Hundreds of millions of people are struggling silently, so let's talk about it.
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Today we’re going to discuss the silent and growing pandemic of pornography addiction. So buckle up!
Several years ago, my wife and I traveled to ten countries to make a documentary about human trafficking, followed by a 150-city LIVE tour and TV broadcasts in fourteen countries. During our film trip, we met former traffickers, formerly enslaved children, politicians, undercover pimp busters, all sorts.
Two strange things kept popping up:
Cops told us they often find video camera equipment when they raid brothels.
Formerly prostituted women told us that men often came into their brothels with cell phones, showed them porn clips, and said they wanted to replicate certain acts.
As people who cared a lot about preventing human trafficking, we knew we needed to go upstream and make a documentary about pornography addiction.
So we did.
We traveled all over America to interview some of the nation’s top porn stars and former porn stars, neuroscientists, pro-porn industry advocates, former sex offenders, addiction therapists, politicians, elite researchers, child addicts, and more.
The result was Over 18: A Documentary About Pornography.
I first saw porn when I was ten years old.
I was babysitting for a couple in our church. The kid was asleep, it was stormy outside, and I was watching the NBA All-Star game. Lightning must’ve hit a cable box somewhere because suddenly I was watching the Playboy Channel — and they didn’t have the Playboy Channel.
I turned it off and rushed to the front door to make sure no one was around. Coast clear, I returned and put on the TV, watching with fascination and confusion. About ten minutes later, it popped back to the All-Star game. I didn’t see porn again until I moved out of home and got my own computer, but by then, I had the tools to protect myself from addiction.
The simple science
According to the neuroscientists we interviewed for our documentary, the science behind porn addiction is pretty basic. You aren’t technically getting addicted to porn or food or gambling, it’s the dopamine that your brain’s after.
When you watch porn, you get a nice little ~200% dopamine spike to your nucleus accumbens, your brain’s reward center. It’s roughly equivalent to a shot of morphine. It feels really nice.
But here’s the problem: the neuroscientists explained that the cerebral cortex — that forward-thinking, future-planning, self-defending bit of brain mush — doesn’t fully develop in boys until their early to mid-twenties.
The average boy first sees porn at age eleven, but his cerebral cortex won’t fully form for another ten or more years, meaning he has no way to protect himself from addiction for more than a decade.
So what do we do?
We stuff a smartphone in a kid’s pocket and tell them not to look at porn. It’s worse than giving them a pack of cigarettes and telling them not to smoke.
Porn has always existed, but the commercial porn industry is just… wait for it… 69 years old.
The first legal piece of porn in America was the inaugural issue of Playboy back in December 1953. It contained a few topless pinups.
Today’s average porn scene involves multiple men pounding a woman orally, vaginally, and anally before ejaculating on her face.
And 93% of boys and 62% of girls see this before age eighteen.
Not only is it illegal to show porn to children, but it’s deeply harmful:
The majority of porn scenes depict physical, verbal, or sexual aggression or violence toward women, desensitizing viewers to violence and normalizing subservient behavior.
Some children take it offline. We’ve met a number of parents and have heard countless stories of children assaulting other children.
Tens of millions of children have started sending and requesting sexts from their classmates, pressuring others while inadvertently creating and distributing child pornography.
Sexual templating imprints attractions on young brains that can be hard to shake. The top number-specified porn search is age 13 — and when boys are imprinting their brains to sexualized images of children, some will continue to seek out those visuals when they’re over the age of eighteen. (On a personal note, I’ve now met three men who’ve served jail time for past child porn offenses; all are now living in victory and recovery. But what of the victimized children?)
When your brain is trained to love pixels on a screen, it can lead to serious offline challenges, including porn-induced erectile dysfunction — there are literally tens of thousands of young men who’ve lost the ability to perform with a real-world partner because their brains only activate an erection or orgasm to screen-based images.
I’ve never seen porn on a cell phone… because I don’t own a cell phone. But if my parents had foolishly given me a smartphone at age ten or thirteen, there’s no way I wouldn’t be addicted to porn today. Pornography is wildly addictive, and the draw is understandably strong for all of us. What will the future look like if we continue to allow porn addiction to secretly rule our societies?
Where we go from here
While the DSM-5 doesn’t yet officially consider porn addiction or sex addiction as true disorders — but it’s a bit like the economist who’s so deep into the data that they forget about money and how it affects people in real life. The millions of children and teens who are experiencing overwhelming cravings know the reality of porn’s true power. Our best guess is that unbiased scientific research in the nascent field of addiction will almost certainly confirm the truth in the years ahead.
In the meantime, there are three necessary components to ridding our society of the blight of commercialized screen-based pornography:
First things first: We need meaningful age verification. Even the porn stars we interviewed agreed that clicking the “Are you over 18?” button isn’t enough. You can’t buy alcohol or cigarettes or drive a car without real age verification, so why should children be allowed to addict themselves to hardcore sexual violence?
No, this isn’t a violation of free speech. But this doesn’t have to be a privacy-violating nightmare where the government suddenly knows who all’s looking at what.
Interestingly, Mindgeek — the shadowy offshore monopoly that rules the world of pornography — has already invented a technology to safely and securely verify adults without compromising privacy. Every nation needs to mandate meaningful age verification immediately if we care at all for our children’s mental health and long-term sexual wellbeing.
Current addicts, parents, and children deserve to know what they’re up against. Porn, sexting, age verification, and addiction prevention should be a part of school curricula, regularly addressed in order to protect our children from a world of pain and regret.
What kind of a world do we want to live in?
Clearly, homo sapiens are not adapted for screen technology and shouldn’t center life around it, nor are we any match for the addiction algorithms that rule the Internet, or the buzzy dopamine hit that porn provides.
Do we really want to raise a generation with such a low view of sex and humanity? Aren’t we more than just sexual objects?
Eventually, society will wake up to the realization that the pornography industry is just another capitalist trick, a way of commodifying the human body and hijacking our nervous systems for a quick profit.
We’ll also realize that pornography is deeply harmful to civil society and our children. Instead of being active and embodied people who enjoy a real, physical offline sexuality, we’re becoming passive voyeurs — spectators in our own life stories.
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