When “Not Porn” is Still Porn

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Scott Brassart

OK, I need to give credit where credit is due: I first heard the “not porn” concept from my friend Tim Stein, a highly regarded sex addiction therapist in Santa Rosa, CA. Since I first heard Tim discuss this idea, it has taken root in my brain and I’ve incorporated it into how I think and speak about problematic porn use. And hardly a day goes by without the topic popping up.

Last week, for example, in a webinar with my Seeking Integrity colleague Dr. David Fawcett, a betrayed partner told us that her husband was a recovering porn addict who hadn’t looked at porn for seven months. Then she stated he’d replaced the hardcore imagery he was viewing for many years with clothed images on Instagram plus ogling neighbor women on the couple’s nightly walk (and elsewhere). The wife felt like this was still a betrayal and that her husband was not sober from his porn addiction. Her husband disagreed because he was not looking at actual porn.

This is where the concept of “not porn” comes into play. For porn addicts, “not porn” is imagery and sometimes “mind snapshots” of people who are not nude or actively engaged in sexual activity – i.e., not pornography – that are used the same way an addict uses porn. In other words, a porn addict can use “not porn” to escape into a la-la land of sexual fantasy – a “bubble” in which stress, boredom, shame, fear, and other forms of emotional discomfort disappear – just as he or she previously used actual pornography.

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When that happens intentionally, such as surfing Instagram to view hot (but clothed) images, the addiction is alive and well and fully active. Sure, the addict may be in recovery with therapy and 12-step meetings and other support groups, but he is also still acting out in his addiction. It’s like an alcoholic who decides to control his problem by switching from vodka to beer. “If I stay away from the hard stuff, I’m OK, right?”

Wrong. You’re still using a form of addictive behavior to create an emotional escape. Which is what addiction is all about.

Unfortunately for porn addicts, the world is filled with “not porn,” so it’s hard to avoid. That is why I italicized the word intentionally a moment ago. If I’m channel surfing and something triggering pops up, I’m not going to reset my sobriety clock. But neither do I stay on the channel with the triggering imagery. Nor do I go looking for it. For example, Game of Thrones, however awesome the show may be, is off my viewing list. It’s not porn, but watching it, for me, is the same as watching porn because the imagery can easily push me into escapist sexualized fantasy.

At this point, sex and porn addicts may be wondering where “not porn” fits into their sexual sobriety plan (their three-circles plan). For me, simply stumbling across triggering imagery is in my middle circle. It’s slippery and I need to take contrary action, but if I didn’t intentionally go looking for it and I don’t act on the trigger by continuing to view the imagery or looking for more of it, I’m not acting out. Intentional use of “not porn” is a different story. If I go looking for not porn or stick with it after I inadvertently see it, that’s active addiction and an inner-circle behavior.

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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.