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Is Porn “Addiction” an Accurate Term?

Last Updated: February 13, 2024

Does the term pornography addiction appear in any diagnostic manuals? The answer is no. Currently, there is debate as they prepare the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), as to whether they should include sexual addiction. The term addiction is not used even with alcohol and drugs. The terms used are substance dependence and substance abuse. So with pornography or even sex, we would not use the word sex dependence or sex abuse.

So clearly, pornography addiction would not be used in the DSM.

Understanding the Term “Addiction”

Let me address the term “addiction.” It has been used for many decades and is often associated with drugs and alcohol by general public and even professionals. However, there is much debate about what an addiction is and what it is not. Today we have a much clearer picture of what drugs and alcohol do to the brain. For example, in his book The Science of Addiction, Carlton K. Erickson wrote the following:

“The popular term addiction is a common part of every person’s vocabulary. How often we hear, ‘I love that so much, I’m addicted to it’ or ‘I guess I’m hopelessly addicted to it.’ Addiction used in this way is colloquial and not scientific.”

Dr. Erickson contends that the word addiction is often misused. Quoting from his book, he writes,

“In the pain management area of medicine, there has been a large gap in the understanding of ‘addiction.’ To address this, a working group jointly created by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Pain Society, and the American Academy of Pain Medicine developed a definition that attempts to bridge the gap between pain specialists and addiction specialist.”

Defining Addiction

So exactly what is addiction? According to Savage, Joranson and Covington (2003), “Addiction is a primary, chronic, neurobiological disease, which is genetic, psychosocial, and [inclusive of] environmental factors . . . it is characterized by behaviors that include one or more of the following: impaired control over drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm and craving.”

Another author, quoting from Dr. Carlton K. Erickson, has long defined addiction as a biopsychosocial disorder characterized by compulsive use of a drug; obsession and preoccupation with the drug; loss of control while using more than intended, despite conscious efforts to control use; high risk of frequent episodes of relapse after abstinence; and serious consequences due to use and continued use despite the consequences (p.5).

So the questions that we must ask ourselves are these:

  • Can people lose control viewing pornography?
  • Can someone use it more than intended despite conscious efforts to control its use?
  • Do those who want to quit experience a high risk of relapse after staying away from it?
  • Can there be serious consequences due to its continued use (e.g. losing a job or marriage)?
  • Can pornography consumption become compulsive?
  • Can people develop a craving for pornography?

The answer to these questions will provide us with a good starting point to have a dialogue about whether pornography is addictive.

So let’s look at each of these points above.

  • “Can people lose control viewing pornography?” Certainly someone who is willing to risk a job or lose a spouse would fit into the category of losing control viewing pornography.
  • “Can someone use it more than intended despite conscious efforts to control its use?” Individuals often report to me that they have a strong desire to stop, yet they still lose control.
  • “Do those who want to quit experience a high risk of relapse after staying away from it?” The answer to that is yes: just ask anyone who has tried to quit after years of viewing pornography.
  • “Can there be serious consequences due to its continued use (e.g. losing a job or marriage)?” There is clear evidence from divorce attorneys and employers that pornography is influencing work and marital relationships.
  • “Can pornography consumption become compulsive?” Ask any individual who’s attempted or is attempting to stop viewing pornography after years of consumption and it is obvious that it can become compulsive behavior.
  • “Can people develop a craving for pornography?” While some may argue no, that they do not experience cravings. Those who’ve been involved with pornography report that they experience cravings.

Considering the list of questions above, it seems pornography has many of the similar behavioral traits associated with drug or alcohol addiction.

My Experience Treating Porn Addiction

Do I feel that some people are addicted to porn? Based upon my clinical work, the hundreds of clients that I have met with, and the traits associated with substance dependence, I would say that pornography can be addictive.

The term “addiction,” while it may not be used with drugs or alcohol in a diagnostic manual, it is used by common laypeople such as medical doctors and many professionals. It is also important to note that when people type in terms on search engines they use words like sexual addiction, porn addiction, and addiction.

During the month of June 2009, 60,500 people typed in the words “sexual addiction”; 22,000 entered “porn addiction”; and 6,120,000 typed “addiction” on Google. Clearly, these terms are being used. While I agree that the term “addiction” is misused and misunderstood, I believe that people are losing sight of the outcomes of the behavior associated with pornography.

So why do I use this terminology? Because people use this term and it reaches out to those who truly are struggling to stop the pornography addiction. If you have read my book, you will see that I don’t like to say that someone is either addicted or not. I prefer to see behavior on a continuum; I believe that is a much more effective way to look at pornography consumption.

  1. After 17 years of marriage, I recently found out that for 7 to 9 years of my marriage my husband has a pornography “addiction”. I guess it must be serious when the FBI and Homeland Security raid his place of employment and take his computer in to custody. His fetish was teen porn.. or as he so says in a cavalier tone, teen girls in various stages of undress and sexual positions. Sick SIck Sick… so fundamentally wrong that I cannot get my head around it. We had everything, careers, status, goals, luxuries, and a pretty good marriage. I can tell you that his has been the worst time of my life. I have tried to support what his family and therapist call a “sickness”. I was told to look at it like cancer and that he needs treatment. I call B.S. on that line of thinking… one contracts cancer and does everything to kill it and survivie. He fed his “sickness” until it killed our marriage and the spirit of our 16 year old daughter. I have filed for a divorce, but oh how I wish I could go back to the day before I found out what my husband was doing behind my back and behind closed doors. He faces Federal charges and possible prison. Oh my Golly, how does this happen. I miss my husband and sometimes try to convince myself, I should just call him up and take him back..Then I realize, I am just lonely for my companion, bed mate (although we haven’t had sex in 3 years), my running buddy. So here’s hoping I made the right decision and that some day a nice guy, that doesn’t surf kid porn can fill my (ex) husbands big shoes. He was my world, now it’s me against the world, Hurt in Texas.

    • @Susanne – I am so sorry to hear your story. We’ve had many women who’ve commented on this blog who are experiencing varying degrees of pain because of their husbands’ use of pornography. I know giving advice or encouragement might seem trite that this point, but I do hope you look around our site and find some resources that might help you in this season of life. In particular, you might want to read a guest post by Anna who found herself in a similar, albeit not identical, situation. I wrote a post a while ago, “Porn in Marriage: Dealing with a Lying, Unrepentant Husband.” It might have some helpful links in it for you.

      I, for one, think the term “sickness” (when it comes to pornography addiction) can be misunderstood. Swine flu and addictions are both “diseases”, but not of the same order. Both have definite biological components. Both also have environmental components. But those with pornography addictions bear a certain kind of responsibility. If we use the word “sickness” to dismiss that responsibility, we have done an injustice.

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