"Porn is bad!" (The Week)

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In the episode "The Game" of Star Trek: The Next Generation, William Riker returns from the vacation resort planet Risa with a game that he is eager to share with the crew. A few try on a headset that displays what we would now call an augmented reality game, which they control telepathically. With each successive level, the game triggers the pleasure centers of the mind, making it addictive. More and more of the members of the crew play the game. Step by step, casual entertainment becomes a mind-warping addiction. It quickly becomes clear that the game is a mind control device snuck in by aliens to take control of the Enterprise.

If something like that existed in our world, how would we know, if we were all playing the game? In the episode, Wesley Crusher tries to wake up the crew members to no avail. In between play sessions, they dismiss and mock his warnings that the game is unhealthy. Only Data, who as an android is immune from the game's telepathy, ends up saving the ship.

What if there was a game like that, and half our population was playing, and it caused all sorts of pathologies, but none of us would notice because we're all playing it?

In the wake of Anthony Weiner's latest sexting scandal, Pamela Anderson got a lot of people snickering by penning an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the dangers of porn addiction. "[W]e are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to," the sex-tape pioneer writes, along with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. All of a sudden, classism and sexism became easy to deploy against the former Baywatch star and her warnings.

She calls for updating the sexual revolution with a "sensual revolution," which would "replace pornography with eroticism — the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body's mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships." As a Frenchman, I say: Amen.

Porn use is bad because it is fundamentally a form of abuse of yourself and others. I don't need to pull out my Bible to realize that. One of the greatest ethicists of the 18th centruy, Emmanuel Kant, had it right when he said the key to morality is to relate to other people as ends in themselves, not as means. As people, not objects. Porn use is definitionally the ultimate objectification of the self and of others.

But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that there's not just a question of ethics but of public health. Fears about porn addiction are easy to dismiss because porn has been around forever. But scientific evidence suggests that today's porn — high-quality, streaming video at the push of a button — screws with our brains in unique ways. Especially for the young, who get porn before they can see for themselves the difference with the real thing.

A 2011 report by the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexuality Medicine (Italy being known as a country of prudes) puts it as starkly as possible: "Internet porn is killing young men's sexuality." The logic is simple. Evolution gave us a "gorging" mechanism when it comes to food and sex, the essentials that evolution selects for. Sex and food trigger dopamine releases that block our natural feelings of satiety. As the researcher Gary Wilson, who studies the neurological impact of internet porn, explains, just as there is an obesity epidemic, there is also an epidemic of "addiction to sexual excitation."

Like all addiction phenomena, use leads to desensitization: We need ever more to reach the same high. In young users, whose neural pathways are highly malleable, use leads to hyper-sensitivity to porn, and therefore to a lower sensitivity to real-world sexual stimuli. Porn addiction also creates an addiction to novelty to trigger that dopamine release, which explains the rise (and mainstreaming) of ever more bizarre and elaborate fetishes. (Which some boyfriends then try to reproduce with unprepared girlfriends, with incalculable psychological harm.)

And we are indeed in a guinea pig experiment: Researchers who recently tried to study the phenomenon were unable to complete their study because they were unable to find young men who didn't use porn for a control group. Everyone is playing the game.

Everyone, that is, except those who quit, part of an increasingly popular movement known as NoFap. Usually, it's impotence that's the trigger to quit. And we do have a control group. The testimonials, from websites such as Your Brain On Porn and Reddit, are heartwarming and striking to read. "The difference in mood, character, and outlook [...] is so obvious to me now." People, over and over again, report not only better sexual performance and a healthier sexuality, but a whole life change, particularly around willpower and relating to others. Quitting porn is basically a cure for "young loser syndrome." People who dropped out of college get their degree. Men who couldn't talk to girls find girlfriends.

There's an analogue to the game we're all playing, as my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Mary Eberstadt notes. There was once a game that most young men played, which seemed harmless enough, and which quickly became cool. But there was something off. Evidence of the game's harmful effects stubbornly presented itself. We refused to believe, because of moneyed interests and because people hate being told their addiction is bad for them. I'm talking about smoking. It took decades to recognize smoking for the public health disaster that it is, and to finally get a grip on it societally. Although porn doesn't cause cancer, there's good evidence that it does destroy lives and families.

Read entire article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry