In November 2004, a panel of experts testified before a Senate subcommittee that a product which millions of Americans consume is dangerously addictive. They were talking about pornography.
The effects of porn on the brain were called "toxic" and compared to cocaine. One psychologist claimed "prolonged exposure to pornography stimulates a preference for depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual contact with animals."
It used to be that if you wanted to see pornography, you had to go out and buy a magazine or rent a video. Store hours and available space under the mattress placed some limits on people's porn habits.
Now there are an estimated 420 million adult web pages online. "For the person who has difficulty stopping, more is only one click away," says sex therapist Louanne Cole Weston, PhD.
There's no doubt that some people's porn consumption gets them in trouble -- in the form of maxed-out credit cards, lost sleep, neglected responsibilities, or neglected loved ones. But Weston is one who takes issue with calling problem behavior involving porn an addiction. "'Compulsive' is more appropriate," she tells WebMD.
Compulsion or Addiction
The difference between describing the behavior as a compulsion or an addiction is subtle, but important.
Erick Janssen, PhD, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute, criticizes the use of the term addiction when talking about porn because he says it merely describes certain people's behavior as being addiction-like, but treating them as addicts may not help them.
Many people may diagnose themselves as porn addicts after reading popular books on the subject, he says. But mental health professionals have no standard criteria to diagnose porn addiction.
Mary Anne Layden, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the witnesses at the Senate hearing on pornography addiction. She says the same criteria used to diagnose problems like pathological gambling and substance abuse can be applied to problematic porn use.
"The therapists who treat pornography addicts say they behave just like any other addicts," she tells WebMD.
One of the key features of addiction, she says, is the development of a tolerance to the addictive substance. In the way that drug addicts need increasingly larger doses to get high, she thinks porn addicts need to see more and more extreme material to feel the same level of excitement they first experienced.
"Most of the addicts will say, well, here's the stuff I would never look at, it's so disgusting I would never look at it, whatever that is -- sex with kids, sex with animals, sex involving feces," she says. "At some point they often cross over."
Janssen disputes that people who look at porn typically progress in such a way. "There is absolutely no evidence to support that," he tells WebMD.
Why We Watch
Weston says she thinks there are three main reasons why people turn to pornography: to see their fantasies acted out, to avoid intimacy in a relationship, and simply to aid masturbation.
"Sometimes people are just going to it for things they wish they could do in real life," she says. "It fills in a gap in their own relationship. They have a partner who doesn't like to do oral sex and they love it themselves, and they're in this relationship and they want to stay, so they go and look at pictures of oral sex."
In this regard, porn can be part of a healthy relationship, she says, but in some circumstances it can hinder intimacy.
"Then there are the people who are too embarrassed to explain what it is that they really would like to participate in, so they go there secretively, never having revealed to their mate what they would like to try," Weston says.
If they were to reveal their fantasy, they might find their partner willing to go along with it, and they might end up with more fulfilling sexual relationships. For some, however, that would be unacceptable.
"Some people go there because the intimacy in the relationship is as high as the person can stand it. If they were to unveil the sexual interest which is sort of their closely held secret, the intimacy would be way too high for their own ability to tolerate it, so they save it for elsewhere," Weston says.
Independent of the role it plays in relationships, people also look at pornography just to arouse themselves before or while masturbating.
"I think of porn addiction as a label that's used to put down behavior that's disapproved of socially," Violet Blue, a sex educator and author of The Ultimate Guide to Adult Videos, tells WebMD. "A lot of it is shaming masturbation."
Men are thought to be more easily aroused by erotic imagery than women are, but many women masturbate to pornography, too, she says.
She moderates an online message board for female enthusiasts called the Smart Girls' Porn Club. "I occasionally receive emails from members of the group about different kinds of sexual problems," she says, but none so far have expressed concerns about stopping.