What I think about r/NoFap
Do you know what happens to the vast majority of people who are prescribed opioids? They take them until their pain stops or their prescription runs out and then they quit. Do you know what happens to the vast majority of people who try heroin? They go on with their lives and don’t become addicted. Even drugs which create physical dependency only hook a small percentage of users.
I’ve been writing a lot about porn lately, because I see a War on Sex ramping up as the War on Drugs slowly winds down. I’m seeing the same lies and distortions used to justify the War on Drugs being used to justify the War on Sex.
I am not an uncritical sex-positive feminist. I don’t believe all sex is inherently morally good or healthy for all people, anymore than I believe all drugs are inherently morally good or healthy for all people. What I believe is that sex and drugs are inherently morally neutral.
Which means that when we talk about sex (or drugs) being “good” or “bad” we need to look at the evidence.
An acquaintance recently reached out to ask me whether I had spent any time in r/pornfree or r/nofap.
“How do you explain what men in those groups feel when they stay free of porn?” he asked. “Also I've talked to a couple of male friends about this, and tbh from personal experience sex does feel a lot better when not watching porn consistently. There's also a difference in how I feel when not watching porn but still masturbating to sexting or r/gonewildstories.”
Certainly some people have a problematic relationship with pornography, as I acknowledge in Is porn addiction real? I haven’t spent any time in r/pornfree or r/nofap, but I’m passingly familiar with the arguments. I would argue that just as a small percentage of drug users develop a problem with drugs, a small percentage of porn users develop a problem with pornography.
Where I think the “addiction” schema fails is that it’s too binary. In our conversations about addiction, we’re quick to put people in buckets. You’re either an addict or you don’t have any problem at all. But in reality, problematic usage is nuanced, subjective, and is a matter of degrees.
Black-and-white thinking is easier than seeing shades of gray. Cold turkey is easier than moderation. The truth is that I don’t think porn universally is good or bad. I think it offers many real benefits to many people. It can help people accept their sexual appetites, discover new things they enjoy sexually, relieve stress and boredom, provide a release valve for sexual energy, and other benefits. Porn use is even associated with lower levels of violence against women and more gender-egalitarian views among men.
But I also think porn can replace real-life intimacy. I have personally been in at least one relationship where my partner looking at porn less often led to much better sex. And I've been in many more relationships where my partner had trouble getting hard, staying hard, or ejaculating and I wanted him to try decreasing his porn usage to see if it might help.
When people anecdotally say that using less porn, or quitting entirely, has improved their sex lives or their lives in general I don’t doubt their claims. Anything that’s easy and pleasurable can easily be overdone, often to the detriment of other, harder, more rewarding pursuits. Millions of Americans eat fast food instead of cooking often enough that it hurts their health. But maybe quitting porn improved these people’s lives not because porn is inherently bad for people, but because they found better ways to use the time. If you’re looking at porn for two hours every day and you pivot to spending those two hours volunteering at a place you’re likely to meet single women in your age range, your life is going to improve. Shocker. Hell, if all you do is spend the two hours reading you’ll probably still be markedly better off.
So I’m not discounting what people are saying on NoFap. But what I am saying is that the research simply doesn’t support the idea that quitting or cutting back on porn will help the average person. For the average person, porn doesn’t replace sex, but enhances it. There’s absolutely no evidence that porn replaces sex for most users. In fact, studies show watching porn is actually associated with greater arousal for and sexual interest in a partner.
Anecdotally, I’m sure many people do find that the more porn they look at and the tighter the grip they use to masturbate the more difficult it will be to function well in real-life sex. But there is no research linking porn use to erectile or ejaculatory dysfunction for the average person.
I’m no uncritical fan of pornography. But what makes the discussion much harder and less fruitful is all the moralizing and black-and-white thinking about porn. Nearly every time I’ve tried to talk to a partner about looking at porn less, it’s gone pretty terribly. Men expect to be shamed about looking at porn, and interpret any suggestion that they might benefit from backing off as some kind of moralistic personal attack. Similarly, the NoFap group univeralizes their experience to everyone. They ignore, deny, or downplay the positive effects of porn. And like drug warriors before them, they fail to acknowledge the research showing that porn simply isn’t measurably harmful to the vast majority of users.
It would be great if people who think they might benefit from looking at less porn or cutting it out entirely could do so without insisting that porn is morally bad or has harmful effects on everyone. Not only would that be more accurate, but I think it would attract more people who aren’t ready to say they’re addicted to porn or that porn is morally wrong, but might still benefit from cutting back.