We have been active, of late, calling attention to the business end of the porn world. Over the weekend, news arrived that a trove of data from a Spanish “camgirl” website tying user data to usernames had been made public. This was hardly the first data breach in the industry.
Some may read that news and and shrug. “Why should I care if my porn site browsing data is out there?”
Viewed in isolation, that might be a semi-reasonable perspective. The world is awash in data, after all. How are a few more bits and bytes floating around in the ether going to hurt you?
Here's how. Data collected about your movements on a porn site doesn’t exist in isolation, but rather alongside the vast amounts of data your other, non-porn internet and internet-of-things (“IOT”) activities generate. Data aggregators collect as much of that data as possible from as many sources as will provide it. They package that data into detailed profiles of you for sale to advertisers or, really, anyone who wants to buy it.
These profiles are very specific. They include information about your usernames (which, let’s face it, often identify you), age, race, religion, gender, income, credit profile, residential address, occupation, employer, buying habits, and marital and family status. They track the devices you own and use to access the internet, and the apps you use to communicate with friends. They identify physical locations you frequently visit by tagging your activities with GPS coordinates. Depending on what was contained in that user agreement you “Accepted” without ever having read it when you installed a new app or set up an IOT device, a tech company might have the ability and (worse) the legal right to read your texts and listen to your conversations.
So, not to be all apocalyptic, but it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with myriad ways a bad actor with your porn site browsing data – who also acquires all of the other information available about you that’s for sale – could compromise your life. We’ve yet to see some of the scenarios below bubble up to the surface in news reports (although there are scams that mimic them), but that doesn’t mean they don’t (or won’t) happen.
The Blackmail Scenario
Say you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or questioning but have not yet come out to your friends, family, and colleagues, many of whom you worry would not accept you. You live in a state that doesn’t have robust anti-discrimination protections for sexual minorities, and work at a job where revealing your sexual identity would likely subject you to abuse from coworkers.
For now, the internet has served as your principal mode of expressing and exploring your sexuality. Sure, your porn consumption habits make clear your sexual preference, but by-and-large it feels anonymous and safe to live that part of your life online, for now at least.
Then, one day, you receive an anonymous communication from someone threatening to “out” you if you don’t pay a ransom in Bitcoin. The anonymous blackmailer knows where you live and work, and can recite to you not just the porn sites you’ve visited, but what videos you watched, and for how long, and how many times.
Think you might pay to keep that information secret?
The Messy Divorce Scenario
Say you and your wife are going through an angry divorce. You have a daughter together. You want shared custody. Your wife wants sole custody. The family court is going to have to weigh your and your wife’s fitness as parents.
The data collected by a porn site you have visited includes information about from where and how long you’ve browsed, and what, specifically, you’ve watched. You aren’t proud of it, but once or twice while at home late at night you’ve browsed the “Incest Porn” category, where adult performers act out “daddy/daughter” scenarios. It’s one of the porn site’s most popular genres.
Think that information would be useful to your spouse’s lawyer if, say, someone offered it to your spouse for a few hundred bucks?
The Cyber-Stalking Scenario
You are young and single, living alone in a new city where you don’t know many people yet. One night, on a lark and after a few glasses of wine, you go to a “cam” site where you have a “cybersex” encounter with a performer in exchange for “tokens” you purchased on the site with your credit card. You don’t show your face, but the performer (and anyone else with access to the video stream) can see your body and features of your bedroom, including the open jewelry box you keep on the nightstand by your bed. In an unguarded moment you tell the performer about living alone.
You enjoyed yourself on the site. You might even go back. But the credit card information you supplied when you bought tokens identifies you by name. It’s a snap to tie that information to a physical address. And now you’ve given someone an easy way to know when you are at home. Alone. In bed. And that you have nice jewelry.
Think you might have put yourself in danger?
The Employer Surveillance Scenario
You used your work device to surf porn while on a business trip. It was a stupid thing to do, you immediately regretted it, and you cleared your browser history immediately afterwards. No worries, right?
Well, maybe not. A third-party web marketing company that contracts with the website you visited installed a tracking applet on your device when you clicked “OK” to enter the site. While you roamed the porn site, the third-party applet collected unique identifying information about your device, down to its serial number. Unbeknownst to you, the marketing company sells that information to a cybersecurity firm your employer pays to monitor the use of devices it gives to employees.
Think you have “no worries” now?
The Manipulation-for-Profit Scenario
You enjoy watching porn videos showing performers using sex toys. That’s not something you’ve ever tried in real life, but maybe one day.
The porn site notices your preference for sex toy-related content. Every time you return to the site, its algorithm puts sex toy videos in the exact location on your browser screen where it knows, from tracking you, that you will navigate your pointer when you arrive at the site. You don’t even realize it, but you are being fed content that appeals to you in a manner precisely calculated – down to the square inch of screen-space – to match your browsing behavior. Maybe that creeps you out. Maybe it doesn’t.
But here’s something else. The porn site has an advertising deal with a specific brand of sex toys. All of the videos pushed to you feature that brand. It’s a subtle thing. The videos don’t identify themselves as ads. You don’t even see any brand logos on the toys. But then one day the exact same toy you just watched someone use in a video you “favorited” shows up in a banner ad on the side of the page. 20% off! Maybe it’s time to give that toy a whirl.
Think your deepest desires have just been harnessed to sell you something?
Look, here’s the bottom line, as paranoid as it might sound. When you watch porn, porn watches you, too. In fact, that’s the whole point. Porn site operators make money by knowing (or having the ability to know) exactly who you are and what stimulates your deepest urges. In exchange, they push content to you for “free,” assuming you’re cool with having zero control over who sees the information they have about you and how that information gets used.
To assume an online, porn-related breach of privacy that damages your life would never happen to you is to have faith that everyone you encounter on the internet has the best of intentions.
Think that’s actually true?
Ask anyone to recall a difficult moment from their teens and early twenties, and there is a high probability their minds will go to an incident relating to sex. Even if the memory does not relate to specific sexual activity, it will have something to do with the unfathomable vicissitudes of living with a still-developing sex drive. For some, those recollections will involve the trauma of sexual violence. For others, the lucky ones, mere embarrassment, anxiety, or confusion.
We’re generalizing, of course, but our point is that most humans experienced an emotionally-fraught, sex-or-sexuality-driven episode (likely more than one) in their teenage and young-adult years. It’s something we all broadly share, along with the challenge of putting those difficult experiences into context and coming to grips with how and why they affected us. The psychotherapy industry sustains itself in significant part on helping people “work through” these experiences.
It’s November 1, which means that today young men around the globe will embark on the #NoNutNovember, challenging themselves to abstain from masturbatory orgasm (or orgasm altogether) for an entire month. Only few will succeed in becoming “Masters of Their Domain,” to use the Seinfeld-ian term that presaged #NNN.
In years past, commentators have debated the ontological underpinnings of young men’s desire to engage in #NoNutNovember. Do they refrain from orgasm in service of healthfulness? Moralism? Misogyny?
Frankly, we find all of those arguments a little too reductive. From our perspective, it doesn’t much matter why someone decides to participate in #NoNutNovember, or in temporary sexual abstinence generally, so long they capitalize on the experience by becoming more mindful of their own sexual impulses and embarking on the deeply human task of coming to terms with their sexualities and how their actions affect themselves and (just as importantly) others.
We are living through a reckoning about (mostly male) sexual misconduct in America and (though to a lesser extent) globally. There have been, of course, widely-reported revelations about criminal sexual predation. But also, the #MeToo movement has shined light on varying perspectives of what is and isn’t “acceptable behavior,” and on how we interpret and judge each other’s actions relating to sexuality. (See, for example, the cases of comedians Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari.)
It doesn’t break new ground for us to observe that some men struggle to understand and participate fully in discussions of sex-behavioral expectations. You could write volumes on the sources of this difficulty – toxic masculinity, gender normativity, neuroscience – without scratching the surface. It’s an immensely complex topic.
That said, we think #NoNutNovember holds promise as a tool for men who might otherwise struggle to comprehend sex-related behavioral expectations. It’s a potentially blunt instrument, to be sure, but approaching abstinence from masturbation and orgasm the same way you might, say, take on the “Whole 30” diet or a juice cleanse, presents an opportunity to be mindful about your sexual impulses. Whether or not the health benefits are real or merely perceived, at least you are stepping out of a comfort zone and forcing yourself to think actively about your behavior.
In other words, if tackling #NNN leads you to ask yourself “Why is my hand on down my pants right now?” or “What was I thinking about just before I reached for my phone to look at porn?”, then all the better. The answers to those questions offer insight into your actions. They open up new perspectives. And they often lead to even more questions that can prove revelatory:
These are important questions. The effort and introspection required to answer them (not to mention the answers themselves) lead in the general direction of the maturity and self-acceptance that lie at the core of human experience. And they might just make you a better person, a better friend, and a better lover, along the way.
So, good luck to all of you #NoNutNovember “fapstronauts.” Take care. Be mindful. And remember, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most.
By now, you’ve probably heard about and watched the Super Bowl commercial for frozen dinners that mocks porn addiction. Just in case you haven’t, here are links to the 30-second ad that aired nationally, and to the “uncensored” 60-second spot that Devour Foods (owned by Kraft Heinz) produced and distributed online, including on PornHub.
When we first saw the 60-second version, which was released about a week before the big game, we took issue with it on Twitter. We didn’t object to how it poked fun, necessarily, but rather, to its choice of mockery as a medium. We want to expand on that here.
As a rule, we rarely take issue with laughing in the face of addiction. Humor has real power in recovery as a means of reminding us of the absurd and painful decisions we made in the throes of acting out. (A recent podcast episode from This American Life illustrates the complex relationship between humor and tragedy in addiction better than we ever could. Give it a listen.)
But, it’s one thing to laugh at addiction as a tactic for undermining its power, and quite another to mock the pain of someone struggling with addiction and its destructive effects. Imagine if Devour and its ad agency DAVID had created a commercial in which the “girlfriend” character complains through tears and a black eye that her boyfriend becomes a violent “foodaholic” when he eats too many mediocre frozen dinners. Or one in which an impoverished girlfriend bemoans how her boyfriend drained their joint savings to “gamble” on whether the next TV dinner he buys will actually taste good. Or one in which the boyfriend becomes semi-conscious from the euphoria of eating Devour frozen meals until one day the girlfriend finds him on the bathroom floor, dead.
We could go on, but you get the point. Would any of these spots be considered clever or funny? Probably not. Is there a meaningful difference between these and one in which a girlfriend bemoans the pain of an obsession that makes her boyfriend withdraw from life and leads to her feeling coerced into producing “amateur food porn” with him against her will? We sure don’t think so.
On Super Bowl Sunday, we watched the Devour commercial again and it made us shift uncomfortably in our seats. It wasn’t just that the ad recalled the ruinous toll our porn addictions once took on relationships we cared about. We also felt the pain of the innumerable men and women across America who winced at how the spot reflected their current reality. We’d bet our bottom dollar Devour’s ad started its share of bitter arguments. It likely also pushed people who are struggling with compulsive sexual behavior deeper into isolation, making them less likely to find help because, hey, popular culture says what they’re going through is one big joke.
This week, Dr. Gail Dines and Culture Reframed issued a statement condemning the Devour ad. Dr. Dines called on Kraft Heinz to provide resources for people who struggle with very real, very painful, very destructive disorders involving compulsive porn use. We wholeheartedly support that call.
Listen up, everybody. Here at PornHelp, we are not inclined to label news as “fake” or “real.” Not for any political reason. We just find those tags uselessly reductive. They too-easily surrender our right and obligation as citizens to think critically about every piece of information we absorb over the airwaves and internets. As responsible consumers of news and opinion, we believe in always questioning a speaker’s sources, methods, and motivations, and then relying on our own analysis – not someone else’s facile label – to determine what we accept as true or untrue.
So, when we write here about how frustrating we find some journalists’ one-sided takes on porn addiction, we hasten to add we’re not calling their work “fake news.” Far from it. Any time a journalist puts fingers to keyboard to discuss porn addiction, they contribute to an important and vital civic discussion. That they’re doing so, to us, constitutes news worthy of our attention, in-and-of-itself.
Unfortunately, it also seems to us that when it comes to porn use and abuse, many writers fail to do a thorough and careful job in sourcing information and deciding what facts to publish and highlight. To illustrate what we mean, today we’re going to deconstruct an article that appeared this morning in the Daily Beast about the recent college student-led movement to filter porn from campus networks across the country. But, to be clear, in conducting this exercise we’re not picking on the author, Emily Shugerman, or the Daily Beast, in particular. We could do this with any number of pieces we’ve read over the past twelve months. Shugerman’s Daily Beast article is just the most recent example we’ve seen of a lack of journalistic rigor on the topic of porn, which is why it gets the full treatment today.
So, without further ado, there’s the anatomy of a questionably-sourced, needlessly reductive, downright lazy news item about porn, in four parts. Enjoy.
Part One: An Enticing Opening Belies The Facts
The article starts off strong with an eye-catching title and an intriguing lede about “college men” picking up the torch of resisting porn from “Republicans and radical feminists.” Sounds tasty! It goes on to report (accurately) that earlier this semester male students at Notre Dame published an open letter asking the university to block porn, that more than 1,000 men and women at the university joined in their call, and that men and women on campuses across the country have taken up the banner at their schools, too. So far so good.
And yet, hold on a second. If men and women at these schools have called on administrations to filter porn on campus wifi, why is the article titled “These College Guys Are Trying to Ban Porn on Campus”, and why did the lede make it sound like we were only going to be reading about “college men”? Also, not to nit-pick, but isn’t calling what these students want to accomplish a “ban [on] porn on campus” a bit too strong, considering their aim is to filter campus wifi and they acknowledge students can still access porn in myriad other ways? Finally (as you’ll see below), that lede is, shall we say, a tad misleading in saying “college men” are taking the mantle from “Republicans” when it later describes those men as, you know, Republicans.
Hmm. Seems like a bait-and-switch. Let’s read on.
Part Two: Manufacturing Narrative Tension By Cherry-Picking Science
Something strange happens next in Shugerman’s piece. She suggests maybe the students advocating for campus wifi filtering are misguided in their concerns about porn addiction. Citing two unattributed studies from 2013 and 2014, Shugerman argues porn isn’t such a big deal because college kids don’t actually use online porn all that much.
Hold on. lolwut?
If there’s one thing unassailably true about internet porn use today, it’s that college-age kids comprise an enormous portion of the user population. Didn’t Shugerman read Kate Julian’s recent article in The Atlantic about why young people are having less sex than ever? It describes in vivid detail how porn has seeped into every aspect of young adults’ intimate lives. Whatever the two studies are that Shugerman is relying on, their conclusions (at least as Shugerman describes them…we’re relying on her say-so here since she hasn’t actually provided links) is contradicted by widely-available research showing frequent porn use is common among college age people and young adults.
The article then alludes to two more studies to buttress the argument that the campus porn filtering activists have little to fear from porn. One study from 2007 (again, not linked) purportedly claims porn does not predict negative attitudes toward women. The other study, from 2014, argues “perceived” porn addiction correlates with religiosity. (Shugerman fails to mention, however, that this study has been forcefully debunked and debated, particularly regarding the relevance of “perceived addiction” to, you know, actual addiction.)
And that’s the extent of the “science” Shugerman cites. It’s odd, to say the least, that despite the students she interviewed mentioning “porn addiction” as a concern, none of the studies she chose to highlight actually discuss widespread evidence of problematic pornography consumption and compulsive screen use generally in younger populations. It’s not as if she lacked for dozens-upon-dozens of studies to choose from. For whatever reason, the article simply confines itself to some research only tangentially related to what students cited as a major concern for their movement.
Why might that be? Wait, don’t tell us. We’re gonna guess it has something to do with reducing everything to political and cultural stereotypes…
Part Three: Invoking That Same Old, Tired Chestnut
…Aaaaaand, we were right.
Shugerman next casts the campus wifi filtering debate in terms of left vs. right political labels. There are some convenient facts on her side. For instance, she notes that a major conservative publication picked up the story, and that it attracted the attention of a “conservative firebrand” (and female) student at Georgetown. Yet, the article could just as easily have mentioned concerns about problematic porn use on the other side of the political and cultural spectrum. (See, for example, Kate Julian’s Atlantic article above, or this one from London’s Gay Star News about a college-age playwright’s award-winning one man show about his search for sexual identity while struggling with porn addiction.)
Shugerman then doubles down on the political angle by arguing that the whole campus wifi filtering movement is just a reboot of the religious right’s war on porn that cleverly coopts arguments from old-school feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. In constrast, she argues “today’s feminists” aren’t too fussed about porn. As to which, uh, are you sure about that? We’re pretty sure Melissa Farley and Gail Dines would beg to differ, as would Sara Ditum, a former critic of Dines’ who writes for the Guardian and other major publications.
The problem we have with Shugerman casting the campus porn filtering debate in political terms is twofold. First, it’s just so lazy to pigeonhole porn skepticism into left/right, liberal/conservative tropes. As we mentioned, Shugerman wouldn’t need to search hard to find left-leaning speakers expressing alarm about porn use and abuse. Second, Shugerman herself reports that “[e]very student who spoke with The Daily Beast mentioned the levels of violence against women displayed in modern pornography” as a motivating concern. That doesn’t seem like an issue confined to one side of the political spectrum to us. At the very least, it would be nice to see the Daily Beast acknowledge the ambivalence men and women across the political landscape feel about how pervasive and influential porn has become in shaping modern sexuality.
Part Four: Burying (What Should Have Been) The Lede
But alas, that kind of complicated analysis doesn’t catch eyeballs.
Instead, the Daily Beast article that opens by touting a movement by “college guys” to “ban porn on campus” concludes, ignominiously if you ask us, by giving short shrift to the most interesting issues buried in the campus wifi filtering debate. Would filtering be technologically feasible without restricting academic research? Would it have unintended negative consequences like deterring people who struggle with porn addiction from seeking help? Would it unduly restrict rights of free expression? It’s unfortunate Shugerman left these topics for the end of her piece, because they raise crucial questions inherent in any discussion of pornography today.
So, there you have it, the basic anatomy of a lazy news article about porn: (1) grab attention with a false/reductive title and lede; (2) cherry-pick research to manufacture controversy; (3) POLITICS!; and (4) treat nuance like it’s for chumps. We haven’t tried it out on other articles yet, but we suspect it’ll hold.
Which is too bad, because we all deserve better from our news sources when it comes to the public discussion of porn.
It’s an odd but distinctly American impulse to acknowledge the unhealthy effects of recreational screen use but to embrace constant interaction with screens as a fixture of the modern workplace. After all, one of our most ingrained cultural principles as Americans is that work can, and ideally should, be pleasurable and satisfying. For many of us, that equates to an expectation of feeling rewarded and fulfilled by a long day of typing out messages and staring at pixels.
Which leads us to wonder: is training ourselves to feel satisfaction from workplace screen interaction just as potentially unhealthy as seeking reward and stimulation through on-screen porn, games, or social media? At the very least, is it possible one activity reinforces the other, and vice-versa?
Of course, few people achieve true fulfillment at work. Many of us find the hours we spend earning a living in front of a screen exhausting and mind-numbing. And yet, we go back to work, day-in, day-out, because we know we have to for our own economic survival, at the very least. We all have bills to pay. Working with screens is what most of us must do, and if we can find even a modicum of satisfaction in it, too, then we’ll count ourselves lucky.
And so, at work we unconsciously train ourselves to find, if not necessarily happiness or stimulation, at least a sense of achievement and relief, from pressing “send” on an email, filling out an order screen, or scrolling through columns of numbers. Hitting a button or checking a box means we’ve completed a task. We’ve done what we needed to do to earn, maintain, and survive. Click click click, job done, mission accomplished, pressure from the boss temporarily relieved.
Is it any wonder, then, that even in our off hours, we scroll, click, and text as if our lives depended on it? It’s not just that designers engineer porn, games, and social media to attract and hold our attention. Those features are effective, to be sure. But we suspect we also make ourselves susceptible to problematic use of porn, games, and social media by cultivating a relationship with screens at work in which we associate specific screen interactions like scrolling and clicking with accomplishing tasks and relieving stress.
From personal experience, we can remember feeling like there was a feedback loop between at-work productivity and at-home porn use. The job functions we performed during the day, and the cycle of feeling and relieving tension by engaging in tasks on-screen, felt similar to (albeit somewhat less intense than) searching for and clicking on page after page of porn content. It was as if the previous night’s porn use was the proverbial shot, and the next days’s at-work screen time was the chaser.
Screens aren’t going to disappear from the workplace. But, it may be possible to develop boundaries with our use of tech during the day that could translate into safer use at home. For some of us, that may entail adjusting our perspective of why we use a screen to begin with, and being mindful of only engaging with a screen for a well-defined purpose. Instead of falling in love with swinging a hammer, in other words, some of us may need to re-learn how to take satisfaction in having driven the nail.
Today is the second year anniversary of my father’s death. When it happened, I was a little more than a year into recovery from porn addiction.
My dad struggled with addiction throughout his life. When I left home for university, he gave me a talk about avoiding alcohol and gambling. “Those have been a problem for men in our family,” he said. He meant himself. I knew that and I heeded his warning. I drank in moderation (at least, for a college student). I never developed a taste for betting ponies or playing cards. I obeyed Nancy Reagan and just said “no.”
But I have a compulsive side, just like my old man did. And when screens with porn on them came along, I got hooked hard. My dad hadn’t warned me about those. He hadn’t known to. They weren’t really a thing when I left home for the first time.
When I entered recovery and started attending SAA meetings years later, my dad said he thought I was being too hard on myself. He was a product of his generation. He struggled with the notion of porn being harmful. Hell, he’d given me my first Playboy. I also don’t think he grasped how screens changed porn consumption, how they rewarded compulsivity and trapped people in a trance-like ludic loop, even as he played hours of hours of solitaire on the home computer (and maybe looked at porn, too, who knows).
So, when I tried to talk to my dad about addiction, he mostly shied away. I wish he hadn’t, but as a dad myself I also empathize. I feel responsible for making sure my children won’t struggle with this disease. If they do, I’ll feel like I’ve failed them.
And yet, my dad taught me profound lessons in confronting addiction that carry me through recovery every day. A great admirer of Winston Churchill, he often tried to foist some biography or collection of Churchill’s speeches on me to read. As sons are wont to do, I resisted with all my might. But, since my dad’s death, I have cracked those books and found, not surprisingly I guess, a wealth of experience, strength, and hope, as we say in the program. Churchill was a poet of overcoming adversity. I think that’s why my dad loved him.
In October 1941, as bombs were still falling on London, Churchill visited his old prep school, Harrow, to deliver a speech to the student body which included this now-famous line:
But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period - I am addressing myself to the School - surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
My dad read that passage to me countless times as a kid. I shrugged it off back then, but no longer. Now that I see and know the threat porn addiction poses to my life and others’, I will never, never, never, never give in.
I owe that resolve to one person.
I miss you, Dad.
The cover story of the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic is a 14,000-word behemoth titled “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” It’s worth your time to read, but if you don’t have the bandwidth, then not to worry. We can sum up the article’s (reluctant) answer for you in one word: porn.
Porn is the single most influential reason young people the world-over aren’t having sex. At least, that is the clear message author Kate Julian’s article sends. For readers of this blog, porn’s emerging influence over human sexuality won’t necessarily come as a surprise, but it seems to have frustrated Julian, who goes to impressive lengths (and length) to tease out a non-porn-related explanation for the world’s current “sex recession.” Yet, Julian’s insistence that the problem is not just porn, that it can’t really just be porn, only highlights porn’s obvious dominance.
Of the five probable culprits she identifies in her investigation of the mysterious decline in young people having sex – masturbation, romantic immaturity, dating apps, bad (painful) sex, and inhibition – Julian cannot help but tie three directly to the influence of pornography. Her interview subjects report how masturbating to porn serves as “just enough” of a substitute for sexual intimacy to “placate [sexual] imperatives”, how porn sets a shame-inducing standard for what naked bodies and genitalia should look like, and how porn serves as a warped instruction manual for at-best unsatisfying, and at-worst injurious, sexual encounters. (Even Julian’s misguided doubts about the dangers of porn addiction and porn-induced erectile dysfunction find a quasi-foil in none other than Ian Kerner.)
When the article doesn’t explicitly point the finger at porn, the ubiquity of screens as the sole medium of young people’s social interaction betrays porn’s behind-the-scenes influence. The same screens that Julian’s subjects use for watching porn also serve double-duty as a means of initiating sexual advances, and also avoiding them. Young men swipe right on Tinder in furious pursuit of an elusive sexual partner, while young women stare into their phones in purposeful avoidance of any perceived come-on from a real, live human. So pervasive is screens’ mediating influence in Julian’s telling that these young people find it quaint, but also unsettling and threatening, to interact with a potential romantic partner in person.
What’s more, declining sexual intimacy among young people isn’t just an American phenomenon. Julian reports that countries in Europe and Asia have observed it in their young people too, despite distinct cultural differences among their populations. What could explain the common trend? Julian points to a correlation with the emergence of widespread broadband internet access in each country. In other words – say it with us – porn.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge, as Julian does, that young people having less sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Abstinence among teens and early 20-somethings can prevent a host of social ills. Teen pregnancy goes down. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases drop. High school sweethearts make it home by curfew with their clothes on straight.
And yet, as Julian points out, something is amiss. People around the world who are at the height of their sexual energy and fertility are avoiding sex on a population-level scale. Think about that. Think about the fact that forty-three percent of Japan’s population between 18 and 34 – 43%! – are virgins. Consider that, if Julian’s interview subjects are representative, young Americans find it “creepy” to say hello to someone to whom they’re attracted unless a screen mediates the interaction. Even after accounting for the benefits of a decline in teen moms and STDs, we’re still left with a dramatic shift in human behavior. And dramatic shifts, in our experience, presage chaos.
Still, all is not lost. If the Atlantic’s article leaves you feeling concerned for the future of humanity, take heart in knowing that young people have begun to fight back against the tech and porn industries’ unregulated global experiment in manipulating their sexuality and social behavior. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a steady stream of op-eds from university newspapers across the country rejecting the influence of porn, screens, and social media on the student-age generation. At Notre Dame, groups of men and women called for the university to filter porn from the campus wifi network, calling adult content an affront to human dignity and highly addictive. At Fairfield University, a student writer observed the “growing reliance on technology is an epidemic that deeply affects everyone with access to a phone.” The student newspaper at Colorado State called out social media for “making us … anti-social.” Since the beginning of the school year, similar articles have appeared in student newspapers at Mississippi State, and Pitt, and Southeastern Louisiana, among others.
So, let’s not write the obituary of humankind just yet. Maybe the very same young people whose sexual behavior has departed so drastically from the norm will lead the way out of the virtual world and back into the real one, sex and all.
Three articles from this weekend’s New York Times deliver a gut punch to anyone still wondering whether they should hand their kids an iPad to keep them quiet at a restaurant. The answer, you might have guessed, is “no way.” At least, that’s the loud, clear message from the people who designed and built the screen you’re reading this blog post on right now. How do tech executives describe the products they and their employers have foisted upon humanity? “Crack cocaine…going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain,” says one. “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children,” says another.
Silicon Valley isn’t known as a bastion of social conservatism. When tech elites liken their own products to hardcore drugs and Satan, it's probably not to throw down a culture war gauntlet. More likely, these folks know something horrible is happening, especially to kids, and they want to stop it.
Alarm grows outside of Silicon Valley, too. A Kansas City pediatrician interviewed by the Times calls screens a massive “social experiment” using poor and middle-class children as test subjects. A British Member of Parliament this week published an op-ed in which he compared parents’ and children’s screen use as a creeping crisis "akin to climate change." Half a world away, Chinese health authorities recently released nationwide guidelines for diagnosing and treating adolescent internet addiction.
Why the warning bells? Perhaps it’s because we’re reaching a global tipping point of awareness of just how drastically some fundamental human behaviors and health factors appear to have changed since the advent of ever-present screens. As screen use has risen, rates of sexual intimacy and procreation have declined. As online porn consumption and availability has risen, so have rates of young men reporting problems with erectile dysfunction and of young adults struggling with intimacy. As social media use has risen, teen mental health has declined. Screen use has been linked by researchers to sleep disruptions, declining person-to-person interaction, and a plethora of unwanted addictions and compulsive behaviors.
Researchers rightly point out that correlation is not necessarily an indicator of causation. Long term studies, not anecdotes, are necessary to establish scientific conclusions. Screens, in the form we use them today, simply haven’t been around long enough for multi-generational longitudinal study.
And yet, we’re not blind to screens’ effects on our lives. It’s not just that people are getting into horrific car wrecks because they feel the insatiable need to send a text at 65 miles per hour. It’s not just that “phubbing” (snubbing people by staring a phone) is actually a thing. It’s not just that people are becoming more sexually responsive to cold pixels than to a warm touch. It’s not just that research has coined a term (“ludic loop”) to describe the trance-like state video gambling (and other screen) addicts enter when they stare at a screen for hours on end, or that screen content designers readily admit they aim to manipulate and exploit their users’ primal psychological responses to help them enter that state. It’s all of those threads woven together that make it feel like screen use has us trapped in a terrifying spider’s web.
Traffic to PornHelp.org has grown steadily since our founding in February 2016. As our readers know, we’re based in the U.S. But, our visitors come from all over the planet these days. That global interest in our mission is, to us, the strongest signal that Silicon Valley executives have good reason to keep their own children as far away from screens as possible. Screens bring the same problems wherever they go. A college student in India reports the same life disruptions from using online porn as does one from Brazil, or France, or Kansas. Chinese teens and British teens struggle equally with compulsive gaming. Humans everywhere, no matter their age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or culture, seem equally attracted, entranced, and disturbed by screens.
So, consider this a wake up call. Around the world, alarms are ringing. Red lights are flashing. For all the productivity and creativity screens bring humanity, they also inflict widespread and indiscriminate harm. Like so many Dr. Frankensteins, tech designers show growing terror at what their creations have wrought. These people? They know. Something horrible is happening.
A while back, we wrote about the unfortunate politicization of the porn addiction “debate,” such as it is. We return to that theme this week in light of the sad display of political polarization Americans are witnessing in the ongoing Supreme Court nomination battle. As our readers know, we don’t express political views here. But you don’t need to take a side to recognize how the Great Kavanaugh Blowup has reinforced the ugly political and social rifts in this country.
It makes us wonder, what is going to heal the wounds we keep inflicting on our country? It seems like, every time we start to knit things back together, something or someone goes and picks at a scab, and the bleeding starts all over again.
So, here’s our modest proposal for a place to start. Porn! That’s right, porn. Or, more precisely, internet porn use and screen-based addictions generally.
How is turning our national attention to problematic online porn/internet/screen use going to heal the country? Let’s break it down.
Reason #1: The Right Wants to Tackle This Issue.
Nothing warms the heart of conservative America more than bemoaning the world going to hell-in-a-hand-basket because of naked bodies and “kids today.” It’s a time-honored tradition. Pastors have Bible verses and jazzed up hymns at the ready. Little old ladies can’t wait to wag their fingers at the first sign of cultural decay and encroachment by liberal, coastal elites. Folks really, really, really want to make America great again. And, what better place to start than tackling the one thing that indisputably didn’t exist back in those halcyon days? Kids today hole up in their bedrooms with laptops and phones, disappearing into a fog of porn or Fortnight or Instagram (or all three) for hours and hours and hours on end. It's a conservative's feast: clear evidence the next generation is doomed!
Reason #1A: The Left Wants to Tackle This Issue Too.
It’s not just conservatives who are geared up to address how out-of-control screen time erodes our families, minds, and societal norms. Here’s a quiz: can you guess the one group of Americans most firmly committed to keeping their kids away from screens? Nope, it’s not Heartland dwellers. It’s Silicon Valley executives and engineers! No joke. The world’s most Waldorf-school-loving, social-justice-warring, non-vegan-shaming, gender-neutral-bathroom-building liberals uniformly agree on one thing: the screens they want you to buy stuff on, play games on, read gossip on, and surf porn on, are bad for their own children. They won’t let their kiddos near an iPad…and they're the ones who make iPads. Oh, and you know who else thinks screen time is bad for kids? The French!!! Seriously now. How much more liberal can you get?
Reasons #2 through Infinity: Everyone Wants to Tackle This Issue Because it Involves Our Kids.
Yeah, we’re being a little tongue-in-cheek. But, look, if there’s something we all want no matter our political affiliations, it’s for our children to grow up safe. Parents everywhere understandably worry about every new trend and technology children seize on, especially when we still haven’t caught up to whatever it was they were into six months ago. Sure, sometimes we might blow the dangers out of proportion, but it’s not wrong to worry. That’s what parents do.
The thing is, sometimes it’s not only natural to worry, it’s also correct. And, when it comes to online porn/social media/gaming, there’s real cause for concern. Our focus on this blog is porn, so we’ll start there.
Yes, humans like looking at naked bodies. No, doing that in moderation isn’t going to kill anyone. But, when normal adolescent sexual curiosity meets streaming hardcore pornography, available 24/7/365 in unlimited quantities for free, it’s not hard to see how things can go off the rails. The purveyors of online porn engineer it to attract and hold users’ attention, and train their AI to keep users engaged by showing them ever-more novel content specifically tuned to past porn use patterns. Make no mistake: online porn platforms know exactly what your teenager watches, and when he or she watches it, and for how long, and what type of content and rewards will keep him or her on the site longer next time.
That’s not paranoia on our part. It’s an indisputable fact.
The result: a gigantic experiment in mind-control and sexual conditioning of young people who, by dint of their age alone, haven’t reached a stage of maturity that allows them to discern among, digest, or cope with often violent, exploitative, and outlandish depictions of sexual activity; an experiment which may, for some, devolve into a compulsive obsession that proves ruinous.
These dangers also extend to other forms of screen-based content. Social media companies engineer their product to capture and hold attention, and to engage those parts of the adolescent brain most susceptible to wanting, needing, “likes” and emoji and social acceptance. Games, too, whether focused on fighting, sports, or skill, also engage users by rewarding compulsive, prolonged use, teasing the promise of achievement and bragging rights.
Let’s be clear here. We’re not saying that sexual curiosity, a desire for social validation, or wanting to play games with one’s friends are inherently bad for kids. Our concern is that the means by which the world’s children and adolescents are being conditioned, one might even say forced, to indulge these impulses have been rigged against their long-term wellbeing in order to increase profits for porn, app, and game developers. We worry about how screen-based content amplifies, distorts, and exploits “normal” child and adolescent behavior without any regard for the entirely predictable negative outcomes.
It’s a real problem. It’s also one that folks from the right, left, and center have reasonable approaches to addressing. When it comes to porn, for instance, age verification has the potential to play a significant role, as it has in the UK. So, too, does investing in education about human sexuality, intimate relationships, respect, consent, and being a wary consumer of anything delivered for “free” on-screen. There’s room for dialogue, compromise, and mutual respect and understanding on these solutions, because we all see an obvious need to protect our children.
So, on what promises to be another contentious, polarizing day in American history, let’s embrace an issue that brings us back together. All reasonable, conscientious Americans, no matter their politics, can unite behind addressing the impacts of porn/screen use and addiction on our children.
There's no better time to start than the present. Agreed?
This post is the third in a series in which we explore the “Salience Value” (SV) of online porn. SV is the term we’ve coined for a notional measure of online porn’s ability to attract and hold a user’s attention.
We proposed in two previous posts that SV can serve as a rough predictor of whether a user falls into problematic patterns of porn use, and that SV comprises two distinct elements based on concepts used by neuroscience researchers: “perceptual salience” (how well the design and presentation of porn attracts and holds user attention) and “acquired salience” (how a user’s personal valuation of the porn use experience causes porn to attract and hold user attention).
In this post, we draw from those previous exercises and take a look at how to reduce or mitigate the SV of internet porn. Our aim here is not to make qualitative judgments about how effective these interventions might be in reducing porn use. Instead, our goal is simply to organize into coherent categories for further discussion the different modes of reducing/mitigating porn's SV.
The two concepts of salience we covered in our last post, “perceptual” and “acquired,” suggest two generalized, but distinct, approaches to the problem of reducing/mitigating SV. On one hand, if we want to make a dent in the “perceptual salience” of porn, we need to make changes to how the user is able to perceive it. On the other hand, if we want to reduce the “acquired salience” of porn, we need to make changes to how the user values the experience of that perception.
We don’t think it would be accurate to treat these concepts as independent of each other. Changes to perceptible features of porn can affect how the user values it, and vice versa. Still, for simplicity’s sake, we think it’s useful for starters to locate interventions that could reduce/mitigate the SV of online porn along a spectrum, with “perceptual salience” at one end, and “acquired salience” at the other:
(changes to how porn (changes to how user
can be perceived) values porn)
Using that spectrum as a rough guide allows us to organize interventions for reducing/mitigating the SV of porn into four general categories:
Category 1: Pure Perceptual Salience Interventions
One way to reduce/mitigate the SV of online porn is to alter the porn itself. By this we mean making porn less attractive to the five senses, such as by altering its:
- screen size;
- screen resolution;
- auto play/preview;
- continuous play; and
- content duration.
Some of the most popular life hacks in the porn-quitting community fit into this category, such as changing screens from color to grayscale and turning off continuous and auto-play features on streaming video sites.
Category 2: Mostly Perceptual Salience/Slightly Acquired Salience Interventions
This next category deals with altering the means of interacting with online porn to reduce/mitigate its SV. We categorize these interventions as mostly relating to changing “perceptual salience,” but also affecting “acquired salience,” in that the user’s interaction with a porn platform can both change how the user is able to perceive the porn and how the user values the experience of perceiving that porn. These interventions might include changes to:
- user’s ability to control the presentation of content;
- user’s ability to choose which content to consume;
- depriving a user of sensory inputs; and
- limiting the user’s time available to consume content.
For instance, if a user lost the ability to scroll through content, to adjust the volume, to choose what types of porn he sees, or even to have a tactile interaction with his screen, these interventions could reduce the porn’s SV for the user mostly by negatively altering what the user sees on screen, but also by causing the user to value the experience less.
Category 3: Mostly Acquired Salience/Slightly Perceptual Salience Interventions
Traveling further along the spectrum, we come to interventions that alter the user’s valuation of his porn use experience via external influences. These interventions work mostly upon the user’s subjective enjoyment of using porn, but also may have a direct impact on the user’s ability to perceive porn at all. Generically speaking, we’d classify these as “social” interventions of one form or another that interfere with the user’s desire for anonymity and privacy. They may include:
- publicizing the porn use;
- observing the user during porn use; and
- subjecting the user to accountability for porn use.
Accountability software, putting a home computer in a “public” part of the house, and deterring use through threatened negative consequences/punishment all fall into this category.
Category 4: Pure Acquired Salience Interventions
Finally, some interventions that reduce/mitigate the SV of online porn work purely at the level of changing the user’s valuation of the experience of porn consumption through internal influences. These interventions assume nothing about the porn or the user’s means of interaction changes, but instead the change occurs for the user from the inside-out. They may include:
- non-medication health improvements (diet/exercise/etc.);
- education about porn leading to aversion; and
- applying religious/moral principles leading to aversion.
These interventions have the potential to cause a user to place a lower value on the experience of using porn, and therefore to react to it more negatively.
You may have noticed we’ve skipped one obvious intervention, which is cutting the user off from porn altogether through content filtering, elimination of screens/going “low tech,” age verification, paywalls, etc. We’ve excluded these interventions up to now because they don’t fit neatly on a spectrum of interventions, but rather, represent both a pure “perceptual salience” intervention and a pure “acquired salience” intervention. Eliminating access to porn makes perceiving it and valuing the experience of using it impossible. Consequently, we can place that intervention on both ends of the spectrum, or conceive of the spectrum as bending until its ends meet and it forms a circle.
As we said at the outset, we’re not prepared at this point to judge the effectiveness of any of these approaches to mitigating the SV of porn. We suspect different interventions, and combinations of interventions, work for different people. We’ve heard some people in recovery from porn addiction say “I still love porn but I know I can’t be near it.” We’ve heard others say “now that I know what porn is does to me, it disgusts me.” Some find relief from using porn in being found out. Others in recognizing and addressing the feelings they associate with an urge to binge.
For the same reasons, we cannot say which, if any, of these interventions may do more harm than good for a particular user. It's possible the intervention that helps one user could cause another user greater degrees of emotional distress than the porn use itself. We can't evaluate that here.
For now, our hope for this post is simply to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how sufferers, researchers, advocates, and treatment providers can organize their thoughts about ways to quit porn and tackle compulsive porn use. We believe the more systematic and uniform our community can make the process of selecting interventions to reduce/mitigate the Salience Value of porn, the more precise and effective those interventions can eventually be.
As always, comments welcome.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.