Sex Addiction and Drug Addiction Show Similar Activity in the Brain

Evaluating an MRI of the brainIn the popular imagination, compulsive or addictive behaviors such as shopping or sex are regarded as different from chemical dependency on drugs or alcohol. Even some addiction counselors have argued that behavioral addictions are somehow easier to control because they don’t involve an addictive substance. New research, however, demonstrates that, in the brain, sex addiction looks similar to drug addiction.

Sex Addiction and Brain Activity

The study examined the effects of pornography on brain activity in people who have compulsive sexual behaviors. Excessive pornography use is common among people who experience sex addiction. Researchers showed 19 male subjects pornographic images while monitoring their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They then compared the results to the brain activity of an additional 19 men with a history of compulsive sexual behavior.

The men with a history of compulsive sexual behavior had increased brain activity in the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate, and amygdala. These regions are the same areas that show increased activity during drug use in people who are addicted.

Darren Haber, MA, MFT, a addiction Topic Expert, finds the results unsurprising, explaining, “It’s no surprise that a so-called behavioral addiction mimics drug addiction, especially when that behavior involves something as primally stimulating and rewarding as sex. What troubles me is that our society still seems more interested in playing a semantics game around debating compulsive sexual behavior as ‘addiction, yes or no’ when this enslaving disorder creates such suffering and shame for countless men and women.” Haber emphasizes that our culture often tacitly endorses sex addiction, compounding the problem that those with addiction face. “Porn is a billion dollar business. Soft-core porn is rampant in commercial media. Women are objectified and exploited globally to make a buck, and yet being a (person who is addicted to sex) is somehow shameful or hard to understand,” he says.

What Qualifies as Sex Addiction?

In a sex-saturated society, it can be challenging to draw the line between normal sexual behavior and sex addiction. For those who experience sex addiction, though, sexual behavior feels obligatory rather than enjoyable. Angela Skurtu, MEd, LMFT, a sexuality Topic Expert, explains, “One of the most difficult struggles partners experience with sex and porn addictions is that these behaviors often take place in lieu of a satisfying sex life with one another. The (person with sex addiction) will struggle because he or she doesn’t actually enjoy his or her sexual behaviors. They feel compelled to engage in these behaviors.”

Skurtu cautions that not all use of pornography use indicates sex addiction. “Clinicians must be careful to educate clients about normal sexual behavior, while also being respectful of the client’s personal values. Watching pornography for 15 minutes or so every other day during masturbation is relatively common. As long as the masturbation does not take the place of a healthy sex life for the couple, it should not be considered problematic behavior,” she says.


University of Cambridge. (2014, July 11). Brain activity in sex addiction mirrors that of drug addiction. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from

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  • Walker

    July 16th, 2014 at 6:09 PM

    I found out recently that my partner has been addicted to porn for quite some time, and I guess you could say that I am both angry and heartbroken at the same time. This just feels like one of those situations that is unreal, like I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that this is what he has been doing with his time while I am left to raise the kids and do everything at home. This is what he chooses to do, and would rather do this than be with us? I am disgusted and ashamed that I honestly had no true idea that this was going on.

  • Estelle

    July 17th, 2014 at 6:22 AM

    Is there something wrong with me in that I don’t want my husband looking at porn? Why am I not good enough?

  • Louisa

    July 18th, 2014 at 12:11 PM

    @Estelle- it can be stressful thinking about your spouse looking at photos or film of other women but please know that pornography can actually spice uip your relationship when used the right way. Just because he looks does not mean that he is addicted and it definitely does not mean that he is not interested in you. Maybe he wants to shake things up a little and is searching for ways to add you into what he is doing. This can be just as hard for men to ask for something new as it is women so I think that until you have a serious discussion with him you should probably take it a little easy on him and find out where he wants to go with this.

  • Jeremey T.

    July 20th, 2014 at 5:55 AM

    I don’t get what the big deal is. Guys look at porn, plain and simple. I don’t even know how this would come up that it could be compared to drug abuse. It is naked pictures for goodness sake, not like some chemical you are putting into your body to alter the state of mind that you are in! I mean, guys have been doing this since the beginning of time, fantasizing about women, but only recently has it become something bad or compared to an addiction. It isn’t addiction, just a little eye candy when you want a little something different. Doesn’t mean you don’t love the one you are with, but we can all have our fantasies right?

  • Tilly

    July 22nd, 2014 at 4:36 PM

    If we look at this problem even more closely we may even see that the same part of the brain lights up no matter what the addiction is. It could have the same ramifications no matter whether it is shopping, drinking, drugs, whatever. If this is something that brings you a great deal of pleasure and is addictive for you then I think that there should at least be a good chance that a certain part of the brain is being triggered.

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