At Your Fingertips: The Rise of Pornography Addiction

While every generation may think it invented sex, pornography has been around since the first dirty pictures were scrawled onto cave walls. From Greek and Roman depictions of sex acts to the Kama Sutra to the erotically charged sculptures and frescos discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, visual representations of sexual activity have proliferated for thousands of years. However, the internet has forever changed access to pornography; once hidden away in private viewing rooms or confined to the top shelf at the magazine stand, you can now see virtually limitless amounts of porn, 24-hours a day, with a few clicks of a keyboard or taps on a screen anywhere with a WiFi connection. This instant access is contributing to the rise of debilitating pornography addiction that affects the lives of not only porn users, but their most intimate partners.

Establishing Tolerance

Isaac Abel, now in his 20s, began using pornography in early adolescence. As part of the first generation to grow up in a world with round-the-clock access to porn, his story is becoming all too common. What began as simple exploration quickly turned into a compulsive desire for more and more extreme pornography. In a bleak and honest essay for Salon, he writes:

I found myself rapidly desensitized to online images. If a threesome was kinky last week, then I’d need something wilder this week. To reach climax, I had to find that same toxic mix of shame and lust.

Just as addicts who use illicit substances need ever-increasing doses to attain the same high, pornography addicts find themselves devoting more and more time to looking at pornography in a process called escalation. You may devote hours to viewing porn, even to the detriment of social and professional obligations, and may be unable to resist watching in inappropriate environments, such as at work. Escalation is followed by desensitization, which leads you to seek out more extreme images to attain sexual release. You may even look for pictures and videos of scenarios that disgust or morally repel you, but the need to satisfy your overwhelming addictive drive overpowers your rational self. Once the elation dissipates, you are often left with feelings of shame, regret, self-loathing, and confusion, vowing to never do it again, promising yourself you will change. However, when the urge hits again you are unable to stop yourself from searching for the next rush.

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Psychological and Physical Dependency

Compulsive viewing of pornography can not only affect your behavior in relation to porn, but also damage your ability to have meaningful relationships and pleasurable sexual experiences with real partners. Abel writes:

I had trouble getting and maintaining an erection with the first three women I slept with. Was I more turned on by porn than by real women? I wouldn’t acknowledge it, but the majority of nights I had “good sex” I was intoxicated. And, what’s worse, I was fantasizing about porn during sex. It was a dissociative, alienating, almost inhuman task to close my eyes while having sex with someone I really cared about and imagine having sex with someone else or recall a deviant video […] that I was ashamed of.

Losing normal sexual function and establishing a psychological and physical dependency on pornography for arousal and performance are common effects of porn addiction. Through repeated exposure to pornographic imagery, your brain and body have been trained to associate sexuality with explicit photographs and videos rather than intimate physical interaction with another person. Even if you intellectually recognize that things are not as they should be, a potent cognitive and somatic response network has already been firmly established and you may feel powerless to fight it.

The Path of Destruction

If you are single, the inability to experience sexuality outside of porn can have devastating consequences for your ability to create lasting partnerships with others as you struggle to find satisfaction with real-life sexual encounters. If you already have a partner, your porn addiction can profoundly damage your existing relationship, leaving you unable to share healthy intimacy and creating pain, confusion, and anger. Some pornography addicts lose interest in actual sex because real people cannot live up to the hypersexual world of porn, either in behavior or appearance. This can happen even in existing long-term relationships that once included healthy and loving sexual activity. Meanwhile, other addicts transfer their pornographic fantasies to the real world, a phase called acting-out, in which compulsive porn users expect their partners to act out the scenarios they have seen on-screen. In a piece for New York Magazine, Amy Sohn describes the experience of Linda, whose live-in boyfriend, Steven, became addicted to porn:

His interest in sex skyrocketed. Soon after they moved in together, he became unemployed and started spending hours looking at porn, often saving clips on her computer because she had cable and he had only dial-up. Although Linda was coming home exhausted from her graduate program, Steven wanted to have sex three or four times a night, and would often editorialize during the act. ‘I’d be in the middle of [a sex act], and he’d say, “This is great, but this is how you could do it better,” and he’d pull out his laptop.’

If your current partner does not satisfy you, your addiction may drive you to seek out sex outside of your relationship, even to the detriment of your family, physical health, and long-term emotional well-being. An anonymous woman writing for NPR described the deterioration of her marriage as the result of her husband’s porn use:

He began to reject my sexual advances outright, claiming he just didn’t “feel love” for me like he used to, and lamenting that he thought of me “more as the mother of our children” than as a sexual partner. Then one morning around 2AM he called, intoxicated, from his office to announce that he had ‘developed feelings’ for someone new. The woman he became involved with was an unemployed alcoholic with all the physical qualities of a porn star — bleached blond hair, heavy makeup, provocative clothing, and large breasts.

The man in question was so overcome by his addiction and the sexual dysfunction it caused that he was no longer able to experience sex outside the world of porn; the loving wife with whom he shared a life and children could not compete with his dependency on pornographic imagery.

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Treating the Root of Your Addiction

Recognizing that you have a problem is the first step toward recovery. In the midst of addiction, you may feel powerless to change, but treatment is available and can help you untangle the complex psychological and physical compulsion towards porn. The earlier you seek help, the sooner you can find relief and minimize the damage porn is having on you and your loved ones.

While pornography addiction is a mental health disorder in its own right, it is often accompanied by depression or anxiety and requires specialized treatment to fully heal. You may have learned to use porn to relieve emotional distress, finding escape and pleasure in the world of erotic imagery. You may have turned to porn as a substitute for the real-life intimate experiences your depression or anxiety kept you from. When your addiction takes hold, however, your depressive and anxious symptoms often increase as the shame, isolation, and destructive effects of your pornography use emerge. In order to break the cycle of depression, anxiety, and porn addiction, it is critical that all components are treated simultaneously to ensure complete recovery. By seeking out comprehensive, co-occurring treatment, you can explore the roots of your pornography addiction and its relationship to your mental health disorder to end the cycle of suffering. The clinicians at Alta Mira have the expertise to help you take control of your porn use while developing the psychological stability and strength to rebuild your life. With compassionate care and effective therapies, you can restore your emotional and behavioral health and gain the ability to form meaningful, intimate relationships with others while enjoying newfound confidence and joy.


Alta Mira offers the highest standard of care for people suffering from process addictions including pornography addiction, and co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one on the path to recovery.