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. Jamie

    I don’t why but everytime I finish having great and wonderful sex with my wife I always feel the need or rush to go on porn to have another orgasm. I don’t know why but it’s now become a habit I can’t break? Iam still performing for my wife but can’t stop looking at porn after love making.

    • Chris McKenna

      It sounds like a taught behavior. And, since the behavior is tied to sex, the brain is going to solidify that behavior in a hot second. Choose differently! You can.
      Chris

  2. Johnny

    Very good read and everything makes sense!

  3. Willie

    We’re can I buy these books

  4. clare

    Please will someone help me. My husband of 15 years is a porn addict. I had no idea. I found out in late July and the shock has been overwhelming; I have been in a fog of disbelief, anger, depression and desperation ever since. He started about 3/4 years into our marriage. He had a history of porn consumption as a boy/teenager (which, I, also didn’t know about). He seems to have a fetish for stockings/lingerie which led him into it. I did know that he had a problem with sex and we had tried to tackle it. He was diagnosed with low testosterone and had been to the doctors for patches etc. Eventually he gave up and turned to his old (first) love of porn instead. As seems to be common, his “addiction” escalated to the point where he was looking at homemade videos of sex with several men and one woman; often where the woman was questionably consenting. He was also looking at free-to-air TV channels. And masturbating to it all. We rarely had sex and when we did it was forced. He is now in therapy and seems desperate to change. But my lingering worry is that he will never be able to conquer it fully. So, my question is: are there any men out there who have kicked this habit for good? We have a three year old daughter. Right now the future seems so bleak for us both.

    • Kay Bruner

      Hi Clare,

      Well, it sounds like your husband is getting help, which is good. In my experience, even under the best of circumstances, recovery does take a while. And it’s about so much more than “not looking at porn”–it really is about him getting into his own pain and shame and working on that. Plus his willingness/ability to connect to you and build emotional trust in the relationship again. Here’s an article about building emotional trust.

      My husband is doing really well. It took probably 5 years before he felt like porn had lost its power over him. He’s at the place now where if he sees porn, he can say, “Not what I want in my life” and that’s the end of it. Here’s a bit of his story and his advice for recovery. You might like to read our free download, Hope After Porn, where several women share their stories in recovery.

      The one thing I would say to you is this: make sure you get help for YOU. So many women in this situation will meet the clinical criteria for PTSD, and so many women get very little help, since all the resources go into helping the husband and saving the marriage. There’s nothing wrong with helping the husband and saving the marriage! But don’t neglect your own recovery. Find a counselor, just for you, who can help you process your emotions and build healthy boundaries. Find a local support group. And check out the online resources at Bloom–there are forums, classes, and other recovery tools for you there.

      I hope your husband continues in recovery with all success! But, whatever he chooses, you choose to be healthy for you.

      Peace to you, Kay

  5. I'd imagine being deathly allergic to bees is a pretty big buzz kill.

    Since I was young I’ve wanted to be a woman and have pretty much always felt entirely wrong in my own skin as a a man. I don’t find sexual pleasure in watching porn but instead find myself watching porn fantasizing about looking as the porn stars do but without the sexual acts. I fantasize about being the opposite sex without the porn as well sometimes when I see women even out in public without any form of sexual connotation. Admittedly not as often or strongly as when I watch porn. Over the course of 5 years when I first started, I would watch porn sometimes up to 9 times a day fantasizing about being myself but as a woman similar to the women on the screen. Recently in my past relationship I’ve been unable to quit watching porn no matter how hard I try and it has completely destroyed it. Would it still be addictive or do I simply have poor impulse control?

    • Kay Bruner

      Hey there. I’d say if you’re having an experience around porn and sexuality that seems different from the norm, then you might want to talk to a counselor about that. And, if you’re wanting to stop watching and can’t and it’s destroying relationships, then I don’t know if it matters whether you define it as an addiction or poor impulse control! It’s just time to get some help. I’d start looking for a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT), since this is their specialty, and they’ll be able to help you sort through whatever it is and get on the road to recovery. Peace, Kay

  6. Dewinter Mellon

    I agree with the comments in this blog post. I would also like to add that much of Internet pornography that I’ve encountered depicts women as enjoying violence and abusive behavior. The sex in porn seems to be bordering on physical and sexual assault, and it doesn’t even have to be “extreme porn”. Just google “porn”, find a random porn site, and after a few clicks, you can find violence against women. Pornography seems to have a weird obsession with oppressing women. So many times I’ve encountered a man in a free online porn video who is holding the woman’s head while she’s performing fellatio, as if he wants to control the movement of her head, giving her less freedom to move freely. I never really understood how some men could get sexually aroused from seeing suffering, unless they interpret and rationalize the suffering as an expression of their sexuality.

    One thing that I would like to mention here is that the blogger may want to focus on men and women as consumers of pornography and take that with equal seriousness. While most porn consumers seem to be men, there are women that consume porn. In that light, one may wonder how some women can handle the grotesque nature of sexuality that porn has to offer.

    • Absolutely, Dewinter. There was a study done released in the journal Violence Against Women about the top-selling mainstream pornography. Of the hundreds of scenes viewed, 88% of scenes contained acts of physical aggression, and 49% of scenes contained verbal aggression. In 73% of the instances, men were the aggressors, and when women were the aggressors, most of the time they were being aggressive to another woman. In 95% of the scenes, the person receiving the aggression reacted neutrally or positively to it. Because pornography is a consumer-driven product, the lines between violence and consent are constantly being blurred.

      As for articles for women addicted to porn, I recommend you look here. This is a list of our most popular stuff for women.

    • reply guy

      depends in what you are searching for. there is a entire section of porn dedicated to femdom or dominant women. in this case the man is the submissive figure. and is oppressed.

    • Of course there’e niche porn on just about anything.

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