Treatment for Porn Compulsivity/Addiction: Part 2, Digital-Age “Conditioned” Users

In last week’s post, we discussed the fact that in today’s increasingly digital world there are two distinct categories of compulsive/addicted porn users. First, there are the traditional trauma-driven addicts that we’ve seen for many years. Then there is a new category of compulsive/addicted porn users that is driven more by “conditioning” than unresolved trauma.

Early in the healing process, treatment for these two groups is, in most respects, the same. The primary focus is on identifying and halting the compulsive/addictive behavior. As treatment progresses, however, the approach diverges. This divergence is necessary because although the two categories of compulsive/addicted porn users may look the same on the surface, they are quite different beneath the surface. The underlying issues driving the behavior are just not the same. Thus, the longer-term treatment approach is also not the same.

In last week’s post, we discussed both short-term and longer-term treatment for traditional, trauma-driven porn addicts. This week, we examine the treatment approach for digital-age conditioned addicts.

Treating “Conditioned” Porn Compulsivity/Addiction

As stated above, this new and rapidly emerging cohort of porn users looks, on the surface, incredibly similar to traditional trauma-driven porn addicts. Both groups are preoccupied to the point of obsession with pornography, they have repeatedly tried and failed to either cut back on or quit, and they are experiencing directly related negative life consequences. However, the behavior of conditioned users is not driven by unresolved trauma. As such, these individuals lack the trauma-driven need/desire to numb and escape from their emotions.

Typically, conditioned porn compulsives/addicts start using porn at a young age (often before puberty kicks in) and they don’t move beyond it. For them, porn becomes both sex education and sexual fulfillment. As a result, their ability to form meaningful real-world romantic attachments does not develop (or does not fully develop). So rather than being trauma-based, their compulsive use of pornography is more about conditioning and developmental deficits.

With pornography, there is no risk of rejection, there is no risk of committing an embarrassing social faux pas, there are no strange odors or unexpected physical sensations, and users get a constant and constantly changing barrage of hyper-stimulating sexual intensity that no real-world girlfriend or boyfriend could possibly match. So it’s easy to see the appeal of porn, especially with younger users who are just becoming sexually aware.

Over time, these (often quite young) porn users become conditioned to porn to the point where real-world interactions can’t and don’t match up. Eventually, porn becomes their go-to sexual outlet. As occurs with any compulsive or addictive behavior, this becomes highly problematic over time, especially when these individuals find themselves wanting a real-world romance. Often, they find that no matter how much they want a lasting real-world intimate connection, they can’t seem to manage it because they don’t know how. They never developed the skills they need because they were too preoccupied with pornography. Worse still, they no longer respond with automatic arousal to the close presence of an attractive potential partner.

So, what does treatment look like with this group, and how does it differ from treatment for traditional porn addicts? As stated in last week’s post, in the early stages of recovery, the approach is the same as with traditional porn addicts, with a focus on stopping the use of porn, breaking through the addict’s denial about his or her porn use, managing crises, and developing countermeasures to help prevent relapse.

That’s where the similarities end.

One primary reason for this is that conditioned porn users typically find it easier than traditional, trauma-driven porn addicts to quit and stay quit. Conditioned users are generally more able to walk away from porn use, even extremely heavy porn use, with a relatively modest amount of intervention and support. And when they do quit, many of their most obvious porn-related problems (in particular porn-induced erectile dysfunction) tend to abate within a few months. Basically, the rewards center of their brain is able to “reboot,” returning to a pre-porn baseline, relatively quickly. With trauma-based addicts, this process tends to take much longer. Thus, treatment of conditioned porn users can typically move from initial intervention to secondary issues more quickly.

More importantly, the secondary issues requiring treatment are different. Rather than focusing on the resolution of unresolved early-life trauma, as eventually occurs with traditional porn addicts, treatment moves into the who, what, when, where, why, and how of real-world relationships. This is because, as stated earlier, conditioned porn users tend to struggle with developing and/or maintaining healthy real-world connections. They just don’t know how to successfully navigate the often-confusing waters of dating and sexual exploration.

Dr. Rob Weiss believes this developmental shortcoming occurs because these individuals did not learn the necessary skills during childhood and adolescence (for any number of reasons, including and perhaps primarily their disproportionate focus on pornography). Then, suddenly, they “wake up” (usually in their 20s or 30s) feeling alone and desirous of a real-world relationship with absolutely no idea how to make that happen.

Note: Not all conditioned porn users are completely bereft when it comes to forming healthy real-world relationships. Some are quite adept socially. But it seems that the majority need to be walked through romantic/sexual social development to some degree.

Rather than developmental trauma driving the addiction, as we see with traditional porn addicts, conditioned users appear to be driven by conditioning and developmental delay. Sure, conditioned addicts are likely to also have some unresolved early life trauma (doesn’t everyone), but related to their porn use, that trauma might not be clinically significant.

For these individuals, the driving factor for compulsive porn use appears to be the supernormal stimulus provided by pornography, which the user turns to during key developmental stages because it’s just plain easier than learning how to get one’s needs met with real people. As a result of this over-focus on pornography, relational development is delayed.

As a result, conditioned porn users tend to respond well to much of the early-stage treatment used with traditional porn addiction. But other aspects of treatment for traditional porn addiction, most notably trauma work, can be overkill. These individuals are better served in the longer-term with developmental work, including socialization exercises, accountability with peers, and age-appropriate socialization.

When the porn goes away and conditioned porn users are walked through healthy development, their issues seem to clear up. There is relatively little fight to stay away from pornography. They are able to put the porn down and move on. Traditional porn addicts do not experience this. For them, walking away from porn is an agonizing process—two steps forward, one and a half steps back. Often, there are multiple slips and relapses before they develop even a small amount of real sobriety. And nearly always, a considerable amount of outside support (individual therapy, group therapy, 12-step recovery, and, eventually, trauma work) is needed.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with compulsive or addictive use of pornography, plenty of help is available. Residential treatment and online workgroups can be found at Seeking Integrity: Los Angeles. Free online podcasts, articles, webinars, drop-in discussion groups, and daily inspirations are available through SexandRelationshipHealing.com.