Credit to FortifyProgram>org

Fight The New Drug’s Online “Porn Rehab” Is Insidious Pseudoscience That Preys On Youth

This article was published on Medium as a teaser for HARLOT Magazine prior to their formal launch in February 2016. You can view it on the Harlot site here.

I found Fight The New Drug the way everyone else in the Bay Area did: I left my house and was smacked in the face with a billboard.

Photo credit to Katherine Parker

They tout a pretty grim party line: pornography rewires the brain to the point that it inspires consumers to rape and compulsively consume child pornography, leaving them impossible to achieve intimacy with real partners.

Those are pretty steep accusations to put on pornography alone; to combat the supposed colossal detriment pornography is having on your brain and your ability to not rape even at this very minute, FTND has put together a rehabilitation program, called Fortify, to help people wean themselves off of pornography. It boasts 30,000 happy customers–I make 30,001.

Before I checked into rehab, I reached out to FTND, and was, to my surprise, sight unseen and no credentials necessary, put right on the phone with their CEO and Founder Clay Olsen. In my conversations with Olsen, he assured me that the campaign, one that has no plan to be repeated and has never happened previously, was not meant to legislate for the banning of pornography but merely to “promote discussion” in an area of “movers and shakers.” I’m not immune to flattery, I guess you could consider the Bay Area a hotbed for discourse and full of movers and shakers — especially queers. FTND didn’t launch in Los Angeles or Las Vegas, where a lot of porn studios are, didn’t launch in D.C. or New York, our actual capital and our social capital, they picked San Francisco, the battleground for queer marriage. I was hyper aware that a lot of this was thinly veiled rhetoric was a rehash of Prop 8 handwringing, but Olsen assured me that FTND has “homosexuals on staff.”

I guess everyone can get a gay friend.

FTND has a lot of unusual practices: there’s no strategic plan, no national campaign in the works, no annual reports on their website, and they lack a board list. Their major enterprises are giving talks in high schools and middle schools alongside DARE programs, and by selling absolutely hideous merchandise. If you want to reel us queers in, you’re going to need to give us better than this.

FTND has spent 3 years developing the Fortify Program. While not outright calling it an online rehab, Fortify is very much like a 12 step program. It’s tagline is “A step towards recovery.” It promises no results, much like an actual 12 step program–that’s not to say 12 steps don’t work; it’s just not guaranteed. Fortify is free for people under the age of 20, and then $39.99 for people 21 and over. I created a new email address and code name and filled out the applications for both tracks.

Admitting They Have A Problem

I didn’t end up submitting the under 21 application because I thought it was bad form. As a result I got this horrifying email.

“We WANT you to have this as an option, you just need to tell us why you want it. Asking for you to write an essay to give you FREE access to a program that costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars, isn’t too much to ask, is it?”

This line, while abusing commas, is very telling of Fortify’s brand. The combination of guilt and scolding is just the sort of comforting support a young teen worried about their sexual development needs. It also feels pretty disingenuous. Why do they need an essay? It reads as lightly hostile, especially when doubled with the line:

“Please don’t let your fear keep you from something that could help you.”

Fortify is ultimately a product, one that is being used to funnel information to its creators (that will be covered later). The pleading and emphatic insistence on this product being crucial to people, especially minors, is a strange sort of capitalism where the currency is inner torment and self-doubt.

Why did I sign up for pornography rehab? After my conversation with Olsen, I thought of him as a wayward young man with a warped sense of social justice. I saw pieces of myself in him, in his desires to create positive change, that we were comrades really on two different sides of the fence. I signed up for the Fortify program as a means to better understand what FTND was about and to see if, by some miracle, they had developed a tool for people with addictive personalities that might actually be legitimate and supportive. Alas, Olsen is a veritable Gepetto of pseudoscience and non-peer reviewed pop psychology, heavily endorsed by such esteemed psychologists as Russell Brand and Terry Crews.

As a queer, poly, feminist, porn-consuming, witch, vegan in the Bay Area, I figured I was just the sort of audience FTND was looking to reach with their campaign and embarked on the 31 question questionnaire.

I busted out the bourbon and made a night of filling it out.

The pre-program survey questions ranged from the innocuous

To baffling

To alarming

The anti-masturbation rhetoric is not explicit but very much implied–the program asks a lot about my masturbation habits. The questionnaire also calls pornography cheating–which feels steep and invasive in every sense–and asks a lot of leading questions about my emotional state.

I have no idea what this information is actually used for. I imagine, considering the nature of the questions, that it’s being funneled back to the programs Co-Developer, Dr. Jason Carroll of Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution and Olsen’s alma mater.

My suspicion stems from Carroll’s specialties, which are “marriage fragmentation, sexual intimacy, marriage readiness among young adults, the effectiveness of marriage education, and modern threats to marriage (such as pornography, delayed age at marriage, materialism, premarital sexuality, and non-marital childbirth).” Carroll teaches BYU’s “Marriage Prep” course, which is disappointingly a college course you take for credit and not a Live Action Roleplay set in the universe of the films Kinsey and Pleasantville. Carroll is also a homophobe, but it’s fine because of all those homosexuals on staff that Olsen mentioned. No homo(phobe)!

Because of Carroll’s political agenda, I am fuckless on the fact that my questionnaire was an utter lie and will fuck up his data.

Steps In The Wrong Direction

Fortify has badges and coins that serve like sobriety chips and notes of encouragement which are actually rather sweet. Again, very much like AA in design, however entirely flawed its premise.

The battle rhetoric is strong with FTND in general but it really hits its stride within the Fortify program. You, once wayward, are now a “Fighter”, as are all the FTND fans who post selfies to the #PornKillsLove hashtag. The calendar function to keep track of success and backslides for pornography consumption is called the “Battle Tracker.” They have introductions that are called “Basic Training.”

There’s a disconnect here, for me: FTND is not a lobbying organization nor are they working to ban pornography–what exactly are they fighting for? Their aggressive speech doesn’t encourage changes to the industry, nor efforts to fight human trafficking, but rather to tell people to stop consuming a product that for many is an important sexual tool on the basis of shaming and it being addictive — science that is unscrupulous at best and insidious at worst.

(In case you missed it, this is a form that asks me to document where, when, and on what device I looked at pornography. CEO Clay Olsen believes even sexting with your significant other counts as pornography; it’s a very uphill battle to victory.)

You earn badges by watching videos and participating in the activities and journaling about your experience. I wrote the most horrifying journal entries in the hopes that someone would reach out in support but alas, nothing doing.

Some of the activities are things like the following:

When evangelism is a principal part of your tool for recovery it starts to sound a whole lot like marketing.

I would like to mention that 12 step recovery programs DO NOT operate on evangelism as a tenant of their function. They do often encourage people to surrender to and believe in a “higher power” (generally a higher power of Christian denomination) but people in Alcoholics Anonymous don’t pound pavement with Alcohol Kills Love shirts. Addiction is a stigmatized condition–for Fortify to borrow that oppression to boost its credibility is disgusting.

This is totally just a data collection platform that people pay for. I became so convinced of this that I actually read a terms of service.

We collect two types of information (personal information and anonymous information) and we may use this information to create a third type of information, aggregate information.
1. Personal information — Direct and indirect information that identifies a particular individual, such as the individual’s name, email address, and telephone number.
2. Anonymous information — Information that does not directly or indirectly identify an individual. When you use public areas of the website, you are doing so anonymously.
3. Aggregate information — Information about groups or categories of visitors, which cannot be used to identify an individual, such as a number of hits per page and traffic sources.
We collect the following information:
*Name
*Company/School Name
*Address
*Email Address
*Phone Number
*Gender
*Age/Date of Birth (DOB)
*Credit/Debit Card Information
*Online Behaviors
*Device use

Pay attention to this part, because it’s the most important:

How We Collect Information
Information is gathered through forms filled out when you apply to the Fortify Program, Post questionnaire, marketing surveys, make a donation, purchase merchandise, fill out the battle strategies, Quick Questions, Action Follow-up Questions, enter in Battle Tracker info, or complete any other form on fortifyprogram.com or fightthenewdrug.org.

This means when you sign up for the program, Fight the New Drug and its co-creater Dr. Jason Carroll have access to every piece of content you put onto the site, including the required journaling. This preys on the emotional vulnerability of people convinced that their masturbation and porn consumption are ruining their chances at a healthy emotional future–it gets even more gross when you circle back to the part where minors opt into this service. The essay my underage alter-ego was asked to write to prove I needed porn rehab provides this professor and FTND with the inner emotional processing of sexuality of minors.

Think Of The Children. Like, Actually Think Of Them.

The children likely to be exposed to FTND’s ministries are in conservative communities, public schools already participating in anti-drug and abstinence-only sex education programs. You sign a pledge at the event, just like those “saving yourself for marriage” pacts that rumbled through middle and high schools like mine. FTND’s target group is children like me — insecure, queer, alternative–to guide them towards the right path, a relationship where no porn is consumed and where masturbation is implied to be detrimental to your relationship.

This is the problem with making the rehab system similar to a game with badges and coins to unlock. In order for people to get the “help”, they must funnel their hearts and souls into a site that will ultimately send their information to an anti-sex agenda. In order to “win” rehab, you have to journal. Your victory in rehabilitation comes at the sacrifice of your inner experiences. FTND sees ANY consumption of pornography as cheating or risky behavior. When they run out of steam with those arguments, they then fault you for human trafficking and drug use. This sort of sex shaming hides itself as feminist, and treats people within porn as pathetic victims in need of liberation.

It reads so Christian to me: “they know not what they do.”

I take Olsen’s actions very personally. I already live in a world that has a strong opinion of my sex life and my value as a sexual being, and if this is his concept of being my ally, he’s an ally I don’t fucking need.

The videos are their own special hell.

I hope this guy was paid well.

The videos lean heavily on inconclusive pop and pseudo psychology on addiction making pornography out to be like tobacco. There is a lot of talk of “rewiring the brain,” a vague concept that seems to treat addiction as habit versus something concrete.

The main issue with FTND and Fortify is that it sees testimony as empirical evidence. The confessionals from former porn stars are horrifying; while the porn industry is exceptionally flawed in its treatment of women and sexual assault, these testimonies read much more like human trafficking narratives. In a video entitled “The Industry’s Dirty Little Secret”:

which I have included the audio of here, pornography is lumped in with prostitution and other forms of sex work. Statistics are stated with no real citation. They also have a few spelling errors on their videos and that really bugs me. Within this video, the speaker reads quotes from former porn stars detailing abuse and drug use that occurred while they were in the industry. Because I’m a decent human being with a good grip on the world, I believe that every single one of these stories is true. It wasn’t shocking or even enlightening to hear that people were being sexually exploited in an industry that pays for sex. What I did find shocking was how Fortify made up statistics of the frequency of drug use among porn stars and that they implied that most of the people involved in porn were victims of sexual trafficking.

According to FTND, because porn is make-believe, you can’t guarantee the performer is having a good time, which is in itself evidence that the majority of porn stars, mainstream or otherwise, have been sex trafficked. It’s almost hilarious.

Again, FTND isn’t an organization with any plans to lobby nor be politically active in any way–equating pornography with a chronic level of illegality is talking out both sides of their mouths. Getting people to stop watching porn isn’t enough of a platform. You need to advocate for porn stars and provide more services than graphic tees and lectures. FTND, for claiming to be apolitical, doesn’t work if it isn’t political, which leads us back to the Porn Kills Love campaign that was supposed to promote “discussion.” What was the discussion supposed to be if not a call to action?

The construction of the videos is very purposeful: a young, conventionally attractive man tells you that porn is detrimental to your emotional romantic relationships, a thing all human being are encouraged to seek most of their lives and many want to succeed in.

The commentary is covert and bland enough that if you were really struggling with what you thought was porn addiction, shame around your orientation or sexual interests, it would be downright predatory. Porn has its problems; FTND is not terribly good at identifying them. Half of their analysis is correct — most porn is packaged for male consumption and thus is degrading to women, it’s a terrible tool to teach teens how to have sex, the industry comes with stigma and people’s lives can be ruined by being involved in it, and revenge porn as a violation of consent. Fortify doesn’t focus on any of these, but rather circles back around to porn being icky and will make it harder for you to be in a relationship (like you’re obligated to be; it’s all covered in Dr. Carroll’s course, I’m sure) because you won’t be able to connect with your partner.

Porn does feed into unrealistic expectations for sex, but that’s because we provide terrible sexual education and thus young people learn about sex THROUGH porn. I speak from experience–I gleamed most of my sexual education from erotica and pornography.

Oh right: the definition of porn according to Fortify is all erotic material including articles about porn. Meaning technically their videos detailing pornography’s harms count as pornography.

The videos are dealing in their own form of fantasy, based around the idea of pornography being inherently addictive. It’s that same sort of dramatic overreaching where boomers lament that video games ruined social interaction for the newer generations; FTND is a fancy version of your asshole grandpa bitching about kids and their selfie sticks. Pornography gets compared to nicotine in how the brain responds but really their point makes no sense because a lot of it as to do with oxytocin or the “bonding chemical” released during sex. Oxytocin has a heavy role in sexual congress to be sure but how this relates to nicotine at all is never clarified, nor are their sources cited–a common theme for FTND. They cite Psychology Today and other not peer-reviewed publications on their blog, but the Fortify program is glaringly missing any citation of statistics or how this information was collected.

FTND and Olsen specifically keep enthusing that what they are trying to do is encourage conversation. However, Olsen and FTND are marketing people. They have no right or credentials to promote any actual discourse on the topic, which is what makes the Fortify program so insidious. It’s well shot, well pitched, and seamlessly blends into support and recovery rhetoric.

SO IS ALCOHOL AND OXYGEN, WHAT IS YOUR POINT?

The most disgusting part to me is the false sense of community. Fortify doesn’t even provide you with the intimacy of an online forum to bond with people — you know, how like porn doesn’t allow you to connect with humans because of all the oxytocin, a pleasure chemical that your brain releases for just about any fucking reason imaginable. Fortify leaves you dependent on the program by providing you with videos and a journaling feature.

You’re shouting into the void of your own despair.

Lauren Parker is a writer based in Oakland. A harbinger of chaos, she spends most of her time hunched over her computer working on her podcasts, Erotic Friend Fiction: A Bob’s Burgers Podcast, and Listener Beware: A Goosebumps Podcast. She has written for the Toast, the Tusk, Ravishly, Main Street Rag, and plain china. You can follow her on twitter @laurenink and online at www.laureneparker.com

This article was produced and published on behalf of HARLOT Magazine, an intersectional e-rag set to launch in January 2016. For media inquiries and article pitches, contact us at dirtiestwellknownsecret@gmail.com.