Find a therapist Search articles

Are sex addiction and porn addiction real disorders?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

A vector image of a man masturbating in front of a laptop.

“Sex addiction” and “porn addiction” are terms people use to describe a wide array of compulsive behaviors related to sex and consumption of pornographic materials. But are sex and porn addiction actual medical diagnoses?

How experts talk about sex addiction

The fourth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-4) classified symptoms of what people may call sex and porn addiction as “unspecified sexual disorder.” However, the authors removed the diagnostic criteria for sex and porn addiction when they published the fifth edition of the DSM.

The reasons for removing sex and porn addiction from the DSM-5 are complicated. There is speculation in the medical community that the behavior pattern that characterizes sex and porn addiction isn’t an addiction at all. Instead, the behaviors are likely driven by cultural and religious ideals about healthy sexual behavior. There also isn’t any research to confirm that people suffering from sex and porn addiction have the same neurological response to their condition as drug or gambling addicts. 

Some mental health professionals perceive sex and porn addictions to be sex-negative, or shaming, toward people with otherwise normal sexual behavior. They also posit that a sex or porn addiction diagnosis may serve to shield sexual predators from facing the consequences of their actions. 

There are, however, other experts who recognize that the sexual patterns described by a term like “sex addiction” deviate from normal and can have devastating results. Understanding what constitutes unhealthy sexual behavior, regardless of terminology, can help you recognize warning signs in yourself or your loved ones. 

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction, also referred to as being hypersexual, was previously accepted as a mental health disorder. The DSM-4 identified sex addiction as a “sexual disorder, not otherwise specified,” defined as “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used.” The DSM-5 discarded this diagnosis and definition.

Since research suggests that there most likely isn’t a neurological response that would characterize hypersexual behavior as an addiction, mental health professionals no longer refer to sex addiction as a mental health disorder. Instead, experts accept it as a compulsive behavior with the following features:

  • Serial infidelity
  • Constantly thinking about sex
  • Spending inappropriate amounts of money to access sex
  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviors that put you and your partners at risk for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Losing interest in hobbies

While it is no longer considered an addiction, “sex addiction” is still used as a colloquial term to describe these behaviors. The media and general public have also embraced the term, so it’s accepted as a term to describe this compulsive behavior, despite its lack of classic addictive criteria. 

What does research show about sex addiction?

Research has yet to prove that sex addiction is truly an addiction in the clinical sense. 

Many studies and literature pivoted to describe sex addiction as more of a compulsive behavior disorder than an actual addiction. There aren’t any studies to demonstrate that sex addicts experience the same neurological rewards when they engage in sexual behavior as people with classic behavioral and substance addictions. 

Sex addiction in society

Most people experience high relationship satisfaction if they are engaging in sex once a week.1 Higher frequency of sex is not associated with any additional satisfaction. Sex addicts engage in sexual activity far in excess of once a week, and usually with multiple partners.

Communicating disapproval

The term “sex addiction” has often been used by conservative and religious communities. However, instead of describing physical or mental health concerns associated with sex, these communities use the term “sex addiction” to describe any sexual behavior that the community disapproves of, such as:

  • Frequency of sexual activity
  • Number of sexual partners
  • Gender of chosen sexual partners
  • Sexual activity outside of the context of marriage
  • Specific sexual activities or behaviors

It’s important to note that this use of “sex addiction” is not embraced by health professionals. Identifying as LGBTQIA+, for example, does not mean that a person has an inherently unhealthy relationship with sex.

Downplaying sexual misconduct

Many celebrities and public figures have used the term “sex addiction” to disclose their struggles with sexual misconduct. These disclosures are often in response to allegations of infidelity, sex crimes, or other inappropriate sexual behaviors. Celebrities and public figures who identify as sex addicts include Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, and Anthony Weiner. 

The case of Anthony Weiner is a textbook example of what mental health professionals hoped to avoid by removing sex addiction from the DSM-5. Weiner’s attorney attempted to use a sex addiction diagnosis to suggest Weiner was not entirely responsible for the variety of sex crimes he was being charged with. Although the attempt didn’t work (he was ultimately convicted and served time), it showed how a sex addiction diagnosis could be misused to avoid culpability for one’s own actions.

While there are multiple examples of people leveraging a sex addiction diagnosis for legal purposes, there are also many who disclose it in the wake of infidelity scandals. Both of these situations suggest that people may utilize sex addiction diagnoses for self-preservation. 

What is porn addiction?

Porn addiction describes compulsive behaviors related to pornography. Habits that may rise to the level of porn addiction include:

  • Watching porn for extended periods of time
  • Experiencing guilt after viewing porn
  • Including your partner in porn viewing or acting out porn even if they aren’t interested
  • Needing to watch porn before engaging in sex

Similar to sex addiction, “porn addiction” is a term accepted by the media and the public to describe these compulsive behaviors. It is not an actual addiction that follows the traditional cycle of addiction. 

What does research show about porn addiction?

Research shows that porn addiction isn’t a true addiction.2 It doesn’t lead to surges of dopamine in the brain, and porn addicts do not experience withdrawal. 

Porn addiction is often a stigmatizing label used to shame people who watch pornography. There are cases of people who watch porn compulsively and experience negative consequences as a result. Some experts label these people porn addicts despite the lack of clinical symptoms of addiction. More research is necessary to specifically identify why and how this compulsion develops. 

Porn addiction in society

Like sex addiction, research suggests that porn addiction is a compulsive behavior rather than an actual addiction. Since porn is taboo in many cultures, people are likely to hide their choice to view it, especially if they do so frequently. 

Accessibility to porn has expanded significantly with the advent of the internet. Now, free porn is at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Average porn use involves usage of about 24 minutes each week.3 People with porn addiction often view porn for several hours each day. 

Many porn addicts report that they are able to decompress and relax as a result of viewing porn. However, the amount of porn viewed interferes with daily life, even leading to porn viewing at work or other inappropriate places. Self-described porn addicts include Jada Pinkett Smith, Kirk Franklin, and Cameron Diaz.

Are the terms “sex addiction” and “porn addiction” accurate?

Sex addiction and porn addiction are misleading terms. People with an addiction experience three main stages characterized by neurological changes:

  • Anticipation
  • Binging
  • Withdrawal

The changes in the reward centers of a person’s brain drive this pattern. People trapped in this cycle of addiction crave or anticipate the next time they are able to get their fix. At the next possible opportunity, they binge on their drug or behavior of choice. 

While they are participating in their addiction, a person’s brain experiences a pleasurable surge of dopamine. This increase in dopamine is part of what drives their addiction. If a person with an addiction isn’t able to get a fix, they experience withdrawal, which is considerably unpleasant. Withdrawal symptoms may include nausea, body aches, depression, anxiety, and irritability. 

Sex and porn addiction, however, don’t follow this pattern of addiction. Current research suggests that it doesn’t lead to a surge of dopamine in the brain or withdrawal symptoms. It may include anticipation, but that’s because sex is a pleasurable activity for the majority of people. 

Researchers propose that people use terms like “sex addiction” and “porn addiction” to describe socially unacceptable sexual behavior4 or behaviors that are the result of anxious attachment styles or personality disorders like narcissism. Much more research is crucial to further explore the validity and criteria for sex and porn addiction diagnoses. 

How do sex and pornography affect the brain?

Engaging in sex and viewing pornography release hormones in the brain that have positive effects on cognitive function, mood, and pain. Dopamine is primarily responsible for these effects, as your brain produces dopamine during activities that you enjoy, such as having sex, eating good food, and listening to music. 

This is a normal neurological response and isn’t tied to addiction. People who have sex or porn addiction may be seeking these feel good hormones, but they are not a part of the cycle of addiction. 

Getting help

Sex and porn addiction may not be addictions in the clinical sense, but the compulsive behaviors associated with each can negatively affect your life. If you’re worried that your sexual behaviors may be compulsive, unhealthy, or otherwise out of control, you may benefit from seeking treatment from a sex therapist. To find one near you, visit 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.

Related articles

A man's hand holding a cigarette.

How to stop smoking: Reasons to quit and how to make a plan

Learn the physical and mental health effects of smoking, why it’s so hard to...

man-sitting-alone-in-darkness

Addiction: Types, symptoms, causes, and treatments

Addiction is a disease involving the repeated use of a substance or engagement...

View more