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Porn addiction is ruining lives, but scientists aren't convinced it's real

High-speed internet has made it easier than ever to access porn at an unprecedented pace, with scores now calling themselves porn addicts. But is that a real addiction? Scientists are divided.

Editors' note: This story contains sexually explicit language and descriptions not suited for younger readers.

At the beginning of 2018, Steve had a stable marriage and his own business. By the end of 2018, he had neither. Alcohol abuse contributed to the 37-year-old's downward spiral, but it wasn't the catalyst. 

"My world collapsed on June 30, 2018," Steve said, "when the porn charges were discovered." Steve had been spending an "obscene amount" on internet porn subscriptions and cam sites, and his wife spotted the exorbitant fees while perusing the couple's finances.  

Steve was addicted to online porn. On a light day, he watched between two and three hours on his computer. Sometimes he'd wait until his wife went to bed, pop amphetamines and masturbate for hours. Other times, when his wife went out of town with their son, he'd spend entire afternoons watching porn.

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"I missed days of work, I would call in sick so that I could watch porn," he said. "I would crave huge blocks of uninterrupted time and, like any good addict, I would scam ways to get that."

When I spoke with Steve over Zoom from his home in Texas, he proudly shared that it was his 801st day "sober" from porn. Steve is part of a growing online community that believes porn use can be as addictive and destructive as alcohol or drugs.

Porn is nothing new, but high-speed internet has transformed it into a different beast.  An increasing number of people who grew up with internet porn call it a super stimulant they've become addicted to, even saying it has the capacity to rewire the brain. But scientists are split: Some agree that porn can cause physical harm, while others say compulsive porn use is a coping mechanism for depression, anxiety and other issues.

The schism between the two camps is so wide that some players have tried to publicly discredit each other, attacking credentials or alleging ties to the porn industry. There have also been accusations of stalking and threatening behavior, both online and in the real world.

"There are really passionate people on both sides," said Shane Kraus, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Behavioral Addiction Lab and co-author of a soon-to-be-published review of 415 studies on compulsive sexual behaviors. "What we know is that pornography can be a really difficult issue for a lot of people. How do we classify it? How do we treat it? We're still working on those issues."

With consensus in limbo, Kraus and others worry there's enough misinformation for people to diagnose themselves with a nonexistent addiction, yet not enough information for all medical professionals to spot signs of harmful porn use when they're actually there.

While the debate rages, more people have become troubled by their porn use. Around 4.4% of men and 1.2% of women consider themselves porn addicts, according to a survey of Australian adults, the first representative study on porn addiction. If those percentages were seen in the US, over 6 million Americans adults would be harboring a porn habit. The statistics notably don't include teenagers, a group increasingly likely to perceive themselves as porn addicts.

The biggest online community that treats porn as addictive is NoFap, a group with over 725,000 members on Reddit alone. ("Fap" is internet slang for masturbation.) Started in 2011 as a challenge to see how long men could go without masturbating, NoFap is now a community that warns both men and women about the health risks associated with porn use. 

When Steve first chanced upon NoFap's Reddit page years ago, he laughed. After his world began to crumble in 2018, NoFap helped to change his life.

The Great Porn Experiment

Age 13. On average, that's when most people watch porn for the first time. For most boys and an increasing number of girls, it's the beginning of a lifelong habit. Around 80% of men and 30% of women (45% if you include women who only watch with their partners) watch porn weekly. The internet has made it more easily accessible than ever, too. PornHub says 76% of its traffic comes from mobile phones -- and more people are watching than ever thanks to COVID-19 keeping people at home. 

"The widespread use of internet porn is one of the fastest-moving, most global experiments ever unconsciously conducted," retired science teacher Gary Wilson said in his 2012 Ted Talk, The Great Porn Experiment, which has racked up over 13 million views. Wilson, who also runs the Your Brain On Porn website, has been instrumental in promulgating the idea that porn is a public health issue.

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Gary Wilson's influential Ted Talk. 

TEDx Talks/YouTube

Wilson argues that our hunter-gatherer brain, exposed to hours of pornography each week for years on end, becomes accustomed to super high levels of stimulation and begins to rewire itself, becoming numb to everyday pleasures but keenly receptive to porn. Watching porn, he says, creates a vicious cycle that leads to the erosion of willpower and the formation of an addiction. 

Wilson isn't an academic, but he pulls from a dizzying amount of research: Your Brain On Porn references over 400 studies and literature reviews.

It's a convincing volume, but the list strives for quantity over quality -- some studies had sample sizes as small as one. There are alarming papers to be found, though, like a July 2020 survey of 5,800 men in which 23% of respondents under 35 reported erectile dysfunction. This, the site argues, substantiates one of Wilson's key claims: That widespread porn use has caused unprecedented rates of erectile dysfunction in young men.

Distressing symptoms, unclear cause

The researcher behind the survey of 5,800 men, Gunter De Win, professor of urology at Belgium's University of Antwerp, isn't entirely convinced porn was the key problem. 

As with all studies on porn, the data isn't so simple. Those most likely to report erectile dysfunction in his survey were self-described addicts, but often watched less porn than others. Put simply, respondents who watch 60 minutes a week and think they're addicted were more likely to report sexual dysfunction than those who watch a care-free 160 minutes weekly. Additionally, many of the patients De Win treats have different definitions of ED. Someone who can't get erect 100% of the time or stay erect for marathon periods may wrongly report themselves as dysfunctional. This means data has to be interpreted carefully.

"It's totally wrong to say that it's definitely porn which is causing it, but it's correct to say there is a certain influence of porn," De Win said. "But what is the cause and what is the effect? I think that is very difficult to consider at the moment."

While inconclusive, the claim that porn consumption can cause sexual dysfunction is influential in anti-porn circles, and it caught the attention of Gabe Deem. Like Steve, Deem has a traumatic date seared into his mind: St. Patrick's Day 2011. That was the first time he, at age 23, experienced erectile dysfunction.

"Nothing could get me turned on," he said. "I had sexual experience, I hadn't had much to drink, I knew it wasn't performance anxiety." Embarrassed, he consulted Google. Eventually, he came across an erectile dysfunction test that asked him if he could masturbate without porn. He couldn't -- and hasn't watched porn since. Since 2013, he's run an online forum for recovering addicts called Reboot Nation. 

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For years, looking at porn meant magazines. High-speed internet porn is a different beast -- and a more dangerous one, some argue. 

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Many on NoFap, and not just young men, mirror Deem's moment of clarity. "I'm a woman who's been watching porn since middle school," one recent post reads, "and I'm just realizing how much my addiction destroyed my sense of self and romantic relationships."

Deem notes that many activists decry porn with religious arguments, or by pointing to the abuse sometimes involved in porn production. But he wants to focus on the mental and physical health risks -- the sexual dysfunction, the depression, the emotional malaise -- which he's felt firsthand.

"I'm speaking up just like someone who smoked a lot of cigarettes and loved it [but] developed lung cancer," Deem said. "There's no ulterior motive other than, 'Hey, this is potentially really going to fuck you up.'" 

The flatline

People jump on the no-porn bandwagon for different reasons. For some, it's self improvement. Others, like Deem, assess their habits after recognizing symptoms of addiction.

For those who consider themselves addicted, communities like NoFap prescribe a "reboot period" to undo the neurological harm they say is caused by years of pornography abuse. Reboots usually span 90 days, but if symptoms persist, can take over six months.

Online communities have different guidelines for "rebooting." There are three main variations: No porn; no porn or masturbation; and no porn, masturbation or sex (aka "hard mode"). Though these communities tend to view porn, rather than masturbation, as the problem, they argue that the brain benefits from a deep detox of all porn-related stimuli. 

Just as they question porn addiction itself, some medical professionals question the value of rebooting. David Ley, a practicing psychologist and sex therapist who once debated Deem on Katie Couric's talkshow, told me there's "not a shred of evidence" for it. But whatever the reason, posters on NoFap report withdrawal symptoms during their reboot period. 

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A guide on NoFap's website on rebooting. 

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"Up until day 60, I had this very weird burst of depression," Ivan, 28, from Ecuador said. "The depression used to last around three days and then disappear. … Before NoFap I [never] felt depressed in that way." 

Other oft-cited withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, brain fog, insomnia and suppressed libido, a collection of issues known within the community as a "flatline." And then there are the nightmares. 

"I had relapse dreams," said Steve, the Texan who's over 801 days sober. "I still have relapse dreams." 

"Fapstronauts," as NoFap members are called, are often ridiculed by others on Reddit for the unlikely, extravagant benefits they report from forgoing porn. "By retaining your sexual energy," one poster assured newcomers, "you will feel super and have so much more natural power." But there are many plausible results, like better sleep and more confidence. Several people I spoke with cited enhanced feelings of self-control and mindfulness.

Deem said he felt terrible for months but began to feel "glimmers of hope" after 90 days. He said it was 15 months before he could orgasm through masturbation without porn.

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Many who stop watching porn cold turkey experience withdrawal symptoms. 

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UNLV's Kraus says that there's "no scholarship" yet on how reboots work and that we don't really know why people experience these symptoms. "Is it a classic withdrawal? It could be," he said. "It also could be changing someone's lifestyle and the difficulty of changing [behavior]."

Kraus lands in the middle. Other scientists, psychologists and medical professionals go even further, arguing that much of what gets called porn addiction is pseudoscience. 

Brain changes aren't always bad changes

"I don't doubt some people have problems viewing too much porn," says Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist and sex researcher. "But the issue is there are lots of problems … that already explain and account for those behaviors."

A Ph.D. from the University of Indiana and founder of the Liberos research institute, Prause points out that 50% of people in treatment for sex addiction -- which is often lumped together with porn addiction under the umbrella of "hypersexuality" -- have a primary diagnosis of depression. In other words, she argues, the "addictions" are really coping mechanisms. 

This appeared relevant to some of the people I spoke to. "I was sexually abused as a kid," Steve told me, "so through thousands of dollars of therapy, that's been identified as the root cause of my inability to cope in a healthy manner." 

Happily, he says, his addictive personality has now led him to become "addicted to fitness."

In 2013, Prause co-authored a study which, comparing the brains of heavy porn viewers and substance addicts, questioned how appropriate the addiction model is for porn users. Along with clinical psychologist Ley, she's been a leading scrutineer of claims made by the anti-porn movement ever since. 

It's not just that the "addiction" label is being misapplied, Prause says, but that the neuroscientific claims circulating in communities like NoFap range from misguided to flat-out incorrect. She says a lot of the arguments from anti-porn circles stem from a "differences as a problem" fallacy: MRI studies show how people's brains react to porn compared with other media, and those differences are eagerly interpreted as harmful. 

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Nicole Prause at her own Ted Talk. 

TEDx Talks/YouTube

"Some people prefer Nestle and some people prefer Ghirardelli, and their brains light up differently if they look at their preferred chocolate brand than to their non-preferred chocolate brand," she said. "So it's funny to me when people say [porn changing the brain] is problematic. There's nothing wrong about brain changes."

"If your brain is not changing, something is wrong," Prause said. "You are comatose." 

Circle jerk

Prause and Ley agree with some of the anti-porn movement's messages. One of Prause's studies showed that porn elicited strong positive and negative emotion at the same time -- excitement, guilt, happiness, shame -- making it a hazardous coping mechanism. And Ley says people should scrutinize their porn and masturbation behavior, as NoFap encourages people to do, rather than be on sexual autopilot. For his part, Deem says he's not "anti-porn, just pro education."
That's about where the common ground ends.

Ley argues that online communities like NoFap, Reboot Nation and Your Brain On Porn convince healthy users they have a problem. People who have diagnosed themselves find these communities and then, confronted with stories similar to their own, become convinced their diagnosis is correct.

"It's very much like, 'I read WebMD' and now I can diagnose illnesses in myself and others," Ley says of the community's experts. 

Ley's point is a veiled jab at the likes of Deem and Wilson, who have no scientific certifications. It's also a small illustration of the bitter tenor of the discourse. 

"Debating with them is akin to debating Genesis with an evangelical," Ley said, adding that belief isn't a substitute for evidence. "Like all true believers, they want to shout at the people they disagree with until they give in."

Deem counters by accusing Ley of being cozy with the porn industry. Deem criticized Ley for appearing on Stripchat, an adult webcam platform, to tell viewers how claims about porn's dangers are overblown. "That's exactly what the tobacco industry did. They denied all the scientific research that showed harm, and they just said, 'Well look at this doctor, his favorite cigarette is Camel.'" 

The relationship between Prause and Wilson is dramatically more hostile. Each has tried to discredit the other. Much more seriously, both have accused each other of stalking, defamation and threatening behavior, which has turned a disagreement over science into a battle in the courtroom

A coming crash

"I don't know why this is happening," says University of Antwerp urologist De Win. He wasn't talking about inconclusive data, but rather how a debate over porn addiction has caused such bitterness. 

"We have to be open, we have to do interdisciplinary research, we have to put away our egos and look at the topic together," he says. 

Kraus, director of UNLV's Behavioral Addiction's Lab, agrees. "We have reasonable evidence to suggest pornography is problematic for some people. But the question is for whom, and how do we determine that? We need hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of studies to really show that."

Kraus is confident we'll know much more about how porn really affects people in three to five years, as more studies are being done on men and women who grew up surrounded by internet porn. Studies done in different countries with different cultures will also be invaluable. In the meantime, Kraus hopes the discourse will focus more on practical ways to help people and less on arcane scientific squabbles. 

When I spoke to Steve on day 801 of porn sobriety, he was open to the idea that porn was a coping strategy rather than his root problem. But his experiences getting clean still make him see problematic porn use as a giant problem for a generation of people now in their 20s and 30s. 

"There's a group of people now who are growing up who had unfettered, high-speed internet access to porn from a very early age," he said. "I'm telling you, the tidal wave is coming."