Elliot, a recent college graduate, leads a men’s group at his local evangelical church in a small Midwestern city. The men don’t just study Scripture. Instead, at weekly meetings, they try to rid themselves of their addictions to pornography.
At each gathering, the men discuss how the past week went with the help of a workbook they share. They use a numeric scale to rank themselves on their goals to avoid pornography, masturbation, and lustful thoughts. Elliot says it often takes time for men to open up with one another, so he leads by example.
“I start it out by being vulnerable with them, and they really react well to that,” he told me. “You have to kind of put yourself out there and say, ‘I’m not scared of sharing my story.’ ”
According to a national survey published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, conservative Protestant men are the most likely group to perceive themselves to be addicted to porn, even if they watch less of it than their secular counterparts. And this has turned out to be a lucrative phenomenon. Christian books, apps, lifestyle groups, and conferences constitute a booming industry to help men quit porn—or, in the words of one of them, to help afflicted men “develop sexual integrity.”
As a religion and sexuality researcher, I first started hearing stories about pornography addiction while researching online Christian sex advice: blogs, message boards, and online stores created by and for evangelical Christians to have great sex in their marriages. Based on the stories I was reading online, pornography was a vicious virus that had spread to virtually all Christian men. I read countless stories of battles against pornography addiction and common advice that these addicts attend programs to get clean.
In 2016, I started to meet these men and ask about how they came to understand their addictions. I wondered how they measured success and how their lives and relationships changed after they entered recovery, to use their term. These programs claim to free men of their darkest biological impulses and to put them on a path to healthy, spiritual relationships with women. What I found instead is that they reproduce many of the most damaging lessons of pornography itself.
At the end of February, amid signs that COVID-19 was on its way to becoming a national emergency, Alabama’s Legislature fixed its crosshairs on another public health issue: addiction to pornography. It passed into law Alabama Senate Joint Resolution 7, declaring that “pornography, including obscenity, is creating a public health crisis.”
Alabama is not alone: Sixteen states have officially affirmed the dangers of porn. The first was Utah, in 2016, after the Republican Party declared in its platform that internet pornography was “destroying the lives of millions.”
For all the fanfare, many progressive clinicians, including in this magazine, wave away the issue of porn addiction. Most mainstream scientists do not liken it to drug and alcohol addiction, and there is heated debate about whether it meets criteria of a behavioral addiction, like gambling. Pornography addiction is not included in any reputable diagnostics manual, including the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM.
But as a sociologist studying pornography addiction, my approach is different than other scientists. I’m less concerned about whether it is “real” in a biological sense and more concerned with how it becomes real in the social world in which we live.
Take NoFap, the famous Reddit forum with half a million followers and a stand-alone website with more than 270,000 members. The brainchild of Alexander Rhodes, NoFap is for men who want to quit watching porn and “fapping” (an onomatopoeia for masturbation). When Rhodes was in college, he decided to detail his experiment abstaining from porn for one week on Reddit. He claimed he had a “full on pornography addiction” and it was interfering with his life, especially his attempts to date women. The Reddit forum became a sensation, and now Rhodes and a small staff manage NoFap.com and its brand full time.
A measure of success on NoFap is going 90 days No-PMO (porn, masturbation, or orgasm). This “rebooting” is hard but worth it, according to Fapstronauts, as they call themselves. Rewards include a host of “superpowers”—spikes in confidence, the ability to sexually attract others, waves of creative genius, and newfound savviness in social interactions.
There is no scientific evidence that supports the idea of these superpowers. Yet hundreds of thousands of NoFap users insist they experience them. Should we dismiss their stories as exaggerated and made up? I don’t think so. Instead, we can learn from them.
After nearly five years studying the pornography addiction recovery industry and the people who use it, I have discovered that its success is not because it rids men of their addictions—though some insist it absolutely does do that. It’s because it makes kicking pornography into a primal masculine endeavor in itself.
Since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, the most visible and popular model of addiction recovery has used medical language to understand addiction as a disease. This removes blame from individuals for the cause of their addiction, but it maintains pressure that they treat and overcome it.
Blending scientific language with the spiritual is typical of addiction recovery in the U.S. The 12-step model that dominates the industry requires faith in a “higher power” to successfully maintain sobriety. For Christians, this means that porn use is not a failure of their churches, or the corruption of pastors caught watching it. Instead, it’s biological. It’s how men are built. This model lends credibility to anti-porn claims by drawing from so-called objective evidence rather than subjective religious beliefs. But such beliefs are still necessary and important for successful recovery.
I have interviewed more than 40 men and women from Christian and secular porn addiction recovery programs, and the common story is this: Men’s brains are hard-wired to want porn, and therefore it takes supreme faith in God and all the masculine strength one can muster to avoid it.
Elliot, the recent college graduate, struggled through tumultuous periods of “sobriety and relapse,” as he puts it, in his quest to quit porn. It wasn’t until he found a Christian book that explained the physical nature of pornography addiction that he was able to make a change. Before there was the support group, Elliot’s church decided to host a one-time screening of a Christian film on the harms of pornography, followed by a panel discussion featuring church leaders. The event was so popular the church scheduled it two more times that same week. As Elliot told me, “Every session was just full of people, like there were people standing in the back. That’s what opened the floodgates on this issue.”
When some suggested a support group for Christian men who struggled with porn, Elliot was quick to volunteer. He described to me how he came to terms with his porn use: “I’m a believer and I’m stuck in this sin, and yeah, I feel like there is a physical component. Your mind is, like, rewired. You have pathways in your mind that are deeply entrenched, and even if you are a believer in Christ, it is just hard to get out of that.” Why is this scientific understanding important? Elliot explained, “It changed my mindset.”
Treating porn addiction as a physical disease accomplishes two things for Christian men. They’re able to maintain their masculinity by conforming to the expectation that they do, in fact, want to watch porn. (They are MEN, after all.) They can also avoid feeling shame about committing the sin of watching porn, since it’s explained by factors beyond their control.
You can see this at work in Melissa. She attends a Christian support group for women whose partners are porn addicts. She describes her ex-fiancé, David, as a porn addict who was “really sick.” David watched porn several times a day, and as Melissa described, “That’s so much dopamine getting released that your brain shuts down, and then the only way to feel normal is by looking at porn.” Melissa ultimately decided to end her relationship with David, but not because he watched porn. The problem was that he didn’t admit to his “sickness” and strive to change his behavior.
For other Christian couples, though, men admitting they have a problem with porn—even if they continue to occasionally watch it—is a way to garner sympathy from women. Heather, another participant of a women’s group for dealing with men’s porn addiction, said she once thought pornography was only a “moral issue,” but now she doesn’t see it that way: “When I started to realize what pornography really did to the brain—I mean it really caused changes in the brain—that’s when I started to get it, and why it is so hard to quit,” she said. “Once I learned that, grace was much easier to show.”
This sympathy, crucially, does not extend to women who watch porn themselves. Pornography addiction is decidedly a “man’s problem,” according to both the porn-addiction industry and the people I interviewed. Sociologist Sam Perry has detailed this gendered double standard within conservative Christian churches, where women who watch porn are met with skepticism and stigma. As Perry puts it, women who watch porn are not just committing the sin of lust but they are also “sinning against their gender,” or “sinning like a man.”
Though imagined as outliers, nearly all of my interview respondents made a point to mention the fact that “some” women struggle with pornography. These women can find resources geared toward them, like the memoir and self-help book Dirty Girls Come Clean. These stories tend to normalize men’s pornography addictions and isolate and pathologize women.
Jesse is a Christian counselor who oversees pornography addiction support groups at an evangelical church. “We always find that these women had something happen to them when they were little,” he told me. This suggests that early abuse, violence, or some other form of victimization causes women to deviate from “normal” expressions of women’s sexuality. The reason “normal” women don’t look at porn, as described by the people I interviewed, is that they are “seeking romance,” “more relational,” “not visually stimulated,” and “looking for emotional not physical connection.”
In all my research, I interviewed only one woman, Amber, who self-identified as a pornography addict. Amber shared with me how she’s struggled to find real-life community with other women to whom she can relate. Instead, she tends to stick to an online forum, an in-person Christian therapist, and a lot of Christian self-help books. About the latter, she said, “It’s so frustrating—most of the stuff is geared towards men. I just read this one book, and there was like one mention of women in the whole book.” Yet when I ask her if she thinks pornography addiction is mostly a “man’s issue,” Amber repeated the gender stereotypes common throughout my other interviews: “I think as a generalization, that’s true, but for me, the visual stimulation thing is there. But I mean there’s also more of an emotional thing. You know, I probably am attracted to more romantic porn videos, where there’s more foreplay or more of what you perceive as connection. And that attracts me to it.”
Commercial porn can be a tired reel of the worst gender stereotypes: men’s aggressive entitlement to women’s bodies, women’s sexuality existing purely for the enjoyment of men, and women who say “no” but really mean “yes.” Making the connection between porn and toxic masculinity is easy. But in my interviews with recovery group participants, I saw the same ideas at work. The scientific and spiritual gets muddled together as participants reinforce damaging gender stereotypes—those of hypersexual, biologically ravenous men who are simply “wired differently” than women. Women whose sexuality exists only in relation to male desire. Conservative Christianity supposes that God created men and women to be distinct from each other in order to come together in marriage. This belief also supposes that God created men to be assertive, dominant, and leaders, and women to be caretakers, helpers, and nurturers.
This line of thinking reveals itself in porn addiction stories as participants make claims about why men, rather than women, are more likely to be addicted to pornography. As Frank, a Christian therapist and group leader, explained it, “For the women … it’s more the romance”— suggesting women do not get romantic or sexual fulfilment from pornography, and when their husbands use it, the romance dies in their relationship. Women are described as dependent on men for sexual attention and pleasure rather than as autonomous sexual actors. In this way, porn addiction recovery reproduces the worst lessons of porn itself.
For recovering porn addicts who are Christian, religious commitment sets up validation for them whether or not they successfully avoid pornography, because they uniquely have access to God, who can offer them redemption. But for both secular and Christian recovery groups, the story of quitting porn is a story of men battling powerful biological urges. Therefore, only men who are especially strong and committed are able to win this battle. Instead of seeing pornography addiction as a weakness, the ability to recognize and overcome it is a hard-won accomplishment. Indeed, it leads to “superpowers.” Superpowers that are only available to men.
Even though men watching porn is a part of the normal order, so too does quitting porn fall in line with the gender status quo. Jonathan, a 35-year-old Catholic, explained to my why he decided to join a pornography recovery support program this way: “Because I was tired of being held down by the chains of pornography. I was tired of not being who I am meant to be and not being the person that God made me to be more importantly.” Jonathan hopes to one day see “complete freedom” from porn, but for now, he experiences occasional “setbacks.” Still, he sees himself as a man on a quest—a quest to “win the war and be ready to keep on fighting.”