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Why Thousands Of Young Men Are Giving Up Pornography In 2014

Esquire goes inside NoFap, the Reddit group encouraging young men to quit their favourite pasttime

Why Thousands Of Young Men Are Giving Up Pornography In 2014

"No single vice causes so much mental and physical debility,” began a section of a popular home medical guide published in 1921, “than masturbation. It impairs the intellect, weakens the memory, debases the mind, ruins the nervous system and destroys body, mind and soul."

Its author, Isaac D Johnson, wasn’t saying anything particularly new. At the turn of the 20th century, moral panic about masturbation was so widespread, everyone from the Boy Scouts of America to Kellogg’s – who sold Cornflakes on the basis they were a “non-stimulating” dietary option for adolescent boys – was telling young men to keep their hands out of their pants.

Believing it to cause everything from acne to depravity, the anti-masturbation movement saw the creation in 1876 of such devices as the “Stephenson Spermatic Truss”, a metal cage that fitted like a pair of boxer shorts and made an erection physically impossible (or at least, extremely painful). Like something from a Game of Thrones torture scene, there was even, in 1903, the development of an electrified version that would frazzle your penis like a fly if it dared venture upwards.

Then came a couple of world wars, and fears for young men shifted from whether they were pulling the chicken, beating the bishop or indeed spanking the monkey to whether they would be killed overseas. The sexual revolution of the Sixties and Seventies also left the Church and other self-appointed moral arbitrators, at least in the West, with far bigger enemies to battle than the humble tug – pre-marital sex, the pill and a softening of attitudes towards homosexuals to name just a few. By the Eighties and Nineties, masturbation was viewed – and taught in schools – as being a healthy part of human sexuality. The war on jerking off was over, and boys and men of all ages could relax.

Until now. In 2014, a new kind of anti-masturbation movement is beginning to stir across the US and Europe. Thousands of young men are again starting to believe that wanking is bad for them, and they’re voluntarily opting to quit. They don’t consider it immoral. They don’t think it’ll drive them insane. Instead they’re hopeful it will empower them to have more and better sex. And the reason is a desire to escape what has become utterly intrinsic to masturbation in the internet age: free, unlimited, high-speed hard-core pornography.

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For most men, our earliest memories of porn are a source of amusing nostalgia. The Penthouse found under your dad’s bed. Freeze-framing Basic Instinct to get a better peek between Sharon Stone’s legs. Staying up late to watch Eurotrash with the sound down.

For me, now a 29-year-old, it was my friends at school circulating a floppy disc containing images of Geri from the Spice Girls’ early glamour modelling days, downloaded via the painfully slow 56k dial modems we’d just begun to acquire. My generation were on the very cusp of the internet age, when access was still restricted to a shared family computer and PornHub, RedTube and the rest were still just a twinkle in some Californian entrepreneurs’ eyes.

But here’s the thing about the generation of 10-13 year old boys who came just after me – those born after, say, 1992 – and all 10-13 year old boys since: any one of them can see more naked women on their phone in 10 minutes than most grown men in history saw in their entire lifetimes. They can also, of course, see women performing acts most men in history would never have dreamt up, let alone witnessed. And unsurprisingly, in overwhelming numbers, this is precisely what they choose do. The government, slowly waking up to the issue, issued a cross-party report in 2012 that revealed one in three boys of this age had viewed explicit material online, with four out of five becoming regular uses by the time they were 16.

One reaction to this is a sort of generational jealousy, like looking at PlayStations and iPads and ruefully remembering you had to make do with a Commodore 64. But increasing numbers of men who have reached their early twenties having grown up on this diet of unlimited porn are reporting some draw backs, including a decreased interest in “real” sex, an inability to ejaculate during it and – worst of all for most – erectile dysfunction. At the same time, the young women they’re sleeping with are reporting their own problems, chiefly unrealistic expectations for things like anal sex, facials and general “porn star” behaviour: pressure to look and perform in ways they’re often not comfortable with.

None of these fears about pornography are new. The difference is that they’re not being voiced by a Mary Whitehouse figure or the Church. They’re coming from young men themselves. From us.

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On 16 May 2012, a video of a Ted Talk called “The Great Porn Experiment” was placed on YouTube, and has been watched two-and-half-million times since. In it, a retired physiology teacher called Gary Wilson claims: “The widespread use of internet porn is one of the fastest moving global experiments every conducted.”

His argument is that we don’t know what happens to young men when they can watch an unlimited amount of pornography – both in terms of volume and variety – before they’ve had any kind of real-life sexual experience, because it has no precedent in history. Only now are the “guinea pigs” of the internet era reaching the age where they can tell us.

One of the biggest places they’re gathering to do so is on an online community hosted on the popular social media website Reddit, called “NoFap” (“fap” is an American term for masturbating). NoFap is an online support group and resource for anyone jaded by their porn use. It sets a challenge of giving up internet porn and masturbating altogether for 90 days (for the internet generation, one barely exists without the other, and any attempt to masturbate will almost inevitably lead to watching porn).

During this period of abstinence, users say, men can expect to first “flat line” – where their interest in sex vanishes almost altogether – then begin to experience “superpowers”, which include everything from a greater interest in the opposite sex and improved self-confidence to more energy and alertness in everyday life.

By internet standards, NoFap is an incredibly positive and earnest place to hang out. The users, of which there are now more than 100,000, post updates on their progress, share their difficulties and ask for help when they fear a “relapse” is imminent. The language they use is steeped in both self-help jargon and amateur-psychology – “Porn has made people like puppies and this place is like reclaiming back our lionhood. Bravo lions,” reads one comment, “Our dopamine receptors start healing, our sensitivity is coming back,” claims another. (With such a rapturous following, NoFap is sometimes accused of being like a cult.)

But buried beneath all the cheerleading and posturing are some genuinely upsetting and often quite touching anecdotes from young men who believe porn is bad for them, usually in two ways: the amount of time it takes up – often several hours at a time, usually late at night – and the nature of the material they are viewing.

One NoFap disciple I speak to, Will, is a 25-year-old risk analyst from the UK. He explains how, growing up, he found himself attracted to “big women”, a predilection that escalated thanks to his internet use.

“I found myself gravitating towards the darker side of that particular fetish – things like force-feeding and men being ‘squashed’,” he explains. “There are videos online of porn actresses who are so overweight they can barely walk. The thought of these women being so large turned me on.” He adds: “Afterwards, I felt incredibly guilty. Being so big you can't walk more than a few yards? There's no enjoyment in that life.”

Will’s story is typical of those you read on NoFap, where young men claim to have “graduated” over the years from looking up naked pictures or vanilla videos to extreme or niche tastes. Another YouTube video that has become required viewing in NoFap circles is of a Ted talk by an annoyingly young and handsome Israeli gender studies student called Ran Gavrieli, who sets out to explain why he decided to quit.

“I stopped watching porn because it brought anger and violence into my sexual fantasies that were not there originally,” he begins. “What porn is showing us 80–90 per cent of the time is sex with no hands involved. No touching, no caressing, no kissing. Porn cameras have no interest in sensual activities. They are only into penetration. This is not how we authentically desire.

“Before porn, I used to fantasise about a scenario in which I would meet a woman, what I would say to her and what she would say to me. But porn conquered my mind. I lost my ability to imagine. […] I found myself closing my eyes trying to masturbate, trying desperately to think about something human and not making it, because my mind was bombarded with all those images of women being violated.”

The reaction in the comments below the video is a typical mix of gratitude and support and dismissive anger (“clueless pawn of the femino-christian mindset”), though with more than 2.4 million views and strong endorsements throughout the NoFap community, it’s an experience that is clearly hitting a nerve. The question now confronting the scientific community is why exactly this modern phenomenon is occurring. Could evolutionary biology be to blame?

***

Dr Thaddeus Birchard is an expert in psychosexual therapy and the founder of the UK's first sex addiction treatment programme at the Marylebone Centre. From his office in central London, lined with hundreds of books on human sexuality (and a copy of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, presumably as light relief from all the Freud), he treats men with all forms of sexual addiction, including internet pornography.

“The human brain craves novelty,” he explains, with the soft-spoken but assertive tone people in his current profession (and his previous one in the pastoral ministry) require. “That’s why couples have sex when they go away for the weekend, when they’ve not had sex for months. And you get endless novelty on the internet.”

Birchard likens it to playing a slot machine (the mental state of a sex addict is highly comparable to that of a gambling addict). "You go on internet porn and you don't know when you are going to get the hit. You could look at a dozen pictures or videos, and suddenly there is a hit. Or look at a hundred, and there isn't."

This quest for new experience explains why heavy porn users eventually explore fresh versions of what has aroused them in the past – and online, "fresh" usually means "more extreme". What makes it even more powerful is that during sex, solo or otherwise, we're programmed not to think about whether we'll regret what we're doing later.

To help me understand what happens to the human brain while watching porn, he draws a rough outline of a head on a large sheet of paper. He sketches the limbic system – the bit that processes our impulses; and the frontal cortex – the bit we need to override those impulses with rational thought. Porn appeals to the former, and his job, in a pitiful oversimplification, is to help people get better at using the latter.

“Arousal shuts down our capacity to think about consequences,” Birchard  says. “It’s designed to do that. Mother Nature intends for you to maximise your DNA, and you do that by frequent ejaculation in as many places as possible. It’s a literal shutting down, so you stop thinking about your wife, or going to work in the morning at seven, and stay on the internet until four in the morning.”

Still, the amount of time internet porn takes up or how much men regret the nature of what they look at isn’t the real problem for most of the young men on NoFap. The real problem is how it affects their behaviour with women.

Alexander Rhodes launched NoFap as a bit of joke a few years ago, but now takes the task of helping men quit pornography very seriously. A 24-year-old web developer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he views pornography as his generation’s version of cigarettes — something harmful and addictive that we’re learning the consequences of in retrospect.

His own story, which he discusses openly, exemplifies what really horrifies the young guys who have followed him into abstinence. While many of the NoFap community are clearly social misfits who, whether it is placebo or otherwise, have found quitting porn has given them the confidence to approach women for the first time, others are more like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in Don Jon, his film on the topic of porn addiction – normal guys who bag hot girls (well, perhaps not quite as hot as Scarlett Johansson, but that’s Hollywood) and then find they prefer porn to what’s waiting for them in bed.

Like almost every man of his generation, Alex started looking for porn around 11 and by the time he was 19 “was watching the highest-resolution and most extreme stuff available.” Specifically, this meant “Gang-bangs and many other niches of hard-core porn. I liked watching women be degraded.”

“For years I was never able to orgasm from sex – I had to masturbate myself to orgasm with my partners, often while fantasising about porn,” he continues. “There was no focus on the actual beautiful woman in front of me – it was strictly a race to orgasm. Although I would consider myself a good boyfriend outside of the bedroom, I simply detached and depersonalised my partners as tools to achieve orgasm.

“My mind completely separated emotion, empathy, intimacy, love, affection, and all other virtues from sex. And my expectations made my partners feel objectified, used, and ‘not enough’”.

Rhodes – like risk analyst Will and most of the men I spoke to through NoFap – says his porn use did not just cause the end of his relationship, but ruined his enjoyment of sex altogether.

These are all men who have not yet reached their late twenties.

***

Despite all the depressing accounts of relationships ruined and sex drives scuppered, the dominant message that emerges from NoFap and similar male-led anti-porn websites is actually positive. More than anything, they want to talk about how quitting porn has turned their lives around.

These are the excitable declarations that make up most of the forum posts – men reaching new milestones in abstinence and wanting to brag about it, in the nicest possible way. They range from seemingly plausible claims to a reinvigorated mojo and greater vigour, energy and alertness, to frankly daftly assertions like “my posture is better” and “my immune system has gone through the roof”.

Key to this message is the belief, shared by NoFap and yourbrainonporn.com, the website run by Gary Wilson, that by quitting men can “reset” their brains and return their sexuality to “normal” levels, diminishing the appetites artificially encouraged by heavy porn use. This is something there is very little scientific consensus about, partly because case studies are only just beginning to emerge.

Dr Birchard, for one, is dubious that abstinence alone can work. “I think [NoFap] is a simplification of the work that we do,” he says. “Twelve step programs suggest a celibacy or abstinence contract as a temporary measure, really just to help you realise you’re not going to die if you stop doing the thing you’re addicted to. In my experience, some people find it helpful, some people don’t, but it’s rarely enough to solve a deeper rooted problem on its own.”

Nor does he subscribe to the idea upheld in NoFap that certain porn viewing habits – watching gay porn when you’re straight, for example – can be the result of novelty seeking and “too much porn” alone.

“It could be someone has a sliver in their sexual template of, say, an interest in transsexual people, but because they can look at lots of pictures of transsexual people, they will find it being reinforced. But I don’t believe any sexual tastes come from nowhere,” he says.

Some NoFap users would vehemently disagree, but for Dr Birchard as well as their other critics there’s a smack of American puritanism to it all, a mind-set that still sees desire – particularly certain types of desire – as sinful, and in his words, “presents a value system in pseudo-scientific language.”

And yet NoFap and its associated groups claim to be secular. As Rhodes puts it: “I encourage people to have tons of awesome pre-marital sex – how is that possibly religious? Or anti-sex?”

Could it be that the scientific community simply doesn’t understand the scale of what young men are dealing with, something that, according to yourbrainonporn.com is “about as comparable to the porn older men grew up with as today’s computer games are to playing chequers”?

Mark Queppet, the founder of scheme linked to NoFap called the “Sacred Sexuality Project”, believes so. “I’m continually disappointed in sex therapists,” he tells me. “They seem to be largely ignorant of how high-speed internet pornography has the ability to affect our brains.”

A shaven-headed 24-year-old from Massachusetts who recovered from his own porn addiction and now works as a life coach, Queppet has a world-weary air and a self-possessed manner unusual for his age (he is a Christian, but like Rhodes, insists it doesn’t inform his project, despite its name).

In discussing his work and aims, he makes one particularly sad observation: “Today people use porn as a mood modifier,” he says. “If you are feeling bored, anxious, lonely, angry, sad or have any other negative emotion, you can turn some porn on and instantly escape from that discomfort.”

In other words, men are not seeking out porn when they’re happy and horny and in need of some relief, but using it to anesthetise themselves from the emotional ups and downs that come with being young.

***

According to psychology, the male sexual template is set between the ages of seven and nine, before being activated in adolescence. It is during these tender years that a lifetime of sexual tastes and expectations are created.

Whenever I discuss internet porn with men of my own age, a familiar sense of having "dodged a bullet" always emerges: a quiet gratitude that we grew up in the final years of the pre-internet age, when we’d discreetly scan the shelves of Blockbuster for a film with "sex / nudity: strong" on the spine and flick hastily through the Sunday Sport desperate to see a pair of breasts.

Gratitude, more importantly, that by the time internet porn arrived, we had already clumsily navigated being alone and naked with a woman for the first time, and, unlike the jaded debutants of today, found ourselves struck with wonder rather than disappointment.

Taken from the August issue of Esquire, out now.

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