New Research Suggests Porn is NOT an Addiction. It is a Compulsion. Here’s Why That Matters.

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

New research puts another nail in the coffin of the idea that pornography is an addiction.  First the study, then I’ll explain why this matters for treating problem sexual behaviors and why it’s GOOD news for sufferers.  According to…

A new study published in Biological Psychology provides provocative evidence in favor of dropping the addiction label because what’s going on inside the brains of so-called porn “addicts” is nothing like what you would expect from someone who has an addiction.

In this study, researchers recruited 122 heterosexual men and women who reported “problems regulating their viewing of sexual images.” These participants came to a lab where they viewed a series of images (some sexual, some non-sexual) while an electroencephalograph (EEG) measured their brain waves.

The researchers focused on one specific brain activity pattern, the late positive potential (LPP), which reveals the extent to which a stimulus evokes an emotional response. LPP is a frequently used measure in neuroscience studies of emotion.

Previous studies of drug addicts have found that, when shown images of their drug of choice, their LPP levels spike—that is, they show a strong emotional response to images of the drug.

To the extent that pornography is addictive, one would expect a similar finding when a so-called porn addict is shown sexually explicit imagery; however, that’s not what was found in this study. Instead, what researchers found was the reverse—that is, these individuals showed decreased LPP levels when viewing sexual images compared to non-sexual images.

As noted by the study’s lead author, Dr. Nicole Prause, in a press release: “While we do not doubt that some people struggle with their sexual behaviors, these data show that the nature of the problem is unlikely to be addictive.”  In light of such findings, it would seem advisable to drop the “addiction” label when talking about people who are having issues regulating their porn use because it does not appear to be accurate.   


Saying that pornography is not addictive does NOT mean it is not problematic.  We know that it is–unquestionably.  BUT if the urge to view pornography is an addiction then that means that one can never hope to fully recover from the urge to view pornography and/or masturbate.  As the saying goes, “Once and addict, always an addict.”   Although some people are helped by recovery programs that follow an addiction model, many other people are demoralized by the idea that they might never be free of the struggle.  This idea causes many to give up treatment or never try in the first place.  “After all, if I’m never going to be free, why start in the first place.”

This might seem like a cop-out on the surface, after all, plenty of people have drug and alcohol addictions and they seek help.  But the difference is that with drugs or alcohol, you can learn to avoid the chemicals that drive the addiction.  But if pornography is actually an addiction, you always carry the chemicals that cause the addiction inside of you. You can never really be sure when they might strike again.  An alcoholic can tell himself, “I can be OK as long as I don’t take the first drink.”  but while a “porn addict” can avoid pornography, they can’t avoid feeling physically attracted to someone.  If they’re married, they can’t avoid sex.  They can’t avoid every image on TV or in the movies the might provoke arousal.  Can you imagine the kind of pressure this approach can put on a client and why so many people despair of ever recovering when they are treated using an addiction model?   No matter how many controls you put on your computer, no matter how accountable you make yourself to a partner, you can ever be scrupulous enough to get away from every imaginable trigger.


The mounting research suggests that rather than an addiction, it might be truer to call porn and problem sexual behavior “compulsions.”  To say that the urge to view pornography is more like a compulsion than an addiction means that it can be treated like many other impulse control problems such as, anger control problems.  The treatment for compulsions involves helping clients learn mindfulness-based techniques that empower them to avoid triggers when possible, recognize urges early, identify the problem driving the urge and address the real, underlying concern.  There is good reason to believe that this approach actually heals the damage compulsions can cause in the brain and enable clients to experience healthy arousal without triggering a compulsive response. Many clients who learn this approach report that they can become free from the urge to view pornography or engage in other problem sexual behaviors altogether AND go on to have healthier and more intimate marriages post-treatment.

Through the Pastoral Solutions Institute tele-counseling practice we successfully treat problem sexual behaviors such as compulsive pornography use using this compulsion model of treatment.  We also encourage our clients to use a wonderful support program called which created a coaching program to support clients going through therapy for this issue.


The bottom line is that if you or someone you love is struggling with problem sexual behavior, there is hope.  There is healing.  There is a way through.  And if you need assistance, we are here to help.

Predicting Addictions/Eating Disorders By Age Four: What Parents Need to Know

Pope Francis has been beating the drum for more affectionate connections in families, again and again urging parents to “Be close to your children.”   Two new  studies show the practical import of Pope Francis’ words.

First,  new research from the University of Adelaide shows that disturbances in the development of the child’s oxytocin system (aka “the love or bonding hormone”) predicts later drug use.  Newborns do produce some oxytocin, which facilitates the biological foundations of bonding,  especially when being held or nursed, but the child’s oxytocin system isn’t fully developed until about age 3.  According to the report,

“…studies show that some risk factors for drug addiction already exist at four years of age. And because the hardware of the oxytocin system finishes developing in our bodies at around age three, this could be a critical window to study. Oxytocin can reduce the pleasure of drugs and feeling of stress, but only if the system develops well.”

Development of the oxytocin system is facilitated by prompt, consistent responses to children’s needs/cries, and high levels of affection and skin-to-skin contact between baby and parents.  Once again, this study highlights the importance of approaches to parenting that encourage extravagant affection and intimate connection between parents and children, especially in the first years and months after birth.

If this wasn’t enough, a second study drives the point home.  Research published in the journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology, points to oxytocin therapy as a  promising new treatment for eating disorders.

“Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients’ unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions such as disgust,” said lead author Dr. Youl-Ri Kim.  “There is currently a lack of effective pharmacological treatments for anorexia,” she said. “Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illnesses, and hints at the advent of a novel, groundbreaking treatment option for patients with anorexia.”

As parents, we often worry about giving our children everything they need to be mentally and emotionally healthy. The good news is that it may be easier than we think.  In fact, Pope Francis may very well be pointing parents in exactly the right direction.  “Be close to your children.”  To learn more ways to help your child develop his or her full capacity for resilience, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Long Term Help for Those in Recovery

Recovering from addictions is a painful process.  It isn’t unusual for a serious addict to have to go through a treatment program 3 or more times before they can maintain sobriety.  One of the biggest challenges of recovery is changing your life and your social network after you get out of treatment.  If the addict keeps the same friends or stays in the same environment post recovery as he or she did before seeking help, there are just too many temptations.

Comunita Cenacolo (Community of the Cenacle) is a Catholic program designed to assist those who desire to live a life free of addictions.  It is not so much a treatment program as an opportunity to rebuild one’s life centered around God, service, and healthy friendships.  The Community requires a minimum 3 year commitment and offers support to both the addict and their parents.  They accept men 18-40 and women 18-30.  From their website:

…founded in Italy in 1983 by a dynamic, vibrant, and faith-filled religious sister named Elvira Petrozzi.  Mother Elvira felt certain that God was calling her to serve the poor of the modern world: disillusioned young men and women who live in desperation and hopelessness, convinced that life has no meaning or value. Unable to find peace or joy in their lives, they seek to fill the emptiness with the illusory pleasures of the world, only to find themselves steeped in an intense interior isolation.

Trusting unwaveringly in the direction of the Holy Spirit, Mother Elvira proclaims to all those who live in darkness that only Jesus Christ can heal and transform their shattered lives, changing despair into hope, sadness into joy, hatred into forgiveness, and death into life.

Our Way of Life

To everyone we welcome, we propose a simple, disciplined, family style of life, based on the rediscovery of the essential gifts of prayer and work (”ora et labora”), true friendship, sacrifice, and faith in Jesus.   The spirituality of the Community is profoundly Eucharistic and Marian.  The day is structured around times of prayer (Eucharistic Adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary), work, deep sharing about one’s own life in the light of the Word of God, recreation, and times of celebration.  We believe that the Christian life in its simplicity and fullness is the true answer to every restlessness in the human heart and that, in the living encounter with God’s Mercy, man is reborn into hope and is freed from the chains that have enslaved him, thus rediscovering the joy of loving.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addictions of any kind, check out Comunita Cenacolo. It’s a unique resource that can make a profound difference.