Most of us think of addiction as a possible consequence of using drugs or drinking alcohol. We may not realize that it’s also possible to become addicted to engaging in a behavior, such as watching and getting sexu­ally aroused with porn. Anyone can become addicted to any behavior that both produces pleasure and relieves painful feelings and emotions. Gambling, shopping, and using pornography are potentially addictive because all of them can function in this way.

As we discussed in chapter 1, using pornography can change your body and brain chemistry. It stimulates the pleasure centers of your brain and can trigger the release of a cascade of pleasurable hormones and chemicals—such as dopamine, endorphins, adrenaline, and oxyto­cin—that alter the way you feel. Some scientists have likened the changes in brain chemistry that occur when using pornography to those that occur when using cocaine. We also now know there are significant dif­ferences in the brain scans of people addicted to sex and porn compared to those who are not. There is compelling evidence that porn enters our bodies (through our eyes) and alters important biological systems just like drugs do.

Due to these neurobiological and body chemistry changes, addic­tive use of porn can change a person’s primary reasons for using it. You don’t just use porn to feel good, you use it because on some level your body has become accustomed to using it and now needs it. Addictions to any substance or behavior can be difficult to recognize because they often develop slowly over time and on a biological level. Just as we’re not aware of our cells building and dying, we’re not aware of the biological transformations that happen each time we are involved with porn. And for those of us who are more biologically prone to developing addictions, the problem is even more severe. Unfortunately, we don’t often discover whether we have a predisposition to addiction until we are solidly under the spell of one.

A good way to answer the question “Could I be addicted to porn?” is by evaluating your relationship with it. There are three key features that are present in people who engage in porn use addictively. Porn addicts:

1. Crave porn intensely and persistently,

2. Can’t control it and ultimately fail when they try to stop using, and

3. Continue to use it despite being aware of significant harmful consequences.

Craving—Can’t Control it—Continuing despite Consequences.

Thinking about the letter “C” can help you to remember these key features of porn addiction.

Being addicted to porn causes us to lose the ability to decide for our­selves whether, when, what, how, and how much of it we will consume. The substance dominates and calls the shots. Without realizing it, we can come to need it in order to feel good. As a teenager Rob developed the habit of masturbating daily to porn. He didn’t think of it as anything strange or compulsive, it was just something he liked to do and was used to doing every day.

What surprised Rob was how much he continued to crave porn even after he got married and had an active and exciting sex life with his wife. In his words: “Even though we were having sex nearly every day, I still needed my porn fix. Instead of buying magazines, I switched over to going to adult bookstores. They had these little booths with porn films, so I’d pop my quarters in there. No matter how much sex my wife and I had, I still needed the vicarious thrill and stimulation of watching porn to satisfy me.”

Marie began using porn regularly after her husband died. It started out as a way to distract herself from her grief, but soon became some­thing she couldn’t do without every night after putting her kids to sleep. “Watching Internet porn began as a natural thing but quickly turned into a compulsion. It became a craving, like a drug. It felt unnatural if I didn’t look at porn in the evening.”

As part of their craving, porn users often develop their own ritu­als for obtaining, storing, and spending time looking at porn. Checking favorite Web sites for new pictures every day, stopping off after work to visit an adult bookstore, or getting up in the middle of the night to watch porn, can become routine behaviors that people develop and feel they need. Satisfying cravings for porn can become so important that it takes priority over meeting work, relationship, and family responsibilities, or taking good care of one’s health. One man said, “Not only did I create opportunities to use porn, I used it whenever I had the opportunity.” People who are addicted to porn often experience that they’ve lost control over their behavior with porn when they try to manage the amount of time they spend with it. For example, another man told us he became worried when he tried to go a week without using porn, but he could only make it for three or four days.

Len is just recently becoming aware of how little control he has over his porn use. He told us, “Every now and then when I’m on the computer looking at porn I’ll think, I’ve gotten carried away. I’m spending too much time on this. I clear off the bookmarks and clear the addresses of the vari­ous sites from my computer. I clean it all up, all the pictures I had saved off the computer. But then shortly thereafter, maybe just a few days later I’ll think, I shouldn’t have done that. Then I go and put everything back on. I start over and download everything again from the Internet.”

Hector, a doctoral student, feels frustrated that he keeps turning to porn to deal with stress instead of focusing on handling the stress in a healthier way. He said, “I’ll have lots of work to do on my thesis, but in­stead I’ll go jerk off to porn. Afterward, I’ll notice how much time went by and wonder, Why the hell did I do that?”

Sometimes the failure to control porn use shows up as difficulty con­trolling the amount and types of porn being consumed. As we’ve dis­cussed earlier, habitual porn users often become accustomed to one type of porn and then need to watch something more extreme to get the same effect. This happens when your brain becomes less sensitive to the type of visual and chemical stimulation porn provides. Increasingly unusual and shocking material may be necessary for porn to “work.” Rob ex­plains, “I developed an increasing desensitivity to what was stimulating. I still found the women in Penthouses and Playboys attractive, but over time I needed more and more graphic and intense representations. Like with drugs, I needed more of it and in a stronger dose. My addiction pro­gressed from looking at nudity to simulated sex, to actual sex, to group sex, to lesbian sex, to anal sex, to teen sex. It was just like more and more and more. I lost control over where it went.”

One reason people who are addictively involved with porn have dif­ficulty controlling their porn use is because of the uncomfortable with­drawal process. Many people tell us they experience symptoms such as restlessness, depression, insomnia, and irritability when they try to go without porn. As one man shared, “I tried to quit it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t sleep and my body would shake. I’d think about how the girls in porn were being exploited, but I still couldn’t give it up. I felt miserable. I was trapped and unable to do anything about it.”

Justin realized he was addicted to porn when he kept using porn de­spite the fact that it had created serious sex problems in his marriage, caused his wife to divorce him, and was keeping him isolated from other people. Regardless of how much pain it brought, he found himself unable to stop. He said, “It was almost like a panic in some ways. Porn felt like my drug, and I needed my drug now. I tried to kick it, but I couldn’t. My urge to masturbate with porn just took over. It scared the hell out of me.”