Why We Need To Talk About Porn Addiction

At the end of my senior year of high school, a group of my male friends announced their pact to give up porn for a solid month.

I was confused, partially because we were talking about porn-viewing habits out in the open (I had a very progressive group of friends), but also because I didn’t immediately see the need to give up porn. It was just fantasy-land sex, I thought.

My friends were participating in NoFap, a website and Reddit community that provides accountability for people who want to abstain from pornography, masturbation, and/or sex for a certain amount of time. They took it as a simple challenge, not unlike “The Contest” episode of Seinfeld.

But the way they were talking about the pact made me think of the messages from my elementary school’s Red Ribbon Week. As the days progressed, they talked about “just saying no” when the mood struck — as though they were addicts trying to stave off a relapse by going cold-turkey.

We treated the topic with good humor back then, but for a growing population of people, porn addiction isn’t a laughing matter. Today, porn addiction remains a controversial topic — in articles published five days apart, the Huffington Post said porn addiction doesn’t exist, while Vice said yes, of course it does. But recent studies suggest that porn addiction is quickly gaining traction as a real form of sex addiction.

Only one of my group of friends lasted all the way to the end of the month. For the rest of my friends, their relapses may have been attributed to the physiological changes that occur when the human mind is subjected to porn.

How Porn Addiction Affects Your Brain

In a recent survey of 2,000 ex-porn users by Stop Procrastinating, a research and productivity site, 76 percent of men said they wanted to give up pornonce they realized the damage addiction can cause to relationships and health. To better understand the specifics of porn addiction — which is officially designated as a type of sex addiction — I spoke with Dr. Robert Navarra, a Master Addiction Counselor and Gottman-certified therapist based in San Carlos, California. “Healthy sexual relationships become possible with good communication and positivity between partners,” Navarra tells Bustle.

Navarra explained that viewing porn can alter our natural levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. “What happens in porn addiction,” Navarra says, “is that the reward system gets over-stimulated and dopamine overwhelms the brain with higher levels of dopamine than our brain was designed to manage.”

Addiction occurs in two phases:

  • Phase 1: The brain’s reward pathways are flooded with high levels of dopamine. Over time, the constant dopamine high raises the bar on the level of excitement needed to actually feel pleasure.
  • Phase 2: The frontal lobes, which are involved in decision making, judgment, and impulse control, experience structural and functional changes. The effect: bad decision making, like browsing porn at work — or seeking increasingly kinky porn content in order to feel that next big dopamine rush.

“The science is compelling, with recent studies where observable changes in the sex addict’s brain match the changes in the brains of those suffering from alcohol and drug use disorders,” Navarra says.

There’s good news, though: when a sex addict stops the addictive behavior, the brain recalibrates itself over time.

“New neural pathways begin to form and healthy sexual relationships become possible with good communication and positivity between partners,” Navarra says, “Intimate sex is now possible and replaces the impersonal and fantasized sexual life of the sex addict.”

That necessary part of healing — stopping the addictive behavior — is where NoFap comes in.

How NoFap Creates Change

According to NoFap’s About page, “There are members of NoFap of all genders, races, backgrounds, and beliefs.” And while the reasons people might turn to NoFap are diverse, most members of the community use its resources because they have a problem they want to fix: an unhealthy consumption of porn.

The site bills itself as non-religious and non-political, and it maintains that masturbation isn’t inherently bad. The same applies to sex: NoFap argues that “heavy porn use makes real sex less enjoyable by desensitizing the brain’s reward system, which has consequences on sexual performance and intimacy.” NoFap members try to change their behavior through selective abstinence, which the website’s resources call “rebooting” — where members actively avoid porn (and/or masturbation and sex) in order to reset the brain’s neural pathways.

On Reddit, the community’s top headlines offer a glimpse into the goals of a NoFap member:

NoFap doesn’t get you girls. NoFap will just give you confidence, you’ve still got to man up & approach them!

Blue balls, tinder, and discipline

NoFap wont give you superpowers; it is much more subtle than that

In the Stop Procrastinating survey, 72 percent of men said improved confidence was a major benefit of giving up porn. The topic of “confidence” pops up frequently among the subreddit’s various discussions. NoFap members want to feel confident in their intimate relationships, in their interactions with others, and in themselves (don’t we all?). And for some, abstaining from porn is a pivotal part of their path to self-discovery.

One user posted to NoFap 65 days into his rebooting process. His post discusses the profound social and personal growth he gained from the experience, which enabled him to shift his time and energy away from porn and explore different methods of self-care — meditation, introspection, and fitness.

In an interview, he explained that his rebooting period also changed the way he interacts with women. In a conversation with a woman at a party, he shared that he “paid attention to when she spoke, asked meaningful questions in which her answers could tell me a little more about herself, and I learned so much about her.” Before rebooting, he never achieved that level of connection, relating his “superficial attraction to the superficial nature of porn’s allure.”

Navarra agrees with this view; as he explains it, self-care begins with understanding the difference between behaviors that support recovery, are neutral to recovery, or are harmful to recovery — a filter which can be useful when making important decisions and lifestyle choices.

Self-care begins with understanding the behaviors that support recovery.

It’s too simplistic to suggest that NoFap helps turn sex-addicted men into bastions of equality who can suddenly enjoy healthy relationships. Simply cutting porn out of their lives won’t teach men how to treat women, nor will it magically help them get partners or save the world. (The same idea applies for NoFap’s female members.)

And by virtue of Reddit’s structure, some of the forum’s conversations are concerning: misogyny abounds in posts like “NoFap really will make YOU a chick magnet. Yes, nerdy, sweaty, stammering YOU,” which offers painful advice like, “If you actually stop jerking off…your sex starved brain and testicles will literally lead you out into the world and between the legs of a female. It just HAPPENS.” Eesh.

No, sex doesn’t just happen in the real world simply because people stop watching porn; that mindset contributes to the dangerous idea that people “deserve” sex, or that sex is “owed” to them for whatever reason. This side of the conversation is missing from NoFap.

At the same time, it makes sense that NoFap doesn’t have any relationship experts or life coaches on its moderation team; the community doesn’t present itself as a relationship forum or a place to find life advice.

Instead, it’s step one in a long journey towards becoming a healthier human, allowing people to speak openly about a taboo topic in a safe space.

“Mutual aid groups like [No Fap], or Sex Addicts Anonymous, or SMART Recovery create a supportive community to reinforce continued recovery,” says Navarra. “Learning to manage and talk about emotions like stress or anger goes a long way in relapse prevention.”

NoFap’s community has thrived because it offers a level of support that fulfills a deep need: people want to feel like they’re understood, and they’re not alone. NoFap fosters that sense of belonging because it normalizes a stigmatized topic, allowing for an honest, ongoing conversation.

What Are The Steps Toward Recovery?

The ultimate goal in porn addiction recovery is for addicts to develop a healthier outlook on sex and intimacy, which becomes possible with good communication and positivity between partners. To get to that point, Navarra recommends working with a trained therapist who understands sex addiction.

If you’re worried about your porn habits, Navarra shared the following screening questions (called PATHOS) that therapists use to identify genuine warning signs of addiction:

  1. Do you find yourself preoccupied with sexual thoughts?
  2. Do you hide some of your sexual behavior from others?
  3. Have you ever sought help for sexual behavior you did not like?
  4. Has anyone been hurt emotionally because of your sexual behavior?
  5. Do you feel controlled by your lust?
  6. When you have sex, do you feel depressed afterwards?

For men and women, three positive answers indicate sensitivity to sexual addiction.

If I had taken these questions to my high school friends, I don’t know for sure how they would have responded. They might have laughed them off because their porn habits were exactly that — habits, albeit time-consuming ones. But they also might have taken those questions to heart, opening up a conversation about the underlying factors that led to an unhealthy dependence on porn.

Porn remains a thriving industry that brings in an estimated $97 billion annually. It’s even expanding into new mediums as virtual reality (VR) technology becomes more accessible — Pornhub recently debuted a free VR channel in collaboration with BaDoink, an adult streaming service.

As porn continues to grow and evolve with new technologies and changing audiences, one thing is true: it isn’t always a bad thing. Porn can be an important part of a healthy sexual relationship. But for people who want to step away from porn’s appeal, NoFap functions as a discussion forum for people at various stages of rebooting. Some members are just starting the process, while others have abstained from porn for years — and all of them are talking. NoFap may not have all the resources one may need to become a healthier human, but it does connect and support people who are trying to become better versions of themselves.

After all, being honest with oneself is a step toward personal improvement. And that, more than ever, is a conversation worth having.


Originally published at www.bustle.com.

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