What to Do When Porn Use Becomes a Problem

New research on abstinence to curb problematic porn use.

Posted Feb 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Key Points: Many experts dispute the notion that individuals can become "addicted" to pornography use, but agree that it can become a compulsive behavior for some people (primarily men). A new study of men in successful porn abstinence programs offers new insights into the effects of porn compulsion and finds that the belief that their porn use is an addiction can help individuals find the determination they need to reduce their fixation.

The concept of “pornography addiction” is hotly debated among psychologists. Some insist that problematic porn use has all the hallmarks of an addiction and should be treated as such. Others maintain that compulsive behaviors such as those surrounding porn use are fundamentally different from chemical dependencies and need to be treated differently.

The American Psychiatric Association, in its most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognize porn addiction as a disorder. However, the World Health Organization has included compulsive sexual behavior disorder in the most recent edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Problematic porn use is one example of a compulsive sexual behavior disorder.

Many people learn to use pornography in responsible ways so that it doesn’t negatively impact their lives, and for some it even enhances the enjoyment of their sexual relationships. However, there are those who find themselves encountering psychological, social and sexual problems as a result of their porn use. A common way to deal with problematic porn use is to go through a period of abstinence from all sexually explicit material.

When people (almost always men) decide they need to abstain from pornography, they may seek support from a pastoral or clinical counselor. Others seek a supportive community in online forums such as Reboot Nation, where they can share their experiences and pick up tips for success from fellow abstainers.

To get some sense of what the abstinence experience is like for these men, Nottingham Trent University (UK) psychologist David Fernandez and his colleagues performed an analysis of the publicly displayed abstinence journals of 104 male members of the Reboot Nation website, which they recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Fernandez and colleagues’ analysis revealed that there were three main reasons why members decided to abstain from pornography. The first was that they perceived themselves as having become addicted, and they typically interpreted the urges and negative emotions they experienced during abstinence as withdrawal symptoms. Whether problematic porn use technically counts as an addiction or not, thinking of it as one certainly helped these abstainers muster the determination they needed to break their habit.

The second reason was that members reported experiencing difficulties during partnered sex. These included lack of interest in sex with their partner, erectile dysfunction, and difficulty reaching orgasm. Although they attributed these problems to their frequent porn use, it could also be the case that underlying relationship issues were the real cause of both their sexual problems and compulsive porn use. However, without easy recourse to sexually explicit materials to help alleviate their negative feelings, these men were forced to find ways to work out issues with their partner.

The third reason was a perceived “numbing effect” due to frequent porn use. Especially for those who suffer from social anxiety, pornography provides an easy way to achieve sexual release. But it also reduces the incentive to learn social skills, in particular those needed to attract a sex partner. Fernandez and colleagues note that these three reasons aren’t mutually exclusive, in that many members cited various combinations for themselves.

A common theme among the members’ abstinence journals was the “neuroscience metaphor” when thinking about their problematic porn use. In addition to casting this as an “addiction,” they also felt the need to “reboot” or “rewire” their brains, and they believed they could achieve this through abstinence. No doubt this was a reflection of the philosophy of this particular website, as opposed to other sites, for example, that offer a religious rationale for abstinence.

There was also the tendency for members to describe their porn compulsions as being controlled by their brains rather than by themselves personally. For instance, one member wrote: “I had incredible strong urges to watch porn, and I found myself arguing with my own brain….” You can read this as an attempt to avoid personal responsibility, but such expressions also aptly describe the automatic nature of compulsive behaviors.

The narratives written by these men provided a glimpse into the nature of male sexuality that is rarely discussed in academic journals. One example is what members called the “chaser effect.” This is a particularly strong craving to watch porn and masturbate to orgasm shortly after partnered sexual activity. I suspect the chaser effect is not uncommon in men, whether they’re habitual porn users or not, and it seems entirely reasonable to want to go for a second round after an especially enjoyable sexual encounter.

Another example is the “flatline,” which is a significant reduction in libido after a man has abstained from all sexual activity for some time. Experiencing the flatline can be disconcerting, especially the first time, as these men worry whether their sexual desire will ever return. Fernandez and colleagues speculate that the flatline is due to depressed mood from abstinence, as depression is known to dampen sexual desire. It’s also important to keep in mind that there’s a natural ebb and flow to libido, whether you’re abstaining or not.

Some members reported that they tried not to think about porn to reduce sexual urges, and that this strategy usually failed. It’s well known that thought suppression is an ineffective strategy for changing behavior, so it's not surprising that it didn't work for these men either.

Other members, however, reported a range of strategies that were more successful. These included exercising, meditating, socializing, keeping busy, and maintaining a healthy sleep routine. While these activities helped minimize triggering situations that set off porn cravings, they’re also part of a healthy lifestyle, which no doubt boosted mood and increased ability to persevere.

A common theme among those who had successfully abstained from pornography for the desired length of time was a sense of self-efficacy. Previously, they had felt as though porn had control over their lives, but now they felt in control of their porn use. This boost in self-confidence no doubt had positive effects on other aspects of their lives as well.

Although many people condemn pornography as a social ill that must be eradicated, the truth is far more complex. Most people are able to use porn responsibly as a way to ease sexual tensions when they lack a sexual partner or when their partner is unavailable. Some couples even use it as a type of foreplay before partnered sex.

There are those, however, who develop compulsive behaviors with regard to pornography, and for them a temporary period of abstinence may be the best choice. The good news is that there are professional counselors as well as supportive online groups to help those who need to bring their problematic porn use under control.

References

Fernandez, D. P., Kuss, D. J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2020). The pornography “rebooting” experience: A qualitative analysis of abstinence journals on an online pornography abstinence forum. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Advance online publication. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01858-w