man may watch more porn to fill the void. Some women may
feel threatened or confused by that response. They often report
feeling less attractive, like they could never measure up to the
X-rated actresses. The result: even less sex, even more porn and
a relationship that continues to falter.
Bridges is now testing interventions to help men curb
their excessive pornography use, primarily using cognitive-behavioral interventions. Eventually, she hopes to develop a
couples-based treatment manual to help both partners come
to an understanding — one that may or may not include
Addicted to love?
Relationships aren’t the only area
where compulsive porn use can be
damaging. Psychologists describe
anecdotal reports of people losing
their jobs because they couldn’t
control the urge to visit adult
websites at work, for instance.
“When porn use becomes so
intense in frequency or duration,
it starts to interfere with the other
aspects of a person’s life,” Bridges
However, experts disagree over
how to classify excessive porn
use. “We’re still not completely
sure what this behavior is,” says
When the fifth edition of
the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-
5) was being drafted, experts considered a proposed
diagnostic addiction called hypersexual disorder, which also
included a pornography subtype. But in the end, reviewers
determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to include
hypersexual disorder or its subtypes in the 2013 edition.
If compulsive pornography use is not a hypersexual
disorder, could it be considered an addiction akin to drug
or alcohol addiction? That’s what Valerie Voon, MD, PhD, a
neuropsychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, is exploring.
By scanning the brains of compulsive porn users with MRI
while they view erotic images, she’s testing whether they show
brain activity patterns similar to substance abusers viewing beer
bottles or drug paraphernalia.
So far, the brains of compulsive porn users resemble the
brains of alcoholics watching ads for a drink, reports Voon in a
2013 British documentary called “Porn on the Brain.”
Despite her early findings, Voon says it’s probably too early
to put compulsive porn users in a box with people who suffer
from drug or alcohol problems. “We need more studies to
clearly state that it’s an addiction,” she says.
Other research has turned up contrary results. Nicole
Prause, PhD, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at the
University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues recently
studied brain responses in people who have trouble regulating
their porn consumption.
Prause used EEG to measure a brain response known as
P300, which is a component of the brain’s electrical activity that
occurs about 300 milliseconds after viewing a stimulus. This
activity increases when people are emotionally engaged with that
stimulus. When people with drug addictions view drug-related
images, for instance, they show a clear bump in the P300 value.
Prause used three separate scales to identify people with
hypersexual problems. Then she showed them
a variety of images, including
sexual ones. She predicted she’d
see a dose response: Those people who reported
having greater difficulty controlling their porn use would
experience a greater spike in the P300 value. “Frankly, I thought
this would be a slam-dunk easy finding,” she says.
Surprisingly, that was not the case. People who reported
greater problems controlling porn use had no clear change in
the P300 value related to their level of sexual problems, whether
they viewed porn or neutral images such as food or people
skiing (Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 2013). “Our
findings don’t make them look at all like addicts,” she says.
Meanwhile, a 2013 study by researchers at the University of
Leicester in the United Kingdom suggests that a penchant for
porn may be more compulsion than addiction. In a study of
porn use among 226 men, the researchers found that certain
traits — neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and
obsessional checking behaviors — were correlated with high
Funding agencies are still squeamish about sex. “It’s difficult to have it taken seriously. But it really is a science like any other.”