Has Porn Overwhelmed Our Brains? The "NoFap" Movement Thinks So

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woman shocked by computer screen contentNoFappers say their brains have been warped by porn, at the expense of real relationships.

It’s often said that porn helps drive technology. When the Super 8 projectors came out, porn flicks were among the first to be shown. VHS was able to stomp out competing systems like Betamax largely because it agreed to license pornography. And DVDs made it easier to jump to the dirtiest parts of our favorite films.

Things are continuing down that path. Now we can send dirty photos that self-destruct in 10 seconds or less. Watching people diddle themselves on webcam has turned into a billion-dollar industry. And kinky displays of anal and double anal, fisting and double fisting are just clicks away. It’s amazing how much material porn users have at their fingertips.

Of course, explorations into the perverse predate Internet pornography. Some of the more colorful can be found in the works of the Marquis de Sade. So what changes when these scenarios jump from the page to the screen?

Some may be familiar with the newest euphemism for pornography-aided masturbation: Fapping. The word first appeared around 1999, when it was used in a web comic called Sexy Losers. Over a decade later, the term popped up in a Reddit thread where users discussed the benefits of avoiding pornography and abstaining from masturbation. From there, “Fap” became “NoFap” and a movement was born. Its community now totals to nearly one million predominately male members.

According to the movement’s official website, “NoFap hosts challenges in which participants abstain from pornography or masturbation for a period of time.” It caters to those who feel excessive participation in porn has led to serious problems in their personal lives. 

One of the most frequently mentioned names on the NoFap thread is Gary Wilson, a leader in the anti-porn movement. He examined the problem of porn addiction in his Ted Talk, “The Great Porn Experiment.” He also runs the site yourbrainonporn.com and recently authored a Kindle e-book titled Your Brain On Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction

Wilson’s argument is a little dense, but bear with me: he asserts that our hunter-gatherer brains don’t know how to process the overload of pornographic material that exists online today. He links the concept of novelty with sexual selection. In the natural world, he explains, every female functions as a potential genetic opportunity. So when a man sets his eyes on a woman, his brain tells him to find her, fuck her and get her pregnant. The brain releases a surge of dopamine to help meet that goal.

The way novelty manifests itself online is through clicks. Wilson argues that porn tricks the male brain into thinking they've “hit the evolutionary jackpot.” Every click brings them to a new girl, and thus a new “opportunity.” It’s a limitless world. So men keep searching. Soon, their brains become so desensitized to normal sexual stimuli they require more shocking and novel material to maintain a normal sexual drive.

Wilson says this kind of “rewired circuitry” is similar to what is found in other addicts like drug abusers or alcoholics. “Constant novelty at a click can cause addiction,” he claims. Fortunately, he says, the effects can reverse themselves, as long as those affected agree to give up the most accessible of all vices: pornography.

Those in the NoFap community—who sometimes call themselves “fapstronauts”—argue that abstaining from pornography and masturbation allows the brain to “reboot” and return to normal functioning. They say that when a man stops indulging in those activities, he's rewarded with an increase in confidence, concentration and libido, and then he can learn the skills needed to maintain a normal, healthy relationship.

One of the most talked about issues in the NoFap community is, unsurprisingly, penis related. Many former fappers claim their addiction prevented them from achieving an erection in person; getting hard depended on their proximity to pornography. They call this “porn-induced erectile dysfunction,” or PIED. User ObjectionYourHonor writes, “The inability to have sex from fapping too much in my younger years up to now (I'm 23) has caused me to miss out on great relationships since I couldn't pull through during intimacy. I would feel like shit and then fap, which in turn made me sick. I decided to take control and make sure the next relationship I am in, I can give myself fully to that woman. I'm too young to need Viagra.”

The argument is rational. A plus B lands you at C, which translates to sexual dysfunction. But, as some fapstronauts will admit, there are gaps in the science. And some aren’t willing to overlook that fact.

Dr. David Ley, author of The Myth Of Sex Addiction, tells me, “Sexual stimulation uses the reward systems of the brain, but the anti-porn arguments are based on very simplistic and reductionistic ideas of how the brain works, how sex works, and what porn is, such as videos versus images, written erotica versus film, hardcore versus softcore, etc. There’s so much we don’t know about these things and so many subjective definitions, that all of these folks are arguing far, far ahead of the data. Because they are entering the argument with moral assumptions, they are subject to expectancy effect, and they see what they want to see, in research which is, at best, ambiguous.”

He warns, “Bad data, lack of knowledge and the intrusion of moral values is what led to people like [John] Kellogg arguing for surgeries such as clitorectomies, and use of physical restraints, to prevent masturbation. These same types of arguments led to homosexuality being a disease, and sexual women called nymphomaniacs.”

It’s safe to say that society’s shortcomings extend well beyond pornography. That’s not to say pornography doesn’t present its own set of problems. Its depictions of women leave much to be desired, and those who protest the industry on feminist grounds aren’t without reason. In some extreme cases, people have linked pockets of the industry to sex trafficking and even sexual slavery. But these discussions generally take a backseat to male-centered issues like erectile dysfunction on the NoFapping platforms. The community often frames the “porn problem” as one relating to public health. What message does it send, then, when social issues pertaining to women come second to a man’s ability to maintain an erection?

It’s also true that many NoFap splinter groups operate on moral grounds. The organization XXX Church started handing out Bibles at porn shows back in 2006. Their goal is to hand out 100,000 Bibles at Sexpos across the world. They say they've given away 75,000 Bibles so far. The website Porn Effect proclaims, “In your battle against porn, prayer and fasting are powerful weapons.”

The movement also makes it possible for individuals to pose as “experts." Twenty-something NoFap enthusiast Gabe Deem created the YouTube channel Reboot Nation to share his story of porn addiction. In one sporadically edited video, Deem walks viewers through the “brain science of how porn is affecting us.” To my knowledge, Deem holds no degrees in medical science. 

This is not to undermine the concerns surrounding pornography. Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse found that most boys seek out pornographic material by the age of 10. And many worry about the link between early porn consumption and sexually aggressive behaviors. But it's important to have a degree of wariness about individuals who may try to capitalize on these concerns 

Covenant Eyes encourages users to “make wiser decisions about Internet use” by listing all websites visited, search terms used and all videos watched in an Internet Accountability Report. The company hopes to reduce the “temptation to click on inappropriate and pornographic links.” Chris Haven, who started the website Quit Porn Get Girls, recently wrote the book How To Get Laid On Tinder. Jay Anthony is the author of Pornography Addiction: Destroying the Habit & Breaking The Cycle, available on Amazon.

Those in the NoFap community will suggest there is no such thing as casual porn viewing, that all porn consumption is harmful, and that society should work toward eradicating the demand for porn. Many people will agree that real-life encounters are preferable to onscreen fantasies, but is it really so bad for people to entertain the latter? And to what extent should definitions of pornography inhibit our sexual appetites? Anal sex between heterosexual couples, for example, has been practiced long before dawn of the Internet. So why is watching it so taboo? Some point to the porn industry's increasingly violent and degrading depictions of women. It's an important argument, and one that appears infrequently on the NoFap thread, where issues like reclaiming erections and getting laid seem to get much more attention. 

The organization Fight the New Drug operates under the theory that “Porn kills love.” One of the co-founders explained that most people know smoking cigarettes are bad for them even before they light up. He hopes that one day people will see pornography in a similar light.

Porn addiction is a complicated topic. A lot more research needs to be conducted before we can come to any conclusion. But what we can admit is that porn addiction exists where porn addiction can exist. Maybe we should take a moment to appreciate the environment that allows us to indulge in the first place.

Carrie Weisman is an AlterNet staff writer who focuses on sex, relationships and culture. Got tips, ideas or a first-person story? Email her.