Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

“Am I a Pedophile?” The difference between POCD and pedophilia

May 10, 20248 minute read

Walking past a playground one day, you notice a few kids playing. Suddenly, you have the thought: “Wow, that child is so beautiful. Does that mean I’m attracted to them? Am I a pedophile?” You immediately run home, worried you might act on your attraction, and filled with fear of being a bad person. Next, you vow to avoid being around children whenever possible.

If this resonates with you, you’re not alone. What we just described is pedophile obsessive compulsive disorder (POCD), a fairly common form of OCD. Rest assured, POCD has nothing to do with being a pedophile.  “As a treatment specialist of both OCD and sexual disorders such as actual pedophilia, I can tell you with certainty that these two things could not be more different,” says Tracie Zinman-Ibrahim, LMFT, CST, Chief Compliance Officer of NOCD, the leading telehealth provider of OCD treatment. 

As a treatment specialist of both OCD and sexual disorders such as actual pedophilia, I can tell you with certainty that these two things could not be more different.

Let’s take a closer look at what pedophile OCD is, what sets it apart from pedophilia, and how you can take back your life from this condition if you have it. 

Struggling with unwanted sexual thoughts about children? One of our trained therapists can help. Book a free call to get started.

What is POCD?

POCD is a subtype of OCD that consists of unwanted sexual thoughts about children. Like all forms of OCD, POCD has two defining characteristics: obsessions, which are unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that recur into your mind, and compulsions, which are mental or physical acts that are done in an attempt to get rid of the distress caused by the obsessions or to keep something bad from happening. 

Unfortunately, another trademark of OCD is that compulsions only work in the short-term, at best. That’s why OCD is called a cycle—because soon after the compulsion is performed, the obsession returns. The good news is that POCD is highly treatable with the guidance of an OCD specialist, which means you can put an end to the cycle. 

How is POCD diagnosed?

Seeing a mental health professional who specializes in OCD can help you determine if you have POCD—and get you on the right path for effective treatment. 

Keep in mind, many therapists aren’t familiar with the unique nuances of OCD, and may assume these intrusive thoughts are actual pedophilia. Unfortunately, this promotes the message to the POCD sufferer that they are horrible people rather than people with OCD.

“It is already hard enough dealing with ‘taboo’ intrusive thoughts, but having to share them with a therapist who doesn’t understand can feel impossibly embarrassing or even shameful,” says Ibrahim. “That is why properly trained therapists exist! We are here to help you feel ‘normal’ again and know that you are not a bad person.”

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Why POCD is not the same as pedophilia

Pedophilia is marked by pervasive sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors toward children, usually under 13 years of age. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes pedophilia as a paraphilic disorder—the umbrella term for disorders marked by persistent deviant sexual arousal. A pedophile’s urges may or may not be acted upon, but children are usually the primary (and sometimes only) objects of their sexual fantasy.

“With pedophiles, the thoughts are desired and wanted,” says Taylor Newendorp, MA, LCPC, a therapist and the Network Clinical Training Director for NOCD. In fact, many pedophiles actively look for ways to be around children because they find it exciting.

With POCD, it’s the exact opposite. Since their OCD has convinced them that they’re dangerous, many people with POCD will go out of their way to avoid children. The fact that people with POCD don’t actually want to engage in sexual activity with children is what makes the intrusive thoughts and urges so upsetting.

Often, this distress is the result of not knowing what an intrusive thought actually is. Intrusive thoughts are, by definition, unwanted. We all have these thoughts about one subject or another, some more taboo than others, and most of us don’t think too much about them. People with POCD, however, assign meaning to their intrusive thoughts. “When they experience sexual intrusive thoughts about children, they question themselves and hate themselves,” explains Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, who specializes in OCD. 

Despite the lies OCD tells them, “a person with POCD has zero desire to ever do anything with a minor. It goes against their true character, their true morals and values,” says Newendorp. And your intrusive thoughts are usually reflecting the exact opposite of who you are. In therapy-speak, this is called ego-dystonic, or inconsistent with someone’s core identity. 

A person with POCD has zero desire to ever do anything with a minor. It goes against their true character, their true morals and values.

Taylor Newendorp, MA, LCPC

Pedophilia vs. POCD: a side-by-side look at the differences

Symptoms of POCD

Even within the same subtype of OCD, everyone’s experience is different. For instance, just because you don’t avoid being around children—you may even be a parent of young kids yourself—doesn’t mean this condition isn’t affecting you. That said, it can still be helpful to learn about the myriad ways POCD can show up.

Common POCD Obsessions

  • What if I sexually abused a child and somehow forgot?
  • Have I ever clicked on child porn by accident?
  • Have I ever been attracted to a child or teenager?
  • Did I do anything sexually inappropriate around my friend’s kids?
  • Even though I’m not a pedophile today, what if my fear of becoming a pedofile comes true someday?
  • What if I’m unfit to have children because I’m a monster?
  • How can I possibly hold, hug, or change a child’s diaper without touching them inappropriately?
  • What if I end up in jail for acting out these thoughts?
  • What if God hates me for having these thoughts?
  • Did I just have a physical sensation/groinal response after seeing a child?

Common POCD Compulsions

  • Turning down jobs as a teacher or nanny
  • Compulsive avoidance of children—possibly even your own
  • Deciding not to have children
  • Watching documentaries or looking up articles about famous pedophiles and comparing yourself to them
  • Making a list of reasons you’d never be attracted to children and reading it silently each day
  • Mentally reviewing present and past experiences for “evidence” of pedophile behavior
  • Looking for events in your past that may have led you to have pedophilic thoughts today
  • Comparing your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and bodily reactions when you’re around children versus when you’re around adults
  • Seeking reassurance (e.g. asking family members “I’m good with kids, right?” and “I play well with kids, right?”)
  • Reviewing other’s behavior around children and comparing it with your own
  • Researching articles about what constitutes pedophilia

What’s up with false arousal?

Believe it or not, intrusive thoughts don’t just affect your mind—they can affect your body as well. Many people with POCD have what’s known as a “groinal response”—a change in sensation in the groin or genital regions. This can cause severe alarm for people with POCD as they are left wondering if it’s proof that they enjoy their intrusive thoughts about children. But Newendorp says the answer is no, pointing out that there’s a difference between POCD arousal and actual sexual arousal.

“With OCD, the brain is constantly sending signals out to different parts of the body, and if someone is really scared and the last thing they want to do is experience any sort of sensation in their groin, guess what the OCD brain is going to do?” Newendorp explains. “It’ll send a signal to the part of the body, which actually creates the very sensations they’re hoping not to experience.” Like all things OCD, the groinal response tricks you into believing things that are not true. 

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Overcome POCD symptoms with ERP therapy

The evidence-based therapy to treat POCD (and all forms of OCD) is called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. This specialized OCD treatment is highly effective. If you rely on traditional talk therapy or general CBT—without practicing ERP specifically—it’s very likely that POCD will get worse, not better.

ERP works by gradually exposing you to what triggers your intrusive thoughts—say, an image of a child, or a playground—and teaching you response prevention techniques to prevent compulsions. In other words, you’ll break the OCD cycle and learn that there’s a different way to cope with your discomfort. You will never be forced into anything before you’re ready, but you will be encouraged to take steps that move you toward recovery.

Kate, a NOCD member, learned firsthand the power of ERP therapy. Her experience with POCD seemed to come out of nowhere one day. “I was reading a story about Mark Salling, the actor from Glee, being arrested for child pornography. From that moment on it was like a switch was flicked in my head and I began having intrusive thoughts like, ‘What if I molest my daughter?’ I honestly thought I could turn into a pedophile overnight. I became terrified to change her, bathe her—any time a body part of hers was exposed, I would have a panic attack.” But despite her initial instincts to keep her symptoms to herself, she sought help—and found recovery. “I have come to realize that OCD wants you to keep your thoughts secret. It doesn’t want you to bring them into the light where they might have to face some rationality.”

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