Gabe Deem comes by his opposition to pornography through personal experience and science.
Deem, 28, began watching internet pornography when he was 12 years old, and he was quickly hooked. Though sexually active through high school and college, Deem began experiencing erectile dysfunction in his early 20s, even though he was fit and healthy.
“Over time, my libido, my sex drive, got hijacked by internet porn. My drive for real partners decreased as my drive for pixels on a screen increased,” Deem told Our Sunday Visitor in a recent phone interview.
Deem and several young men like him are speaking out against pornography, sharing their personal stories through blogs, videos and online forums to make the case that porn is not the harmless activity that the adult film industry would have society believe.
Deem is a prominent member of the Reboot Nation movement, which is led by the first generation of people who grew up with unlimited access to porn. They use secular arguments, explaining how porn conditioned their brains to require explicit digital content for arousal at the expense of their ability to have sex with a partner.
“We were told that porn was sex-positive,” Deem said. “We didn’t have any shame around our porn use, and we used it like it was no big deal. But it ended up being extremely sex-negative to the point that we can’t have sex without it.
“So we’re giving up porn for mental and physical health reasons, not moral reasons,” Deem added.
The new anti-porn activists point to a growing body of neurological scientific research that seems to support their position, namely that viewing pornography, usually combined with masturbation, impacts the brain’s reward pathways and has a similar effect on an addict’s brain as cocaine or alcohol. A July 2013 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 26 percent of men seeking help for erectile dysfunction were under 40, a fivefold increase from the five percent documented in a 1992 study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
A website, yourbrainonporn.com, is a clearinghouse for scientific data on porn’s effects, linking to dozens of studies and academic journal articles that make compelling arguments showing that habitual porn use affects the brain, dulling the libido and requiring increasing levels of shockingly graphic imagery to reach sexual arousal.
“The truth of the matter is that scientific research is coming out daily showing that porn is harmful to individuals, to relationships and to our society as a whole,” said Robbie Tripp, social content director for Fight the New Drug, a nonprofit organization that focuses on educating youth and raising awareness of pornography’s effects.
Tripp told OSV that his organization is secular and not aligned with any church, political or religious group. He said the emerging scientific research and data proves that porn harms its users’ brains, dampers their sex drives, skews how they view other people and turns them inward, damaging their personal relationships.
Fight the New Drug’s slogan — “Porn Kills Love” — adorns T-shirts and other gear that have been worn by some celebrities, including actor Terry Crews, who has been forthcoming about his own porn addiction that threatened his marriage and required him to enter rehab.
“What we compare it to is the situation with the tobacco industry,” Tripp said. “We haven’t banned or outlawed cigarettes, but in our society, we made it a mission to educate the public on how harmful tobacco was to people’s health. And as a result, the demand decreased.
“We’re now trying to decrease demand for pornography through education and awareness,” Tripp said. “Just as it took for society to accept the science that said cigarettes were harmful, that is what is happening right now with pornography.”
However, porn is still a $97 billion worldwide industry. Statistics show that since the beginning of 2015, there have been more than 2 billion online searches for pornography. A popular porn website reports that people watched four billion hours of pornographic videos last year on its site.
Some scientists argue there is still insufficient data to prove a link between long-term porn use and brain conditioning. Some are skeptical of sex addiction and argue that many people use pornography with no ill effects. They say the usual factors for erectile dysfunction — such as obesity, depression, drug use, alcohol and anxiety — are still the best predictors for ED.
Deem said the critics ignore the growing body of science showing how heavy porn use not only leads to erectile dysfunction but other sexual problems as well, such as delayed ejaculation or difficulty having an orgasm with a partner. By the time he was 23, Deem said he found that he needed pornography to reach arousal.
“That’s when I realized that I was dependent on it,” said Deem, who was also interviewed for a cover story in Time magazine’s April 11 issue on pornography.
The Time magazine story was the latest example in recent years of journalists, documentarians and filmmakers taking a critical look at pornography’s place in American culture. Last year, Netflix released a documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted,” that profiled 18- and 19-year-old women who enter the world of “amateur porn.” The documentary showed how many of those women, drawn by promises of becoming rich and famous, last only a few months in the business, making little money while forced to perform demeaning acts on camera. A woman at one point says, “You’re just processed meat.”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the actor, delved into the topic of porn addiction in the 2013 movie, “Don Jon,” which he wrote, directed and starred as the lead character whose view of romantic relationships was severely hampered by a porn addiction. It is not until the character weans himself off porn that he begins to form a real relationship with a woman.
In a 2013 interview with NPR, Gordon-Levitt said that porn and mainstream media culture treats people like objects. He questioned the notion that porn and media is just all “harmless entertainment,” adding: “I think that the stuff we watch does matter, and it does work its way into the way that we see the world.”
Noah Church, a blogger and author of “Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn,” also warns that pornography is not harmless entertainment. On a video recently posted to his website, Church said he ruined relationships and “missed out” on many experiences during the 15 years he used porn, which he said never satisfied his real need for human connection, accomplishment and adventure.
“I was certainly less motivated, less ambitious and less courageous than I am now,” Church said.
Deem said he has not used porn in five years. Through his efforts to educate others, Deem hopes to help many young men like him to stop their porn habit and “reboot” their brains so that they will not need digital images to function sexually.
“We just want to raise awareness on porn’s negative effects,” Deem said, “so that people can make informed decisions and not end up in the hell that we ended up in.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
A version of this story appears in the May 15, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on Page 4.