Can Pornography Create
a “Drug Addiction?”
Mark B. Kastleman, BCC, BCPC
With mountains of ongoing evidence to the contrary, there’s a growing voice in psychology, therapy and even some clergy circles who question whether pornography is “addictive” or not. The overwhelming clinical data and visual evidence as millions continue their out-of-control porn use despite consequences of divorce, loss of employment, destroyed reputations, prison time, etc., shouts the obvious: “YES, THE WORLD IS FILLED WITH PORNOGRAPHY ADDICTS!”
Some cringe with labeling pornography as “addictive” because they believe doing so affords the porn user an excuse: “I can’t help myself, I’m addicted.” This is a preposterous position. When someone is addicted to alcohol, do we excuse his behavior because “he can’t help it?” Just because someone suffers with an addiction doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a choice.
As my colleagues and I have experienced in our own recoveries and counseling practices over several decades, there are tested and proven principles, processes and tools, which when used consistently over time, can help any individual permanently overcome porn addiction—or for that matter, any other addiction. There is always a choice when it comes to breaking free from addictive behaviors.
Is Pornography Use Substance Abuse?
The more important question is not “Is pornography addictive?” but rather, “Is pornography use substance abuse? Does pornography use lead to a chemical dependency commonly experienced with illicit street drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs? Is pornography use “substance abuse?”
Immediately, there are some in the scientific, medical and psychology fields who fire back, “How can you classify pornography as a drug or a substance? It doesn’t come in a liquid, powder or pill form. You don’t ingest or inject it.”
My response is two-fold:
When an individual ingests or injects a “drug,” that chemical travels to the receptors in the brain and other parts of the body, seeking to “mimic” the body’s own natural neurotransmitters. In effect, the drug tries to “fake” the body into releasing its own natural or endogenous chemicals. For example, Prozac triggers the body to release its own natural serotonin. Likewise, as you have seen from the funnel illustration, pornography “mimics” sexual intimacy and “fakes” the body into releasing a tidal wave of endogenous chemicals, which is exactly what pharmaceutical and illicit street drugs do. Can pornography not then be referred to as a “drug”?
For those who insist on precision in the use of scientific terms such as “drug,” allow me to put your minds at rest. Can we agree that pornography viewing triggers the release of the body’s own endogenous chemicals, just as sexual intimacy does? And that the porn viewer can become addicted to these internal chemicals just as he would if the release were triggered by a pharmaceutical drug? Is this not chemically-induced addiction?
Related: Brain Science of Porn Addiction
A Brain on Porn Looks Like a Brain on Drugs!
As renowned psychologist M. Douglas Reed states: Addiction [can] exist
within the body’s own chemistry. And Howard Shaffer, head of Harvard’s
Division on Addiction declares:
"I had a great difficulty with my own colleagues when I suggested that a lot of addiction is the result of experience—repetitive, high-emotion, high-frequency experience. . . . But it’s become clear that neuroadaptation—that is, changes in neural circuitry that helps perpetuate the behavior—occurs even in the absence of drug-taking."
One of the world’s leading researchers in the field of pornography as a drug addiction is Dr. Judith Reisman. For decades she has worked closely with some of the best minds in neuroscience and neuropsychology to prove that pornography should indeed be considered a drug, a chemical dependency, a form of substance abuse. Consider some powerful statements from her and her colleagues in a widely published research paper:
A pornographic psychopharmacological flood yields epinephrine, testosterone, endorphins (endogenous morphine), oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, phenylethylamine, and other pharmacological stimuli. In her book published by the Institute of Medicine, Sandra Ackerman notes that epinephrine alone gets the “vertebrate brain” “high” on its own self produced morphine or heroin. Pornography, designed to alert the procreation instinct to the need to immediately respond, would be especially likely to cause users to self-medicate, kick-starting these endogenous LSD, adrenaline/norepinephrine, morphine-like neurochemicals for a hormonal flood, a “rush” allegedly analogous to the rush attained using various street drugs.
Arousal dependence [through pornography] may be compared to biochemical alterations related to excessive amphetamine use. Satiation effects [hours looking at Internet porn] may be compared to those related to opiate use. Fantasy behavior can be related to such neurotransmitters as dopamine, norepinephrine, or serotonin, all of which are chemically similar to the main psychedelic drugs such as LSD.
Vanderbilt University psychiatrist Peter Martin’s research on “normal subjects” finds the brain activity experienced in sexual arousal of his normal subjects “looks like that accompanying drug consumption.”
Addiction [can] exist within the body’s own chemistry. Any activity that produces salient alterations in mood can lead to compulsion, loss of control and progressively disturbed functioning.
However you choose to say it, pornography addiction is a chemical addiction, or, if you prefer, pornography causes the body to release endogenous chemicals which the viewer becomes addicted to. The bottom line is: “pornography is a drug.” And it’s not a stretch to look at pornographers as "drug dealers."
Why Internet Porn is SO Addictive!
Little more than 20 years ago, the number of porn addicts worldwide was a tiny fraction of what it is today. With the advent and spread of the Internet, addiction rates have skyrocketed. Why? What is it about the Internet that has pulled hundreds of millions into the pornography trap? The answer lies in The Four A’s of the Internet.
The Four A’s of Internet Pornography
Internet Porn is ACCESIBLE
The Internet gives instant access to a vast variety of pornography. In 2018, just one of the leading online porn sites had 33.5 billion visits; more than 109 billion pornographic videos were viewed—that’s over 14 porn videos for every person on the entire planet! How has this accessibility contributed to soaring pornography addiction rates? Consider the following:
Removing a Porn Access Deterrent: Before the Internet, for someone to have access to a tiny fraction of the hard-core pornography available today online, they had to slink down to the seedy part of town, stealthily slip into the adult bookstore or theater, and hope they weren’t seen by any family member, friend or acquaintance. That was enough of a deterrent for many who weren’t willing to risk their reputation. Now, on the privacy of any cell phone, billions of images are instantly viewable.
Every Porn Fetish or Fancy: Before the Internet, the variety of pornography most people could easily and anonymously obtain was extremely limited. They might sneak a peek at a Playboy magazine at the corner drugstore, but that was about it. There wasn’t enough exposure or variety to get a lot of people “hooked.” In addition, many just weren’t that interested in the handful of magazines available. Now, however, there exists on the Internet every form of pornography imaginable, and much that is so twisted, dark and perverted that it’s unimaginable. The point is, any person who surfs the Internet long enough will eventually be exposed to some kind of pornographic image that catches his or her attention.
Desensitization and Habituation: The brain quickly becomes habituated or desensitized to the same pornographic images. Simply, it gets bored. Before the Internet, pornographers had a difficult time providing addicts with progressively harder materials while remaining within the confines of the law. Now that barrier has been almost completely erased. As the porn user becomes desensitized, he needs more extreme images for the brain to release the same level of dopamine and endorphins. And he’s not disappointed. At the push of a button he has an endless supply of airbrushed perfection, the extreme, the bizarre and the twisted—like a drug addict having access to an infinite supply of increasingly harder, more exotic drugs.
Truly, easy and instant accessibility to pornography through the Internet is wreaking havoc on our society. It is a primary factor in skyrocketing addiction rates.
Internet Porn is AFFORDABLE
The second of The Four A’s of the Internet is Affordable. Before the Internet, even if an individual could find access to a variety of hard-core pornography, it was very expensive. This constituted a deterrent for many. Now through the Internet, millions of pornographic images from across the globe can be viewed for free. At this point you’re probably thinking, “I thought you said that pornography is the biggest money-maker on the Internet, in the billions of dollars every year. How can that be if it’s given away for free?”
Consider the following insights about the affordability of Internet pornography
Porn Pay Sites: Of course there are pornographic websites that require payment for access. But these also offer teaser photos: an opportunity for Internet surfers to “sample” the product before they buy. Most sites provide enough of these teaser photos to keep an individual busy for hundreds of hours on the Internet without ever paying a single dime (other than the cost of their basic Internet connection). Why are pornographers willing to give these images away for free? They understand two fundamental marketing principles:
Porn Samples for Free: Like the drug dealer on the street, the pornographer knows that if he gives away a “taste” for free, a certain number will get hooked and become customers for life. The brain habituates or desensitizes to the same pornographic images very quickly. Pornographers lure the viewer in with tantalizing marquees: “Like what you see? Want to get to the really hard stuff? For only $6.95 you can have unlimited access to thousands of images for an entire month!” Having tasted the “drug,” many viewers can’t resist an unlimited supply. How can pornographers make so much money at such a low price? Volume. They only need a fractional percentage of the hundreds of millions accessing their wares across the globe to make huge profits.
Every Porn Fetish and Fancy: A lot of people like to browse the Internet out of curiosity, some actively looking for pornography, and others, not. Pornographers know that if they can expose their images to as many as possible, eventually they will catch someone’s interest. Like trolling for fish, they now if they just keep putting out their lure, their particular brand of porn will “trigger” in certain viewers a specific fetish or fancy. Oft times, the trapped individual doesn’t even realize that he had an attraction to the particular pornographic theme. If a viewer begins sampling images that he’s especially attracted to, he likely will be highly motivated—even desperate—to get his hands on more of the same. In fact, after exhausting the sample images and then suddenly being denied from seeing more, many users become obsessed and compulsive about it. They just can’t get it out of their minds. Often they give in and pay to gain access to the full site.
The bottom line is that billions of pornographic images of every kind are instantly available on the Internet at little or no cost, a condition that has never existed in the history of the world. Affordability is a primary factor in soaring porn addiction rates.
Internet Porn is Anonymous
The third of the four A’s stands for Anonymous. The greatest fear a porn user has is discovery—getting caught. Many fear this worse than death, often going to great lengths and elaborate means to hide their addiction. Before the Internet, many were unwilling to “risk” discovery, so their viewing of pornography was held in check, acted on intermittently and on a limited basis. Now with the Internet, porn users have escaped this deterrent. Now they have access to the stealth drug.
Simply by logging onto the Internet, the user can self-medicate in complete privacy and secrecy. And when he achieves his high through Internet porn, he doesn’t stagger around, slur his words or pass out; after an Internet porn fix he won’t be pulled over and cited for DUI. The individual is able to self-medicate while still maintaining his reputation and outward appearance of propriety in his family, church and community.
This secret addiction has become a serious problem in religious communities. Most religious people are working hard to do what’s right: love and serve their mate; raise their children in righteousness; succeed in their profession; serve in the community; exercise and eat right; serve in their church. And on top of all this they are dealing with the constant onslaught of evil in the world and the trials of daily living. Many get to the point where they have exceeded their limits, their ability to cope. They’re stressed out of their minds! But, being religious and wanting to do right and be well thought of, they wouldn’t dream of being seen staggering out of the local bar, caught smoking marijuana, or taking illicit drugs.
Then one day while browsing YouTube, Facebook or Instagram, they stumble onto porn. Curiosity turns to arousal, then to lust, and before they realize what has happened, they get pulled in. Suddenly they discover an easy way to escape the pressures of life: self-medication. All they have to do is push a button and, at no cost, they have access to an endless supply of this incredibly potent drug. And no one knows they’re doing it! They can self-medicate daily and still retain their reputation and standing in their family, church and community.
Important Note: One of the great tragedies I see in my work as a porn addiction counselor, is that many men and women engaged in online porn-viewing and other sexual interactions actually believe they are doing so in privacy and anonymity. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Online activity is tracked and recorded by MANY sources, from Google to marketing agencies to law enforcement. I have worked with a number of clients who were unknowingly tracked as part of an "sting operation" and ended up facing severe legal consequences.
Internet Porn is Aggressive
The final “A” is Aggressive. As an expression of their disdain and disgust for pornography, I have heard people declare, “I would never look at that filth!” Here’s the news flash: “IT’S LOOKING FOR YOU!” What many still don’t understand is that pornographers are predators—they are aggressively pursuing each one of us! They employ a vast array of dastardly techniques to expose the innocent and unsuspecting to their material. Internet pornographers will stop at nothing—even pushing, stretching and sidestepping the law—to expose as many as possible to their wares.
Like the street dealer peddling dope behind the grade school playground, these drug pushers are shameless. Make no mistake about it, the fourth “A” is Aggressive to the max!
Internet Porn—The ULTIMATE Addiction Magnet!
Consider carefully each of the four A’s: Accessible, Affordable, Anonymous and Aggressive. This is what I call the "Four A’s Addiction Template." Apply this template to any other addictive substance on earth—instant access and unlimited supply, little or no cost, seems totally secret, and a supplier who is always nearby, aggressively pursuing his existing and potential clients—and you tell me what would happen to addiction rates? What can possibly compete with the Four A’s and this super-drug?
Now can you understand why overwhelming numbers of Americans are getting caught up in the pornography trap? For you, is porn use just a harmless pastime or are you a porn addict? If so, are you ready to get the help you need to overcome your porn addiction? Perhaps you need to get serious and into an intensive recovery program for pornography addiction.