Too much of a good thing can be bad – we know this. But in the case of PORN, it can lit­er­ally AL­TER the way that men’s brains work, and their abil­ity to be in­ti­mate with real-life part­ners

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - SEPTEMBER CONTENTS -

Turns out that porn can re­wire your brain, who knew?

There’s noth­ing wrong with watch­ing porn. When con­sumed in the right doses, it’s a healthy and fun way to get turned on. In­stead, the prob­lem lies here: too much porn.

A study pub­lished fol­low­ing the 112th An­nual Sci­en­tific Meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Uro­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion ear­lier this year con­firmed that watch­ing porn too of­ten can leave men un­able to get it up with their part­ners in real life. Fur­ther­more, it found that ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion of porn – ha­bit­ual, and for hours on end – can cause se­vere psy­cho­sex­ual prob­lems in men, the most com­mon be­ing erec­tile dys­func­tion. The same can­not be said for women con­sum­ing porn, though – the study found that women are hardly af­fected by it.

Fight­the­new­, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion with a de­sire to make an im­pact on the world by us­ing sci­ence, facts and per­sonal ac­counts to help spread the mes­sage about the harm­ful ef­fects of porn, goes into great de­tail about the topic. They note: scientists used to be­lieve that once you left child­hood, your brain lost the abil­ity to grow, and that noth­ing ex­cept ill­ness or in­jury could phys­i­cally al­ter an adult brain. Now we know that the brain goes on chang­ing through­out life, con­stantly rewiring it­self and lay­ing down new nerve con­nec­tions, and that this is par­tic­u­larly true in our youth.

The brain is made up of about 100 bil­lion spe­cial nerves called neu­rons, which carry elec­tri­cal sig­nals be­tween parts of the brain and out to the rest of the body. Imag­ine you’re learn­ing to play an E chord on the gui­tar [stay with us here]: your brain sends a sig­nal to your hand telling it what to do. As that sig­nal zips along from neu­ron to neu­ron, those ac­ti­vated nerve cells start to form con­nec­tions be­cause ‘neu­rons that fire to­gether, wire to­gether.’ Those newly con­nected neu­rons form what’s called a neu­ronal path­way.

Think of a neu­ronal path­way like a trail in the woods. Ev­ery time some­one uses the trail, it gets a lit­tle wider and more permanent. Sim­i­larly, ev­ery time a mes­sage trav­els down a neu­ronal path­way, it gets stronger. With enough rep­e­ti­tion, your neu­ronal path­way will get so strong you’ll be strum­ming that E chord with­out even think­ing about it. That process of build­ing bet­ter, faster neu­ronal path­ways is how we learn any new skill, and prac­tise does make per­fect.

But there’s a catch. Your brain is a hungry or­gan. It may only weigh 2% of your body weight, but it eats up 20% of your en­ergy and oxy­gen, so re­sources are scarce up there. There’s some pretty fierce com­pe­ti­tion be­tween brain path­ways, and those that don’t get used enough will likely be re­placed.

That’s where porn comes in. Porn hap­pens to be fan­tas­tic at form­ing new, long-last­ing path­ways in the brain. In fact, porn is such a fe­ro­cious com­peti­tor that hardly any other ac­tiv­ity can com­pete with it. That’s right, porn can ac­tu­ally over­power your brain’s nat­u­ral abil­ity to have real sex. Why? As Dr. Nor­man Doidge, a re­searcher at Columbia Uni­ver­sity, ex­plains, porn cre­ates the per­fect con­di­tions and trig­gers the re­lease of

‘I’d drink wine, get­ting off to we­b­cam girls telling me I was a per­vert’

the right chem­i­cals to make last­ing changes in your brain.

The ideal con­di­tions for form­ing strong neu­ronal path­ways are when you’re in what scientists call ‘flow’. Flow is ‘a deeply sat­is­fy­ing state of fo­cused at­ten­tion.’ When you’re in flow, you get so deep into what you’re do­ing that noth­ing else mat­ters. You’ve prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­enced it be­fore when play­ing a game or read­ing a great book. You were so fo­cused on what you were do­ing that you lost track of time, and ev­ery­thing around you dis­ap­peared. You wanted it to keep go­ing for­ever. That’s flow.

Now imag­ine a man sit­ting in front of the com­puter at 3am look­ing at porn. He’s so ab­sorbed in his porn trance that not even sleep can com­pete for his at­ten­tion. He’s in the ideal con­di­tion for form­ing neu­ronal path­ways, and that’s what he’s do­ing. He clicks from page to page in search of the per­fect mas­tur­ba­tory im­age, not re­al­is­ing that ev­ery im­age he sees is re­in­forc­ing the path­ways he’s forg­ing in his brain. By now, those im­ages are burned so deeply into his mind he’ll re­mem­ber them for a long time to come, maybe his whole life.

Re­fer­ring back to the Amer­i­can Uro­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion’s study, al­most 4% of the men ques­tioned said that they pre­ferred mas­tur­bat­ing to porn more than hav­ing sex­ual in­ter­course with another per­son.

Dr Joseph Alukal, direc­tor of male re­pro­duc­tive health at New York Uni­ver­sity and a part of the study panel, notes: ‘[Men] be­lieve they’re sup­posed to be able to do what goes on in these movies [and in turn their part­ners], and when they can’t it causes a great deal of anx­i­ety.’

So, does he need a porn detox?

A new 90-day mas­tur­ba­tion-ab­sti­nence pro­gramme is help­ing men (and women) de­pen­dent on dig­i­tal porn to re­gain con­trol of their sex lives. But does it work?

Jack* would lose up to six hours a day watch­ing porn, scrolling from clip to clip on YouPorn, or click­ing through var­i­ous stream­ing ser­vices. He drifted from vanilla scenes, to anal, to graphic group sex. And af­ter ev­ery or­gasm, he’d feel guilty and ashamed.

‘The fi­nal straw was when I woke up at 3am with my py­jama bot­toms around my an­kles and an empty bot­tle of pop­pers on the floor [to ac­cen­tu­ate or­gasm],’ says Jack. ‘I just cried.’

Un­able to hide his habit any longer, he told his girl­friend. ‘She al­ready knew and we both re­alised I needed help.’ That’s how Jack, 23, from Lon­don, dis­cov­ered NoFap, the on­line ab­sti­nence pro­gramme founded in 2011 by for­mer Google em­ployee Alexan­der Rhodes, an Amer­i­can from Pitts­burgh who was 21 at the time and whose per­sonal story mim­ics that of Jack’s. De­spite the some­what crude brand name (de­rived from

Manga comics’ ono­matopoeic ex­pres­sion for mas­tur­ba­tion) NoFap’s model of re­cov­ery is com­mon sense – avoid us­ing your com­puter in a pri­vate set­ting, spend time pro-ac­tively, and limit your brows­ing. The first ‘porn-re­cov­ery’ com­mu­nity of its kind, NoFap started as a sim­ple red­dit thread but fast be­came the go-to fo­rum for any­one de­vel­op­ing an In­ter­net porn habit.

To­day it has over 200 000 mem­bers world­wide, mostly men in their late-teens to mid-thir­ties, al­though 3% are women. NoFap is free to join and the ‘fap­stro­nauts’ or ‘re­boot­ers’ (as they call them­selves) have their own fo­rum and dis­tinct ter­mi­nol­ogy (‘blue petal’ is the fe­male equiv­a­lent of ‘blue balls’, a term used to de­scribe sex­ual frus­tra­tion). Male or fe­male, Alexan­der claims NoFap has a 50% suc­cess rate in lead­ing mem­bers to a more sex-pos­i­tive and ful­fill­ing life.

Gary*, 19, from New York, started watch­ing porn at 14; by 19 his three­hours-a day habit had be­come a ‘se­cret shame’. He couldn’t look friends in the eye and had de­vel­oped erec­tile dys­func­tion. It took the sui­cide of a close friend to shake him out of ‘porn daze’. ‘My friend was some­one in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion; he had a his­tory of de­pres­sion [too]. I re­alised my habit was mask­ing my sad­ness and in­se­cu­ri­ties,’ says Gary. ‘It scared me into mak­ing ma­jor changes.’ Cur­rently on a 90-day pro­gramme, he’s al­ready no­ticed a pos­i­tive change in his moods. Alexan­der be­lieves that many young men (and women) born in the dig­i­tal age are hav­ing their sex­u­al­ity hi­jacked by on­line porn; that dur­ing our for­ma­tive ado­les­cent years when our ‘sex­ual tem­plate’ is be­ing es­tab­lished, porn dis­rupts the process. The 90-day pe­riod of ab­sti­nence pro­moted by NoFap (no porn, no mas­tur­ba­tion and, in ‘hard mode’, no sex) re­sets our sex­u­al­ity back to its nat­u­ral state.

‘We call this “re­boot­ing”,’ says Alexan­der. ‘The most ef­fec­tive way of quit­ting porn is by re­boot­ing your brain back to its de­fault fac­tory set­ting, like a com­puter that’s been in­fil­trated by viruses.’ Last year, 64 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide watched porn ev­ery day**. But when does watch­ing porn go from some­thing that peo­ple ‘just do’ to some­thing more sin­is­ter? One scroll through the NoFap fo­rum and a range of typ­i­cal themes emerge, with re­boot­ers de­scrib­ing feel­ings of lone­li­ness and de­pres­sion. Joy Rosendale, a psy­cho­sex­ual ther­a­pist spe­cial­is­ing in sex ad­dic­tion and cou­ples coun­selling, says com­pul­sive mas­tur­ba­tion is more about is­sues with self-worth and re­jec­tion than sex. ‘The core of the con­tin­u­ous habit is deeper than “I’m bored” – it’s about es­cape.’

Like al­co­hol and drugs, porn is in­cred­i­bly po­tent. And when it be­comes an emo­tional crutch, it can be psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­ag­ing, as well as harm­ful to real-life re­la­tion­ships. ‘If my wife was out, I would get home from work and not even eat,’ says Jon*, from Nor­wich, who be­came de­pen­dent on porn through­out his thir­ties. ‘I’d drink wine and watch ver­bal-hu­mil­i­a­tion videos, get­ting off to we­b­cam girls telling me I was “ugly” and “a per­vert”.’ Jon hasn’t watched porn for a year now, af­ter com­plet­ing the pro­gramme. He cred­its his wife for sup­port­ing him.

Holly*, 46, from Phoenix, Ari­zona, was mar­ried for 21 years be­fore she dis­cov­ered her hus­band’s habit. ‘I re­alised it didn’t mat­ter how much I tried to ini­ti­ate sex, he had no in­ter­est,’ says Holly. ‘He re­mained faith­ful to PMO [Porn/Mas­tur­ba­tion/Or­gasm – the NoFap term for a porn habit], but not to our re­la­tion­ship. I fell into a deep de­pres­sion. I had no self-es­teem and felt worth­less. It hurt that the per­son I love, the same one who had con­vinced me I was per­fect for him, no longer wanted me. I couldn’t com­pete with the in­fi­nite cy­cle of girls in porn.’ Joy says Holly’s ex­pe­ri­ence is typ­i­cal, and the chal­lenge for part­ners is to not take some­body’s habit per­son­ally. ‘The na­ture of ad­dic­tion is Jekyll and Hyde. There’s an hon­ourable self and an ad­dicted self.’

Many of the fe­male part­ners Joy sees at Lon­don’s Maryle­bone Cen­tre, the first clinic of its kind to work with sex­ual ad­dic­tion in the UK, go on a 12-week pro­gramme to ac­cli­ma­tise to the idea that their part­ner’s com­pul­sive porn view­ing is not their fault. Joy says that only about a third of cou­ples stay to­gether af­ter­wards, though. Does Joy be­lieve the 90-day pro­gramme could work? She agrees that NoFap would help peo­ple to iden­tify their prob­lem and find­ing like­minded sup­port, but warns it could be an over­sim­pli­fied so­lu­tion. ‘A last­ing res­o­lu­tion can only re­ally be found through coun­selling or sim­i­lar,’ she says. That’s not to say that ab­sti­nence is the easy op­tion. ‘Flatlin­ing’ refers to the come-down of not mas­tur­bat­ing for a month. Gary de­scribes it as ‘fac­ing a mon­ster’ and the ‘most chal­leng­ing stage’ of a re­boot. Af­ter all, you’re only ever one click away from a sup­port fo­rum to a hard­core­porn site. For those tempted to re­lapse, the web­site has a ‘panic but­ton’. Click it and you’re greeted with mo­ti­va­tional videos and tweets, TEDx talks and pithy quotes. But the func­tion of the emer­gency but­ton is based on neu­ro­science.

‘The idea was to ap­ply the dopamin­er­gic sys­tem to sup­port the user rather than work against the user,’ says Alexan­der. ‘Porn ex­ploits the dopamine path­way – the re­ward cir­cuitry in our brain – and by pro­vid­ing users with mo­ti­va­tion rather than porn, we dis­rupt the cy­cle of ad­dic­tion and re­wire the re­wards.’

For some men, the fo­rum goes be­yond re­claim­ing their sex­u­al­ity and NoFap be­comes a way of life. One user posts on their Red­dit chan­nel: ‘NoFap isn’t a chal­lenge; it’s a life­style. What lies af­ter day 90 is day 91. Don’t give up!’

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