Last night, we followed with interest an exchange on Twitter between the founder of NoFap.com, Alexander Rhodes, and two scholars who - among those who pay attention to such things - are known as oft-quoted skeptics of the “existence” of sex and porn addiction. The discussion started when one of those academics, the psychologist David Ley, Ph.D., re-tweeted a recent New York Times interview with Rhodes along with a comment suggesting that Rhodes had started NoFap.com as a “joke”. Nicole R. Prause, Ph.D., the other scholar and a neuroscientist, chimed in with a meme likening Rhodes to a “neckbeard on the internet”. Then Rhodes, never a shrinking violet, tweeted a response suggesting that the two doctors stick to doing their “science” (his quotation marks) instead of trying to tear down someone trying to help others. The whole discussion can be found by clicking around the links above.
Then things took an unexpected turn. Ley persisted in needling Rhodes for a few tweets, but ultimately the two reached a detente by agreeing they shared the same desire to help people, albeit in distinct ways. Prause took a different tack. When Rhodes asked (in earnest, so far as we can tell) why Prause seemed to reject the validity of a body of published neuroscience research that is collected and reviewed on the website www.yourbrainonporn.com, Prause issued a broadside against the administrator of that site, Gary Wilson, referring to him as an “unemployed blogger who has a police report threatening my lab and no-contact order for harassment.” Rhodes responded that he didn’t know anything about that, but in any event that wasn’t a response to the actual research posted on Wilson’s site. Prause responded by posting a link to a chapter she co-authored in a 2015 book called “New Views on Pornography,” describing it as “documented” proof of her claim about Wilson. Prause then instructed Rhodes, twice, not to contact her again (which seemed odd since it was Prause who had joined the discussion mocking Rhodes in the first place, but whatever). And then, to top it all off, Wilson tweeted that Prause's claims were false and linked to a page on YBoP that recites detailed allegations of harassment by Prause and others against Wilson.
We’ve read the book chapter Prause sent Rhodes, which is titled “The Science and Politics of Sex Addiction Research.” It consists mostly of a discussion of the appropriate “model” for understanding compulsive pornography use, arguing that the addiction "construct” is not supported by the authors’ research. The article then concludes with an account of what Prause and her co-author describe as a pattern of harassment by “proaddiction, antipornography groups,” including “religious groups, treatment clinics, and bloggers,” in response to the publication of their research. Elements of these groups, according to the authors, spread lies about the research, sent repeated unsolicited emails to one of the authors (resulting, apparently, in a police complaint being filed) and engaged in the sort of internet-based aggression and misogyny often deployed by anonymous trolls against female celebrities.
The book chapter does not specify which of these actions Prause attributes to Wilson - neither he nor his website appear by name in the text or footnotes. Prause’s tweets to Rhodes, however, implied that Wilson was the person about whom a police report had been filed relating to unsolicited emails, and, possibly, that Wilson was the “blogger” who, according to the chapter, stole “personal photographs” of Prause and posted them on “Web blogs with sexist diatribes against her person.” If accurate, these allegations are no laughing matter. Then again, nor are the allegations about the harassment Wilson says Prause and her allies perpetrated against him.
We do not know Gary Wilson or Nicole Prause personally, and cannot comment on what appears to be a longstanding and acrimonious dispute between them. Nor do we wish to rehash or (God forbid) reanimate that dispute here (which is a warning to anyone thinking of using the comments section to do so - you will be deleted). But we do think it's important to highlight the apparent tension in their statements as an illustration of the secular context in which a lot of discussion around sex and porn addiction seems to be happening. It reminds us, sadly, of the South Park episode where religion is replaced by science, only to result in science becoming a religion. Different vocabulary, same passions.
Speaking from our perspective as spectators (albeit with an admittedly vested interest in helping people deal with porn problems), we can say that we’ve come to rely on Wilson’s site, www.yourbrainonporn.com, as an invaluable and uniquely comprehensive collection of research on compulsive porn use and its collateral effects. YBoP undeniably takes firm positions on the scientific implications of the research posted there, and does not mince words in criticizing Prause’s and Ley’s methods and conclusions. But, the site also links to the full-text of most of the research it discusses (including that of Prause and Ley), enabling readers to delve into the minutiae and reach their own conclusions. It is a refreshing source of primary material in an often barren internet landscape, particularly in this age when much important research is hidden behind academic journal paywalls. Which is to say, wherever the truth lies in the Prause-Wilson dustup, we are grateful to Gary Wilson for his diligence in making so much important scientific research available to the public.
The same cannot be said, at the moment, of our views of Prause and Ley. In their Twitter discussion with Rhodes, the two scientists exhibited a regrettable tendency to mock non-academics who offer opinions about the use and abuse of pornography. We would be inclined to dismiss their mindset as an understandable, if somewhat crass, pride in one’s own scholarly achievement were it not for Prause and Ley’s equally regrettable tendency to give quotes to decidedly non-academic publications that write uncritical and reductive articles questioning whether sexual addiction is "real” without so much as acknowledging the complexity of that question. Whether purposefully or not, through their statements, Ley and Prause leave the public with the impression that they’re perfectly willing to tell non-credentialed ignoramuses what to think about the science of compulsive sexual behavior, so long as we don’t ask any questions.
And here, we think, is where the tension highlighted in last night’s Twitter discussion might take root. To us, Ley and Prause come off as blithely dismissive of the very real, painful experiences of those struggling with the sort of problem porn use documented on the discussion boards of sites like NoFap.com and YBoP. We ground our perspective in the shared experience of those for whom compulsive porn use has exacted an enormous toll on life, relationships, and physical and mental health. People struggling with porn live in a waking nightmare of behavior that they return to over and over, despite the negative consequences and repeated, failed attempts to stop. For many, porn use has escalated over time to the point where they crave porn at all hours of the day, have an unceasing, overwhelming obsession with finding a “perfect,” but ever-elusive, picture or video, “lose time” over the course of night-long binge sessions, and experience physical and psychological torment when they try to stop.
These people call their condition an "addiction” because that is the only word in the popular lexicon that describes the agony they are living. And when those poor souls read articles in trashy magazines quoting Prause and Ley in support of the claim that their suffering isn't "real," or that they’re just repressed because of their (often non-existent) religious beliefs, or that viewing porn has actually been good for them…well, not only does that seem maddeningly obtuse, it also just plain hurts.
Of course, being hurt by words is no excuse for harassment. Commentary about scientific research should stick to facts and methods, and never devolve into ad hominem attacks or worse. But, discussions - particularly those in the realm of the human sexual experience - should also welcome critical questions from all corners, whether or not those questions come from someone with a Ph.D. after his or her name. Ph.D.'s are not the exclusive purveyors of insight about sexuality or anything else, nor should they fail to recognize the inherent limitations they face when exploring real world problems in artificial research settings. In some way or another, all of us are limited in our ability to tackle the very complex question of why some people compulsively use porn despite destructive consequences, but that doesn't warrant any of us being shushed.
We hope, for the sake of fostering open and important discussion, that Wilson will continue to update YBoP, and that Ley and Prause will try to ensure that their public comments reflect the empathy and compassion they no doubt share for anyone whose porn use is causing severe distress. Because, the thing is, we need Prause and Ley to participate in this discussion. Their research and theories point to factors other than the content of pornographic images as the source of porn users' distress, and that certainly merits analysis. Sure, we strongly disagree with Ley’s theory that normative societal pressures are the predominant source of psychological upset over porn use, and with Prause’s challenge to the “addiction model” (such as it is) as a framework of analysis of compulsive porn use, but that's not a reason to ignore them. Research may indeed conclude that porn (however one defines it) is not inherently harmful like, say, methamphetamine is, and that certain societal norms make suffering more acute. But, perhaps reasonable minds will also conclude that it is better to address porn like alcohol - harmless (even beneficial) for some people, at some ages, in some forms, in some quantities, and in some contexts - but also a vector for debilitating overuse in a way that can - and does - destroy health, relationships, families, careers, and lives in the same manner as so many other tragic addictions.