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Are sex addiction and porn addiction real disorders?

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

Picture of a keyboard with three of the keys reading XXX

“Sex addiction” and “porn addiction” are terms people use to describe compulsive behaviors related to sex and pornography. But are they actual diagnoses? There’s still much to learn about how these compulsive behaviors develop and work—and researchers are still figuring out how to talk about and treat them.

Many people enjoy sex and porn in healthy ways. Some mental health professionals find the ideas of sex and porn addiction to be sex-negative, shaming people whose behavior doesn’t fit certain cultural or religious ideals. Other experts point out that some of the actions “sex addiction” and “porn addiction” describe can be harmful.

Regardless of your perspective or what terminology you use, understanding what unhealthy sexual behavior looks like can make it easier to recognize when you or a loved one need help.

How do sex and porn affect the brain?

Having sex and viewing porn both release hormones in your brain that have positive effects on cognitive function, mood, and pain. Dopamine is mainly responsible for these effects. Your brain also produces dopamine during other enjoyable activities, like eating good food or listening to music.

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction (also called “compulsive sexual behavior” or “hypersexuality”) was previously treated as a mental health disorder. However, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has stopped listing “sex addiction” as a mental health disorder or diagnosis in its diagnostic manual.

Experts instead describe sex addiction as a compulsive, problematic sexual behavior that causes serious negative consequences and can’t be controlled or stopped, even if someone wants to.1

Compulsive sexual behaviors can include:

  • Repeatedly cheating on a partner
  • Constantly thinking about or pursuing sex while neglecting other interests and activities
  • Spending too much money to access sex
  • Putting yourself and your partners at risk for pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Is the term “sex addiction” accurate?

While many experts argue that compulsive sexual behavior shouldn’t be considered an addiction, the media and the public have embraced “sex addiction” as an informal term, so it’s generally accepted regardless of whether it’s clinically accurate.2 Many people, though, have pivoted to describing sex addiction as a compulsive behavior disorder rather than an addiction.

Sex addiction in society and culture

The idea of sex addiction is widespread and familiar. But some of the ways we use the term can be harmful or misleading.

Communicating disapproval

Instead of describing physical or mental health concerns around sex, the term “sex addiction” sometimes gets applied to sexual behavior that particular communities disapprove of, such as:

It’s important to note that health professionals don’t embrace this use of the term. If your sex life doesn’t fit the moral standards of a specific community, that doesn’t mean you have an inherently unhealthy relationship with sex.

Downplaying sexual misconduct

People sometimes use a sex addiction diagnosis as a means of self-preservation. Public figures, for example, have claimed the diagnosis while revealing their struggles with infidelity or sexual misconduct. In other cases, people who’ve committed sexual assault, harassment, or other crimes have tried to use a sex addiction diagnosis to suggest they weren’t fully responsible for the damage they caused.

Although these attempts don’t always work, they show how the diagnosis can be misused to avoid consequences of harming others.

What is porn addiction?

“Porn addiction” describes compulsive behaviors related to pornography. These may include:

  • Watching porn so much that it interferes with other parts of your life
  • Consuming porn in inappropriate settings
  • Pressuring your partner to look at or act out porn even if they aren’t interested
  • Needing to watch porn before having sex

Similar to sex addiction, “porn addiction” is a term accepted by the media and the public to describe compulsive behaviors. And as with sex addiction, more research is needed to explain what drives (and how to treat) compulsive porn use.

Porn addiction in society and culture

The internet has expanded access to porn significantly. Now free porn is at the fingertips of anyone who can go online.

Since porn is taboo in many cultures, people often hide their use, especially if it’s frequent—and the label “porn addict” is often used to stigmatize and shame someone who watches any amount of pornography.

According to a variety of international studies, some 50% to 99% of men and 30% to 86% of women consume porn, and a Kinsey Institute study found that 80% of porn users felt “fine” about their amount of use.3 One study found that “recreational” porn users (who made up most of the people in the study) averaged about 24 minutes each week and felt satisfied with their sex lives, while “compulsive” users rearranged their schedules around their consumption and felt isolated, ashamed, and unable to stop.4

How to get help

If you’re worried that your sexual behaviors may be compulsive, unhealthy, or otherwise out of control, working with a sex therapist can help. To find a licensed mental health professional near you, browse our therapist directory.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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