We recently binge-watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale of a future in which the world’s few remaining fertile women are enslaved by a tyrannical government to bear children for its male leaders. It’s a grim vision, and one that, for the time being, fortunately resides firmly in the realm of dark imagination.
Still, we couldn’t help but be reminded of Atwood’s book when we read this article about the sexual habits of young Japanese men and women. According to a recent study reported in the article, nearly half of Japanese citizens under 30 are virgins, which has led to a severe decline in Japanese birth rates. The study offers two explanations for this state of affairs: less social pressure to marry and financial worries. But at least one survey respondent postulated a different explanation: young Japanese men are content to surf porn instead of risking an interaction with a live, human partner.
Now, that’s just one person’s theory. We suspect there are numerous interconnected factors influencing Japan’s declining rates of partnered sexual relationships and reproduction. In addition to declining social pressure and financial insecurity, perhaps Japanese culture heightens the perceived risk of rejection of sexual advances. Perhaps Japanese public health initiatives have been particularly effective in stoking fears of sexually transmitted diseases. Perhaps the listless Japanese economy creates conditions in which having children feels less desirable, or where it’s difficult to find the time and space for sustained personal intimacy. Who knows. Still, we can’t help but wonder if the woman quoted in the article is on to something when she says “I think a lot of men just cannot be bothered. They can watch porn on the internet and get sexual satisfaction that way.”
In the spirit of Margaret Atwood, consider this dystopian thought experiment. Imagine the invention of a technology that delivered sexual satisfaction and intimacy so perfectly, so in tune with our deepest sexual desires, that it rendered moot the idea of partnered sex for pleasure. Imagine this technology was available in unlimited quantity, on demand. Imagine, in other words, a technology that made it pointless to have sex with another live human being except for the purpose of procreation. What then?
Or consider a converse scenario: a society in which the porn that exists today is sufficient to satisfy all sexual desires. A society so steeped in isolation, fear of physical intimacy, nihilism and despair that today’s porn seems far preferable to the uncertainties of interpersonal connection. What then?
We suspect that in either scenario, people would remain virgins longer. We suspect people’s sexual habits would evolve away from human-to-human physical contact toward pleasure-delivering technology. We suspect birth rates would decline. We suspect, in other words, that either scenario would foster conditions similar to those reported in the Japan study.
Could it be that porn consumption in Japan has reached this sort of tipping point? Could it be that a demographically significant number of young Japanese citizens have, due to some unique cocktail of societal and technological factors, come to prefer sexual stimulation from porn over sexual stimulation from partnered intimacy?
We doubt it. Conditioned as The Handmaid’s Tale has made us in this moment to ominous prognostication, we doubt porn is the driving factor in Japan’s declining rates of sexual activity and reproduction. But, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if porn plays a measurable role in that decline. And we’re downright certain that the porn industry is hard at work at delivering the maximum amount of pleasure possible with each new video and VR experience, and that it would love to develop an all-consuming technology to meet our every desire. So, while the the dystopian future might not be here already, it’s not fantasy to feel it creeping our way.
We here at PornHelp feel some ambivalence toward celebrities who publicly struggle with sexual addiction, porn-related or otherwise. On one hand, we empathize with anyone who has faced the abyss of out of control sexual behavior, and applaud those brave enough to shine a light on that frequently misunderstood condition. On the other hand, public declarations of sexual addiction by celebrities often sensationalize the problem, and seem calculated to sell magazines and to increase reality TV viewership rather than raise genuine awareness.
For better or worse, we’ve developed a shorthand for toggling between these conflicting inclinations. We call it the “US Weekly Rule.” It goes like this: if the first place we hear about a celebrity’s struggle with sexual addiction is in US Weekly (or a similar publication), our instinct is to doubt that it’s legit.
Here’s where we’re coming from. Addictions involving out of control sexual behaviors thrive on isolation, secrecy and shame. They often ruin lives quietly, and become public knowledge only when some cataclysm forces them into the open. Sexual addictions don’t discriminate. They afflict young and old, men and women, famous and ordinary, gay and straight. They involve unwanted, frequently compulsive behaviors that defy repeated attempts to stop. They inflict terrible consequences on psyches, relationships, and careers. In short, sexual addictions are nothing to celebrate, for anyone.
When a celebrity genuinely struggles with sexual addiction, the problem may play out in public as an inexplicable downward spiral. Though the decline itself might be tabloid fodder, the label “sexual addiction” tends not to surface right away, and is rarely offered by the celebrity himself in the moment as an explanation for what’s going on. Think of Tiger Woods, for instance, whose contrite admission of serial infidelity and sexual acting out only followed a year-long slide culminating in a car wreck. In other words, like “ordinary” sex/porn addicts, the “addiction” label usually gets applied to these celebrities only once their desperate misery or efforts at recovery come to light. Their stories make us sad as any tragedy does, but we also can’t help but feel hopeful that their telling may lead to a better public understanding of how powerful and vexing sexual addictions and related disorders can be.
Those tragic stories differ, in our eyes, from the significantly less sympathetic tales of "sex addiction" that too often grace the covers of gossip magazines. In the typical version, a celebrity is found to have cheated on his or her (typically celebrity) spouse/partner, and directly or through a publicist offers “sexual addiction” as an explanation (some may say “excuse”) for the transgression. The story breathlessly features a high-profile check-in at a rehab center. Photographs of mistresses and jilted lovers. Salacious tell-alls. The works. These stories make us roll our eyes, and invite us to indulge in a little schadenfreude.
The US Weekly Rule isn’t foolproof. That particular magazine may break legitimate news now and again, and we get that celebrities differ from the rest of us in how their lives get shared with the public. Ordinary folks don’t have reporters sniffing around our private lives for a scoop. Publicists or no publicists, Tiger’s reported battle with compulsive sexual behavior was bound to come out eventually because his downfall was just so precipitous and notable. But the guy wasn’t - and still isn’t, so far as we can tell - trying to sell that story for clicks or shout-outs.
Which is to say, the US Weekly Rule works as a general guideline because the notion of voluntarily breaking the news of a sex addiction in a gossip magazine seems, at best, highly suspicious. No recovery program we’re aware of requires, or even recommends, that a person publicly announce their struggle (certainly not until well into recovery and after serious reflection on the consequences of speaking out). Virtually no one who has endured the pain of a sexual addiction, celebrity or not, wants to offer up that agony for others’ consumption. The vast, vast majority of us are just trying to put it in the past and rebuild. And as for the few among us courageous enough to talk publicly about their sexual addiction in depth (thank you, Terry Crews), well, we see a big difference between them and tabloid speculation about affairs and betrayals.
So look, we know we’re whistling in the wind when we say this, but we sure do wish that people in the public eye would think twice before coopting the label “sex addict” to describe their every indiscretion. Because, the thing is, every false or opportunistic celebrity claim of sexual addiction cheapens and sensationalizes the struggle of people who really do suffer from out of control, compulsive sexual behaviors. And that’s the last thing those of us who’ll never appear in US Weekly need.
Broadly speaking, we see two conversations about porn happening in the world today. One of them - the one you most often read about in the news - is a large-scale conversation about how pornography production and consumption affect society writ large. This is the controversial conversation. The one that politicians and faith leaders get fired up about. The one that provokes dueling accusations of cultural decline and “moral panic”. The one that that can get a little exhausting.
Then there’s the second conversation. You hear less about this one because for the most part it’s not happening in the open. It’s a conversation individuals are having with themselves about whether and how their own porn use conforms with their self-perception and personal needs. People having this conversation rarely speak it aloud, except perhaps in prayer, or to a therapist, or in a close, trusting relationship. And yet, despite its relative obscurity, it's this second conversation that's becoming increasingly essential to our lives.
We like to think of the distinction between these two conversations as akin to the difference between political campaign talk and personal voting choice. Yes, one influences the other, but it’s only the latter that we treat as sacred and profound. One is about how others think they know us, the other is about how we know ourselves.
Like voting choice, our own internal conversations about our personal porn use habits can involve varying considerations of personal economics, emotion, morality, ethics, and aspiration. There isn’t likely to be a one-size-fits-all factor that decides how a person feels about their personal porn use any more than there’s a one-size-fits-all reason a person chooses one candidate over another. Indeed, research suggests that porn use may affect people in varying ways.
Some people, of course, experience an overwhelming compulsion to consume porn. When these people continue using despite negative consequences and repeated, failed attempts to stop, their behavior is (or closely mimics) an addiction. Depending on their degree of self awareness, these people tend to think on some level that using porn is either really good or really bad for them. Either way, their internal conversation about their personal porn consumption often dominates their thoughts. The key for them is to find help when they realize they need it, and that's why this web site exists.
But the others - the majority for whom porn use isn’t (at least, not yet) an all-consuming obsession - are different. Porn doesn’t occupy their every thought. And yet, porn can still shape their perceptions of personal sexuality, body image, spirituality, and gender roles, to name a few. These people may not have an ever-present shouting match about porn use going on in their heads, but they may yet ask themselves questions that shape their personal porn use habits. Questions like “Does porn affect expectations of what’s supposed to happen with my sexual partner?”, “Does porn influence how I perceive my own sexual attractiveness?”, “Am I ok with consuming porn if I don’t know or can't tell whether the performers have been exploited?”, and “Does my porn use reflect my values?”.
The big, loud, public conversation about porn covers these topics and many more, and yet, like a large-scale political campaign, it often lacks the subtlety and nuance that drive personal views about porn consumption. Yes, it may be true that “porn kills love” in some respects, but there are also couples who insist they have enhanced and strengthened their intimate, loving relationships by visiting PornTube together now and again. Conversely, yes, it may possible to consume only porn that’s produced “ethically,” with well-treated, well-compensated professional performers and safe working conditions, but the overwhelming bulk of pornography is not produced to such ethically observant standards, and at its worst involves abhorrent degradation and exploitation of the most vulnerable among us.
Finding a way through these competing generalities to an informed, nuanced personal perspective about porn use requires some sustained, quiet reflection. We view taking time for that reflection to be essential for every citizen of this digital world awash in porn. It's a duty no less profound than the duty to make an informed choice in a voting booth. Porn has become far too pervasive, far too dug-in to our lives, to leave solely to the talking heads in the public conversation. Each of us must develop an informed view of if, when, and how we consume porn, or risk leaving life-changing decisions about our and our intimate partners' sexual existence to the faceless online mob.
And so, we heartily encourage all of our readers - but particularly those for whom porn use is not presently an all-consuming obsession - to dedicate some time to their own internal conversations about personal porn use. We also encourage you to dip a toe or two into the loud, public debates about porn to help inform yourself, but to do so with the critical eye of a voter during a campaign. Check your sources. Be aware of agendas. Know yourself and what matters to you. And then, take time to focus during a quiet moment - a voting booth moment, if you will - to pinpoint exactly what questions you ask yourself about porn, and how the answers affect if and how you consume it.
Finally, if you want to break the prevailing silence on your own internal "voting booth conversation" about porn, we welcome you to share the questions you ask yourself, and the insights you gain from answering them, in the comments below.
(Author's note: Pornography and avuncular billionaire investors don't usually seem to have much in common. Just the same, in this post we explain why we think Warren Buffet's 1992 dissection of a complicated business topic has much to teach about how to cut through the noise of today's debates over porn addiction. Happy reading!)
Fans of good writing and clear thinking treasure Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. Combining folksy wisdom with razor-sharp analysis, Buffett’s letters deliver a master class in distilling sense from an often chaotic and contradictory modern (business) culture. We count ourselves among Buffett’s devotees.
Twenty five years ago, the “Sage of Omaha” dedicated a significant portion of his annual missive to the not-so-exciting-sounding subject of stock option accounting. The issue back then (and possibly still today - we’re not experts), was whether to account for options as an expense to the company that granted them. Buffett lamented that somehow business leaders had convinced their accountants that options shouldn't be treated as an expense item by arguing that options values could be difficult to quantify. It didn’t hurt that by excluding options from expense, companies could compensate those same executives richly without affecting the bottom line by even a penny.
Buffett thought all of this was hogwash. He called the effort to label options as something other than an expense “[t]he most egregious case of let’s-not-face-up-to-reality behavior” in the business world. Just because options didn’t represent “dollars out of a company’s coffers,” they were still items of value the company used to pay for services. No doubt with his trademark impish grin, Buffett offered to sell insurance from Berkshire (then its core business) to any executive who subscribed to this “no cash no cost” theory, and to accept payment in long term stock options in the executive’s company.
Buffett also pressed a trenchant point about the complexities of modern (business) life. “[I]t is both silly and cynical”, he wrote, “to say that an important item of cost should not be recognized simply because it can't be quantified with pinpoint precision.” Buffet's point was that just because imprecision and variability abound in the modern world doesn’t mean reasonable people can’t make reasonable judgments. Their estimates might be off at the margins, conceded Buffett, but no more so than as with other routine estimates of value, such as fixing the cost of a depreciating asset.
Buffett made his closing argument on the topic of option accounting in two remarkable paragraphs. We quote them here in full because, well, they're just great:
"It seems to me that the realities of stock options can be summarized quite simply: If options aren't a form of compensation, what are they? If compensation isn't an expense, what is it? And, if expenses shouldn't go into the calculation of earnings, where in the world should they go?
The accounting profession and the SEC should be shamed by the fact that they have long let themselves be muscled by business executives on the option-accounting issue. Additionally, the lobbying that executives engage in may have an unfortunate by-product: In my opinion, the business elite risks losing its credibility on issues of significance to society - about which it may have much of value to say - when it advocates the incredible on issues of significance to itself."
Ok. Ok. Now that you’ve indulged our rhapsodizing on Warren Buffett’s wisdom, we’ll explain why we think this matters. As observers of the pornography and porn-related treatment landscape, we’re frequently amazed at how often commentators use the complexity of the topic to elide some basic realities about porn. How many times have we read critiques that conclude that we can’t yet categorize porn as a vector for addiction because it's hard to define precisely what constitutes porn, or because porn affects different people in different ways, or because porn occupies an culturally controversial position at the confluence of empiricism and moral suasion? Some pundits argue that we can’t treat porn as potentially addictive because then that would mean that anything pleasurable - like looking at pictures of cute bunny rabbits - could also be addictive. Others insist that since withdrawing from porn can’t kill you, it can’t be addictive.
And yet, isn't that all a version of the hogwash Buffett so ably exposed in 1992? Let's cut through the noise, Buffett-style. Reasonable people can agree, more or less, what constitutes media created and intended to be pornography. The vast majority of people who consume that porn do so to get sexually aroused. Porn producers design their product to serve that purpose. The most successful porn induces the most consistent and intense sexual arousal. Sexual arousal is a powerful, primordial, frequently overwhelming state of excitement and pleasure.
In short, to borrow from Warren Buffett, if modern (internet) porn isn’t a highly potent stimulant, then what is it? If highly potent stimulants aren’t vectors of addiction, then what are? If porn can’t be counted among the highly potent stimulants around which addictions arise, then where can it be categorized?
We revere Buffett’s observations about options accounting because they model clear thinking in an age of “silly and cynical” grandstanding. Obfuscation and opportunism cloud the porn debate today as much as they did the stock options controversy in 1992. Now, as then, we need more people to step up and point out the obvious: that modern (internet) porn is a product offered for consumption, that porn is expressly designed to pack a stimulative wallop that keeps consumers coming back for more, and that, because of these traits, addictive behaviors grow around consuming porn. Commenters who ignore these basic realities “risk losing [their] credibility” by “advocat[ing] the incredible on issues of significance” not just to themselves, but to every man, woman and child on the planet.
Last year, Utah adopted a resolution declaring pornography a “public health crisis.” So did the Republican Party in last year's platform. Recently, similar resolutions have cleared legislative hurdles in four more state legislatures - Virginia, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Arkansas. “Porn as a public health crisis” has all the makings of a political movement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effort to label porn a “public health crisis” has fostered controversy. Look around the internet and you’ll find articles in favor of and opposed to treating porn as a public health issue. Beyond the usual (puzzling) disconnect between the “pro” and “con” camps over the growing scientific evidence regarding porn’s ill effects, the debate seems at least in part driven by the fact that “public health crisis” has no uniform definition. But, despite our well-established linguistic inclinations, we’re not going to wade into that morass here.
Instead, today we want to focus on the political side of the ledger. So far as we can tell, all of the state lawmakers who have thus far introduced measures on “porn as a public health crisis” have been Republicans. Republicans also hold the majority the lawmaking bodies in all five states that have taken up these measures. Some Democrats have voted in favor of the resolutions in the states where they’ve come to a vote, and have served as undercard sponsors of the measures. But, we are not aware of a single Democrat (or Independent) who has been the principal champion of a “porn as a public health crisis” measure to date.
That's unfortunate. As we’ve written in the past, pornography ignores political affiliation. Problematic porn use (call it addiction, compulsivity, hypersexuality, etc.) is widespread, and it lays waste to the lives of people across the political spectrum. The widely-reported effects of porn’s production, distribution, and consumption, such as human trafficking, sexual violence, and sexual disfunction, have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. These are deeply human issues that demand the attention and action of every citizen.
So, why are Republicans occupying the field when it comes to introducing measures addressing porn’s effects? One simple reason could be that Republicans dominate a large majority of state legislatures nationwide. The “porn as a public health crisis” measures that have passed so far are not “law” in the sense of dictating executive policy or action. They are statements of factual findings and broad principles, and rarely face significant opposition - the sort of measures that tend to sail through legislatures dominated by one party. Also, the base of the “anti-pornography” movement has historically lived on the political right. So, it might not be surprising if the impetus for the “porn as a public health crisis” initiative comes from conservative quarters.
Still, that doesn’t quite explain why a Democrat hasn’t yet stepped up to champion one of these measures, not even in a legislature where Democrats are in the majority. After all, fears about the effects of porn are no longer predominately the domain of right-leaning conservatives. The internet has transformed the landscape. What was once a relatively inaccessible, taboo product is now available for free, in unlimited quantities, twenty-four hours per day, on any screen, to anyone, anywhere. Porn demand, production and consumption have exploded and are evolving at a furious pace. With that explosion, the reasons for concern over porn’s effects continue to grow. There’s cause for alarm for everyone, no matter their politics, gender, faith, or sexual orientation.
We think the explanation for the political left's relative absence from the "porn as a public health crisis" movement (from which we're excluding the subject of "revenge porn", which is not porn so much as a form of assault and invasion of privacy) instead lies in some unfortunate and longstanding habits of American political culture. Though porn is a universal issue, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the text of the resolutions that have passed statehouses so far. Somewhere along the line, partisan buzzwords crept into these measures, all but ensuring that they would be perceived by a weary and cynical public as extensions of our polarized - and paralyzed - politics. Democrats, we suspect, have followed suit.
Here’s what we mean. The measures that have passed cover the gamut of concerns posed by modern porn, and employ the reassuringly secular terminology of “public health." That's all good. But, they also employ language distinctive of the conservative side of the “culture wars” that have dominated U.S. politics for generations. For example, the measures focus disproportionately on pornography’s effects on heterosexuals, and warn that porn leads to “deviant sexual arousal,” which many left-leaning readers will interpret as antagonism toward homosexuality and other sexual minorities. The measures place asymmetric emphases on how porn may affect one gender or the other, which, likewise, will be seen as patriarchal and an invasion of the privacy of our bedrooms. And, though they rightly decry that porn has become a de facto form of sex education, the measures risk being seen as hypocritical in failing to acknowledge how inadequate public health education may drive porn demand.
Please don’t get us wrong. We’re not necessarily endorsing these critiques. If Democrats were pushing “porn as a public health crisis” measures in statehouses using their own historical culture war vocabulary (often received as an affront to conservatives’ religious beliefs and commitment to family values), that, too, would be unhelpful. Our commentary here is on the tendency of political partisans of all stripes to shoot themselves in the foot when an issue evolves beyond its historical sphere of focus and requires broader political attention.
We do not doubt not that the authors of “porn as a public health crisis” measures choose their words carefully, nor do we question whether they hold their views genuinely and in good faith. They do. But it’s time for a little realpolitik. We live in a highly toxic political era. Once we occupy a political camp, the language we employ to express our views risks alienating the other half of the country. So it is with Republican-sponsored "porn as a public health crisis” measures. By salting their well-intended legislation with culture war tropes, legislators are playing directly into the inaccurate and demeaning (to all involved) perception that the only people paying attention to the negative effects of porn are religious conservatives in the throes of a full-fledged “moral panic.”
That’s not a good thing. If “porn as a public health crisis” and similar measures continue to be seen as a uniquely Republican venture, the issue will fall victim to political paralysis and we will all be the worse for wear. We encourage Democrats and Republicans and Independents to sponsor measures raising awareness about porn’s effects that use non-polarizing language that emphasizes universal themes everyone’s constituents can agree on.
The stakes are too high to be playing politics over porn any longer.
It’s been reported that religious people are more likely to experience distress about their porn use than non-religious people who use porn. Why? One common answer is that religion teaches that porn use is wrong and to be avoided, and so religious people feel distress over their transgression of those teachings. But is that answer sufficiently nuanced to account for the entire difference between religious and non-religious porn users? Let’s dig deeper.
(The normal caveat applies - this is a huge topic and our perspective is limited by our learning and experience. Polite, thoughtful comments are encouraged.)
Research has established that non-religious porn users also experience distress over their porn use. (For a comprehensive review of porn use statistics, see Barna Group’s “The Porn Phenomenon”, available here.) Let’s assume that this baseline group of porn users will experience distress over porn use for reasons that are completely independent of their religiosity. (This is just an assumption, of course. It’s possible that there’s no overlap between the reasons non-religious porn users in the baseline group feel distress and the reasons religious porn users in the baseline group feel distress. But, we doubt it.) Let’s also assume that religious and non-religious people use porn in basically the same ways and for the same reasons. (Barna's statistics largely bear this out.)
Given these assumptions, our focus is on the extra, religiously-observant porn users who reportedly feel distress compared to non-religious porn users, even though they’re all using porn the same way. Why is that extra distress happening?
To answer that question, we think it’s useful to identify three variables at play in people’s reaction to their own porn use: recognition of a behavioral norm (recognizing that certain porn use is wrong), awareness of transgression of a behavioral norm (knowing you’ve done wrong by certain porn use), and degree of distress about that transgression (how bad you feel about having done wrong by certain porn use). Further, we propose that the difference in feelings of distress between religious and non-religious porn users could have something to do with each of these variables.
The easy answer to why religious people feel more distress over their porn use relies heavily on the first of these variables. The argument goes, in short, that religions impose rules on their adherents that do not apply to non-believers. (Think, for example, of dietary restrictions that bar consumption of certain foods.) The reasoning is that since religion imposes norms relating to porn use that aren’t recognized universally, then the simple fact that religious people have more rules to break regarding porn than non-religious people leads to higher distress rates. That’s certainly a facile explanation. But is it sufficiently correct?
Maybe, but we doubt it. We think instead that other, more universal, norms come into play when religious people report distress over their porn use.
Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that religious doctrine added nothing to the body of universal norms that influence our perceptions of porn use. That is, imagine everybody in the world shared exactly the same views on when and why certain porn use is wrong. Which group - religious or non-religious - would you expect to be more aware that their own porn use transgressed a universal norm? We think it would be religious people. Why? Because, among other things, religious practice serves an educational function in society. People go to church and listen to lessons. Religious institutions engage in social commentary. Religious people, in other words, are more likely than non-religious people to be exposed to commentary and discussion about norms of behavior.
We think this is especially true when it comes to porn. In the public debates over porn use, religious organizations account for a sizable portion of the publicity of negative impacts of pornography, such as links between pornography and sexual violence, human trafficking, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. Whatever the religious motive of those institutions in disseminating this information, if you are religious you are more likely to be exposed to it. And to be exposed to information about how certain porn use transgresses universal, social norms is to be aware of having potentially transgressed those norms yourself when you use porn. So, some distress by porn users who are religious likely results from their heightened awareness of how certain porn use transgresses not just religious norms, but also universally accepted societal norms.
So, let’s ask a final question: which do you think a religious person is more likely to feel a higher degree of distress over - breaking a rule that only members of that religion share (“certain porn use offends our God”), or breaking a rule that is universal (“certain porn use harms you and others”)? We don’t have a clear answer to this one. But we do have a few observations. In our experience, the large religions provide not only a system of rules to follow, but also a promise of redemption. Everybody sins and the Divine forgives. People find comfort in this cycle of transgression and forgiveness - it’s what draws many to religion in the first place. Because of these beliefs, religious people have a basis for feeling less distressed than their non-religious peers about transgressing norms of behavior. After all, the certainty of Divine forgiveness takes some of the edge off of messing up.
However, transgressing a universal norm of behavior may result more than just spiritual consequences. Certain porn use can result in relationship difficulties and job loss, not to mention the previously-mentioned societal harms like violence and trafficking. It seems reasonable to surmise that a religious person might be inclined to feel greater distress over a behavior that has both spiritual and tangible impacts, as compared one that is constrained by religious doctrine alone.
Our two cents here is that religious people probably feel more distress about their porn use than non-religious people because they’re much more attuned than non-religious people to all of the potential harms of their porn use. Some of those perceived harms may be unique to their religious beliefs, and that may lead to additive distress. But we suspect that to a greater extent, religious people are simply more aware of information supporting the view that certain porn use is universally harmful, so that when they use porn, they are more likely to feel the full weight of its impact.
PornHelp.org turns one year old today. It’s not a huge milestone in the grand scheme of things, but for us it feels nonetheless like a good moment to reflect briefly on what we’ve achieved, lessons we’ve learned, and our goals for PornHelp’s next year(s).
We started PornHelp with a simple mission: to clear, current, create a comprehensive reference for people looking for help quitting porn. That mission was grounded in real and painful experience. Several years ago, we went looking for help quitting porn. But, back then, online resources were scattered, vague and beyond our cultural, geographic, and economic circumstances. Nothing we found collected and explained our options for finding help quitting porn in a clear, neutral, non-judgmental way.
We failed to find the help we needed back then, and as a result our compulsive porn use continued to consume our lives. Our actions caused pain and loss, and hurt everyone we loved. We didn’t want others who were lonely, scared, and desperate to quit porn to encounter the trouble finding help that we did. So, we founded PornHelp in hopes of preventing others from following in our footsteps.
One year on, there’s reason to conclude our mission is on the right track. If our web host’s analytics are accurate, in our first year over 14,000 “unique visitors” accessed PornHelp. Even if only a tiny fraction of those visitors came to the site seeking help for their or someone else’s porn use issues, we count that as a success. (If you’re one of those people, please let us know - we love feedback!) Concurrently, our visibility on the web has grown. We continue to rise in Google results for searches related with quitting porn, helped along by fellow members and organizations in the porn recovery community who have generously linked our site to theirs. We have also grown a healthy following for our Twitter account (@PornHelpdotorg), which tweets current news and issues relevant to our mission. And, we regularly respond to requests for help sent directly to us and via online forums.
There have been growing pains, too. We have found, to our surprise, that there is a vocal minority of mental health professionals who mock the existence of pornography addiction and doubt the legitimacy of people's struggles with porn. This has been disheartening, not just because the evidence of compulsive, destructive porn use is overwhelming and heartbreaking, but also because when examined, these critics’ objections to the “addiction model” tend to be far more nuanced and esoteric than their attention-grabbing proclamations would suggest. We’ve written about the “controversy” these critics have stirred up in some of the blog posts below.
In the year ahead, PornHelp will continue to focus on its primary mission of helping people find the resources they need to address their problem porn use. Our hope remains to someday establish an around-the-clock toll-free hotline or chat feature on our site, so that people struggling can make an instant, anonymous, judgment- free connection with another human being who understands their pain. For now, though, we here at PornHelp remain committed to providing the most helpful resource we can to pornography users who have reached the end of their rope and need reassurance that they are not alone.
Thanks to all who have supported PornHelp’s mission so far. To our second year and beyond!
Today we hope to open a discussion about porn and religion. (PornHelp neither endorses nor opposes any religious doctrine - see our statement here). This is a huge topic. Many of its facets exceed the scope of our learning and insight. So, we’re going to throw some thoughts out there and ask our readers to weigh in. Hopefully, you all will.
We resolved to try and tackle this topic after tweeting an opinion piece from a Minneapolis newspaper which makes impassioned and overtly religious arguments about the dangers of pornography use. We shared the piece because it appeared in a large-circulation publication in a major American metro area, and because the author spoke about his firsthand experience counseling young men struggling with problematic pornography use. Whether or not our readers shared the author’s religious sensibilities, we thought his piece made a worthwhile contribution to the public discussion.
Soon after we tweeted the piece, we became aware of criticism of that same article by skeptics of pornography addiction. What struck us about these criticisms was that they pointed, among other things, to the author’s religious bona fides as evidence of his lack of credibility. We’ve seen this before. Some critics dismiss concerns about porn’s impact on individuals and society at large as “moral panic”. They tend to discount individuals’ reports of problem porn use as largely driven by religion-induced shame. And, they count the pornography counseling efforts of faith leaders like the author in the piece we shared as misguided, and potentially harmful to their parishioners insofar as religious beliefs may lead them to diagnose porn use problems where none exist.
These objections raise some issues we find interesting, including the role religion does play, and ought to play, in the public discussion of pornography, how religion influences pornography use and feelings about its use, and the considerations in addressing problem pornography use through a religion-inspired lens.
Like we said, all really huge topics. So, we’re going to try to tackle this in bite-sized chunks.
Today, we start by offering up some basic statistics. These figures show (perhaps unsurprisingly) that religion and pornography both play a large role in American public and private life. (For the time being, we limit our discussion to pornography use and religion in America, because most research on the topic has studied U.S. porn users). They also lead to some baseline conclusions that we invite others to discuss and expand upon in the comments section.
Some statistics about religion in American life
According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, approximately 77% of the U.S. population identified itself as religiously affiliated, with the vast majority (70.6% of the total U.S. population) identifying as Christian (including Catholic), and the remainder consisting of small minorities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and various other religions.
Among the 23% of non-religiously affiliated Americans, the bulk (15.8% of the U.S. population) were noncommittal about identifying with an organized religions (though roughly half of those considered themselves religious, but merely unaffiliated), while the remainder were evenly split between self-identified agnostics and atheists.
Religion occupies a “very important” place in the life of just over half of all Americans. A large majority of Americans considers religion at least “somewhat important” in their lives.
Some statistics about pornography use in America
Pornography, defined broadly as material designed and used to stimulate sexual arousal and aid masturbation (which we equate to Potter Stewart’s “know it when I see it” standard for obscenity), is a fixture of American life, too.
According to an exhaustive survey of American pornography viewing habits and attitudes released last year by the private polling firm Barna Group (available here), 33% of all Americans, male and female, seek out porn at least monthly, 20% of all Americans seek it out at least weekly, and 6% of all Americans seek it out daily. Men comprise the greater portion of porn users. 11% of Americans males 13 and over (that’s roughly 12 million male teens and adults) use porn daily. Over half (roughly 60 million) use it at least monthly. 1% of American females 13 and over (roughly 1.4 million female teens and adults) use porn daily, and 7% (roughly 10 million) use it weekly. The vast majority of users consume porn via the internet. Personal sexual arousal is the most often cited reason for using pornography (accounting for 2/3 of men, and over 1/2 of women).
According to Barna, pornography use is higher among non-Christians than Christians, though the degree of difference in porn use habits between those groups may be difficult to pin down, given the potential for underreporting of porn use among Christians. Indeed, many of the numbers cited above, though collected by reputable organizations with long track records, risk some softness around the edges. What it means for religion to be “very important” will vary across survey participants, for example. That said, they’re the best numbers we could find thus far. If others want to cite different statistics, please do so in the comments.
Looking at these raw numbers leads us to a few conclusions. First, given the prevalence of religious faith and pornography use in America, it seems logical that Americans should demand that their religious leaders weigh in on the topic of pornography use. Porn use is just too common of a human activity in this day and age to expect otherwise. Second, given the central role that American religious institutions stand to play in the public discussion of pornography, it seems important that they be well-informed and disseminate accurate and useful information and guidance. We would expect that guidance to encompass practical and spiritual considerations, and that it should therefore be grounded in both scientific fact and religious doctrine. (The turbulent confluence of these veins of guidance, we suspect, is the crux of the issue for many critics of religious counseling about porn.) Third, given the first two conclusions, it seems to us both illogical and counterproductive to use a person’s standing in the religious community, alone, as a basis for criticizing his expression of views about pornography. We should fully expect, and encourage, institutions that play an “important” role in the majority of Americans’ lives to participate in the public discussion of pornography. After all, if the numbers show anything, it’s that neither religion nor pornography is going away anytime soon.
This is a topic that begs for discussion. Thoughtful comments welcome.
We tweeted out two articles today, here and here, that are worth reading. One focuses on the stories of two men in Oregon who struggle with porn use, and how they’ve begun to tackle their problem. The other discusses pornography addiction from the point of view of mental health counselors in California. We like these stories because they reach a similar, and important, conclusion about the importance of connecting with other people as a first step to addressing problematic porn use.
People who struggle with porn use have a hard time asking for help. It’s embarrassing to admit that porn has taken control. Often, it feels like the only people trusted enough to keep a porn use problem secret are also the ones who would be most hurt by the revelation. And, for many, porn is a crutch, a shield against negative emotions that feel impossible to face.
We know that struggle firsthand. We lived the delusion of problem porn use. We made attempts to find help for years, only to give up again and again when it seemed too risky to reveal ourselves in an online forum, too painful to reveal our problem to loved ones, too impossible to get away from our lives to a treatment center or faraway therapist, too alien to talk to a faith leader outside of our background. It didn’t occur to us that “sex addiction” groups could help us, or that 12-step groups for people dealing with other addictions would welcome us. We didn’t realize that even if there weren’t any resources nearby, we could connect with people around the world by Skype, or conference call, who share our difficulties. We allowed ourselves to believe we were alone in our struggle, that telling someone about our problem would be unbearably humiliating and destructive, that if we couldn’t help ourselves, no one could.
That delusion nearly destroyed our lives.
We founded PornHelp to prevent you from wandering alone through the dark hell of compulsive porn use like we did. If you are struggling with porn use, the resources listed here exist to help you make a connection with another person who understands. It doesn’t matter which person you choose - a member of a 12-step group, a faith leader, a therapist, or a fellow problem porn user. It doesn’t even matter, for now, how you connect - in person, by phone, by Skype. The only thing that matters is that you make the connection. Now. Right. Now.
Still doubt there's help for you? Then email us at email@example.com. We’re here for you. We care about you. We will help you find someone to talk to. You are not alone.
Here at PornHelp, we spend a lot of time thinking about a seemingly simple question: what is porn? As with any question of that ilk, its minimalist construction belies its deep complexity. Answering it entails not just identifying porn’s characteristics, but also (among other things) its origin, its purpose, and its impact. There are scholars who spend careers studying porn, and for good reason. In thinking about what porn is, we can’t just begin and end with Potter Stewart’s famous observation that we know porn when we see it. Recognizing and labeling porn as “porn” is just the tip of the iceberg.
Today, we thought we’d engage in a little thought experiment by putting ourselves in the shoes of a pornographer. If we made porn, what kind of porn would we create? What would we want it to do? How would we define success? By exploring these questions, we hope to gain insight about why some people develop porn use problems.
Let’s get some basics out of the way. We wouldn’t create porn for the fun of it. Sure, everybody wants to do what they love and love what they do, but for most working stiffs, the job is about a paycheck. If we were pornographers, we suspect it wouldn’t be any different. We’d make porn to make money. Simple as that.
With profit as our basic motive, we’d approach porn as a product, no different from toasters or vacation deals or gym memberships. Our goal would be for people to consume our product in a manner that turns us a profit. And, we’d probably - at least at first - aim to develop a product that appeals to the largest market segment: young and middle-aged straight men.
We’d ask ourselves: how can we make money from porn? As we’ve written here, we’d learn that we’re not going to turn a profit by getting our customers to pay for it. That business model is dead. Instead, our money would be made mostly in ad-clicks and user data. Our revenue would depend on getting our customers to click links that result in payments to us from other sites, and on keeping them on our site long enough to reveal things about themselves that make it easier for us to predict what other links they’ll click in the future, so that we can show them ads they’ll click, or sell their data to others.
Our business, in other words, would be intensely focused on understanding and influencing customer behavior. Our success would depend on keeping customers on our site, clicking, for as long as possible now, and getting them to come back later. How would our product play into that equation? By responding to what brings customers to us in the first place: helping them masturbate. Our porn would be designed to create and sustain our customers’ sexual arousal. We’d pay close attention to variables such as the age, race and body type of performers, and the sex acts that are shown, in order to get the perfect, most reliable, mix to keep our target demographic aroused and on our site.
But, here's a hitch. Masturbation tends to culminate in orgasm, and also with our customer leaving our site. But when a customer left the site, we would lose the chance to make money from that customer’s visit. So, we’d need to strike a balance between making our porn respond to our customer’s desire for sexual arousal while also not, shall we say, pushing him over the edge too quickly. It would be like a casino - the longer the customer stayed the more money we would make, so we wouldn’t want to make him blow his wad (sorry, had to) right out of the gate. Instead, we would want our customer to have a good enough time with us to keep coming back, but not so good that we lose the opportunity to make money on this visit.
To achieve that balance, we would invest heavily in real-time customer data mining technology to track every customer’s behavior on our site. We’d measure how much time customers hovered over links, the sequence in which they viewed areas on the site, and the characteristics of the porn they seemed to prefer. This information would, in turn, help us tailor each customer’s experience to keep him on our site now, and to get him to come back later.
Ultimately, our goal for each customer would be to maximize the number and duration of that customer’s visits to our site, limited only by three variables: (1) that customer’s time constraints (which we would aim to innovate around by offering new and more convenient means of access to our product), (2) that customer’s ability to control his urge to become sexually aroused and masturbate (which we would aim to reduce by delivering satisfying - but not too satisfying - product, by tailoring ads to him, and by selling his data to others who would do the same); and (3) by that customer’s physical capacity to sustain and repeat sexual arousal (which we would aim to increase by delivering well designed porn to get and keep him aroused).
So, let’s recap. We’d be in porn to make money. Our money would come from our customers' ad-clicks and site-use data. Since our customer behavior would be our profit center, we’d invest heavily in understanding how to influence it. Our principal means of influencing customer behavior would be by developing and delivering porn that kept customers clicking and visiting now, and inspired them to return later. Our porn’s core attribute would be its ability to create and sustain sexual arousal reliably, but not so effectively as to short circuit the duration of a customer visit. We would monitor our customers’ behavior to gather data that would allow us to refine our product offering to maximize the number and duration of visits for each customer.
Sound Machiavellian? Maybe. But it’s hardly uncommon. There are plenty of comparisons. Vacation resorts, online retailers, travel aggregators, digital media companies - all of them invest in analytics to help them influence customer behavior. Why would porn be any different? Answer: it wouldn’t. Or more precisely, it isn’t. People don’t produce porn for the fun of it. They do it because there is money to be made influencing your behavior through the power of your sexual response.