The Cycle of Pornography

By James M. Rochford

Dr. Patrick Carnes—an expert in the field of sexual addiction—has articulated a cycle of addiction, when it comes to pornography. Consider his chart below:


Let’s consider each of these steps:

1. Preoccupation

Porn users do not know how to maturely deal with their emotions of shame, pain, frustration, or loneliness. Laaser writes, “Sex remains a means of coping with stress. When painful feelings occur, sex becomes a way to medicate that pain.”[1] Because they are emotionally immature, they look for shortcuts to produce a positive emotion or mood. This fantasy life leads to forming a plan or a ritual.

2. Ritual

As the person tries to preoccupy themselves from their negative mood or emotion, they begin to form a ritual: a way that they can act out sexually. Rituals can take from 5 minutes to 5 hours to 5 days. Here, the person makes a plan for how they are going to fall into porn. When they eventually fall, they often say that it happened all at once (“I don’t know how it happened!”). Porn addicts need to see that they will win or lose their battle in this stage. That is, once they have reached the ritual stage, it is likely that they will reach the acting out stage.

3. Acting out

In this stage, the person moves from fantasizing and planning to actually falling into porn. The key to stopping this stage is to help stop the person before they ever get here. The addict feels like they can’t help themselves once they get to this stage. It “just happens” here. They need to see the connection between this and the previous stage.

4. Despair

After the person falls into porn, this doesn’t cure their negative emotions or mood. Instead, this only leads to the person feeling worse. At this stage, the person often engages in “finger pointing,” turning on God or other people in their life (“God, why didn’t you help me with this temptation?”). In order to see victory, porn addicts need to come to terms with this cycle, and they need to learn to stop their problem before they enter into the ritual stage.

Some encouragement is needed here: As you continue to break this cycle of sin, you’ll find that resistance to porn actually becomes easier. The hardest part of breaking your habit is in the beginning, when you’re just getting started. Don’t give up! If you can break your porn habit for a few months, you’ll find that resisting porn actually becomes easier. This is because you are breaking many associations and patterns that have become normal to you over the years. As you repeatedly break these patterns, you’ll develop new, healthier ways of dealing with your lust and other issues in your life.

Porn users will often feel heavily discouraged in these first few weeks, because they’ve never tried to quit porn before. If you’re trying to break your porn habit and it actually feels harder than before, this is because you’re actually resisting what has always seemed normal. Don’t give up! Keep pressing on to get a few months under your belt. You’ll find that it’ll actually get easier. By contrast, when you consistently give in to your temptation, you’ll find that it only gets harder to break free from it.

The most important stage to attack is the “ritual stage.” Consider these questions below:

When? What time of day do you typically fall into porn? (e.g. morning, noon, or night)

Where? Where do you fall into porn? (e.g. your bedroom, your desk, your parents’ house)

How? How do you have access to porn? (e.g. your laptop, your desktop, your phone)

[1] Laaser, Mark R. Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. 47.