Defeat Lust & Pornography Why Is Porn Addictive?
Defeat Lust & Pornography 12 minute read

Why Is Porn Addictive?

Last Updated: May 1, 2024

Why do so many people have a difficult time quitting porn? Porn addiction isn’t recognized as an official diagnosis by the medical community, but according to one 2019 study, up to 11% of men and 3% of women surveyed identified as porn addicts.1 At Covenant Eyes, we hear from thousands of people—men and women, married and single, young and old, who consider themselves addicted.

What causes this addiction? Pornography activates pleasureful chemicals in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin, and endorphins. For some, repeated exposure can lead to addiction.

Article at a Glance:

  1. Is It Really Addictive?
  2. The Main Reason Porn Is So Addictive
  3. Why Some People Are More Susceptible to Porn Addiction
  4. Am I Addicted to Porn?
  5. Is It Possible to Break Free From Addiction?

Is it really addictive?

In 2004, psychologist Dr. Judith Reisman testified before the United States Senate that porn is an “erototoxin.”By this, she meant that porn is a sexually poisonous substance—addictive, toxic, and deadly. That’s strong testimony to the negative impact porn can have on people’s lives. Many other experts have taken up the warning about pornography addiction.

Not everyone agrees with Dr. Reisman’s assessment. In fact, the medical community does not currently recognize the diagnosis of pornography addiction. Nonetheless, even most skeptics acknowledge that for some people, pornography use has gotten out of control. “Problematic porn consumption” is the study of out-of-control porn habits.

Pornography statistics indicate that watching pornography is a problem for significant numbers of people.   

 Here are some examples of what this looks like, shared by our members and readers: 

“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.”

“I need help to quit porn, I tried many times and all failed.”

“I am married and have struggled with lust for as long as I can remember and crave porn like a drug addict. I watch it while masturbating or shortly thereafter and feel filthy afterwards, but I keep going back and back…hardest thing in the world to quit.”

The Main Reason Porn Is Addictive

Setting aside the “addiction” controversy, let’s look at the main reason that people struggle to stop watching porn. It comes down to the brain’s response to sexual imagery combined with the unique opportunities of modern technology. Author Sam Black explains the “neuro-cocktail” of chemicals activated in the brain by pornography.3

  • 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.

This is how porn affects the brain. These chemicals all occur naturally with any kind of sexual arousal. But digital pornography offers something highly unnatural that our brains weren’t designed to handle: easy access and endless novelty. It’s what neuroscientist Dr. Donald Hilton calls a “supranormal stimulus.”4

The Triple-A Engine

Psychologist Dr. Alvin Cooper identified the “triple-A engine” of internet pornography that drives addiction. Online porn is accessible, affordable, and anonymous.5

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 could be enough to trap someone in a vicious porn cycle.

The Triple Hook

Dr. Donald Hilton gives a more technical look at how this causes porn addiction. He 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.6

Put more simply, porn causes three problems: brain shrinkage, cravings, and chemical bonding. Working together, they create an addictive 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.7

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 brakes 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.

Cravings (Dopaminergic Downgrading)

We already noted that 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.

The unlimited variety of porn causes unnatural surges in dopamine that can 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 riskier 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.“8

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

Why Some People Are More Susceptible to Porn Addiction

Addiction is never simple, and there are often many factors involved. But several factors make some people more susceptible than others to addiction.

1. Early Exposure

Early exposure is one of the most significant determiners of porn addiction. Tragically, children are being exposed to porn at an early age, often before puberty, when their brains are in a highly impressionable stage of development. Author and speaker 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 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.”

Research shows 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 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 

2. 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. And this often plays a role in the third factor below.

3. Attachment Wounds

Neglect and loneliness can likewise leave people emotionally needy and vulnerable to the false intimacy promised by porn. Dr. Gregory Popkack is an expert in attachment theory and its implications for pornography addiction. He argues that the root cause of unwanted porn use and addiction can be found in attachment wounds:

“The degree to which a person has a hard time avoiding pornography, or the degree to which a person has that compulsive relationship with pornography… tends to be the degree to which they are experiencing deeper attachment wounds.”

Understanding Secure Attachments

Before we can understand “attachment wounds,” we need to know what healthy attachment looks like. Dr. Popcak explains:

“The degree to which a parent consistently, generous, and even cheerfully responds to their child’s needs teaches the child, ‘Oh, I can turn to this person to get my needs met.’”

There, attachment has to do with where you turn to meet your needs. A secure attachment to a primary caregiver shapes the way the child sees the world and relationships. It makes them trusting and teaches them to see human connection as a good thing.

Understanding Attachment Wounds

So what are attachment wounds?

First, if your parents make you work to have your needs recognized, if you feel from a young age that you have to prove the legitimacy of your needs, then you develop attachment wounds, also known as “insecure attachments.” Dr. Popcak says:

“[Insecure attachments] set you up in adult relationships to find people who can’t really love you the way you want to be loved… ‘If I can just push the right button and pull the right lever, I can get that person to be loving in the way I want them to be.’”

These insecure attachment styles develop when parents neglect emotional needs. Although physical needs may be met, emotional needs are suppressed. The focus is on outward achievement.

Dr. Popcak continues, “People with insecure attachments don’t have the neural framework for intimate relationships.” They find themselves unable to enjoy deep and meaningful relationship intimacy. This makes them extremely vulnerable to pornography addiction. (Learn more in our podcast with Dr. Popcak).

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?

In their book The Porn Trap, sex therapists Wendy and Larry Maltz point to 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 to these feelings about porn, you may be dealing with an addiction. For a more in-depth assessment, check out our article, “Am I Addicted to Porn?” Once you recognize the problem, you can move on to the next question.

Is It Possible to Break Free From Addiction?

The good news is that porn addiction can be beaten. At Covenant Eyes, we hear stories every day of those who overcome porn. I recommend starting here: How to Quit Porn: 6 Essential Steps, by porn recovery expert Dr. Doug Weiss. You may also find it helpful to seek out a counselor for porn addiction.

When you install the Victory app on your devices, we send reports of your activity to a trusted friend you choose, who can help you stay on track. It also comes with counselor-reviewed courses that guide you along your freedom journey. 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.


¹Joshua B. Grubbs, Shane W. Kraus, & Samuel L. Perry, “Self-reported addiction to pornography in a nationally representative sample: The roles of use habits, religiousness, and moral incongruence,” Journal of behavioral addictions8 (2019): 88–93. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.7.2018.134

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

Sam Black, The Porn Circuit (Owosso: Covenant Eyes, 2013)https://learn.covenanteyes.com/porn-circuit/  

4 Donald Hilton Jr., “Pornography addiction – a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity,” Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology 3 (2013). https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767

5 Al Cooper, “Cybersex and sexual compulsivity: The dark side of the force,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 7:1-2 (2000): 1-3. DOI: 10.1080/10720160008400204

6 Donald Hilton Jr., “How Pornography & Drugs Changes Your Brain,” Salvo (2010), accessed August 23, 2021. https://salvomag.com/article/salvo13/slave-master

7 Valerie Voon, Thomas B Mole, Paula Banca, Laura Porter, Laurel Morris, Simon Mitchell, Tatyana R Lapa, Judy Karr, Neil A Harrison, Marc N Potenza, & Michael Irvine, “Neural correlates of sexual cue reactivity in individuals with and without compulsive sexual behaviours,” PloS one 9 (2014): doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419.

8 William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 85.

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

10 Robert Weiss, “The Prevalence of Porn,” PsychCentral, accessed August 23, 2021.  https://psychcentral.com/blog/sex/2013/05/the-prevalence-of-porn#1

11 The Porn Trap, 92.

  1. D

    Porn has been something thats been driving me really crazy.
    I totally agree with all you explanations here.
    I have sought ways, prayed and still praying. I know this is sin and I shouldn’t give heed to it, but it just beats me.
    Whenever I find myself in it, it ruins my days.
    I am totally determined to get it dealt with before a woman comes into my life.
    The discipline to abstain in certainly a spiritual battle – THAT MUST BE WON. Amen!
    The more we yield to good when the pressure comes, the weaker the tendency to yield to porn.
    Thanks for this great article.
    It has broaden my knowledge.
    God bless you.

  2. Cindy

    Our 15 year old son recently told us he has been looking at porn for the past ten months. He has agreed to only use the Internet when we are around (software is dowoadwd and passwords are changed) I ama biology teacher and found this brain article fascinating, what are your recomendations for a teen who cannot replace this addiction with a wife?

    • Hi Cindy,

      Great question. First, I would urge anyone reading this not to replace porn with a spouse—at least not in the sense where we expect a spouse to live up to our porn expectations. I assume you don’t mean that, of course, but wanted to make sure it was stated explicitly.

      First, from a biological perspective, it is important for anyone who is really hooked on porn to understand that just as sure as the brain can be hijacked by porn, the brain can also return to a more natural state. It is a very plastic organ. This article talks some about how that works and how to rewire your brain.

  3. K

    My partner has an addiction, we have the most amazing friendship, relationship but this sexual desire 24/7 just drives me crazy, its now causing heartache. I try to put the ‘positives’ of our relationship infront of this ugly senario but Im finding it hard to let it pass my mind.
    He takes any opportunity that I turn my back to revert to watching it, literally I jump in the shower, hes watching, i cook tea he watching, we watch it during intercourse too otherwise its not a desired result for him.
    Ive read so many forums, all say it gets harder before it gets easier. Do i really want to succumb to unhappiness and resent with this man I love so much??
    He was an unfaithful husband in his last relationship, it makes me wonder if it was because his ex wife didnt accept his addiction (should we accept it thou is my question) which drove him to seek alternative measures.
    Just reaching out for some extra advice please…..

    • Hi K,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your husband. I’m curious: have you conversed with your husband much about your feelings? How much does he know about your distain for this?

      You are right to be concerned. His behavior is not only an insult to you, but it is killing his libido. Porn is one of the foremost causes of impotence today. (From a brain-science perspective, what’s happening is your husband is desensitized to other pleasures, even sex, but is hyper-sensitive to porn.) I highly recommend you get a copy of this book (it’s free) and read it. It will help you wrap your mind around your husband’s problem.

    • tanja

      I understand excactly what you are going thru.my husband is also addicted.his ex girlfriend encouraged watching porn since she watched a lot herself.to me it feels like iam sharing my husband.i think it has gotten better with my husband,i dont think he watches as much as he used to,but he still does.i also sometimes think about leaving him because of that,but besides watching porn he is a very good husband

  4. j .Tolmie

    It is good to see that someone cares enogh to help curb such a problem that really cheapens A person attitude toward sex, I have had an adiction to looking a porn to reassure myself that my small amount of sexual interaction has been a minimal amount , I wish you luck in your fight againsed people poisoning there minds with this rubbish that makes people feel left behind if they don’t or haven’t participated , all crimes whether againsed there own body or for material gain are because people feel they have to cheat , lm not saying I have the answer, because everybody is different and very complex ,I only writing this to maybe help someone seeking advice which there seems to be very little kind regards j.

  5. anonymous

    I wish porn never excised its a horrible addiction and a bad habit

    • Artem

      This article is amazing. I myself am struggling with porn addiction. I started watching it when I was in 5th grade, I am now graduated and about to turn 20 years old. I’ve tried quitting many many times but always come back. Now I have a girlfriend and porn effects that and my life even more. I am dedicated to quit this chemical and physical dependence by doing alternative healthy things to fulfill what my brain desires. Thank you for the article, I’ll definitely be reading one of your books.

  6. Brad

    How does one break the cycle if all these things are against him?

    • Great question. Just as sure as these neurochemicals and transmitters are used to draw a man to porn, they are also used to draw a man to a real woman. Using the analogy of the Grand Canyon mentioned in the post: just like all canyons, ruts in the brain have been created by a process of erosion over time. Neural paths have been carved and those are not easily undone. BUT what can happen is NEW paths can be created. NEW habits can be formed to replace old ones.

      You might really enjoy reading our book, The Porn Circuit. The book talks at length about why porn is addictive. Men and women who immerse themselves the plan outlined in this book, with a personal hope for freedom, will begin a process of change that can create within them positive desires, fresh competence, and steadfast willpower. The old mental ruts will remain, but can be ignored for new positive habits.

    • Tom

      Take Zoloft. I’ve had zero urge for sex ever since I started it.

  7. JT

    When a man stops watching pornography and relys only on their spouse for all sexual experiences, how long does it take for oxytocin and vasopressin releases to then “bind” him to his spouse?

    • Right away. New neural circuits are created and strengthened in each sexual encounter. This does not mean the old neural circuits go away. They still remain, but new ones are formed. Dr. William Struthers likens this to a Grand-Canyon-like gorge that is carved in the mind after years of watching porn: over time the movement of water and wind carved out the Grand Canyon, just like the repeated use of porn carves a rut in our minds. But we can go back up to the “water source,” if you will, and move that stream down the other side of the mountain to carve a new gorge: a.k.a. build intimacy with your spouse. Then the habit just needs to be reinforced with time and repetition. The old ruts in the brain might not lessen to any great degree, but someone can build the habit of choosing the “good rut” over the bad.

  8. Michael

    Anonimo, sorry, but there is a very good reason why “heartache” is called that. Our human souls are located in the brain and heart. Research it.
    That’s one of millions of useful things my God taught me. ;D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related in Defeat Lust & Pornography

Editor's Picks

A group of elementary-age children watching a video on a phone.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

When I Was Eight, a Classmate Told Me Porn Was Cool

Unfortunately, I started watching pornography at a very young age. I started…

3 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

A support group for men.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

Porn Addiction Support Group: How to Find Help When You Need It

For many struggling with porn addiction, a support group is the difference…

5 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

A thoughtful man looking at a computer screen.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

Am I Addicted to Porn? 12 Signs of Porn Addiction

Despite decades of research, porn addiction remains a questionable diagnosis in the…

7 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

Close-up portrait of male student with head on knees sitting by wall in college

Defeat Lust & Pornography

My Sin Owned Me

I have long struggled with lust, first giving in to pornography as…

4 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

A young boy praying in a Catholic church.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

I Was an Altar Boy Addicted to Porn

Since I was young, I’ve battled with a deeply personal struggle: pornography…

4 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

A young man embracing his wife.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

I Overcame My Fear of Abandonment

My struggles have been with pornography, masturbation, fanaticizing, objectifying, and lying. It…

3 minute read

Read Post

Related in Defeat Lust & Pornography

A group of elementary-age children watching a video on a phone.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

When I Was Eight, a Classmate Told Me Porn Was Cool

Unfortunately, I started watching pornography at a very young age. I started…

Unfortunately, I started watching pornography at a very young age. I started when I was eight years old. I was introduced to it by a classmate who claimed that it was a cool thing to…

3 minute read

0 comments

A support group for men.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

Porn Addiction Support Group: How to Find Help When You Need It

For many struggling with porn addiction, a support group is the difference…

For many struggling with porn addiction, a support group is the difference between success and failure. When porn addiction takes hold, it drives people into shame and isolation. We don’t want to talk about struggles…

5 minute read

0 comments

A thoughtful man looking at a computer screen.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

Am I Addicted to Porn? 12 Signs of Porn Addiction

Despite decades of research, porn addiction remains a questionable diagnosis in the…

Despite decades of research, porn addiction remains a questionable diagnosis in the medical community. But there’s no question that thousands of people struggle unsuccessfully to quit pornography. If you’re concerned that you may be addicted…

7 minute read

0 comments

Close-up portrait of male student with head on knees sitting by wall in college

Defeat Lust & Pornography

My Sin Owned Me

I have long struggled with lust, first giving in to pornography as…

I have long struggled with lust, first giving in to pornography as a 6th grader. As I approach my junior year of college, I see the destruction that my addiction has caused and the further…

4 minute read

0 comments

A young boy praying in a Catholic church.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

I Was an Altar Boy Addicted to Porn

Since I was young, I’ve battled with a deeply personal struggle: pornography…

Since I was young, I’ve battled with a deeply personal struggle: pornography and masturbation. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this addiction took hold of me, but that first encounter remains etched in my memory.…

4 minute read

0 comments

A young man embracing his wife.

Defeat Lust & Pornography

I Overcame My Fear of Abandonment

My struggles have been with pornography, masturbation, fanaticizing, objectifying, and lying. It…

My struggles have been with pornography, masturbation, fanaticizing, objectifying, and lying. It started after dealing with intense feelings of loneliness following my graduation from college and first job in ministry. I was spending a lot…

3 minute read

0 comments