There is a commonly held belief that if an author with an advanced degree publishes a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, the content contained within the paper is well-sourced, reliable, and written in the absence of bad faith or undisclosed conflicts of interest. Most academics operate by a strict set of ethical guidelines. Most scientists pride themselves in combatting the human propensity towards biased thinking by adhering to the scientific method. Sadly, that is not always the case.
Your Brain on Porn is a website that celebrates science, following its late founder Gary Wilson’s evidence-based approach to the topic of pornography, rather than engaging in moral and cultural debates surrounding the topic. While the preponderance of hard science (such as many brain studies) on pornography clearly illustrates potential consequences for consumers, including behavioral addiction, the sexology research field tends to be fraught with activism and cultural commentary about pornography’s possible effects.
While porn industry-aligned activists are quick to point out perceived biases against some researchers who happen to be religious in their personal lives, the same activists rarely seem to acknowledge their own evident biases. Darryl Mead of The Reward Foundation published this paper about how one industry-supportive author published a peer-reviewed paper in 2020, which made a variety of charged assertions targeting three recovery-oriented websites: Fight the New Drug, Your Brain on Porn, and NoFap. However, the same author failed to disclose that they were a contributor to Pornhub’s “Sexual Wellness Center” as a potential conflict of interest.
In any case, the paper Mead addresses in his new article also contained significant inaccuracies, which made their way onto Twitter, Wikipedia, and Medium, causing reputational damage to those targeted, including Your Brain on Porn‘s late author Gary Wilson. To this day, with the help of 80+ sockpuppet accounts, the paper’s false assertions about Gary Wilson still appear prominently on two Wikipedia pages.
See selected excerpts from the paper below the ABSTRACT. Alternatively, you may read the article for yourself because it’s “Open Access” (that is, available for all, free of charge) at this link:
Volume 8, Issue 2, Article 6, 2023 https://doi.org/10.23860/dignity.2023.08.02.06 [Entire article is open access]
As pornography became increasingly popular online, many unsuspecting consumers reported adverse effects. These included sexual dysfunctions, such as lack of response with real partners, delayed ejaculation, erectile difficulties, and sexual compulsivity. Some pornography consumers began congregating in online self-help portals (forums and websites) to assist one another in quitting or reducing problematic pornography use. The popularity of the self-help resources and their potential to dampen the profits of a lucrative industry resulted in disinformation campaigns run by individuals connected to the pornography industry. In this article, I examine how a paper containing significant inaccuracies about the people organising the online recovery forums passed the peer-review process while failing to disclose the author’s conflicts of interest. The author of the case study has documented affiliations with a major pornography company, MindGeek (the owner of Pornhub). Somehow, it passed peer review, lending it a false halo of credibility. Pornography industry-connected individuals then repeatedly exploited it, for example, on social media and Wikipedia, to discredit pornography self-help recovery resources. (Emphasis supplied)
- Pornography addiction self-help resources became the target of escalating, systematic attacks from supporters of the pornography industry, as well as from the industry itself (Mead, 2023 [Creating disinformation: Archiving fake links on the Wayback Machine viewed through the lens of routine activity theory]; Davison, 2019; Your Brain on Porn, 2021b; Townhall Media, 2020; Van Maren, 2020).
- Educated consumers who understand the negative impact of problematic pornography use, most of whom are secular and sex-positive, are bad for the pornography industry’s business model.
- Such consumers do not fit the industry’s carefully curated narrative that those who object to pornography are solely motivated by sex-negative attitudes or religious shame.
- The internet pornography industry’s approach to public relations closely adheres to the tenets of the playbook: …1) challenge the problem, 2) challenge causation, 3) challenge the messenger, and 4) challenge the policy.
- The pornography industry recognised the enormous public relations value of getting plausible-sounding, distilled soundbites into academic papers which support its narrative of pornography as “risk-free, healthy entertainment” and discredit its critics.
- Indeed, while there is ample third-party research conducted on problematic pornography use, outlier papers by pornography industry-supportive academics receive far more attention in mainstream media than the papers comprising the great bulk of the evidence.
- I selected Watson’s paper for analysis because it is a powerful hit piece containing inaccurate information that passed peer review and was thus considered a good academic study (in this case, by the [American Library Association’s Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy]).
- When Watson’s paper came to my attention in August 2020, I approached the editors requesting an opportunity to respond to what I considered to be a misrepresentation of the self-help resources, particularly YourBrainOnPorn.com and its creator, Gary Wilson. What followed was a year-long process of them placing impediments in my way as a means of discouraging a peer-reviewed response. The editors did not wish to allow readers to comprehend the actual situation. At the end of the negotiation (150 emails later), the editors would only agree to publish a non-peer-reviewed response if it were written in a way that improperly implied that the publication of MDPI’s correction in 2018 introduced new information potentially damaging to Wilson.
- I then raised the issue of poor editorial behaviour at the Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy with the ALA board and senior management on three occasions. I received no response to my correspondence. Unfortunately, this did not entirely surprise me, as I had suspected they had taken a pro-pornography stance in the culture wars surrounding this topic.
- While writing this paper, I discovered that Watson had strong connections to the pornography industry and the American Library Association, which should have been declared as conflicts of interest but were not. (Emphasis supplied)
- Since the publication of The New Censorship, Watson’s unfounded quotation about Wilson has been weaponised and pressed into service on social media to denigrate Mr. Wilson’s overall work.
- Relying on the fabricated “legitimacy” created by Watson’s peer-reviewed “truth,” the contentious quotation disparaging Wilson noted above was soon used as a tool to undermine the legitimacy of NoFap on Wikipedia.
- Since around 2018, the pornography industry and its collaborators have sought to smear any experimentation with abstaining from pornography. For instance, they attempt to portray pornography addiction recovery as related to political activism, religious extremism, and even violence (Cole, 2018; Dickson, 2019; Manavis, 2018; Ley, 2018b). Indeed, one prominent industry-associated advocate openly stated that they intend to “de-platform” online forums that allow for peer support to reduce or eliminate pornography use (MrGirlPodcast, 2022).
- This case study touches on all four playbook strategies identified by Jacquet. However, it is exceptionally instructive in highlighting the techniques used to ‘challenge the messenger’. It demonstrates how a peer-reviewed academic paper filled with deliberate factual errors and innuendo can create a tool to “legitimise” attacks on mutual self-help groups. Further, Watson’s paper forms an integral element of a broader campaign by commercial pornography industry collaborators to “de-platform” mutual self-help groups. (Emphasis supplied)
- If successful, the pornography industry’s campaign against the mutual self-help groups would produce three deleterious effects. First, it would eliminate key, cost-free support for suffering pornography users. Many such users are young and without independent means. Second, it would deny them support from their peers. Third, it would remove substantial opportunities for them to access independent information outside the industry’s carefully crafted narratives.
- By using a toxic mix of fabrication and innuendo to build a case against people who raise awareness about pornography harms and addiction, the industry is employing classic tactics from the playbook. They promote a false narrative to deny the well-established health and social risks associated with problematic pornography consumption.