The conversation we’re not having about porn (Washington Post)

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Alexander Rhodes is the founder of NoFap, a platform dedicated to providing tools and support for people who want to quit porn.

Recently, a nonbinding resolution declaring pornography a “public health crisis” passed by unanimous vote through Utah’s state House and Senate, and was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert. In response, droves of Internet commenters tore into the legislators and the activists who pushed for its passage. Often, they discounted the resolution as theocracy or moral policing masquerading as public health policy, ignoring any evidence-based merit it might have.

While people are entitled to their skepticism regarding the backgrounds or motivations of those behind the resolution, this does not address the reasoning behind its arguments. In reality, criticisms of pornography transcend religion and morality.

Internet pornography is a very recent development, especially when compared with humans’ evolutionary timeline — and our brains have yet to adapt. Porn producers are hard at work each day developing audiovisual experiences that are ever more abundant, ubiquitous, novel and stimulating. Just as fast food franchises hacked our appetites by developing synthetic flavors, aromas and textures that target our brain’s reward system — leaving us with an obesity epidemic — porn producers are learning to hack our libidos with new technologies like HD video and virtual reality. It’s not unreasonable to pause and ask ourselves how their handiwork might be affecting our lives.

The negative effects of over-consuming Internet pornography is a well-documented phenomenon. Combine this with porn’s wild popularity and you have a recipe for a genuine public health concern. Individuals with porn problems are members of relationships, families, workplaces and communities, so individual porn problems trickle up to become societal problems. After all, we treat drugs, alcohol and gambling as serious issues not because everyone who partakes in them has an addiction but because the problematic few have a deleterious effect on our communities as a whole.

In recent years, discussions on pornography’s effects have been popping up throughout the Internet. The frequency of these conversations has escalated as the first generation of people raised on Internet porn is reaching adulthood and beginning to experience the detrimental effects of going through puberty using porn.

Thousands of individuals, often young and male, are reporting that using porn multiple times per day trained their brains to associate their sexualities with pixels on their computer screens, rather than sexual activity with human beings. They are reporting that they have a decreased interest in seeking out human partners, and if they do so, they often cannot achieve sexual arousal during partnered sex, have a decreased sensitivity to pleasure or cannot experience an orgasm without porn or porn fantasy. Interestingly enough, when these people remove one variable from their lives — using porn — most of the time their symptoms are reduced or reversed.

Their discussions have finally drawn the interest of researchers, clinicians and journalists. In reaction to their complaints, some good research is underway on the effects of porn addiction, such as the 2014 University of Cambridge study that used brain imaging to show that the porn-addicted brain reacts to porn cues the same way the drug-addicted brain reacts to drug cues. Yet some critics say there’s not enough evidence to support the idea that porn addiction is a public health problem, or even a real disorder. While there is already plenty of research available that confirms the existence of porn addiction, further research will require funding, ethics committee approval and willing test subjects.

These things require public interest, which requires open discussion about the subject — discussion that has been previously restricted to online forums and confidential sessions between clinicians and porn-addicted clients. If “Internet gaming disorder” is documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, why not “Internet pornography addiction”?

Utah’s resolution doesn’t call for an explicit ban on porn, but the open language calling for “policy change” is sufficiently vague to leave us all wondering. Is the best approach to porn addiction through legislation? Certainly not, if that legislation leads to outlawing people’s right to consume pornography. Intimacy, sex, love and what we do with our genitals during our free time aren’t areas for a government to regulate. However, legislation aimed at raising awareness, facilitating open discussion and enabling research is worth exploring.

Pragmatically, the resolution in Utah is great for the porn-recovery community. It served its purpose of sparking discussion about this under-discussed topic. While Utah’s declaration may cause disagreement, at the end of the day we don’t serve society when we avoid complicated, taboo subjects for the sake of comfort. We need to talk about these things openly to solve problems and progress as a species. And yes, that includes porn.

Original article