When Pornography Becomes a Problem


Watching pornography is a generally an acceptable and positive way for a person to express their sexuality. However, it can also cause a person distress if they feel they are watching it too often or feel they are losing control of their habit.

How Much Is Too Much?

A person starring at a lit up computer screen.

There is no “normal” amount of pornography to consume. For example, in a 2008 study, 20% of college aged men in the United States reported viewing pornography either every day or every other day. In the same study, 31% of college-aged women reported using porn on some level but on average much less often than men.1 People from different countries and of different age groups will likely consume pornography at different rates. While viewing pornography can be a very normal and healthy aspect of one’s sex life it can also become problematic if it is consumed at a very high rate and begins to interfere with other aspects of a person’s life.

Effects of High Porn Consumption

There are many myths about porn and the effects it has on a person. While it is very difficult to study the causes and effects of high consumption of pornography, researchers are able to study the relationships between high porn use and other health habits. The following are common health concerns one might have about the dangers of consuming porn excessively.

Psychological Distress

In a recent study, researchers found no relationship between porn use and psychological distress. Rather, they found a relationship between psychological distress and a perceived porn addiction. (We will discuss porn addiction later in this article.) Researchers did not find that watching a large amount of porn correlated with increased psychological distress, but perceiving oneself as having an addiction to pornography was associated with depression, anxiety, stress and anger.2 Studies also show that the more religious a person identifies as being, the more likely that person is to believe that they are addicted to pornography.3

A person sitting down, with their hands covering their face.

 Low Self Esteem

Research has shown that men who frequently watch porn are more likely to be critical of their own body.4  However, this relationship is correlational, which means that high porn use does not necessarily cause body dissatisfaction. It could also be that people with lower appreciation for their own body are more likely to consume pornography. More research needs to be done to see if a similar relationship occurs with women who regularly consume porn.

Erectile Dysfunction

It is commonly believed that viewing high quantities of porn can cause erectile dysfunction, and some studies do find evidence for this relationship 5 but other scientific studies have also found no relationship between the two.6 In fact, a recent study found that a higher amount of pornography consumption was positively related to better sexual responsiveness.7 We recommend that you read our article on male masturbation for more information on the topic.

Sexual Relationships

A couple facing each other with distressed faces. Their hand gestures reveal that the couple is arguing.

Porn can be a positive aspect of a couple’s sex life. For example, watching porn together can be a fun activity that helps couples get in the mood for sexual activity. However, porn can become an issue in a relationship when one of the partners wants to watch porn more than the other partner or if one partner would consistently rather watch porn than engage in sexual activities with the other partner.  Additionally, sometimes one partner may expect the other partner to engage in activities that they saw in a pornographic film even if their partner does not want to. Therefore it is important to have effective communication  within the relationship and to be sure that both partners are fully consenting to all sexual activity. A study also found that when women perceive their partner to be viewing a problematic amount of porn, they will report lower self-esteem, lower sexual satisfaction and lower relationship quality.8  While porn add novelty and excitement to a couple’s relationship it can also put stress on the relationship, when both partners do not feel the same way about porn.


Most pornography does not emphasize safe sex; pornographic films rarely portray the use of condoms or other forms of protection against pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  As such, it is often argued that porn can be dangerous because it causes the viewer to engage the unsafe sexual behavior they see. However, a 2012 study found no such relationship between porn consumption and condom use.9

Sexual Aggression

A person dressed in a leather two-piece suit, handcuffed to a chain.

A very commonly held belief about pornography is that it causes the viewer to be more sexually aggressive. A 2010 study showed that porn is related to sexual aggression in men only when the man is already predisposed to be aggressive.10 Other research shows both men and women will report more negative attitudes towards women after viewing pornography.11  Additionally, research shows that men who view violent porn are also more likely to conform to “rape myths”; such as blaming the victim of a sexual assault.12 More research needs to be done on the relationship between pornography and sexual aggression but in general, if the person engages in more violent porn and is already predisposed to be aggressive then the more pronounced the relationship is.

Porn Addiction

There is still debate within the American Psychological Association about whether to classify the behavior of excessive porn use as a compulsion, a disorder, or an addiction, regardless it is clear that excessive porn use is a very real problem for some and can cause drastic turmoil in all aspects of a person’s life.13 This being said, for the remainder of the article, we will refer to “porn addiction” as the behavior of excessively consuming pornography.

Viewing porn becomes an addiction when the person watching porn experiences the following:

  • Tries to change their viewing habits but cannot.
  • Can no longer take part in their hobbies and interests because they would rather be watching pornography.
  • Begins to experience severely negative consequences.14

There are other signs that may suggest a porn addiction, such as watching porn at inappropriate places or times, using porn as a means to avoid making real relationships, or watching porn containing increasingly violent and degrading acts.15

Causes of Porn Addiction

Porn addiction is a subject that needs much more research. The following is one explanation for why people may become addicted to pornography.

The leading theory is that porn addiction, like many other addictions, acquired through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which a behavior that is positively reinforced is consistently repeated by the individual.16 For example, a person will view porn and gain pleasure from their own sexual activity that occurs at the same time. They will then associate viewing porn with pleasure they receive from it. As a person watches more porn, they become used to the amount of pleasure they receive from the porn-related sexual activity and no longer becomes as sexually aroused by the porn that they usually watch. As a result, the viewer will seek out more intense kinds of pornography in order to achieve more satisfying sexual arousal.17

People with higher levels of sex hormones may be at a higher risk for forming a porn addiction. Also, social factors such as social isolation or peer influence may raise the risk.17 For example, if you are surrounded by friends who watch an excessive amount of porn you are more likely engage in that behavior as well and if you are spending a lot of time alone that can lead to more time engaging in pornography.

Porn Addiction Treatment

A person starring at a laptop screen, in distress.

Treatment for porn addiction can be similar to treatments for other addictions such as drugs or alcohol. A person suffering from porn addiction may find it difficult to admit to themselves or to others that they have a problem because of the stigmatization of watching porn. Additionally, porn addiction can be difficult to overcome because the internet is such a significant aspect of everyday life and porn is often very easy to access.18

For short term accomplishments, we recommend doing the following:

  • Move the computer to a public area in the house.
  • Install a filtering software (such as NetNanny or Cyber Patrol).
  • Limit the amount of time spent online.
  • Disclose the distress that porn addiction is causing you to a trustworthy person (such as a friend, family member, or therapist).19

More research needs to be done on long term treatments. Some therapies have been shown to be effective treatments. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective in treating porn addiction. The goal of this therapy is to identify porn use as a method that a person uses to deal with other difficulties in their life, and attempt to replace this habit with healthier ones.20 Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is can also be helpful.21 ACT aims to help addicts accept themselves and learn that they are not defined by their. Couple and family therapy have also been shown to help treatment.22

For long term accomplishments, it is be necessary to find any underlying issues that drive the addiction. For example, a person that has recently suffered from a traumatic event or is struggling with an emotional hardship may become dependent as a means to escape from their problems.23 When trying to overcome an addiction to porn, it is important to form healthy relationships with others, especially real-life sexual relations. Porn addicts may have overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame which causes great distress. Treatment should address these feelings and help an individual become comfortable in their life.  In order for the recovery process to be successful, the individual should engage in significant self-exploration, form and strengthen healthy relationships with others, and help to create a positive self-image.24

Concluding Remarks

Viewing pornography can cause great distress if an individual feels that they are losing control of their habit or if it negatively impacts other aspects of their life. However if watching pornography is not detrimental to the viewer, it is generally a very normal activity and acceptable to engage in.

If you need help overcoming an addiction to pornography, click here for a website that can find you help.


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  3. Grubbs, Joshua, et al. “Transgression As Addiction: Religiosity And Moral Disapproval As Predictors Of Perceived Addiction To Pornography.” Archives Of Sexual Behavior 44.1 (2015): 125-136. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 May 2016.
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  11. Seto, Michael, Maric, Alexandra, Barbaree, Howard (2001) “The role of pornography in the etiology of sexual aggression”. Aggression and Violent Behavior Volume 6, Issue 1, January–February 2001, Pages
  12. Foubert, John D., Matthew W. Brosi, and R. Sean Bannon. “Pornography Viewing Among Fraternity Men: Effects On Bystander Intervention, Rape Myth Acceptance And Behavioral Intent To Commit Sexual Assault.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 18.4 (2011): 212-231. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Nov. 2016. Weir, Kirsten. “Is Pornography Addictive?” American Psychological Association.org. N.p., Apr. 2014. Web. 19 May 2016.
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  15. “Operant Conditioning Examples.” YourDictionary. N.p., 13 July 2016. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.
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  19. Wernik, Uri. “A Non-Blaming Chance And Action Approach To Therapy With Sexually Explicit Media Overuse: A Case Study.”International Journal Of Mental Health & Addiction 10.5 (2012): 770-777. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 May 2016.
  20. Twohig, M.P., & Crosby, J.M. (2010). Acceptance and commitment therapy as a treatment for problematic Internet pornography viewing. Behavior Therapy, 41, 285–295
  21. Orzack, M.H., Voluse, A.C., Wolf, D., & Hennen, J. (2006). An ongoing study of group treatment for men involved in problematic Internet-enabled sexual behavior. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 9, 348–360.
  22. Schneider, J., & Weiss, R. (2001). Cybersex exposed: Simple fantasy or obsession? Center City, MN: Hazelton.
  23. Delmonico, D. L., Griffin, E., & Carnes, P. J. (2002). Treating online compulsive sexual behavior: When cybersex is the drug of choice. In A. Cooper (Ed.), Sex and the Internet: A guidebook for clinicians (pp. 147-167). New York: Routledge.

Last Updated: 3 November 2016.