Will quitting porn improve your life?

ImageEarlier this year, Armando, a 23-year-old technician from Oklahoma (who didn’t want to give his last name), was browsing the online news and discussion board Reddit when he clicked a button called “random.” It took him to a forum filled with guys his age discussing what guys his age tend to discuss on the Internet: porn. Only, this forum wasn’t dedicated to sourcing the most explicit sites, but to how people could wean themselves off porn forever. Participants were asked to challenge themselves by giving up porn and masturbation for at least a week. Those who had done so claimed it gave them more energy and confidence and boosted their self-esteem, something they dubbed “superpowers.”

For Armando, who had recently broken up with his girlfriend, it sounded worth a try. His first attempt to give up what he considered a casual daily habit of surfing the web for porn lasted three days. So did his second and third. By his fourth attempt, Armando says he had come to the realization that what had once seemed like a perfectly normal pastime might not be so healthy after all. He’s been porn-free for two months. He has also remained “master of his own domain,” in Seinfeld parlance (after the episode where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer have a contest over who can refrain from masturbation the longest). He reads more and works out twice as hard at the gym. One day, after he’d read a book, exercised and taken two cold showers, he dug out the violin he hadn’t played since high school.

He’s now aiming to quit porn forever, convinced that his porn habit was responsible for the failure of his past two relationships. “It really messes up your mind for what sex is actually supposed to be,” he says. “It sets the hopes too high for normal men and women to be able to perform at that level. I believe that’s causing a lot of relationship problems among my peers.” He’s also gained enough confidence in his willpower to take on a new challenge: to stop smoking.

Armando is part of “NoFap,” a growing online movement among young men who pledge to give up both guilty pleasures for a period of time in hopes of improving their lives. (“Fapping” is Internet slang for masturbation.) When it started two years ago, it was a lighthearted experiment to test whether giving up porn for a week could make you more productive. Today, NoFap has grown to more than 80,000 members, many of whom pledge to swear off porn entirely, saying it contributed to low self-esteem, problems with women and lack of career ambition. Recent forum discussions include a debate on the effectiveness of male chastity belts (yes, they exist) and the best software to block Internet porn pop-ups. One post from a college freshman says giving up porn suddenly made him want to cuddle with a girl. “I just want to lie in bed, fully clothed . . . holding hands and being really close,” he writes.

“I’ve started to view myself the same way I view a heroin addict nodding off right after getting high,” writes another about his attempt to give up his nighttime solo activity. A professional guitar player announced that his month-long abstention from porn gave him the courage to get over his ex-girlfriend and focus on his music. “Every walk through a public place feels like I’m 14 years old again, searching for beauty, but not in an objectified way,” he writes. “My mind is more free for things that give me joy.”

Despite the evangelical tone, NoFap is fundamentally different from traditional campaigns that view masturbation as an assault on religious values. Instead, it is developing as a secular movement popular among young men, many of whom identify as liberal and atheist. The majority of NoFap members are men in their teens and early 20s, though there are women, too, says Alexander Rhodes, the 23-year-old web developer from Pittsburgh who founded the movement two years ago. He estimates about 60 per cent are atheists; the site is also home to a fair number of Christians and some Muslims, all in broad agreement that porn is harmful.

A significant number are teenaged virgins worried that their porn habits will ruin their future chances with women. They’re tapping into a broader cultural moment. A similar idea inspired Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon, where he plays a swaggering womanizer whose budding romance with Scarlett Johansson is nearly destroyed by his addiction to Internet porn.

While many adherents are ardently opposed to porn, they also tend to be vehemently against any form of online censorship. Rhodes describes himself as “an Internet-freedom zealot” who thinks the dangerous effects of porn are best dealt with in sex-ed class and not through government regulation. His views are broadly echoed by others on NoFap who say porn between consenting adults is both deeply harmful and an inviolable act of free speech.

“It’s made me realize that even Playboy, even Miley Cyrus doing her thing, isn’t healthy for anybody,” says James, a graphic designer from southern California, on Day 37 of his NoFap challenge. “But absolutely, I would defend it. She has every right to do that and Hugh Hefner has every right to do what he does.” Now 40, James (not his real name) was raised by parents who taught him masturbation was healthy and viewing pornography was a valid form of sexual expression.

But that was in the days when porn for teens meant sneaking off to see what was on late-night television. The advent of high-speed Internet changed the game, he says, allowing anyone with a computer to access an endless array of extreme content that he found both deeply destructive and difficult to resist.

Since swearing off porn, James says he’s noticed small but significant changes in his life. He realized his Internet habits had been feeding his social anxiety by allowing him to substitute online fantasies for conversations with real women. Shortly after joining NoFap, he found himself doing what he had previously considered unthinkable: sharing a casual joke with a female cashier at the grocery store. Recently, he fell into conversation with an attractive young woman in line. “Before, I would have probably just stood there stonily and wanted to talk to her but resented her for being hot,” he says. “Instead, she smiled at me, I smiled at her and we had a really nice conversation and ended up walking down the street for several blocks together. That never would have happened 37 days ago.”

Like others, James found his way to NoFap through an online video of a 2011 TED Talk by psychologist Philip Zombardo, leader of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment. (One of the most famous studies of the psychology of evil, the experiment divided 21 students into guards and prisoners in a simulated prison.) In his TED talk, Zombardo blames declining marriage rates and rising rates of school dropout among boys on the widespread effects of Internet porn. “Boys’ brains are being digitally rewired in a totally new way for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal” that makes it difficult for them to commit to anything or anyone, he says.

That talk was followed by an independent TEDx Talk video last year by Gary Wilson, a past adjunct professor in anatomy at an Oregon university. In it, he claims porn is deeply addictive because it causes the brain to become desensitized to dopamine. The video has been viewed more than 1.3 million times and Wilson’s website, YourBrainonPorn.com, which he runs with his wife, a former Campbell Soup executive, has been the source for much of the scientific theorizing about porn addiction that gets passed around the NoFap community.

But the kind of definitive research that could explain what happens to the brain while watching porn simply hasn’t been done, says Dr. Richard Krueger, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s college of physicians and surgeons. Kruger helped revise the sexual disorders section of the latest edition of the psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which doesn’t include sex or porn addiction due to lack of academic evidence that they exist. “The whole notion of what goes on in someone’s brain when they’re sexually excited is just starting to be evaluated,” he says.

He has little doubt porn addiction is real and will eventually garner enough attention to be recognized as a mental illness. But he’s skeptical it has the kind of universal neurological effects that some suggest. Other behaviours such as drinking alcohol or gambling are addictive to only a small minority of the people who engage in them—between one and 10 per cent, Krueger says. “I would argue for the same sort of hit rate with exposure to Internet pornography, that most people would do it and it won’t become a problem.”

Meanwhile, Rhodes is pushing ahead with his plans for NoFap. The movement now has a dedicated website and he’s working on an education and awareness campaign to reduce incidence of sexual assault. Though NoFap began as an experiment in productivity, it has morphed into a movement with a loftier goal. “My No. 1 goal in life isn’t to improve people’s sex lives,” Rhodes says. “I want society to value sex as something meaningful.”

For some, it’s already working. Midway through his NoFap challenge, Armando says he began noticing changes in the way he looks at women. “Before, whenever I’d see a woman, the first thing I would look for is what have they got hanging on back there, or how big are their breasts,” he says. “Lately, I’ve been catching myself looking at their eyes.”

 

Source: Tamsin McMahon

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