Pornography Addiction 101: The Basics #hopelds

Back in April our first installment of the #hopelds series was published, titled “What Wives of Sex Addicts Want You to Know.”  At the end of that post, the author posed several questions to our readers.  We hope that as you have followed our #hopelds series, some of these questions have been answered for you.  But in case they have not, we want to directly address them for you in today’s post.  We would encourage you to continue to read, learn, and seek out additional resources to help you gain a better understanding of these and other issues surrounding pornography and sexual addiction and it’s impact on individuals, families, and society.

When do the seeds of compulsive pornography use usually form? (Hint: it’s not in adulthood)

Based on one research study done several years ago, the average age that men are exposed to pornography is twelve years old, and compulsive pornography use or other sexually acting out behavior often begins in childhood or adolescence for both men and women.  Since the average age was twelve, that would mean that a fair number of those studied had exposures before then.  It is not uncommon to hear of exposure beginning at ages as young as five years, with the exposure either being to pornography, outright sexual abuse, or both.  Because children can be exposed at very young ages, it is important for parents and caregivers to actively educate their very young children about healthy sexuality (with resources like the 30 Days of Sex Talks books) and pornography (check out Good Pictures, Bad Pictures and How to Talk to Your Kids about Pornography) and follow organizations who are dedicating themselves to this type of work (see Educate Empower Kids and Protect Young Minds).

What does lust addiction look like? (Hint: it’s not just identified by pornography use (although porn is a good indicator) and can sometimes exist without pornography use.

Lust addiction, more commonly called sexual or pornography addiction, is the underlying motivation for a wide array of sexual “acting out” behaviors.  These behaviors can include pornography use, masturbation, sexual acts with prostitutes or affair partners, voyeurism (gaining sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaging in sexual activity), exhibitionism, groping, fantasizing about sexual behaviors, seeking inappropriate attention or emotional connection with others, reading erotic literature, sexting, and more.  Unlike substance addictions, those with sexual addiction can also get a release of chemicals in the reward center of the brain by simply recalling past experiences with lust or creating new experiences in their mind.  One addict has described this phenomenon as “acting in,” and includes “thinking about it, fantasizing, planning, wondering, staring, connecting, intriguing and flirting” on his list of lustful “acting in” behaviors.

brain damaged caused by porn

How do compulsive/addictive behaviors impact the brain?

Pornography, along with the masturbation that almost always accompanies its use, floods the brain with dopamine and other neurotransmitters that give the viewer an intense pleasurable feeling.  The more often the neurons in the brain are stimulated in this way, the stronger the connection becomes between porn use and the chemical rush, and the pathway that leads to the reward grows stronger and broadens.  As the brain becomes accustomed to these neurotransmitters, it downregulates it’s dopamine receptors, which often leads to users seeking out more pornography or more hardcore/novel pornography to produce the same pleasurable result.  Pornography use, like other addictions, has been shown to lead to a shrinkage of the frontal lobes of the brain, which causes a decrease in logical problem solving ability, judgement, and decision making.

pornography addiction

How does compulsive or addictive behavior impact marriage and family relationships and dynamics?

Even when a spouse and family are not aware of the sexual addiction of their loved one, they often can retrospectively identify that something was “off” in their marriage or their relationship.  Because they are not aware of what is going on, they commonly blame themselves or their own shortcomings for these feelings.  Family members may sense a lack of spiritual leadership or moral authority from the person suffering with addiction.

Those who are struggling with sexual addiction may suffer from other seemingly unrelated problems that impact their family and personal life.  These may include emotionally abusive behaviors (insulting, degrading, manipulating), dishonesty, insecurity, irritability, and inability to share their feelings or emotions.  They may suffer from other behaviors that can become compulsive and negatively affect their relationships, such as overeating, gambling, video gaming, compulsive spending, or drug and alcohol use.

Those who use pornography begin to see others as objects instead of people.  They even objectify their spouse and see them as an opportunity to temporarily quench their thirst for lust.

“[Those] who view pornography, engage in masturbation or otherwise indulge in lust… cannot bond emotionally or spiritually with their [spouse]. When that sacred bond is disrupted by the [addict’s] secret, “victimless” behavior, the [spouse] feels it in [their] heart and knows it in [their] mind. [They] may not be able to attach a name to the objectification, but [they are] most definitely aware of it. [They] know something isn’t right in the marriage.” –Andrew, The ABCs of Porn Addiction: An LDS View (pg 6)

What can someone who can’t stop starting unwanted sexual behaviors or thoughts do to find recovery? (Hint: prayer and scriptures and bishop visits alone are rarely sufficient to produce lasting recovery)

Many resources are available to those who feel that their compulsive sexual behaviors are unwanted or are out of control.  Along with increased spiritual activities like prayer, scripture study, and working with an ecclesiastical leader, it is almost always necessary to work with a qualified therapist experienced in sexual addiction and to also be involved in a group recovery setting (we recommend 12 step groups such as LDS ARP/PASG groups, SA groups, SAL groups, etc).  SA Lifeline, a non-profit organization that provides hope, education, and resources for recovery from sexual addiction and betrayal trauma, advocates a 4-pronged approach to recovery with 1) addiction education, 2) spiritual guidance, 3) qualified therapy, and 4) being actively involved in a 12 step program.  Dr. Donald L. Hilton Jr., in his book He Restoreth My Soul: Understanding and Breaking the Chemical and Spiritual Chains of Pornography Addiction through the Atonement of Jesus Christ discusses the difference between repentance from and recovery from a sexual addiction.  These are often confused but are not the same, and repentance often comes long before real recovery is found.

What is the difference between sobriety and recovery? What does white-knuckling mean? What does it look like? What does lasting recovery look like?

You may have heard the saying “sobriety is not recovery.”  Sobriety, when referring to addictive behavior, simply means the absence of “acting out” behavior.  In lust addiction, this may mean refraining from viewing pornography or other behaviors as detailed above.  Recovery, on the other hand, is “a process of change through which an individual achieves abstinence and improved health, wellness, and quality of life.”  (This definition, from the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, works just as well for lust/sexual addiction as it does for substance addiction).  Often, therapists refer to recovery as “healthy living.”  Recovery involves learning a new way to view and interact with the world, helping individuals to not only discard their old harmful coping mechanisms (addiction) but to learn healthy behaviors and new skills to deal with stress and negative emotion.

White-knuckling involves using simple willpower to refrain from acting out.  Improvements in health, wellness, quality of life, and acquisition of new skills do not accompany white-knuckling.  A person may be able to abstain by white-knuckling for days, weeks, months, or even years, but because they have not explored and addressed the underlying negative emotions and false core beliefs that fuel addiction, they eventually return to acting out.  Real recovery takes concerted effort and results in positive changes in all areas of life, not just absence of addictive behavior.  

What resources are available for loved ones of those with addiction? Why do they need resources at all if they aren’t the ones with the addiction?

When someone confesses to a problem with sexually compulsive behavior, often there is a flurry of activity from ecclesiastical leaders, family, and friends as they scramble to try to get help for their addicted loved one.  The spouse, parent, or other family member whose life has been deeply affected by the addiction and who needs to find recovery as well is often overlooked.  Recent research on betrayal trauma has taught us that many spouses of sex addicts suffer from symptoms of PTSD and need just as much help and healing as the addicted person.  Some of the resources available to help family members include this Hope and Healing blog and forum, Addo Recovery and Bloom, The Togetherness Project, Mothers Who Know, the Healing Through Christ workbook, and 12 step groups for loved ones of those with sexual addiction.  There are also many blogs available online of individuals who share their journey to find healing from the addiction of their loved one.

Recovery from lust addiction

What does healing for a loved one look like?

We are just beginning to learn how deeply loved ones can be affected by sexual addiction of another and how their healing process takes place.  Research addressing this issue is only a few years old.  We gathered a few statements from loved ones of those with addiction about their own healing process.  Here are some answers to the questions, “What does healing look like for you as someone with a loved one in addiction?  How do you know you are on the path to recovery?”

I know I am on the path to recovery when I’m taking physical, spiritual and emotional care of myself, when God is in the center of my life and my decisions, when I respond to situations rather than react, when I can let go of the need for approval, and when I am present with where I am and trying to surrender what I can’t control (my husband, others, the past…)

I know I am on the path to recovery when I am grounded, when I can tell my perspective has widened and those things that triggered me or sent me into a spiral have become doable, and when I acknowledge that I can only control myself and because of this I know that I am not a victim. I can choose what is acceptable in my life and what isn’t and I can adjust to make my life mine!

When I am able to detach in love, I know I’m making progress. It means that his moods and his progress still have influence, but not the control they did over my life. Recovery means having my own goals for myself and working on my personal relationship with God and trusting him. It means practicing forgiveness of my past self for not knowing the things I didn’t know yet.

I know I am on the path to recovery when I feel peace in all areas of my life.  

For those of you who have not yet been personally impacted by lust addiction (either your own or that of a loved one), we hope that the brief answers to these questions have helped you learn more and have motivated you to continue to educate yourself. Whether you are aware of it or not, pornography and sexual addiction does affect many people you know and love–your spouses, siblings, parents, children, grandchildren, friends, and others.  For those who may be struggling with addiction or betrayal, we hope our series has provided you with the information and the tools that you need to seek help.  Although this is a modern-day plague affecting both males and females of virtually all ages, we believe there is hope and healing to be found in the many resources available for recovery and ultimately through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.



This is the twelfth and final post in a series of posts addressing education on and recovery from pornography addiction and betrayal trauma.  Please send questions that you have to hopeandhealinglds(at)gmail(dot)com.  

Other posts in the series:

Intro: What wives of sex addicts want you to know

Second Post: Before you Marry My Good-Hearted Son

Third Post: What I Wish I Had Known the First Time I Caught My Husband Looking at Porn

Fourth Post: What We Wish We had Known When We Were Dating: Thoughts from Wives of Sex Addicts

Fifth Post: What We Wish We had Known Sooner: Thoughts From Those In Recovery From Pornography Addiction

Sixth Post: Five Myths about Pornography Addiction

Seventh Post: My Story of Pornography Addiction and Recovery

Eighth Post:  Why I Happily Agreed to Marry an Addict

Ninth Post:  From Porn Addict to Happy Husband

Tenth Post: What No One Tells You About Sex Addiction Recovery

Eleventh Post: What I Have Learned From Attending 12-Step Groups