POCD: It Doesn’t Have To Be a Life Sentence

POCD plagues this woman

What Is POCD?

POCD is a type of OCD that can be anything from annoying to devastating for those who have it. Read on to learn about this condition and the recommended treatment for POCD.

Pedophilic obsessive-compulsive disorder (POCD) is an informal name for OCD when the primary symptom is pedophilic obsessions. It is a sub-type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

POCD is sometimes considered a version of “pure O” OCD or purely obsessive OCD. OCD usually involves obsessions and compulsions. The “pure O” label is used for the rare patients who do not appear to have any compulsions. (Please note: Research shows that someone with obsessions but without visible compulsions is likely to have unobservable or mental compulsions. So, the “pure O” concept is probably a myth.)

POCD often involves compulsions. These can be inward, outward, or both.

What Are Pedophilic Obsessions?

An obsession is a thought, image, or impulse that is usually repeated, unwanted, and/or inappropriate. Obsessions cause significant anxiety when they occur.

Pedophilic obsessions are repeated thoughts, images or impulses related to concerns about being a pedophile. Here are examples of obsessive thoughts, images, and impulses that an adult might encounter if they were worried about being a pedophile:

A pedophilic obsessive image might be imagining that you are engaging in a sexual action with a twelve-year-old child.

A pedophilic obsessive impulse might be experiencing an urge to perform an inappropriate or sexual action with a twelve-year-old child.

These obsessions can be about children who are familiar or not; family members, friends, strangers, or even one’s own children may be the foci of POCD obsessions. As described above, these obsessions occur repeatedly and are unwanted. Typically, they have a terrifying effect on the person with POCD because they suspect that having these thoughts, images, or impulses means they are a pedophile.

How Common Is POCD?

One of the largest and most comprehensive research efforts ever made to measure the prevalence of conditions like OCD was a study called the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. It assessed thousands of people. The study found that over a quarter of Americans have obsessions or compulsions at some point in their lives. They also found that 2.3% of Americans have OCD during their lifetime and, at any given time, about 1.2% of Americans live with OCD. This means that, right now, around four million Americans have OCD!

The study referenced above did not specifically measure how common POCD was because POCD is not an official psychiatric diagnosis. However, the study gives us some helpful clues about how frequently POCD occurs in the American population.

There are several categories of obsessions. These include, but are not limited to, perfectionism, sex and sexuality, religion, contamination, losing control, and harming others. POCD involves a sub-type of sex and sexuality obsessions.

Although research doesn’t give us exact figures, it is reasonable to surmise that less than 10% of people presenting for OCD treatment have POCD.

anxiety disorders.

What’s It Like to Have POCD?

People with POCD often describe their obsessions as demoralizing. They suffer from a lot of shame and doubt, and may feel isolated.

Those who have POCD usually do not confide in loved ones. This is because when they do, they are often met with kind reassurance, such as, “Oh, you’ve got nothing to worry about. I’m sure you’re not one of those people. Please don’t stress about that.”

Sometimes this feels helpful, but only for a short while. Other times, responses like this feel so disconnected from one’s anxiety and concern that they feel impossible to believe. This leaves the POCD sufferer feeling misunderstood and ashamed.

Uncertainty Avoidance

The engine that drives POCD is a deficit in tolerating uncertainty. This experience drives a sequence of events that creates significant anxiety.

Here’s a typical example of how it works for a person living with POCD:

What comes next is often one of four things, none of which are ultimately helpful.

Unhelpful POCD Coping Efforts

Distraction
Either out of calm strategizing or outright panic, someone with POCD may decide to focus their attention on something totally unrelated to the obsessive thought, image or impulse. They do this in the hopes of being productive with their time — or of just escaping the obsession. This often works in the short term, but not in the long term.

Successful Attainment of Reassurance
Seeking reassurance — which is also a compulsion — is perhaps the most popular strategy to calm the anxiety of those with pedophilic obsessions. POCD sufferers who find themselves obsessing are very tempted to find “proof” that they are not a pedophile. The ways people do this vary widely.

Here are some examples

POCD anxiety

Unsuccessful Effort to Attain Reassurance

The strategies listed above may or may not result in achieving reassurance. Looking at an attractive adult of one’s preferred gender may not produce a feeling of attraction. Internet research on pedophilia may not yield comforting information. When this happens, the person with POCD often feels even more distress.

Typically, this leads to more reassurance seeking behaviors. The POCD sufferer might think, Well, I didn’t feel attracted to that woman, but I’ll find another one. This often spirals and leaves them feeling even more despair and shame than ever. Depression often results if this pattern is frequently repeated.

Avoidance Behaviors

in addition to the compulsive ways that people with POCD try to seek reassurance, they may also take steps to ensure that they do not sexually abuse or inappropriately touch children. These are called “avoidance behaviors” and could include measures like the following:

An Addiction — to Reassurance

The reduction of anxiety that POCD sufferers feel when they gain reassurance is powerful. As with most addictions, getting your “fix” only makes you more likely to seek it out again later. (This happens due to a phenomenon called negative reinforcement.) With POCD, this release combines with the abject horror one faces at the idea of being a pedophile and creates a supercharged obsession-compulsion cycle. For example, if someone has an obsession about being attracted to a child and then achieves reassurance by remembering they recently had enjoyable sex with their adult partner, they feel better. This relief is seductive and causes them to want more; but the only way to get more is to find another obsession. So, then they may think: What if I really am attracted to children, and my relationship with my partner is just a manifestation of my denial?! Thoughts like this are often followed by another effort at attaining reassurance, and the cycle continues. People often find there are no easy off-ramps from this POCD highway.

Medication Options

Prescribers primarily use two classes of medication to treat OCD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are medications that increase the amount of a naturally occurring chemical in the brain called serotonin. SSRIs include medications such as Luvox, Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft. SSRIs are the first type of medications prescribed for OCD, and they are prescribed at high doses. Unfortunately around half of people treated for OCD with SSRIs do not respond well enough to meet their goals.

If SSRIs aren’t effective, prescribers will sometimes use other medications sometimes used to manage OCD. These include Anafranil (a tricyclic antidepressant) and medications called novel antipsychotics such as Abilify.

So Which Treatment Works Best?

Which is more effective, ERP or medication treatment? This question needs more research, but studies have suggested that ERP without medication is slightly more effective than medication without ERP (e.g., this study and this study). Many people have a greater comfort level with one of these two options over the other; if you strongly prefer one, seek it out! Treatment can change lives — life after OCD can be a whole new ballgame.

Despairing POCD

Some people with POCD have been so victimized by the condition that the obsessive thoughts no longer feel like new and startling possibilities — they just feel like the truth. I call this “despairing POCD.” People with this kind of POCD avoid being around children, not because they’re afraid that they might be a pedophile, but because they’re confident they are one. The last thing they want is to endanger children. Treatment for “despairing OCD” with exposure and response prevention (described below) can be effective. Despite the hopelessness this condition entails, various forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy can be potent tools to help people with this dispiriting condition.
Despairing POCD

POCD Treatment

The most effective treatment for POCD is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). ERP is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy typically delivered once a week for several months. During this therapy, patients learn about OCD, how OCD works in general, and how it works for them in particular. Patients learn to identify their obsessions and compulsions and gain critical strategies to handle these symptoms when they happen. Eventually, patients receive training in exposure exercises. Exposures are ways to practice improving tolerance for the unpleasant emotional states that precede a compulsion.

By improving your tolerance for these feelings, you hone your ability to refrain from compulsions. This is true for either observable (behavioral) compulsions or for invisible (mental) compulsions. In so doing, you weaken the OCD gradually over the course of therapy.

What’s the Prognosis for POCD?

As mentioned, ERP is the treatment of choice for POCD. Studies typically show ERP for OCD to produce meaningful improvement in two-thirds of patients who receive it. One in three recovers completely.

The two most commonly used medications to treat OCD are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and clomipramine (Anafranil). Research suggests that although these medications can help people with OCD, neither add benefit beyond ERP alone. At this time, there is no reason to believe that POCD would respond differently to the various forms of OCD treatment.

Advice for Those with POCD

If you suffer from POCD it might seem daunting that only two thirds of people typically respond well to ERP therapy. It is helpful to keep the following points in mind:

POCD is a treatable disorder, just as OCD is. If you suffer from POCD and are looking for help, please contact us using the blue “schedule an appointment” button below. We are happy to work with you or help you find someone local who can help.

Now It’s Your Turn

Let us know about your experience in the comments below. If you have questions this page did not address, please mention them and we will try to address them as the page gets updated over time.

Please contact us

if we can help you in your efforts to find therapy for POCD here in New York. Our CBT therapists are doctoral-level psychologists. We also have student therapists who offer reduced-fee services. Our offices are in midtown Manhattan, but we offer teletherapy services to people elsewhere in New York State, New Jersey, and Florida. If you’re looking for therapy for POCD in another part of the country or world, please contact us — we are happy to help!

POCD Frequently Asked Questions

Because POCD is a subtype of OCD, POCD is likely caused by the same as the same factors that cause other types of OCD. These include a combination of environmental, genetic, and neurochemical factors.

A burning desire to know the answer to this question is characteristic of those who suffer with POCD. Please consider consulting with a therapist who specializes in treating obsessive compulsive disorders.

POCD can get better or worse on its own; it can also shift into another form of OCD. Exposure and response prevention therapy and some medications have been shown to be effective for OCD; there is little reason to believe POCD is any different.

49 Comments

  1. I have struggled with this since I was 18. Im almost 22 now and It feels like its getting worse. Not only do I experience intrusive thoughts and images, but I get the “groinal response” sometimes, or at least I think I do. Either way I focus on my groin a lot. But what scares me the most is that it feels like it’s taking over my mind. I get intrusive urges to enjoy a thought, and it feels like I’m having thoughts of desiring such things inserted into my head and I’m like “no way, i wouldnt do that, why am i thinking that”. It makes me afraid that im having fantasies or desires because they feel real. I don’t want to hurt a child, and I mostly worry about being attracted to them. When I’m around children I currently only get nervous but that’s it. But when I’m alone the thoughts feel like they are taking over. I’m examining my sexuality, all my kinks, all my fantasies. I’m not fully convinced that I’m not a deviant. I constantly worry that I’m attracted to a child that I see. I’m attracted to adult features. I’ve started worrying that I find a teenager i see attractive, and maybe I do because they have adult features, of course I would never act on it and am in a committed relationship with a man who is actually older than me. It all leaves me feeling so confused, ashamed, and dreadful.
    Luckily i never once gave in to a thought.

    I feel like it’s not fair that people seem to be randomly afflicted with this. If people are randomly selected to become pedophiles, and are expected to kill themselves, then am I expected to kill myself? Is that what people want from me?

  2. Robert Hansen — Are you an OCD specialist? Do you have the qualifications to say what is and is not OCD? Dude. You are not doing POCD sufferers any good to say that someone’s thoughts mean they actually *are* something. Do you not realize that OCD can latch onto *anything* and give intrusive thoughts related to people of *any* age? You need to back off and let therapists make the determination of what is OCD and what is not, lest you make people with POCD suffer more than they already are.

  3. This isn’t correct. First off, POCD is based on an unreasonable fear of being a pedophile, not actually being one. Someone who regularly thinks about having sex with young (prepubescent) children IS a pedophile.

    Someone with POCD fears that they are a pedophile, but the fear is unreasonable and they keep revisiting it. Maybe they felt that they were sexually attracted to a fully developed teenage girl and thought “OMG, I am a pedophile” and then become anxious in any setting with children. But the key is, they are not having thoughts of sex with young children.

    Unfortunately, the term POCD has gotten mangled.

  4. I analyze the thoughts so much and whenever I am around younger kids I immediately seize with anxiety. I get worried because I tend to get more anxiety from certain kids. It compounds the worry and fear in my mind cause it worries me that I have a “type”! Why would I react one way with some kids and some ways with others. Can POCD be this specific and detailed. I have been to a therapist before and they confirmed this, but I am doubting myself that I am just a monster in denial.

  5. Ever since February of 2022, my mind has been racing these thoughts of if I am into anyone younger than 18 and I tell myself no and that it’s wrong because of this one experience.
    Late 2020, I asked someone I knew if I could send something to her, and was stopped by one of the friends of the person. They said that it wasn’t right and could’ve told someone about it which would’ve gotten me in very hot water. The person said they wouldn’t tell anyone if I don’t say or ask anything like that again, and I told them I wouldn’t.

    2021 came and went. I focused on myself and the things around me only for the thought to come back to me in mid-February of this year. I was afraid of telling anyone about this problem because they would automatically assume that I’m a pedo when I’m not. What I did was wrong and I tried to keep myself occupied, getting it off my mind, but it keeps coming back over and over again. I even questioned my life until that point, like “Why did I say that?” or “Would my friends and/or family care about me and would want to help me overcome this thought?” To this day, I haven’t said anything to anyone about it due to fear of backlash. I even fear that I might be one down the line, ruining options in the future for me, and I don’t want that nor am I one. I keep saying that to myself when the thought comes up, but it’s so hard to not only get it out of my head but to just open up and get help.

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