The man with a PhD in porn addiction

https://thespinoff.co.nz/porn-week/10-11-2022/the-man-who-wrote-a-dissertation-on-nofap

NoFap.png

Dr Kris Taylor has spent years studying the relationship between men and porn, including those in the NoFap community who’ve sworn off porn and masturbation altogether. He tells Don Rowe what he’s learnt.

There’s an old (and sadly false) urban legend that Kellogg’s corn flakes were created as the ideal breakfast to prevent masturbatory urges. Less true still are dark prophecies of hairy palms, irreversible blindness and severe mental illnesses on the horizon for the self-pleasurer. For the most part we all know by now that masturbation is a natural part of growing up, totally normal and generally a pretty good time. 

But similarly ominous stories about the consequences of viewing pornography profligate like crusty socks on a bedroom floor: addictionimpotencesex-crazed teenagers running amok. According to the University of Auckland’s Dr Kris Taylor, though, a lot of the fear is predicated on the same flimsy hypotheses and hysteria that had Mr Kellogg warning of gluttony’s effect on chastity. The evidence, he says, just isn’t there.

“It’s hard to get people to give an honest response when you’re talking about where they get their sexual ideas from,” he says. “But pornography has become a bit of a scapegoat for the larger problem of masculine entitlement, sexism and misogyny.”

Taylor’s PhD examined the concept of pornography addiction in men, surveying more than 200 people across Aotearoa between the ages of 15 and 83. He has since published widely on perceptions of reality in porn more broadly. Much of the more rigorous work in the academic field focuses on women, he says, and there is a lack of complexity in studies of the ways in which men and teenage boys navigate porn. Taylor’s work suggests that while some men struggled with their porn use, actual addiction (in the diagnostic sense) to porn is itself a fiction.

“It’s not recognised by large diagnostic bodies in psychology and mental health classifications,” he says. “What I was really interested in was, if we don’t have an official diagnosis, then how are people using that label?” Taylor says the language of addiction is often used by viewers of pornography to diminish feelings of moral, ethical and even religious conflict. Masturbation can induce a sense of shame, and compulsive sexual behaviours can then be explained away as an addiction.

Dr Kris Taylor appears in Chris and Eli’s Porn Revolution (Photo: Hex Work Productions)

There is also an assumption, Taylor says, that ubiquitous smartphone ownership has opened the floodgates to porn consumption. That behind every door is a teenage boy drinking in the most extreme content on the internet. And that this consumption is creating a generation of dangerous perverts, simultaneously unable to perform in bed and more frequently drawn to high risk sexual behaviour. But a lack of data means researchers struggle to predict the true rate of change, and the chain of behavioural causality goes both ways: a viewer already interested in more extreme sexual acts will likely seek out porn that reflects that. 

“For me, the question of whether pornography is causing [that behaviour] is redundant because the real issue are the underlying questions as to why people don’t seek consent, why they might be more attracted to violence,” says Taylor. “Those are the more sticky questions as opposed to a ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ hypothesis which is too simple for my liking.” 

But whether clinically recognised as a harmful habit or not, some viewers of porn gravitate towards online communities that preach abstinence as both desirable and advantageous. NoFap (“fap” being onomatopoeic slang for the act of male masturbating) is something akin to Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group with strikingly similar overtones of mysticism. There are one million members on Reddit’s r/NoFap forum and another 300,000 on NoFap’s standalone website, the vast majority of which Taylor says are men. 

Adherents believe refraining from watching porn is a form of self-mastery and cite a since-retracted study showing spikes in testosterone for the abstinent. There is little evidence to back up many of the group’s claims and some academics believe the movement perpetuates harmful and reductionist views on porn and masturbation. Worrying, too, is a current of chauvinism which flows through the community. 

The official NoFap logo

Taylor began researching the community in 2016 and says that while members of the community often see the benefits of self-discipline flowing into other areas of their life, the emphasis on pseudoscience and flawed perceptions of human sexuality sets some up for failure. “Instead of saying that they want to abstain because they think that pornography is sexist, one of the main thing that comes through is that they tend to abstain for reasons that tend to do with gaining what they describe as ‘superpowers’.” 

By giving up on masturbation, the theory goes, men will become more attractive to women, more focused, more aggressive. The community has its own vocabulary: the abstinent are “fapstronauts”, refraining is to “reboot”. There is a lot of despair, says Taylor, and an undeniable level of camaraderie in overcoming what the afflicted see as a real problem. The framework is overwhelmingly heterosexual in its presentation and positions pornography as fundamentally unmasculine. Real men, the community seems to think, have dominant, penetrative sex. 

“A lot of it is to do with this fear of real achievement in men coming down to being able to attract partners to have sex with, which is generally the main goal,” says Taylor. “That overlaps quite problematically with incel and other communities online, where the idea is that your life will become better if you have sex with a woman.”

While NoFap is ostensibly secular, the idea of semen retention does have a proud monastic history. Everyone from Buddhists to Gnostics have a tradition of self-denial as a method of self-mastery. But Taylor says that modern solutions like NoFap are a response to a lack of education around pornography and sexuality rather than any sort of ascetic pursuit. “Abstinence itself is a very masculine way to deal with your issues, it’s very cut and dried, as opposed to being a little more introspective and reflective. It puts a massive amount of importance on penises and semen as key factors in how human relations are supposed to operate.” 

The real problem, he says, is much deeper. “We have a very poor understanding generally as a society around things like consent and a reliance on ‘just say no’ language, which doesn’t work.”

Episode one: Understanding our porn past and present.

Episode two: Think of the children.

Episode threeTalking porn at the dinner table.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.