What Is Problematic Porn Use?

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Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW, CSAT

For a long time, clinicians treating people with porn-related issues found that all (or at least the vast majority) of such clients had a history of early-life trauma – physical neglect, emotional neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, covert incest, etc. This put porn addicts in line with alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, and the like. In fact, there is a large body of research showing that unresolved early-life trauma is a huge risk factor for all types of addiction.

Recently, however, we have seen a new and rapidly growing subcategory of people struggling with pornography. These individuals meet the basic criteria used to identify addiction but lack the underlying early-life trauma that typically drives addiction. Rather than qualifying as traditional trauma-driven porn addicts, it appears these individuals have developed a “conditioned” compulsivity with pornography.

The criteria used to diagnose porn addiction (and now conditioned compulsivity) are as follows:

  1. Preoccupation with pornography to the point of obsession.
  2. Loss of control over the use of pornography, typically evidenced by multiple failed attempts to quit or cut back.
  3. Directly related negative life consequences, including relationship disconnection, issues at work or in school, social and emotional isolation, depression, anxiety, diminished self-esteem, legal woes, financial struggles, poor self-care, loss of interest in previously enjoyable hobbies and activities, etc.

As stated above, the primary difference between traditional porn addicts and the new category of conditioned compulsive porn users is that porn addicts have deep underlying trauma that drives their behavior, while conditioned users do not. In this post, I will examine traditional porn addicts. Next week I will write about conditioned compulsive porn users.

Traditional Porn Addicts

Traditional porn addicts are driven by complex (multi-layered) early-life trauma. These individuals learn, usually during childhood and adolescence, that an effective way to escape the pain of their dysfunctional upbringing is to numb out and escape through a pleasure-inducing substance or behavior. Sometimes these individuals discover alcohol and drugs; other times they discover masturbation, pornography, video gaming, gambling, and the like. Whatever the substance or behavior, they learn to use it less for having a good time and more to escape emotional discomfort – stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, boredom, shame, etc.

Simply stated, traditional trauma-driven porn addicts seek to control their emotions by “escaping” into an emotional void created by pornography. Viewing porn triggers a neurochemical pleasure response (mostly dopamine and adrenaline) that temporarily distracts them from whatever in-the-moment unpleasant feelings they’re having. Over time, this numbing effect becomes their go-to coping mechanism, no matter what is going on. They have a feeling, and they automatically and without conscious thought turn to pornography to escape that feeling.

Nearly always, this addictive call and response is developed early in life, with young people seeking to escape the pain of neglect, abuse, inconsistent parenting, and the like through escapist sexual fantasies aided and abetted by porn. In short, these trauma-driven individuals repeatedly (addictively/compulsively) choose to “self-medicate” their emotional discomfort by numbing out and escaping with pornography.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with pornography, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups, including a porn-specific workgroup beginning September 18th. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.