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Home » Blogs » Sex and Intimacy » Pavlov’s Porn: Understanding the ‘Conditioned’ Use of Pornography

Pavlov’s Porn: Understanding the ‘Conditioned’ Use of Pornography


Once upon a time, in the pre-internet dark ages, finding and viewing porn was not so easy, especially for young people. Even for adults, using porn was an expensive and potentially humiliating experience. So becoming compulsive with or addicted to pornography was relatively rare.

Not so today.

Porn is accessible to and viewed by just about every demographic. And this happened in what feels like the blink of an eye. One day porn was taboo and hard to find, the next day it was everywhere. In today’s world, pretty much anyone who wants to look at porn can do so, and they can easily find whatever it is that sexually excites them. And eventually some of these individuals are bound to become compulsive or addictive with their use of porn.

For a long time, clinicians treating people with porn-related issues found that all (or at least the vast majority) of these 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 later-life addiction (of all types).

Recently, however, we have encountered a new and rapidly growing subcategory of individuals struggling with pornography. These are individuals who meet the basic criteria used to identify Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder (delineated below) but lack the underlying early-life trauma that typically drives an addiction. So, rather than qualifying as traditional trauma-driven porn addicts, it appears these individuals have developed a ‘conditioned’ compulsivity with pornography.

The criteria for compulsive/addictive porn use are as follows:

  1. Preoccupation with pornography to the point of obsession, often resulting in the continual objectification of self and others (both real-world and online).
  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, such as 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.

Both categories of struggling porn users (traditional addicts and conditioned compulsives) meet these criteria. But when we look beneath the surface at causes and conditions that underlie the behavior, the two cohorts are very different.

Traditional Porn Addicts

Traditionally, 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 abusive, traumatic, or neglectful 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 use it less for having a good time and more to escape emotional discomfort – stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, boredom, shame, etc.

Traditional, trauma-driven porn addicts seek to control their emotions by ‘escaping’ into pornography. Porn triggers a neurochemical pleasure response that helps them temporarily avoid whatever in-the-moment unpleasant feelings they’re having. Over time, this numbing effect becomes their go-to coping mechanism, no matter what is happening. Basically, 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 that are aided and abetted by porn. In other words, traditional, trauma-driven porn addicts repeatedly and compulsively choose to ‘self-medicate’ their emotional discomfort with pornography.

Conditioned/Compulsive Porn Users

This new and rapidly emerging subcategory of people who struggle with porn differs from what we’ve traditionally seen in two significant ways:

  1. Conditioned/Compulsive porn users appear to lack the unresolved early-life trauma that typically drives addictive behaviors.
  2. Their sex life almost exclusively revolves around pornography (and porn-like online activity such as sexting, camgirls/boys, and mutual masturbation via webcam).

This group of porn users is preoccupied with porn to the point of obsession, they’ve lost control over their use of porn, and they’re experiencing negative consequences related to their porn use. In other words, they absolutely qualify as porn addicts. They do not, however, present with a trauma-driven need to escape from and numb their emotions, as we see with traditional addicts.

So, why does this group turn to porn over and over despite the problems it causes in their lives? As stated earlier, it appears this digital-age group of porn users is more ‘conditioned’ toward compulsivity than traditionally addicted via trauma. Not that traditional addicts aren’t conditioned toward porn. They are. Just as conditioned porn users typically do have some elements of trauma. Sometimes porn use itself can be traumatic, especially for young people who are inadvertently exposed to pornography, and for individuals whose usage escalates to include rape porn, bestiality, child sexual abuse, and the like.

Clearly, there is crossover between traditional porn addicts and conditioned porn users. Moreover, conditioned porn users, if/when their usage escalates in ways that create trauma, can easily move from one category to the other. But often they do not.

Who Are Conditioned/Compulsive Porn Users?

Generally speaking, conditioned porn users start viewing porn at a young age – often before puberty hits – and then they fail to move beyond this easily accessed sexual outlet. For these individuals, porn (and similar forms of online sexuality) serve as both sex education and sexual fulfillment. In such cases, their emotional and psychological development in terms of sexuality and relationships is stunted – beginning and ending with what they learn from porn. As such, their ability to form and maintain meaningful real-world romantic and sexual attachments does not develop or does not fully develop in the usual ways.

Typically, conditioned porn users continue to use porn without recognizing that they may have a problem until they decide they want to have a real-world relationship and realize they have no idea how to go about that. Other times, they recognize that porn might be a problem for them only when they attempt to be sexual with a real person – often someone they care about and find extremely attractive – and find that they can’t perform. We see this most often with young males who, when they try to be sexual with a real person, experience what clinicians refer to as porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED).

Conditioned/compulsive responses to porn typically develop because pornography presents no risk of rejection, no risk of sexual failure, and no risk of committing an embarrassing social faux pas. Plus, with porn there are no strange odors or unexpected physical sensations. All that users get with porn is a constant, easily controllable, and constantly changing barrage of hyper-stimulating sexual intensity.

What’s not to like, right?

Over time, these often very young porn users become conditioned to porn to the point where real-world interactions can’t and don’t match up. So porn becomes their go-to sexual outlet, and they get hooked on ‘pixel sex.’ Eventually, as with any compulsive or addictive behavior, this can be highly problematic.

Does the Category Matter?

Many (perhaps most) of the clinicians who treat porn-related issues are unaware of the difference between traditional porn addiction and conditioned/compulsive porn use. This is partly because the two categories, on the surface, look the same, and partly because clinicians have not yet been taught to look for the subtle differences. Thus, they treat all struggling porn users with the same approach and methodology. In the early stages of recovery, this is not an issue, as the same initial interventions are effective with both cohorts. Longer-term, however, because the underlying etiology is significantly different, treatment should also differentiate.

The differential approaches to treatment will be discussed in a future posting to this site. In the interim, if you or someone you know is struggling with either addictive or conditioned/compulsive porn use, I suggest that you visit SexandRelationshipHealing.com for free resources, and SeekingIntegrity.com for information about fully informed professional treatment.

Pavlov’s Porn: Understanding the ‘Conditioned’ Use of Pornography


Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW

Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW is Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity Treatment Centers. He is an expert in the treatment of adult intimacy disorders and related addictions, most notably sex/porn/relationship addictions along with co-occurring drug/sex addiction. A clinical sexologist and practicing psychotherapist, Dr. Rob frequently serves as a subject matter expert for major media outlets including CNN, HLN, MSNBC, OWN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others.Dr. Rob is the author of Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency, Out of the Doghouse, Sex Addiction 101, and Cruise Control, among other books. He blogs regularly for Psychology Today and Psych Central. His podcast, Sex, Love, & Addiction, is rated as a Top 10 Addiction Podcast for 2019. He also hosts a weekly live no-cost Webinar with Q&A on SexandRelationshipHealing.com. A skilled clinical educator, Dr. Rob routinely provides training to therapists, hospitals, psychiatric organizations, and even the US military. Over the years, he has created and overseen nearly a dozen high-end addiction and mental health treatment facilities across the globe. For more information or to reach Dr. Rob, visit SeekingIntegrity.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).


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APA Reference
Weiss PhD, R. (2020). Pavlov’s Porn: Understanding the ‘Conditioned’ Use of Pornography. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2020/05/pavlovs-porn-understanding-the-conditioned-use-of-pornography/

 

Last updated: 19 May 2020
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.