Porn addiction doesn’t exist! At least, that’s the mantra of porn-harms science-deniers. In a frenzied attempt to cover up the harms of porn on the brain, a group of scientists are hell-bent on convincing people that porn addiction doesn’t exist.

Scientists in white coats by YouthWellbeing

Known as “Real Your Brain on Porn”, this group (or certain individuals who represent this group) go to great lengths to dismiss, minimise and publicly attack anyone who speaks up about the harms of porn. The name of this group sounds deceivingly similar to the world-renowned and well-respected “Your Brain on Porn” site, run by Gary Wilson. Gary was among the first to raise the alarm as to what regular porn use is doing to some brains in his 2012 TEDx talk, The Great Porn Experiment

Needless to say, Gary has received nothing but what can only be described as relentless harassment from this group. Why? Because he highlights the science that affirms addiction and other porn-related harms, phenomena observed by researchers, clinicians and therapists all over the world. Gary has even found himself having to defend his Your Brain on Porn trademark from those who actively seek to undermine his contributions. Additionally, those who speak out against porn harms are being forced to defend themselves through costly, drawn-out lawsuits and other public or legal battles.

For the sake of staying on point, I won’t detail the horrific antics because Gary has documented them here, here, here and here.

So is porn addiction real or not?

Given I’m not a neuroscientist or clinician, I will leave the explanation of what’s going on with the brain to the experts.

In 2016, Paula Hall, a leading expert in the field of sex and porn addiction, states:
Sex addiction is a real problem, but professionals can’t agree if addiction is the right name for it. Or if it should be called an impulse control disorder or hypersexuality or sexual compulsivity and a whole host of other names. And until we do get an accurate clinical diagnosis, chances are that doubts and misunderstandings will continue. But professionals do agree that more and more people are struggling with sexual behaviours that feel out of their control.

For most, that includes internet pornography, but for some, it’s also cybersex, visiting sex workers, cruising, multiple affairs, dating sites. The type of behaviour is not what defines it as an addiction, but the dependency on it. When we talk about alcohol addiction, we don’t differentiate between those who drink whiskey or beer or tequila. And alcohol addiction is defined as a dependency on alcohol to make life feel more manageable. And of course, there are lots of people who can drink alcohol recreationally—maybe even a little too much at times—but they don’t become dependent on it. You know you’re addicted to alcohol if it’s causing significant problems in your life, but in spite of those problems, you still can’t control your drinking or stop. And the same is true for those who become dependent on internet pornography or any other kind of sexual behaviour. The reason that many people prefer the name addiction, including myself, is because that’s actually how people who struggle with this say that it feels. It feels like an addiction. There’s also a growing body of research that is showing that compulsive pornography use impacts the brain in a very similar way to chemical dependencies … One only needs to read the comments from people at the bottom of Paula’s TEDx talk to see how relieved people are to gain understanding about a range of behaviours under the banner of “sex addiction”, of which, one is porn addiction.

When Dr Donald Hilton was asked in 2015, “Do you think porn addiction has been proven beyond doubt?”, he responded by saying: To me, the proof has been there for several years. 

This segment of the documentary, “Is free pornography destroying our brains?“, is very good at explaining the science and what is going on for consumers.

Sex addiction and porn addiction are an outworking of compulsive sexual behaviour, often incorrectly presumed to result due to some form of underlying trauma. However, Dr Rob Weiss has the following to say:

“For a long time, therapists treating sex and porn addiction found that all (or at least the vast majority) of their clients had deep and powerful underlying early-life trauma issues—neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, covert incest, etc. This put sex and porn addicts very much in line with alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, and the like. In fact, there is a large body of research showing unresolved early-life trauma to be a huge risk factor for later-life addiction (of all types).

Recently, however, sexual disorders therapists like myself have encountered a new and rapidly growing subcategory of sex and porn addicts. These are individuals who readily meet the criteria for sex and porn addiction but lack the underlying early-life trauma that typically drives an addiction.”

Gabe Deem, the founder of Reboot Nation, often describes this group of consumers as “opportunity addicts”. This is when someone develops porn addiction because they enjoy the content—then they develop emotional, social or mental health issues as a result of excessive porn use.

In addition to these expert accounts, to date, every neurological study published offers support for the addiction model (no studies falsify the porn addiction model). Our “go-to” papers and educational videos are listed hereApparently in reliance on such research, in 2019 the World Health organization adopted a diagnosis that can be used by those struggling with compulsive porn use. It’s called “Compulsive sexual behaviour disorder” (CSBD). More on that in a moment.

Tactical move: create doubt and confusion

Aside from doing all they can to deny the impacts of porn on the brain, porn-harms science-deniers typically create contention and unnecessary confusion around the supposed difference between “compulsive sexual behaviour” and “addiction”. Yet those suffering from compulsive behaviour are less concerned with labels and more concerned with getting help. The new CSBD diagnosis will make that help possible.

Interestingly, most of the research on which the world health experts relied upon when adopting “Compulsive sexual behaviour disorder” was done on internet pornography users. In adopting the new diagnosis, it’s clear that the experts were concerned about the potential impact of today’s pornography on users’ health.

So where does one get clarity?

When a person is struggling with the amount of porn they use or the impacts it’s having on their relationships, a starting point would be to assess their behaviours using the ICD-11 diagnostic tool that defines compulsive sexual behaviour disorder. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is produced by the World Health Organisation, a global health agency with a constitutional public health mission, while the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is produced by a single national professional association (in the U.S.). The DSM uses the ICD coding and was last updated in 2013. It’s already out of date in the fast-moving world of pornography research. The new ICD diagnosis is being used by academics, and others will incorporate it over time.

The ICD-11 states that compulsive sexual behaviour disorder is characterized by a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behaviour. Symptoms may include repetitive sexual activities becoming a central focus of the person’s life to the point of neglecting health and personal care or other interests, activities and responsibilities; numerous unsuccessful efforts to significantly reduce repetitive sexual behaviour; and continued repetitive sexual behaviour despite adverse consequences or deriving little or no satisfaction from it. The pattern of failure to control intense, sexual impulses or urges and resulting repetitive sexual behaviour is manifested over an extended period of time (e.g., 6 months or more), and causes marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Distress that is entirely related to moral judgments and disapproval about sexual impulses, urges, or behaviours is not sufficient to meet this requirement. 

While addiction is not mentioned in the definition and guidelines for diagnosing someone with compulsive sexual behaviour (CSB) disorder, a person with addictive sexual behaviours, including compulsive pornography use, would meet the above test.

Where can porn addicts find more information ... and hope?

There are several things someone can do when they recognise their consumption is out of control or bordering on porn addiction.

  1. Take a look at the ICD-11 definition of Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder and reflect on whether this could apply. Avoid the urge to try and self-diagnose, but this could be a useful yard-stick to start finding answers.
  2. Seek professional help from someone well-informed about behavioural addictions.
  3. Read about other people’s experiences. Great places to start are on forums such as NoFap and Reboot Nation – millions of people struggle with porn addiction, and online communities can help give hope and encouragement for those who previously felt they were alone. Who better to learn from than those who have recovered or are facing the same challenges!
  4. Get educated. There’s a whole list of informative sites on the Youth Wellbeing Project website, including links to research.
  5. Use filters, apps and recovery resources. Here’s a list to get started.
  6. Expand your understanding of why pornography is a public health crisis. Every click creates demand for exploitation, and porn sites are complicit in allowing child sexual exploitation material, revenge porn, rape and other non-consensual materials on their sites.
  7. If you have kids, it’s likely that you don’t want them to struggle with porn addiction so it’s important to reframe your understanding and pass on helpful information for their healthy sexual development. Visit the Culture Reframed Parents Program to help you build young people’s resilience and resistance.  Also, Porn Resilient Kids equips families for tricky conversations through educational resources and blogs, children’s books, resource links and a closed Facebook group.

If you are still confused, know this: The porn industry is well-aware that their content is addictive and they’ve been known to brag about it. If you are one of the millions who have been caught up in their targeted efforts to create life-long consumers, you are not alone and you can recover. I’m told that it is harder to kick than cigarettes, but the health benefits are overwhelmingly worth it.

Next time someone says porn addiction doesn’t exist, ask more questions, look behind the smokescreen, and form your own conclusion. The weight of the evidence does not favour the deniers. I’ll just keep educating and encouraging people to raise kids with skills for critical porn analysisuntil a new generation of scientists can all see through the industry’s smokescreen and add to our understanding of porn addiction. Currently, it’s a condition that impacts millions because of the unregulated industry that drives it.

If you or loved ones are struggling with pornography’s impacts, you need to know that you are not alone. Click through for educational information, resources and links to online support services. And if you are looking for a presenter, professional development, curriculum to deliver in schools, or support for families, visit Youth Wellbeing Project and send us an email.
Liz Walker

About Liz Walker

An accredited sexuality educator, speaker, author, Liz Walker is dedicated to culture-shifting initiatives that respond to pornography harms on children & young people.