‘Sex isn’t difficult any more’: the men who are quitting watching porn

Thomas discovered pornography in the traditional way: at school. He remembers classmates talking about it in the playground and showing each other videos on their phones during sleepovers. He was 13 and thought it was “a laugh”. Then he began watching pornography alone on his tablet in his room. What started as occasional use, at the beginning of puberty, became a daily habit.

Thomas (not his real name), who is in his early 20s, lived with one of his parents, who he says did not care what he was doing online. “At the time, it felt normal, but looking back I can see that it got out of hand quite quickly,” Thomas says. When he got a girlfriend at 16, he started having sex and watched less pornography. But the addiction was just waiting to resurface, he says.

During the first UK lockdown last year, Thomas lost his job. He was living with older relatives and trying to protect them from Covid while becoming increasingly stressed about money. He was spending hours online, where the pornography streaming sites had found a rising demand from people stuck inside.

“It became daily again,” he says of his habit. “And I think about 80% of my mental downfall was because of porn.” Thomas began seeking out more explicit content and became withdrawn and miserable. His self-esteem plummeted as shame consumed him. Did he ever feel suicidal? “Yeah, I did get to that point,” he says. “That’s when I went to see my GP. I thought: I can’t sit in my room and do nothing; I need help.”

The shame stopped Thomas from mentioning pornography to the doctor, who prescribed antidepressants. They improved his mood, but not his habit, which was starting to breed mistrust in his relationship and affect his sex life. He began to think other men must be trapped in the same cycle. “So I just Googled something like ‘How to stop watching porn’ and there was so much,” he says.

The debate about pornography is focused on the supply end of a multibillion-pound industry – and the fraught business of keeping it out of children’s bedrooms. In its darkest corners, pornography has been shown to trade on sex trafficking, rape, stolen imagery and exploitation, including of children. It can also pervert expectations of body image and sexual behaviour, with frequent depictions of violence and degrading acts, typically against women. And it has become almost as available as tap water.

Plans by the UK government to force pornography sites to introduce age verification collapsed in 2019 due to technical struggles and the concerns of privacy campaigners. The UK still hopes to introduce some form of regulation. In the meantime, it is up to parents to enable their internet provider’s filters and hope their children are not accessing pornography outside their home.

The market is dominated by MindGeek, a Canadian company that owns sites including YouPorn and Pornhub. The latter, which says it gets 130m daily visitors, reported an immediate spike in traffic of more than 20% in March last year. The pandemic also triggered a rush of adult content at OnlyFans, a UK-based platform where many people sell homemade pornography (last month, OnlyFans scrapped plans to ban explicit content after an outcry among its users).

The result, say pornography campaigners and a small but growing network of specialist therapists, is a rise in problematic use, particularly among men who grew up in the age of high-speed broadband. They say casual consumption can escalate, leading users to seek out more extreme content to satisfy their urges. They blame pornography for contributing to depression, erectile dysfunction and relationship issues. Those who seek help often find their problems are misunderstood. Sometimes, they stumble into a fast-evolving world of online advice that has itself become controversial. It includes moral abstinence programmes with religious overtones – and a fierce debate about whether pornography addiction even exists.

Yet, by tackling compulsive consumption, anti-pornography campaigners hope to check some of pornography’s toxic effects. “It’s a demand-driven industry … because there are consumers, there are pimps, traffickers and corporate criminals who are using the filmed sexual abuse of women, girls, men and boys to produce nonconsensual content that is being consumed for massive profit,” says Laila Mickelwait, the founder of the US-based Justice Defense Fund, which fights sexual exploitation online.

Jack Jenkins was never hooked on pornography, but he was typical in discovering it via school friends at 13. Research by the British Board of Film Classification in 2019 suggested 51% of children aged 11 to 13 had seen pornography, rising to 66% of 14- to 15-year-olds. (The figures, from an online survey of families, are likely to be an underestimate.) Much later, Jenkins, 31, was exploring Buddhist meditation when he felt like ridding himself of unhealthy diversions, including pornography. “It was just something I didn’t want in my life any more,” he says.

Jenkins was also an entrepreneur – and spied an opportunity. He spent hours doing market research on forums, including Reddit, where people discuss problematic pornography use of varying degrees, from his own level up to “full-blown addicts who are watching it for 10 hours a day”. They had all felt uncomfortable sharing their problem, or had been judged while seeking help via traditional addiction or mental health services.

So Jenkins built Remojo, which claims to be “the world’s only complete program for blocking and quitting porn”. For a fee, it offers technology that is designed to be almost impossible to bypass. It works across all of a user’s devices to block not only pornography sites, but sexual content on social media and elsewhere. Remojo also has a growing pool of content, including podcast interviews, guided meditation and an anonymous online community. “Accountability partners” can be alerted automatically to potential relapses.

Since a soft launch in September 2020, Jenkins says more than 100,000 people have installed Remojo, now at a rate of more than 1,200 a day. The company, which employs 15 people in London and the US, has attracted £900,000 in funding from eight investors.

Jenkins estimates that more than 90% of his customers are male, including many from more religious countries than the UK, such as the US, Brazil and India. There are new fathers and men like him who are into personal growth. Remojo, which costs from $3.99 (about £2.90) a month, is not anti-pornography, anti-masturbation or morally driven, Jenkins says. “But the fact is, if people sit down and think about who they are at their best, they’ll usually say it’s when they’re porn-free.”

By the time Thomas hit Google in May of this year, he was less socially isolated and had found another job. He was no longer suicidal, but he remained hooked on pornography. When he searched for help, Remojo popped up. He downloaded it and waited to see what would happen.

Paula Hall, a veteran psychotherapist who specialises in sex and pornography addiction, started working with drug addicts in the 90s before changing course. She had noticed a shift in attitudes towards sex addiction. “It used to be seen as a celebrity issue,” she says from the Laurel Centre, her firm of 20 therapists in London and Warwickshire. “It was rich, powerful men who had money to pay sex workers.” Fifteen years ago, few of Hall’s clients even mentioned pornography as an outlet for addiction. Then came high-speed internet. “Now, it’s probably 75% for whom it’s purely porn.”

Enquiries went up more than 30% in the year after the start of the pandemic; Hall recruited five new therapists. They see almost 300 clients a month. “We’re seeing people for whom therapy is very much what is needed,” she says. “Addictions are a symptom – a coping or numbing mechanism.”

Hall’s work involves finding and talking about the root cause of the problem and then rebuilding a healthy relationship with sex. It is not, she says, about abstinence. Many of the more puritanical areas of the wider pornography addiction community promote quitting masturbation entirely. This includes elements of NoFap, a “pornography recovery” movement that began as a Reddit forum 10 years ago. (Fap is a slang word for masturbation, although NoFap.com now says it is not anti-masturbation.)

NoFap and the wider pornography addiction community are in a battle against pro-pornography activists and elements of the pornography industry. Religion appears to underpin some of the forces on both sides. (Mickelwait, of the Justice Defense Fund, was formerly the director of abolition at Exodus Cry, a Christian activist group that campaigns against exploitation in the sex industry.) Among their disputes is the existence of addiction. However, in 2018, the World Health Organization classified compulsive sexual behaviour as a mental health disorder, bringing it in line with compulsive gambling.

Several studies have looked at the effects of pornography on the brain. Some have suggested that it triggers greater feelings of desire, but not enjoyment, in compulsive users – a characteristic of addiction. Others have indicated that the brain’s reward system is smaller in regular pornography consumers, meaning they might need more graphic material to get aroused. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, because it’s a problem,” Hall says. She has seen men who pace the room and can’t think of anything else until they get a fix of pornography: “They get the jitters.”

James (not his real name) is in his early 30s and, like Thomas, discovered pornography at 13. “My parents hated each other and I’d hide upstairs on my computer,” he says. “Porn was a numbing tool for any sort of negative emotion I had.”

James tried to get help at university, when using pornography to ease the pressure of deadlines only further stole his time, harming his studies. He found a relationship counsellor. “I was gearing up to talk about my porn addiction for the first time ever, and I was really nervous, and the woman was like: ‘Why don’t you just stop watching it?’ She was so dismissive.”

The experience put James off finding help until he was 25, when huge work stress tipped him towards his lowest point. “I pretty much realised I was consuming porn at a higher rate than the internet was able to produce it,” he says. His habit had ruined two serious relationships. “It’s just soul-destroying to have this insatiable appetite for porn when you’re feeling horrible, but nothing when you’re feeling good in a relationship.”

Before meeting Hall two years ago, James was offered cognitive behavioural therapy with someone who had no idea about addiction. He went down the sex addiction route, but hated a 12-step programme that he says was based around shame and a “higher power”.

Hall dealt first with the resentment and anger James felt towards his parents. “Then it was about relearning to have sex again,” he says. He began to sort behaviours into circles. The middle circle contained pornography and was off-limits. An “at-risk” circle included certain non-pornographic yet vaguely sexual TV shows and websites. “The outer circle is behaviours that are good and helpful and that I should be doing, like phoning my family and going to addiction meetings,” he says.

Talking to other addicts has been an important substitute coping strategy for James. He uses pornography a lot less now, but even after three years he has found it tough to quit. “You can physically separate yourself from alcohol or drugs, but you can’t separate yourself from your own sexuality,” he says. “But at least now I understand it and can see a route out. There used to be a permanence that was so isolating.”

Hall says about 95% of inquiries at the Laurel Centre come from men – and that most women who get in touch are worried about their partners. She believes women represent a significant proportion of problematic users, but thinks female sex addicts face an even bigger shame barrier, because they expect to be seen as “sluts or bad mothers”. Yet she says the same gender politics leave men emotionally unmoored and their problems unappreciated.

“We bring up girls to be bastions of sexual safety – ‘Don’t get an STI, don’t get pregnant, don’t get a reputation’,” she says. “We bring up lads not to get girls pregnant and to look after girls’ feelings.” In doing so, Hall says, “we split men’s emotions from sexuality at a young age, whereas with women we separate their desire from their sexuality – and we wonder why we have a problem”.

Hall promotes better sex and relationships education, plus improved access to help for people who develop a problem. She also believes in age verification. But even if governments devise something that works, Hall adds, “we must accept that a determined child will always find a way of beating the system, which is why we must educate as well”.

Thomas and James also believe in tougher regulation. “I often think that if there had been a filter on the internet when I was 13, I’d be married with kids now and not having this conversation,” says James. Remojo’s Jenkins says: “Kids can’t be held responsible for interacting with this content. It’s disgraceful that we accept the situation as it is.”

When I speak to Thomas, his Remojo app tells him that he has been pornography-free for 57 days. He says he has been stunned by the results. Blocking pornography rather than getting therapy appears to be working for him. On the day he downloaded Remojo, Thomas got his girlfriend to create and keep secret a passcode that would be needed to change any of the blocker’s settings. He thinks he is 80% free of his problem and feels the urge to seek out pornography only once every other week or so. “Sex isn’t difficult any more and my girlfriend is able to trust me again,” he says. “It probably sounds cringey to say it, but I’m a hell of a lot less depressed now and it feels like I have control of my life again.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

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