Digital-Age/Conditioned Porn Addiction: A New Version of an Old Problem

Originally published by Robert Weiss PhD, MSW, CSAT on PsychCentral and reposted with his permission.

For a long time, therapists treating sex and porn addiction found that all (or at least the vast majority) of their clients had deep and powerful underlying early-life trauma issues—neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, covert incest, etc. This put sex and porn addicts very much in line with alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, and the like. In fact, there is a large body of research showing unresolved early-life trauma to be a huge risk factor for later-life addiction (of all types).

Recently, however, sexual disorders therapists like myself have encountered a new and rapidly growing subcategory of sex and porn addicts. These are individuals who readily meet the three primary criteria for sex and porn addiction (shown below) but lack the underlying early-life trauma that typically drives an addiction. Both traditional, trauma-driven sex and porn addicts and this new subcategory—that I now refer to as digital-age/conditioned porn addicts—experience the following:

  1. Preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and behavior.
  2. Loss of control over the use of sexual fantasies and behavior, most often evidenced by multiple failed attempts to quit or cut back.
  3. Directly related negative life consequences—ruined relationships, trouble at work or in school, financial issues, loss of interest in other activities, social and emotional isolation, anxiety, depression, diminished self-esteem, arrests, etc.

The primary differences between the two subtypes are:

  1. One category is trauma-based (the same as we see with the vast majority of alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, and other addicts) while the other is not.
  2. Many digital-age/conditioned porn addicts have never had real-world sex. Thus, they do not self-identify as sex addicts. They see themselves as porn addicts. (Most trauma-based sex addicts with a porn problem are addicted to both porn and other forms of sex and therefore tend to self-identify as “sex addicts” or “sex and porn addicts.”)

Though research on this topic is still in the early stages, the studies we do have correspond with what I and other therapists are reporting anecdotally. These two subtypes of sex/porn addicts are discussed in further detail below.

Subtype 1: Traditional Sex Addicts with a Porn Problem

These addicts, like the vast majority of addicts of all types, 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 abusive, neglectful upbringing is to numb out and escape through use of a pleasure-inducing substance or behavior. Sometimes these young people discover alcohol and drugs; other times they discover sexual fantasy, masturbation, pornography, webcams, hookups, and the like. Whatever the substance or behavior, they use it less for having a good time and more to escape emotional discomfort—stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, boredom, shame, etc.

This is a common thread with all forms of addiction. Addicts of all types seek to control their emotions by numbing out with addictive substances and/or behaviors. Addictive substances and behaviors trigger a neurochemical pleasure response that helps people temporarily escape whatever in-the-moment unpleasant feelings they’re having. Over time, this numbing effect can become a person’s go-to coping mechanism, no matter what is happening. This is a sure sign of addiction. The person has a feeling, and he or she automatically and without conscious thought turns to his or her addiction to escape that feeling. So addictions, generally, are not about feeling good, they’re about feeling less.

Typically, this addictive “call and response” is developed early in life, with kids and teens seeking to escape the pain of neglect, abuse, inconsistent parenting, and the like via substance use/abuse, escapist fantasies (including sexual fantasies), fantasy-driven behaviors (looking at porn, hookups, gambling, video gaming, etc.) In short, traditional addicts of all types “medicate” the emotional discomfort of their unresolved early-life trauma with addictive substances or behaviors.

Subtype 2: Digital-Age/Conditioned Porn Addicts

As stated above, this new and rapidly emerging subcategory of porn addiction/compulsivity differs from what we’ve traditionally seen in two very significant ways: (1) digital-age/conditioned sex addicts lack the unresolved early-life trauma that we typically see with addictions of all types; and (2) their entire sex life often revolves around pornography. Still, this group is obsessed with sexual fantasies and behaviors (online porn), they’ve lost control (they’ve repeatedly tried and failed to cut back on or quit their use of porn), and they’re experiencing directly related negative consequences. In other words, they absolutely qualify as sex/porn addicts—but without the trauma-driven need/desire to escape from and/or numb their emotions, and without any (or with very little) real-world sexual experience.

So why does this group turn to porn over and over despite the problems this causes in their lives? I and others, including many of the people who are struggling with and talking about digital-age/conditioned porn addiction, believe that this digital-age group is more “conditioned” to porn than traditionally addicted via trauma.

Essentially, digital-age/conditioned porn addicts are individuals who start using porn at a young age (often before puberty hits), and they don’t move beyond it. For them, porn (and sometimes other forms of non-intimate online sexuality) are both sex education and sexual fulfillment. Because of this, their emotional and psychological development in terms of sexuality and relationships is stunted—beginning and ending with porn. Their ability to form meaningful real-world romantic attachments does not develop—or does not fully develop—so they find themselves turning more and more to porn until it becomes an addiction.

With porn and other forms of non-intimate online sexuality, there is no risk of rejection, 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 boyfriend or girlfriend could possibly match. In other words, these porn users become “conditioned” to porn to the point where real-world interactions don’t (and can’t) match up. Over time, this becomes highly problematic, especially when these individuals find themselves wanting a real-world romance. They find that no matter how much they want that real-world connection, it just doesn’t seem to work for them.

In my next post to this site, I’ll discuss the different approaches to treatment for these very distinct subtypes of sex/porn addicts.