the next question.

Is it actually possible to stop watching porn?

The good news is that porn addiction can be beaten. At Covenant Eyes we hear stories every day of those who overcome porn.

We’re committed to equipping people who want to quit porn with the tools and education they need for recovery. You install our app on your devices, and we send reports of your activity to a trusted friend you choose, who can help you stay on track.

We’ve also written a ton of great resources to help you on your freedom journey. I recommend starting here:

If you’re someone who’s hooked on porn, I hope you’ll take advantage of these powerful resources! Join the many who have found lasting freedom from porn.


¹Mark Laaser, Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, 32.

² Judith Reisman, “The Science Behind Pornography Addiction,” U.S. Senate Committee
on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, November 18, 2004.

3 https://nofap.com/about/us/

4 Sam Black, The Porn Circuit.  

5 https://salvomag.com/article/salvo13/slave-master

6 https://fightthenewdrug.org/cambridge-neuroscientist-valerie-voon-porn-drug-addict-brain/

7 William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain, 85.

8 Al Cooper, Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force.

9  Wendy and Larry Maltz, The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography, 44.

10 https://psychcentral.com/blog/sex/2013/05/the-prevalence-of-porn#1

11 The Porn Trap, 92.

  • Comments on: Why Is Porn So Addictive? 4 Reasons It’s Tough to Resist
    1. steven on

      Even without using electronic devices, how do You stop imagining those images in Your mind?

      Reply
      • Keith Rose on

        Great question Steven! The first step is to stop bringing porn images into your mind—and be vigilant to avoid looking at things that may be triggering, or that may remind you of things you’ve seen in the past. Books, magazines, music—anything triggering needs to go. Second, it’s not enough to stop the bad stuff from coming in, you need to replace it with good and wholesome things to think on. Fill your mind with good images by engaging in healthy activities. To help with this, we’ve written an ebook called Hobbies and Habits that I think you’ll find encouraging. It’s free to download!

        Blessings,

        Keith

      • Kenny Haws on

        Even though I haven’t been looking at porn for quite awhile, several months and even 7 years while in prison I still have very vivid images in my mind that still cause me problems with the desire to want to view it to this day. How does one get these images out of his/her mind???? I want to be able to have a normal life and sex life with hopefully my next lifetime partner but with the above problem I am afraid to even ask a woman for a date much less to be my lifetime partner!!!!!

      • Keith Rose on

        Great question! Porn leaves a powerful impression on our brains that doesn’t go away overnight. However, you can be free of these thoughts and have your desires reshaped. Our good friend Noah Filipiak just wrote about this here. Noah talks about how God can not just help you be free from porn, but can actually reshape your desires. You see, quitting porn isn’t so much about a white-knuckled grip on sexual sobriety (“dry drunks,” to use a comparison from AA), it’s about replacing what’s bad with things that are good. This can take time, but it’s absolutely possible! We wrote an ebook called Hobbies and Habits that’s all about replacing bad habits with good habits.

        When you look at porn, the chemical release tells your brain “this is really important!” and the images are burned into your memory. Many people share the experience of images that are stuck in their heads from porn they saw years or even decades ago. You can’t just make this go away, but with time and consistent effort, you can train yourself not to go there. When these thoughts start to fill your head, start doing something else that engages your attention. If you’re a Christian, it’s good to memorize some passages of Scripture, like Romans 12:1-3 or 2 Corinthians 10:1-6. Fill your mind with other things! (not a bad idea even if you’re not!) The point is, if you’re going to get porn out of your mind, you need to put something better in there.

        The best replacements are things that involve other people—porn is something that isolates us and separates us from reality. You need to be reconnected, and that’s going to prepare you for healthy romantic relationships. I encourage you to find an ally who can help and encourage you. This is somebody you can text or call when these images start coming into your mind. It’s really the same thing as fighting against porn addiction—you’re just further along in the fight than most.

        Blessings,

        Keith

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