Pornography is a big problem in our society, particularly among young people. What many people don’t realize is how addictive pornography is.  We now have the neuroscience evidence to show us that pornography is an addictive substance.  Many experts call Internet pornography the new crack cocaine.

So how is pornography addictive?  Well, whenever we discuss addiction, we need to look at it as two sides of a coin.  On one side we have the physical addiction where the body becomes physically dependent on the drug.  On the other side we have the emotional addiction where a person become emotionally dependent on the drug, often to cope with some form of emotional pain.

Let’s first talk about the physical side of addiction. When a man views pornography there is a chemical reaction that occurs in his brain.  A chemical called dopamine is released in large amounts.  This mixes with testosterone and creates a sense of excitement, similar to a drug.  Another chemical called norepinephrine has several functions.  Like adrenaline, norepinephrine ramps up the brain for sexual release.  It also locks erotic images in a man’s mind.  This is why men don’t need to view pornography to masturbate.  All they need to do is close their eyes and they have a whole parade of erotic images to feast on.  In addition, norepinephrine activates the autonomic nervous system causing the heart rate to increase, breathing gets heavier, and some men begin to sweat.  A fourth chemical, Delta Fos-B is released and fuels a craving for more pornography.  Another chemical, vasopressin, is a bonding hormone.  While it is meant to bond a man to his wife during sex, here it bonds him to the pornographic image on his computer screen.

With all this chemical activity in the brain a message is sent down the spinal cord to the genitals for sexual arousal.  A strong tension develops in the body that can only be relieved with an orgasm, so the man masturbates.  With the orgasm, opioid chemicals, called endorphins, are released into the brain creating a sense of euphoria.  Afterward there is a deep sense of relaxation.  So the process looks like this:

Image ->Fantasy ->Excitement ->Arousal -> Stimulation ->

Tension ->Orgasm -> Euphoria ->Relaxation!

This is a very powerful drug.  When used extensively the brain can become so accustomed to operating at such a high level of chemical stimulation that it becomes dependent on it.  It needs to maintain those chemical levels just to function and needs regular fixes.  This is how one becomes physically dependent on pornography.

Now one may ask, “doesn’t the same process occur during sex between a married couple?” The answer is yes; however, it is tempered by the relationship the couple has with each other.  I compare this to fire.  Viewing pornography and masturbating is like lighting a match.  At first it flares up brightly and is exciting; however, it quickly burns out and does not satisfy.  Sex within a healthy marital relationship is like building a slow-burning fire that grows bigger with time.  It might not be as exciting as the match, but it’s far more satisfying.  Unfortunately, many men are lured into the belief that pornography and masturbation are better than real marital love.  This is an illusion that only leads to great disappointment.

Now, let’s talk about the emotional side of the addiction.  Many addicts view their pornography use simply as “adult entertainment.”  Yet they are not able to stop using it.  Most of these people have unknowingly been using pornography to ease the pain of deep emotional wounds.  Many have lived with their wounds for so long that they don’t even notice they’re there anymore.  However, one day they discover pornography and how good it makes them feel.  Deep down inside a little voice says, “Hey, this eases the pain.  This is the best escape.  Let’s keep going back to this.”  We call this “self-medicating.”  Because the effects are temporary one has to keep going back to it over and over again to keep the emotional pain at bay.  This can lead to an emotional dependence on pornography and masturbation.  Some of the most common emotional wounds that can lead to pornography addiction are:

1. Early exposure to pornography

2. Family Wounds

a. Abuse: physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual

b. Death/divorce

c. Rejection/Abandonment

d. Family history of addiction

3. Peer Rejection

a. In childhood

b. In adolescence

4. Loneliness

5. Male Insecurity

6. Poor Body Image

7. Anger

8. Grief

9. Perfectionism

10. Mistrust of Women/Men

a. Resulting from a painful breakup

11. Excessive Pressures in Life (Stress)

a. Work

b. School

c. Family

d. Health

e. Finances

12. Weak Spiritual Life

13. Shame

When a person becomes addicted to pornography, it’s rarely just one of the above causes that led him to it.  Often there is a combination of root causes that lead to pornography use and addiction.  As a person continues to use pornography to ease emotional pain, the more likely he is to become emotionally dependent on it.  This continued use also leads him to become physically dependent on the extreme neuro-chemical stimulation that comes from pornography.  Here is where the two types of addiction work together.

This process of addiction also applies to other substances, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, food and video games.  It is my hope that with a proper understanding of the root causes of pornography addiction, those who struggle with it can let go of the shame associated with it, see it for what it is – a disease, and seek help for it.  Freedom from pornography addiction is possible.  It takes time and patience, and there will be falls along the way.  However, with an effective recovery program and commitment to the process, one can achieve victory!


Visit & for more resources in beginning the path to freedom and recovery.

  • Greg

    I am in general agreement with the conclusions and arguments of this article. It is a good start. But I believe to truly address the issue, the argument needs to go deeper. Unfortunately I don’t believe the Church is ready to dive deeper – although with the latest exhortation by Pope Francis, The Joy of Love, developed by 2 Synods, does go deeper than the Church has ever before. And that is how men and women look at each other long term. Culture tells us than it is OK to “change your mind regarding how you look at your partner” and thus making relationships “disposable. Thus if a young man, who isn’t already making it monetarily becomes unattractive for a woman to view him as a life partner and a father for their possible children, becomes an easy victim to pornography. “What can you do for me now” thus perpetuates itself throughout society.

    • BC

      I think financially successful young men are just as vulnerable to porn as those who make less money. Pope St JP II got a good start on relationships and sexuality. You have to dig into it yourself, not too much preaching on it. What I find troubling is that if you do get married, are open to life and ‘blessed’ with several children, the Church doesn’t help much in the way of Catholic education and support. You sit there in the pews and watch the families who are likely on birth control, driving fancy cars, taking lots of vacations, going to private schools and ‘sailing’ through life. This can be very frustrating. If you are no longer intimate due to family size, yes, porn is a huge temptation.

  • BC

    Sex is a dangerous human encounter, much like alcohol. For some of us, it’s better to just push it aside and never ‘use’ it. Like alcohol, sex is abused way more than honored. And like alcohol, addition of it lingers right around the corner, which always leads to destruction.
    Sometimes it’s hard to grasp why men and women differ so much in their sexuality. It hardly seems ‘natural’ given its confinements to married people.
    But the truth is out there and only the Catholic church has the best answer and solution.
    I’m still looking for an answer to this question: How does a Catholic man remain faithful when his car and house is full and his bank account is empty? And NFP doesn’t work for this couple.