A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic
Published in American Greatness on December 15, 2019
BY PASCAL-EMMANUEL GOBRY
ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. I think many readers of this article will respond with outrage, and many will see it says things they already knew to be true—and I think these two groups will largely overlap. The most powerful obstacle to confronting a destructive addiction is denial, and collectively we are in denial about pornography.
Since it seems somehow relevant, let me state at the outset that I am French. Every fiber of my Latin, Catholic body recoils at puritanism of any sort, especially the bizarre, Anglo-Puritan kind so prevalent in America. I believe eroticism is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind, prudishness a bizarre aberration, and not so long ago, hyperbolic warnings about the perils of pornography, whether from my Evangelical Christian or progressive feminist friends, had me rolling my eyes.
Not anymore. I have become deadly serious. A few years ago, a friend—unsurprisingly, a female friend—mentioned that there was strong medical evidence for the proposition that online pornography is a lot more dangerous than most people suspect. Since I was skeptical, I looked into it. I became intrigued and kept following the evolving science, as well as online testimonies, off and on. It didn’t take me long to understand that my friend is right. In fact, the more I delved into the subject, the more alarmed I became.
The central contention of this article is that, however we might feel morally about pornography in general, a number of features about pornography as it has actually existed for the past decade or so, with the emergence of “Tube” sites that provide endless, instant, high-definition video in 2006, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets since 2007, is fundamentally different from anything we’ve previously experienced.
A scientific consensus is emerging that today’s porn is truly a public health menace: its new incarnation combines with some evolutionarily-designed features of our brain to make it uniquely addictive, on par with any drug you might name—and uniquely destructive. The evidence is in: porn is as addictive as smoking, or more, except that what smoking does to your lungs, porn does to your brain.
The damage is real, and it’s profound. The scientific evidence has mounted: certain evolutionarily-designed features of our neurobiology not only mean that today’s porn is profoundly addictive, but that this addiction—which, at this point, must include the majority of all males—has been rewiring our brains in ways that have had a profoundly damaging impact on our sexuality, our relationships, and our mental health.
Furthermore, I believe that it is also having a far-reaching impact on our social fabric as a whole—while it is impossible to demonstrate any cause-and-effect relationship scientifically beyond a reasonable doubt when it comes to broad social trends, I believe the evidence is still compelling or, at least, highly suggestive.
Indeed, it is so compelling that I now believe that online porn addiction is the number one public health challenge facing the West today.
If the evidence is so strong and the damage so deep and pervasive, why is nobody talking about this? Well—why did it take so long for society to admit, and respond to, the evidence on the harms of smoking? In part because, even when emerging scientific evidence is quite solid, in the best of worlds there is always a lag between specialists making a discovery and academic gatekeepers embracing it, thereby granting it the social stamp of authority of scientific consensus. In part it is because, for many of us, our background assumption is that “porn” means something similar to Playboy and lingerie catalogues. In part, it is because of widespread (and, in my view, mistaken) assumptions about what important values like free speech, gender equality, and sexual health entail. In part it is because deep-monied interests have a stake in the status quo. And in very large parts, it is because most of us are now addicts—and like good addicts, we are in denial.
Porn Is the New Smoking
I’ve been a smoker since my early 20s. I have said things like, “I can quit any time,” “I just do it because I enjoy it,” “My grandmother smoked for decades and she’s perfectly healthy,” while feeling secret shame for not being able to climb a flight of stairs without losing my breath. No form of delusion is more powerful than self-delusion.
Anti-porn advocates like the phrase “porn is the new smoking.” Call today the beginnings of the “Mad Men” stage of the process, then: the time when most people still see smoking as harmless, but the scientific evidence is starting to pile up, and the drip-drip-drip of new data is just starting to be heard beyond specialist circles of academia and the few kooks who had a hunch all along that this was nastier than it looked. We can hope, some time not too long from now, we will look at today’s jokes about PornHub with the same mix of bafflement and shame we feel when we see 1950s ads with slogans like “More Doctors Smoke Camel Than Any Other Cigarette.”
So, what is this new scientific data?
The first step is to look at the evidence on the effect of porn on the chemistry of the brain. It is an understatement to say that mammals, particularly males, are wired by evolution to seek out sexual stimulation. When we get it, a deep part of our brain called the reward center, which we share with most mammals and whose job it is to make us feel good when we do things we are evolutionarily designed to seek, releases the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine is sometimes called “the pleasure hormone,” but this is an oversimplification; it would be more accurate to call it “the desire hormone” or “the craving hormone”. Crucially, the release of dopamine starts not with the reward itself, but with the anticipation of reward. The reward center’s job is to make us crave those things which we are evolutionarily designed to crave—starting with sex and food.
It’s not exactly a scoop that humans are wired to seek out sexual stimulation, is it? No, but today’s internet porn plays differently with our reward system. The design of mammals’ reward system causes something scientists call the Coolidge Effect.
It is named after an old joke: President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady are separately visiting a farm. Mrs. Coolidge visits the chicken yard and sees the rooster mating a lot. She asks how often that happens, and is told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge responds, “Tell that to the president when he comes by.” Upon being told, the president asks, “Same hen every time?” “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”
Hence, the Coolidge Effect. If you place a male rat in a box with several female rats in heat, the rat will immediately begin to mate with all the female rats, until it is utterly exhausted. The female rats, still wanting sexual congress, will nudge and lick the drained animal, but at some point he will simply stop responding—until you put a new female in the box, at which point the male will suddenly awaken and proceed to mate with the new female.
It’s a good (albeit corny) joke. But the Coolidge Effect is also one of the most robust findings in science. It has been replicated in all mammals, and most other animals (some species of cricket don’t have it). The evolutionary imperative is to spread genes as widely as possible, which makes the Coolidge Effect a very suitable adaptation. Neurochemically, this means that our brain produces more dopamine with novel partners. And—this is the crucial bit—on Tube sites, each new porn scene our brain interprets as a new partner. In a study, the same porn film was shown repeatedly to a group of men, and they found that arousal declined with each new viewing—until a new film was shown, at which point arousal shot right back up to the same level as when the men were shown the film the first time.
This is one of the critical ways in which today’s porn is fundamentally different from yesterday’s: unlike Playboy, online porn provides literally infinite novelty with no effort. With Tube sites and a broadband connection, you can have a new clip—what your brain interprets as a new partner—literally every minute, every second. And with laptops, smartphones and tablets, they can be accessed everywhere, 24/7, immediately.
This can be likened to what Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen called a superstimulus: something artificial that provides a stimulus that our brains are evolutionarily wired to seek, but at a level way beyond what we are evolutionarily prepared to cope with, wreaking havoc on our brains. Tinbergen found that female birds could spend their lives struggling to sit on giant fake, brightly-colored eggs while leaving their own, paler eggs to die. An increasing number of scientists believe the obesity epidemic is the result of a superstimulus: products like refined sugar are textbook examples of an artificial version of something we’re designed to seek, in a concentrated form that doesn’t exist in nature and that our bodies aren’t prepared for.
Evolution could not prepare our brains for the neurochemical rush of an always-on kaleidoscope of sexual novelty. This makes online porn uniquely addictive—just like a drug. Some scientists believe that the reason why chemical drugs can be so addictive is that they trigger our neurochemical reward mechanisms linked to sex; heroin addicts often claim that shooting up “feels like an orgasm.” A 2010 study on rats found that methamphetamine use activated the same reward systems and the same circuitry as sex.
(Along with dolphins and some higher primates, rats are the only mammals who mate for pleasure as well as reproduction; and humans’ sex reward systems are neurologically basically the same as rats’, since they are one of the least evolved parts of our brains. These factors make the little critters excellent test subjects for experiments on the neurochemistry of human sexuality. Yes, when it comes to sex, us men are basically rats. The more you know . . . )
What’s more, no one is born with a reward circuitry wired in their brain for alcohol, or cocaine—but everyone is born with a hardwired reward system for sexual stimulation. Addiction research has shown that not all people have a predisposition to addiction to chemical substances—only if you have a genetic predisposition can your brain’s reward system be tricked into mistaking a particular chemical for sex. This is why some people become alcoholics even after being exposed to moderate amounts of alcohol, while others (like me) can drink heavily without developing an addiction, or why some people can have just one cigarette at a party and then not worry about it while others (like me) must have their nicotine fix every day. By contrast, all of us have a predisposition to addiction to sexual stimulus.
Another well-established evolutionary mechanism is something called the bingeing effect. We evolved under conditions of resource scarcity, which meant it was evolutionarily advantageous to have a reward system programmed to give us a very strong drive to binge whenever we hit a motherlode of something. But putting mammals wired for the bingeing effect in an environment of abundance can wreak havoc on their brains. (The bingeing effect has also been linked to obesity.)
If our reward system interprets each new porn clip as the same thing as a new sexual partner, this means an unprecedented sort of stimulus for our brain. Not comparable to Playboy, or even ’90s-era dial-up downloads. Even decadent Roman emperors, Turkish sultans, and 1970s rock stars never had 24/7, one-click-away-access to infinitely many, infinitely novel sexual partners.
The combination of a pre-existing natural circuit for neurochemical reward linked to sexual stimulus and the possibility of immediate, infinite novelty—which, again, was not a feature of porn until 2006—means that a user can now keep his dopamine levels much higher, and for much longer periods of time, than we can possibly hope our brains to handle without real and lasting damage.
Theory vs. Practice in Today’s Porn
So, that’s the theory. What about the practice? The evidence has been gradually piling up; at this point, we can say that the scientific evidence that online porn works on our brains just like cocaine or alcohol or tobacco, while recent, is very strong.
A consensus has been slow to emerge in part because of a broader issue: addiction researchers traditionally have been reluctant to use “addiction” as a label for behaviors that don’t involve chemical substances, understandably so since our therapeutic culture tends to put many things under the label “addiction.” We all collectively rolled our eyes when prominent men felled by #MeToo piously blamed “sex addiction” and announced their intention to go to rehab, and we were right to.
But our cultural need to put all sorts of dysfunctional behavior under the addiction label (“shopping addiction”!) is not the same thing as the science of addiction, and advances in brain imaging techniques have tilted the scales in favor of the view that addiction is a brain disease, not a chemical disease.
A landmark 2016 paper by Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in the New England Journal of Medicine, went over new neuroscience and brain imaging data and concluded that it supports the “brain disease model of addiction.” The scientific definition of addiction is shifting to one that looks at specific things happening inside the brain causing people to exhibit certain patterns of behavior, as opposed to whether a patient is hooked on a particular chemical compound.
Online porn fits this model. Slowly, the evidence has been piling up, and it looks, by now, overwhelming: porn does do the same things to our brains as addictive substances.
A 2011 study on the self-reported experiences of 89 males found “parallels between cognitive and brain mechanisms potentially contributing to the maintenance of excessive cybersex and those described for individuals with substance dependence.” A 2014 Cambridge University study watched people’s brains through an MRI machine; Valerie Voon, the study’s lead author, summarized the findings thus: “There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy volunteers.”
Another Cambridge University study the same year, this time comparing porn addicts’ responses to psychological tests to the responses of normal subjects, found that “sexually explicit videos were associated with greater activity in a neural network similar to that observed in drug-cue-reactivity studies.” Almost all of the neuroscience studies on this topic find the same result: online porn use does the same things to our brains as drug addiction.
But don’t take my word for it. Scientists have done many reviews of the literature. Only one review that I am aware of, from 2014, disputes the idea of online porn addiction; it’s the only review that doesn’t look at brain and brain-scan studies, and combines studies from before the Tube era and after. Meanwhile, a thorough 2015 review of the neuroscience literature on internet porn found that “neuroscientific research supports the assumption that underlying neural processes (of online porn addiction) are similar to substance addiction” and that “Internet pornography addiction fits into the addiction framework and shares similar basic mechanisms with substance addiction.” Another 2015 review found that “Neuroimaging studies support the assumption of meaningful commonalities between cybersex addiction and other behavioral addictions as well as substance dependency.” A 2018 review found the same thing:
Recent neurobiological studies have revealed that compulsive sexual behaviors are associated with altered processing of sexual material and differences in brain structure and function. . . . existing data suggest neurobiological abnormalities share communalities with other additions such as substance use and gambling disorders.
In January 2019, a team of researchers published a paper straightforwardly titled “Online Porn Addiction: What We Know and What We Don’t—A Systematic Review” which concluded, “as far as we know, a number of recent studies support (problematic use of online pornography) as an addiction.” It’s hard to call this anything but overwhelming evidence.
The studies have been done in numerous countries, and using various methods, from neuro-imaging to surveys to experiments and, to varying degrees, they all say the same thing.
All right, you might respond, online porn addiction may be a real thing, but does that mean we need to freak out? After all, smoking and heroin will kill you, serious cannabis addiction will melt your brain, alcohol addiction will wreak havoc in your life—compared to that, how bad can porn addiction be?
The answer, it turns out, is: pretty bad.
Let’s start with what we all know about addiction: you need more and more of your drug to get less and less of a kick; this is the cycle which makes addiction so destructive. The reason for this is that addiction simply rewires the circuitry of our brain.
When the reward center of our brain is activated, it releases chemicals that make us feel good. Mainly dopamine, as we’ve seen, and also a protein called DeltaFosB. Its function is to strengthen the neural pathways that dopamine travels, deepening the neural connection between the buzz we get and whatever we’re doing or experiencing when we get it. DeltaFosB is important for learning new skills: if you keep practicing that golf swing until you get it right, you feel a burst of joy—that’s dopamine—, while the accompanying release of DeltaFosB helps your brain remember how to do it again. It’s a very clever system.
But DeltaFosB is also responsible for making addiction possible. Addictive drugs activate the same nerve cells activated during sexual arousal, which is why we derive pleasure from them. But we become addicted to them when DeltaFosB, essentially, has reprogrammed our brain’s reward system, originally written to make us seek out sex (and food), to make it seek out that chemical instead. This is why addiction is so powerful: the addict’s urge is really our most powerful evolutionary urge, hijacked. And since online pornography is a sexual stimulus to begin with, we are all predisposed, and it takes much less rewiring for consumption to cause addiction.
As we’ll see, this neurobiological feature of our brains has far-reaching implications for the effect porn addiction has on us: on our sexuality, on our relationships, and even on society at large.
Porn Kills the Urge for Real Sex
Porn is a sexual stimulus, but it is not sex. Notoriously, heroin addicts eventually lose interest in sex: this is because their brains are rewired so that their sex reward system is reprogrammed to seek out heroin rather than sex. In the same way, as we consume more and more porn, which we must since it is addictive and we need more to get the same kick, our brain is rewired so that what triggers the reward system that is supposed to be linked to sex is no longer linked to sex—to a human in the flesh, to touching, to kissing, to caressing—but to porn.
Which is why we are witnessing a phenomenon which, as best as anyone can tell, is totally unprecedented in all of human history: an epidemic of chronic erectile dysfunction (ED) among men under 40. The evidence is earth-shattering: since the Kinsey report in the 1940s, studies have found roughly the same, stable rates of chronic ED: less than 1 percent among men younger than 30, less than 3 percent in men aged 30-45.
As of this writing, at least ten studies published since 2010 report a tremendous rise in ED. Rates of ED among men under 40 ranged from 14 percent to 37 percent, and rates of low libido from 16 percent to 37 percent. No variable related to youthful ED has meaningfully changed since then, except for one: the advent of on-demand video porn in 2006. It’s worth repeating: we went from less than 1 percent of erectile dysfunction in young men to 14 to 37 percent, an increase of several orders of magnitude.
Online forums are full of anguished reports from young men about ED. An agonizing story is eerily common: a young man has his first sexual experience; his girlfriend is willing, he loves her or at least is attracted to her, but finds himself simply unable to sustain an erection (though he is perfectly able to maintain one when he watches porn). Many more report a milder version of the same problem: during sex with their girlfriend, they must visualize pornographic movies in their heads to sustain their erection. They are not fantasizing about something they like more: they want to be present, want to be aroused by a real woman’s scent and touch. They understand perfectly well how absurd it is to be more attracted by the substitute than by the real thing, and it distresses them. Some must put hardcore pornography on in the background in order to be able to have sex with their girlfriends (and, incredibly, the girlfriends agree to this).
Fred Wilson, an internet venture capitalist and thought leader, commenting on digital natives’ uncanny ease with new technology, once quipped that there are only two kinds of people: those who first got access to the internet after they lost their virginity, and those who got it before. My family got the internet in the late ’90s when I was a preteen, and so I belong to the latter category, and yet I feel like Grandpa Simpson when I read those testimonies and compare them to my early sexual experiences (which were, I assure you, quite unremarkable). Then again, back in my day, cars got 40 rods to the hogshead, and online pornography meant an endless maze of text link directories and broken search engines with dead links, slow-to-load images, short video clips you had to download, frustrating paywalls guarding the “good stuff”—not Tube sites with infinite, immediate, streaming, high-definition video, 24/7, in your pocket, for free, driven by powerful algorithms designed by data scientists to maximize user engagement.
Imagine that we discovered that some bacteria were causing ED to jump from 1 percent to 14 to 37 percent—there would be a national panic, cable news networks would go wall-to-wall, Congress would be holding hearings every day, state and federal prosecutors would be on a hunt for perpetrators to make the Mueller and Starr investigations look like an Amazon customer satisfaction survey. Collectively, we would take very seriously the alarming possibility that anything that could cause something like this was bound to have other, likely profound, effects on human health and social life.
Last year, an article in The Atlantic went viral after it decried a “sex recession” among young people. Young people are simply having less and less sex. The author, Kate Julian, noted that the phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States but is prevalent across the West—Sweden’s health minister called its declining sex rates (even Sweden is having less sex!) “a political problem,” in part because it risks negatively impacting the country’s fertility.
Julian also noted that Japan has been a precursor, entering its sex recession earlier—and that it is also “among the world’s top producers and consumers of porn, and the originator of whole new porn genres” and “a global leader in the design of high-end sex dolls.” To her credit, she seriously looked into porn as a probable cause for the sex recession, although none of the voluminous subsequent commentary on the piece I can recall reading discussed this potential cause.
Now, a conservative like myself might think that young people having less sex might not be such a bad thing! And it is true that over the same period, pathologies such as teen pregnancies and teen STDs have declined. Except that whatever the causes, I think we can safely rule out a religious revival or a sudden upsurge of traditional values. Whatever we might believe men should do about their sexual urges, if young healthy men aren’t having sexual urges at all in massive, unprecedented numbers, that is surely a sign of something wrong with their health.
Warping the Brain
Perhaps young people aren’t having sex because the men can’t get it up. Or perhaps it’s because women don’t want to have sex with those men who can do it, but whose brains have been warped by porn.
Because porn does warp the brain. The basic mechanism of porn addiction, you’ll recall, is that when we watch porn, we get a jolt of dopamine, and when we do, we get a follow-up dose of DeltaFosB that rewires our brain to link sexual desire with porn—but not just to any porn. To the porn we watch.
Remember the Coolidge Effect: the thing that causes a veritable flood of dopamine and makes online porn a “superstimulus” that breaks our brains, unlike Uncle Ted’s Playboy collection, is novelty.
Like all addictions, online porn has diminishing returns. We need more. We need new. And the easiest way to get it—especially on Tube sites, which, like YouTube and Netflix, “helpfully” provide suggestions all around the video you’re watching, generated by algorithms programmed to keep viewers glued and coming back—is new genres. Just a click away. And there’s infinitely many.
In 2014, researchers at the Max Planck Institute used fMRI to look at the brains of porn users. They found that more porn use correlated with less grey matter in the reward system, and less reward circuit activation while viewing sexual photos—in other words, porn users were desensitized. “We therefore assume that subjects with high pornography consumption require ever stronger stimuli to reach the same reward level,” the authors wrote.
Another study, this time from Cambridge University in 2015, also used fMRI, this time to compare the brains of sex addicts and healthy patients. As the accompanying press release put it, the researchers found that “when the sex addicts viewed the same sexual image repeatedly, compared to the healthy volunteers they experienced a greater decrease of activity in the region of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, known to be involved in anticipating rewards and responding to new events. This is consistent with ‘habituation’, where the addict finds the same stimulus less and less rewarding.”
But it’s not just sex addicts who show this behavior. When the healthy patients repeatedly were shown the same porn video, they got less and less aroused; but, “when they then view a new video, the level of interest and arousal goes back to the original level.” In other words, it doesn’t take much for the addiction mechanism to kick in, since we’re already genetically predisposed to seek out sexual stimulus.
The bottom line is the syndrome doesn’t just make us crave more, it makes us crave novelty. And what kind of novelty, specifically? Empirically, it’s not just any kind of novel. In practice, what most triggers the Coolidge Effect is what produces surprise, or shock. In other words, like water flowing downhill, we are drawn to porn that is increasingly taboo—specifically, more violent and degrading.
The Disturbing Shock Drive of Porn
Recently, comedian Ryan Creamer became a viral online sensation after it surfaced that he had created a channel on PornHub, the world’s biggest “YouTube for porn” site, where he posted, as Buzzfeed aptly described it, “hilariously wholesome and uplifting videos.” Creamer’s G-rated videos invert online porn clichés, featuring him in his best impression of Ned Flanders, with titles like “I Hug You and Say I Had a Really Good Time Tonight” and “POV FOREHEAD KISS COMPILATION” (“POV” stands for “point of view,” or videos filmed from a character’s first-person perspective; compilations are a rising online porn genre, another data point to show widespread habituation: even a new video doesn’t have enough novelty, we need quick-cut montages).
None of the commentary pointed out the obvious implication: his stunt captured people’s imagination precisely because almost all of PornHub—what its sophisticated algorithms know its viewers want—is not just pornographic in some abstract sense, but nasty, shocking, and degrading.
One of Creamer’s videos is titled “I, Your Step Brother, Decline Your Advances but Am Flattered Nonetheless”; last year, Esquire reported) that “incest is the fastest growing trend in porn.” (Tube sites ban videos that explicitly refer to incest, but it is still full of videos featuring “stepdads” and “stepmoms” and “half-brothers” that everyone understands to mean “dads,” “moms,” and “brothers.”)
Another rising popular genre has been so-called “interracial” porn, which nearly always means a specific type of interracial congress: black men and white women. The genre is inevitably based on the worst racial stereotypes and imagery. And interracial porn not only has been getting more popular, and more degrading to women, but more racist. As conservative writers who opposed Trump in 2016 found out from their Twitter mentions, a newly popular genre is “cuckolding,” which involves a white man watching his wife or girlfriend have sex with a black man (or several). When mainstream media outlets notice the phenomenon, it is taken as evidence of white Americans’ deep racism. No doubt buried racial attitudes must play a role, but consider the trendline; if hidden racism is the main cause, why should racist porn suddenly explode in popularity while most surveys say racial attitudes are either holding steady or slowly improving? If you keep in mind the sudden popularity of incest porn, the hypothesis that it is widespread desensitization due to addiction which is causing the rise becomes much more plausible.
It’s worth pausing to note the denial-driven disconnect between what we talk about and what we all know to be happening. Earlier this year, the country went into a moral panic when it was discovered the governor of Virginia had once worn blackface as part of a costume as a medical student; meanwhile, there is a massively popular and fast-growing genre of entertainment that makes minstrel shows look like a racial sensitivity seminar, and almost nobody talks about it.
Shock is what best triggers the Coolidge Effect, and taboo-breaking is shocking, by definition; it is a Pavlovian response to shock and surprise from our rat-like reward system. If we had a deep societal taboo against humping tables, table-humping porn suddenly would be exploding in popularity. Instead, we have deep societal taboos against incest, racism . . . and violence against women.
Intensifying the High
Kink dot com is one of the top brands in porn. The studio’s specialty is extreme fetishes related to BDSM. Its trajectory is telling. The site was founded all the way back in the dark ages of the internet, in 1997. Sado-masochism as a sexual fetish is as old as man, of course—the 2nd-century Roman poet Juvenal mocks it in his Satires, for example. But, as best as we can tell, like most fetishes it has only ever appealed to a small minority throughout human history. And indeed, Kink spent the better part of its first decade in existence humming along out of view, a little-known small business serving its niche.
Then, some time in the mid-to-late 2000s, the site exploded in popularity, to the point of becoming as close to a cultural phenomenon as a porn site can be. You can trace its sudden growth in popularity—and mainstream appeal. In 2007, the New York Times Magazine profiled the company. In 2009, it received its first mainstream adult industry award. In 2013, the Hollywood actor James Franco produced a documentary about the company.
That same year, the writer Emily Witt wrote a long, meditative first-person essay for the intellectual progressive magazine n+1 on modern sexuality. For her report, among other things, she attended a shoot for “Public Disgrace,” one of Kink’s “channels” that features, as its tagline says, “women bound, stripped, and punished in public.” The filmings happen in public places like bars or shops that the company rents out for the occasion, and strangers off the street are invited to perform sexual acts on the “bound, stripped” actress.
Kink has expanded and expanded to match its sudden success, going from a handful of channels to, as of this writing, 78, and spawning an array of copycats (many even more extreme, naturally). While the company’s PR materials boast of a feminist, egalitarian, empowering view of sexuality, almost all of its actual content features men degrading women rather than the other way around.
Kink’s rise from niche to marquee just happens to coincide with the arrival of Tube sites in 2006, which are uniquely effective at triggering the Coolidge Effect and turning porn addicts into novelty-seeking machines. It’s important to note that, while an attraction to what you might call “light kink”—fluffy pink handcuffs, a rhinestone-bedazzled blindfold, that sort of thing—has been hovering around in our popular culture for decades, and therefore some version of this has been part of pornography for ages, Kink is the real article. It’s not just acting. Women are caned and whipped until they are bruised and red. Not only are the sex acts themselves extreme (you name it, it’s there), but scenes are scripted around the psychological and symbolic, not just physical, degradation of the woman. Fifty Shades of Grey is to Kink as a Hitchcock movie is to a snuff film.
When the films have a storyline, it can usually be summed up with one word: rape. Or two words: brutal rape. It’s one thing to be aroused by a sadomasochistic scene where the sub (as the term of art goes) is shown visibly enjoying the treatment; it’s quite another to be aroused by watching a woman scream in agony and despair as she is held down and violently raped.
One series of Kink videos is based on the following concept: the pornstar is alone in a room with several men; the director explains to her (and we watch) that if she can leave the room, she gets cash; for each article of clothing she still has on at the end of the scene, she gets cash; for each sex act that one of the men gets to perform on her, he gets cash and she loses money. One has to grant them a devilish kind of cleverness: it lets them enact an actual violent rape with legal impunity. The woman really resists; the men really force themselves brutally on her. Of course, she “consented” to the whole thing, which, somehow, makes it legal.
Kink is a revealing example because of its particular focus on degradation, and its sudden, inexplicable, overnight jump from a little-known niche site to one of the most popular media brands of any kind on the planet, right after Tube sites appeared. But the key phenomenon is that virtually all pornography, very much including the “vanilla stuff,” has grown more extreme, and specifically more violent, and specifically more misogynistic and degrading towards women. Oh, nonviolent pornography still exists, if you can find it. What used to be mainstream is now niche, and vice versa.
I want to carefully unpack this so that what I’m saying isn’t misunderstood. For whatever reasons, male fantasies around female reluctance, around power, coercion, and domination, are as old as life itself (as indeed are female fantasies on these themes). Genres of pornography, and sexual fantasy more broadly, that happen in the grey areas, even dark grey areas, of female consent to sex, have always been around and have always been popular. It’s therefore tempting to look at something like Kink, and the general rise in degrading porn, as simply just another manifestation of that age-old proclivity, and not some new thing. But this is just not true.
Historically, sexual fantasies that involved some measure of coercion may have aroused many men, but those same men were disgusted by violent rape and brutal degradation. The point is not to “defend” the former or to deny that they represent something dark and condemnable in the human soul—of course they do. The point is simply to say that something has changed, seriously, dramatically, and seemingly overnight.
We are told that people’s sexual proclivities are hard-wired from birth or perhaps from early childhood experiences, but science says they can and do change. In a famous experiment, researchers sprayed female rats—yes, rats again—with the odor of a dead rat body, which rats instinctively flee from, and introduced virgin male rats. The male rats mated with the females nonetheless—so far, so mammalian. But, crucially, when those same male rats were later placed in a cage with various toys, they preferred to play with the ones that smelled like death. The sexual stimulus had rewired their reward system. In a scientific survey of online porn users in Belgium, 49 percent “mentioned at least sometimes searching for sexual content or being involved in [online sexual activities] that were not previously interesting to them or that they considered disgusting.”
Once you are addicted to online porn, the thing that provides the biggest dopamine jolt is whatever is most shocking. And the reward cycle means you need a bigger dopamine boost every time—something newer, more shocking. And each time, DeltaFosB rewires your brain, creating and strengthening the Pavlovian mechanism by which you do become attracted to those shocking images, and in the process overwriting the neural pathways which link normal sex—you know, nonviolent, non-incestuous—to the reward center.
Crucially, this overturns the prevailing narrative on porn’s impact on our sexuality. This says that the only problem with deviant porn is viewers thinking “it’s normal,” and therefore, as long as they are educated that it is not, they can safely enjoy their fantasy without harming themselves or their partners. It would be better if it were so, but the evidence shows that this is dead wrong. Alcoholics don’t drink themselves to an early grave because they somehow haven’t been made aware of enough facts about the dangers of drinking—indeed, they know all too well, and the shame this causes is a classic trigger for more bingeing.
Porn works at the same fundamental level, the level of our primal, rat-like, reward center, the part of our brain honed by millions of years of evolution to be the wellspring of our most powerful urges. Porn doesn’t change what we think, at least not directly, it changes what we crave.
Changing What We Crave
In 2007, two researchers tried to do an experiment, initially unrelated to porn, studying sexual arousal in men in general. They tried to induce the subjects’ arousal in a lab setting by showing them video porn, but ran into a (to them) shocking problem: half of the men, who were aged 29 on average, couldn’t get aroused. The horrified researchers eventually identified the problem: they were showing them old-fashioned porn—the researchers presumably were older and less internet-savvy than their subjects.
“Conversations with the subjects reinforced our idea that in some of them a high exposure to erotica seemed to have resulted in a lower responsivity to ‘vanilla sex’ erotica and an increased need for novelty and variation, in some cases combined with a need for very specific types of stimuli in order to get aroused,” they wrote.
Incredibly, porn can even affect our sexual orientation. A 2016 study found that “many men viewed sexually explicit material (SEM) content inconsistent with their stated sexual identity. It was not uncommon for heterosexual-identified men to report viewing SEM containing male same-sex behavior (20.7 percent) and for gay-identified men to report viewing heterosexual behavior in SEM (55.0 percent).” Meanwhile, in its “2018 Year in Review,” PornHub disclosed that “interest in ‘trans’ (aka transgender) porn saw significant gains in 2018, in particular with a 167 percent increase in searches by men and more than 200 percent with visitors over the age of 45 (becoming the fifth most searched terms by those aged 45 to 64).”
When this phenomenon is discussed at all, the prevailing narrative is that these men are repressed and discover their “true” sexual orientation through porn—except that the men report that the attraction goes away when they quit online porn.
This is astonishing. The point is not to try to start a moral panic about the internet turning men gay—the point is that it’s not turning them gay.
But perhaps it’s turning at least some men into something else. Andrea Long Chu is the name of an American transgender writer, who writes with admirable honesty about her gender transition and experience. For example, Chu braved criticism from trans activists by writing in a New York Times essay about the links between her gender transition and chronic depression, and denying that her transition operation will make her happy. In a paper at an academic conference at Columbia, Chu asked: “Did sissy porn make me trans?” Sissy porn is a genre—again, once extremely obscure and inexplicably, suddenly growing into the mainstream—where men dressed like women perform sex acts with men in stereotypically submissive, female roles. Sissy porn is closely related to the genre known as “forced feminization,” which is pretty much just what it sounds like. In a recent book, Chu essentially answers her own question: “Yes.”
It’s unclear—unknowable, perhaps—to what extent Chu’s experience matches up with the increasing rate of sexual transitions, but even if her example is purely anecdotal, it should serve to underscore the point: porn rewires our brain at a fundamental level and changes what we crave. And that should alarm us regardless of what we believe about transgender issues.
Porn Also Affects Relationships
Let’s pause and review: we’ve established that today’s porn is neurochemically addictive like a hard drug, and that this addiction is having a widespread and alarming impact on sexuality, from never-before-seen rates of erectile dysfunction to the growing popularity of extreme fetishes to (potentially) the “sex recession.” That’s surely bad.
But, to play devil’s advocate, is it really that bad?
Alcoholism or heroin addiction, say, will not just wreck someone’s sexuality—which they will—but their entire lives and those of people around them. Directly and indirectly, they are responsible for countless deaths every year. It sounds like we should be concerned about porn, sure, but should we really hit the panic button?
Well, one preliminary answer is that porn addiction affects our lives beyond just sexuality—which makes intuitive sense since, after all, sex touches all areas of our lives.
First, porn affects addicts’ views of women. The idea that porn is “just a fantasy”—that watching degrading porn doesn’t make one more likely to develop misogynistic or sexual pathological tendencies any more than watching a Jason Bourne movie means you’re likely to start punching and shooting people—may or may not have been true in the Playboy era, but it’s definitely not true now.
A 2015 literature review looked at 22 studies from seven different countries and found a link between consumption of online pornography and sexual aggression.
An academic review of no less than 135 peer-reviewed studies found “consistent evidence” linking online porn addiction to, among other things, “greater support for sexist beliefs,” “adversarial sexist beliefs,” a “greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women,” as well as “a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.”
To repeat: a diminished view of women’s . . . morality, and humanity. What have we done?
Given all of that, from endemic ED to increased sexual fetishism and even misogyny, it should come as no surprise that porn addiction is having a negative impact on relationships.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 50 studies, collectively including more than 50,000 participants from 10 countries, found a link between pornography consumption and “lower interpersonal satisfaction outcomes,” whether in cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal surveys, or laboratory experiments.
Another study of nationally representative data found that porn use was a strong predictor of “significantly lower levels of marital quality”—the second strongest predictor of all the variables in the survey. This effect showed after the authors controlled for confounding variables like dissatisfaction with sex life and marital decision-making: this suggests that porn use correlates with marital unhappiness not because spouses who become unhappy turn to porn, but rather that porn is the cause of the unhappiness.
Yet another study, using representative data from the General Social Survey, polling thousands of American couples every year from 2006 to 2014, found that “beginning pornography use between survey waves nearly doubled one’s likelihood of being divorced by the next survey period.” Most terrifying, the study found the group whose probability of divorce increased the most was couples who initially reported being “very happy” in their marriage and began using porn afterward.
The rebound effect of porn addiction on girlfriends and wives is very real. Popular culture is adamant that a liberated, open-minded woman must be relaxed about her partner’s use of porn. On “Friends,” that Rosetta’s Stone of American culture, Chandler’s chronic masturbation during his relationship with Monica was a recurring gag, and each time the show’s writers made the point of showing us Monica approved. In fact, despite the brainwashing, surveys say that large numbers of women disagree with their men using pornography while in a committed relationship. Finding out that your partner uses porn is often experienced, if not as a form of betrayal, then at least as a form of rejection—probably made worse by the fact that she “knows” she “can’t” object, and also by the fact that (unlike in the “Friends” era) she also knows that porn almost certainly means violent, degrading, misogynistic stuff (or worse).
The most obvious negative impact is on body image and self-esteem. A majority of women in one study described the discovery that their man uses porn as “traumatic“; they not only felt less desirable, they reported feelings of lower self-worth. Some women can experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
A 2016 survey of men aged 18 to 29 found
the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image. Further, higher pornography use was negatively associated with enjoying sexually intimate behaviors with a partner.
We can’t prove a direct causal link between porn addiction and the “sex recession,” but come on: even putting aside skyrocketing ED, given what porn addiction does to male sexuality, from the female perspective, sex with a male porn addict sounds like an experiment you don’t want to repeat—and at this point, it’s a fair bet that most young men are porn addicts.
Given all this, while we don’t have enough research yet to make a scientifically-conclusive judgment, I highly suspect a link between male (especially teen) porn use and the widely-reported and sudden increase in depression and other neuropathologies among young women. Writing as a former teenage male, I will posit that even in the best of times most teenage males are not the best kinds of human beings, especially for teenage girls; I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to be a teenage girl when close to 100 percent (as we might safely assume) of the potential relationship pool is porn-addicted.
Not that pornography only affects sexual and romantic relationships. Porn causes loneliness. In part, this is because it is true of all addiction, which typically causes powerful feelings of shame that make us want to avoid or even push away other people. And addiction causes us to engage in antisocial behavior: though I wasn’t able to find a study, there are many online testimonies of people losing their job because they couldn’t stop themselves visiting porn sites at work.
According to a study by Ana Bridges, a University of Arkansas psychologist who focuses on porn’s impact on relationships, online porn users report “increased secrecy, less intimacy and also more depression.”
Porn Addiction Causes Brain Damage
Once we understand today’s porn, it makes intuitive sense that it would negatively affect relationships, given its impact on sexuality, views of women, and the impact of any addiction on social life and well-being generally. But what about its effects on the rest of human life? Again, porn is the new smoking—and what smoking does to your lungs, porn does to your brain. How could that not affect everything we do?
How does that work? Remember, compulsive porn use causes the release of the substance DeltaFosB, whose job is to rewire our brains. This is how over time, addiction doesn’t just make someone crave more and more of something, but also insidiously turns him into a different person.
Perhaps the most striking and far-reaching discovery in neuroscience over the past 20 years has been the idea of neuroplasticity. Scientists used to think of the brain as a kind of machine, like an extremely intricate clock or circuit board, whose structure is basically settled once and for all, at birth or at some time in early childhood.
It turns out that our brain is much more complex and organic. It is constantly changing, constantly rewiring itself, constantly transforming. The various functions of our brains are performed by neural pathways, and the analogy is that they are like muscles. Aristotle was right—you are what you repeatedly do. That is largely good news, but there is one downside: neuroplasticity is a competitive process. When you “work out” one part of your brain intensely, it will essentially steal resources from nearby areas of the brain to “pump itself up” if these are left dormant.
It’s easy enough to see how that works out when someone suffers from addiction. Every time you light up, or shoot up, or watch porn, that is like an intense “workout” for one set of neural “muscles”—which drains resources away from the rest of the brain.
Specifically, the release of DeltaFosB that comes with porn use weakens our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is everything the rat brain is not; it is because humans have a big prefrontal cortex that we have civilization. This is the thinking part of the brain, which calculates risk, controls impulses, allows us to project ourselves into the future and therefore plan, and handles abstract and rational thinking. In terms of Plato’s famous chariot allegory, which describes reason as a charioteer whose job is to lead the two unruly horses, Thymoides, our temperament, and Epithymetikon, our base instincts, the prefrontal cortex is the charioteer.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that addicts develop “hypofrontality,” the technical term for an impaired prefrontal cortex. People with hypofrontality exhibit lower amounts of gray matter, abnormal white matter, and a reduced ability to process glucose (which is the brain’s fuel) in the prefrontal cortex.
Hypofrontality manifests in a decline in what psychologists call executive function. As the name executive function suggests, this is a pretty important feature of our minds. Executive function includes our decision-making faculties, our ability to control impulses, to evaluate risk, reward, and danger. Yes, just that. Scientists don’t fully understand how addiction causes hypofrontality, but it makes intuitive sense that the two should be linked. Addiction is such a bane because even as our urges for the next hit get stronger, our capacity to control urges weakens. The horses get carried away even as the charioteer’s arms go weak.
I have found close to 150 brain studies that find evidence of hypofrontality in internet addicts—which, it’s safe to assume, is nearly synonymous with internet porn addicts, at least for males—and more than a dozen that have found signs of hypofrontality in sex addicts or porn users.
That’s right: porn addiction literally atrophies the most important part of our brain.
A 2016 study split current porn users into two groups: one group who abstained from their favorite food for three weeks, and one group who abstained from porn for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, porn users were less able to delay gratification. Because this is a study with a randomly-assigned control group, it’s solid evidence for a causal link (rather than just a correlation) between porn use and lower self-control.
Here are some other cognitive problems that scientific studies have linked to porn use: decreased academic performance, decreased working memory performance, decreased decision-making ability, higher impulsivity and lower emotion regulation, higher risk aversion, lower altruism, higher rates of neurosis. These are all symptoms related to hypofrontality.
Other studies have found links between porn and high stress, social anxiety, romantic attachment anxiety and avoidance, narcissism, depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, and poor self-esteem. These aren’t direct symptoms of hypofrontality, but it’s easy to see how someone with impaired executive function would be at greater risk of developing any number of those pathologies. The studies generally find that the more porn use, the greater these problems.
So neuroplasticity means that porn addiction, by strengthening certain neural pathways in the brain, weakens others, especially those related to executive function.
But there’s another alarming implication for what neuroplasticity means for porn addiction: while we now know that, at any age, the brain is much more plastic than we previously thought, there is still no doubt that, all else being equal, the younger we are the more plastic our brains. You can learn, say, a foreign language or a musical instrument at any age, but there is a level of skill that you will only ever achieve if you start young. Our brains are always plastic, but they are still much more plastic when we are young. Furthermore, when certain pathways are solidified at a young age, they tend to stay that way, because while it is still possible to change them later on in life, it is much harder.
The Impact of Porn on the Child Brain
This brings us to another enormous taboo related to porn: say whatever you will about adults consuming it, in theory we all agree that children shouldn’t be exposed to it—yet in reality, we all know just as well that they are. In prodigious amounts. Just as we know that the porn sites do absolutely nothing to prevent kids from consuming it.
The statistics are terrifying. According to a 2013 Spanish study, “63 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls were exposed to online pornography during adolescence,” including “bondage, child pornography, and rape.” According to the British Journal of School Nursing, “children under 10 now account for 22 percent of online porn consumption under 18.”
A 2019 literature review found the following negative effects, drawing from more than 20 studies: “regressive attitudes towards women,” “sexual aggression,” “social maladjustment,” “sexual preoccupation,” and “compulsivity.” One study found “an increase in incidents of peer sex abuse among children and that the perpetrator commonly had been exposed to pornography in many of these incidents.” The review also found that “studies of girls’ exposure to pornography as children suggest that it has an impact on their constructs of self.” Among other negative effects, studies of teens more specifically found a “relationship between pornography exposure and . . . social isolation, misconduct, depression, suicidal ideation, and academic disengagement.”
Furthermore, “children of both sexes who are exposed to pornography are more likely to believe that the acts they see, such as anal sex and group sex, are typical among their peers.”
It’s harder to show a direct causal link scientifically, but it still stands to reason that there should be a link between the porn explosion and the widely documented explosion in mental health problems among teenagers.
While the causes of what’s been called a mental health crisis among teenagers are hotly disputed, the actual facts are not: according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an official government survey which looks at a very broad cross-section of Americans—over 600,000— “from 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent. Depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017. Twice as many 22- to 23-year-olds attempted suicide in 2017 compared with 2008, and 55 percent more had suicidal thoughts,” writes San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge.
So the teenage mental health crisis began around 2009, right after smartphones and Tube sites changed the nature of porn. Again, not scientific proof of a causal link, but certainly suggestive.
The bottom line is this: given what we know porn does to the brain, and given that we know that the younger the brain the more plastic it is, it is a near certainty that whatever porn addiction does to adults, it’s going to do to minors—except much worse. This is something we must conclude simply from knowing about the basic facts of human neurobiology, even without taking into account any negative psychological effects of exposure of children to hardcore pornography.
Might Porn Cause Societal Collapse?
I have tried to be as careful as possible and only to lay out carefully-drawn scientific arguments. We can, and should, debate morality, but we should be clear about facts. And in a world where a million articles claim everything and its opposite on the basis of some “study,” I wanted to be as precise as possible about what we can know scientifically about porn, with a high degree of certainty, versus things we can strongly suspect, albeit not prove.
We know what porn does to the brain, because the medical science is solid. Because social science is much softer, we can’t know for certain what causal impacts porn has on society, if any. But once we realize that we have to be much more humble in this area, we can still make prudential judgments.
Remember the sex recession? It seems that Japan is a precursor in all kinds of recession: just as it went first into the zero interest rate economic environment that the rest of the rich world has been experiencing since 2008, and which looks more like a new permanent state with each passing day, Japan also entered its sex recession a decade before us. Japan also got broadband internet earlier than the rest of the world. Could it be that Japan is an example of what’s likely to happen to us if we don’t do something about porn addiction?
Since Japan got broadband internet, the younger generations have gone through significant social changes. “In 2005, a third of Japanese single people ages 18 to 34 were virgins; by 2015, 43 percent of people in this age group were, and the share who said they did not intend to get married had risen, too. (Not that marriage was any guarantee of sexual frequency: A related survey found that 47 percent of married people hadn’t had sex in at least a month.),” The Atlantic’s Kate Julian wrote in her article on the sex recession.
In Japan, this new generation of sexless men—and the Japanese sex recession is caused by men’s lack of interest, to the vocal dismay of young Japanese women, if media reports are to be trusted—are known as soushoku danshi, literally “grass-eating men”—in a word, herbivores. The epithet was originally coined by a frustrated female columnist but, incredibly, the herbivores aren’t offended and most of them are happy to identify as such.
Given Japan’s population decline, the herbivores, who have become a massive subculture, are a subject of national debate in Japan, Slate’s Alexandra Harney reports. And what seems to define the herbivores is not just that they have no interest in sex, it’s that they don’t seem to be interested in much of anything at all.
They tend to live with their parents. After all, it’s hard to find a place to live when you don’t have a steady job, which herbivores say they don’t look for, because they’re not interested in a professional career. Not that they’re opting out of productive society to focus on, say, art, or activism, or some other form of creativity or counter-culture. Apparently, one of the few hobbies that seem to be popular among herbivores is . . . going on walks. To be fair, walking is an important part of digestion for ruminants.
What herbivores do seem to be interested in is spending the vast majority of their time alone, on the internet. Herbivores who have a social life keep it restricted to a small circle of friends. While the Japanese used to be notorious for their national obsession with tourism, they don’t like to travel abroad. They have created a new market for yaoi, a Japanese genre of bodice ripper-style romance portraying homoerotic relationships between men; while yaoi’s audience has traditionally been female, the male herbivores like yaoi.
Countless explanations are proffered for the herbivore phenomenon, from cultural to economic, and it makes intuitive sense that some of those factors would be at play. Nevertheless, I find it striking that everything we know about the herbivores matches with what we know about online porn addiction, in particular reduced libido and overuse of the internet. We also know that Japan has growing markets for sex toys for men, but not for women, as well as for extreme and homoerotic pornography, which is consistent with a population that’s been desensitized to normal sex stimulus by online porn addiction.
Beyond sexuality, the herbivores seem strikingly like a generation of men suffering from hypofrontality, the neurological disease caused by porn addiction. It seems that their key problem is an inability to commit, whether to a career or a woman. Commitment requires abilities enabled by the prefrontal cortex, like self-mastery, correctly weighing risk and reward, and projecting oneself into the future. Becoming financially independent, visiting a foreign country, moving out of your parents’ apartment, going to parties, meeting new people, asking a girl out—what all these things have in common is that while young men generally want to do them, they can also be intimidating; and it is the executive function of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex that makes it possible to get over the hump of initial reluctance that comes from the lower parts of the brain.
With Japan on the road to self-extinction in part as a result of its males’ lack of interest in sex or marriage, it’s hard not to think of Nietzsche’s parable of the Last Man, his nightmare scenario for the fate that would await Western civilization after the Death of God if it did not embrace the way of the Übermensch: the last man lives a life of comfort, has all his appetites satisfied, embraces conformity and rejects conflict, and seeks nothing more, incapable as he is of imagination, or initiative, or creativity, or originality, or risk-taking. The Last Man, in short, is man returned to something like an animal state, though not that of a carnivore. Nietzsche compares him to an insect, but herbivore fits quite well. In Nietzsche’s terrifying phrase, the Last Man believes he has discovered happiness.
Again, it’s impossible to prove scientifically that the herbivore phenomenon is caused by widespread porn addiction. But one thing is certainly very suggestive: there’s no explanation for why, if the herbivore trend is caused by some broader cultural or socioeconomic trends, it should be such an overwhelmingly male phenomenon. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Is Japan a harbinger of the future? Are we on the road to becoming a herbivore civilization? Or, to take another analogy, becoming like the helpless people on the spaceship in “WALL-E,” except we never got around to actually creating the AI and robots that enabled their pointless, ghastly lives of fake pleasure?
Perhaps it sounds hyperbolic. But what we do know is that large numbers of our civilization are hooked on a drug that has profound effects on the brain, which we mostly don’t understand, except that everything we understand is negative and alarming. And we are just ten years into the process. If we don’t act, pretty soon the next generation will be a generation that largely got hooked on this brain-eating drug as children, whose brains are uniquely vulnerable. It seems perfectly reasonable and consistent with the evidence as we have it to be deeply alarmed. Indeed, what seems supremely irrational is our bizarre complacency about something which, at some level, we all know to be happening.
A Massive Experiment On Our Brains
Another way to approach the question of how to respond is to note that we—the entire advanced world, and soon the whole world, as the prices of smartphones and broadband in developing countries keep dropping—are running a massive, unprecedented experiment on our own brains. Scientists do understand a few things about the brain, but only a few. The human brain is by far the most complex thing in the known Universe, and we are subjecting half of the human population at best, to an unprecedented kind of drug.
As I write this, the FDA is reportedly considering a complete ban on e-cigarettes. Imagine if, say, a popular health supplement was shown to, oh, increase the rate of ED among young men by some percentage, let alone several orders of magnitude, or be as addictive as cocaine in large segments of the population. Surely some spotlight-hogging prosecutor would have the company’s owners doing a nationally-televised perp walk before you could say “Four Loko”—unless, of course, he was himself getting high on the stuff and was too ashamed to take a public stand.
An analogy might be in order here: climate change. There are some things we know scientifically to be true: we know that greenhouse gases lead to higher temperatures all else equal; we know that humans are emitting more and more greenhouse gases; we know that temperatures are increasing; we know that greenhouse gases are increasing to unprecedented levels.
We don’t know, scientifically, precisely, what that means for the future. Earth is much too complex an organism for us to be able to predict with high confidence what climate change will mean, specifically—indeed, the best justification for alarm is precisely the fact that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to levels of greenhouse gases and temperatures. This is why the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which represents the scientific consensus on climate change, provides not predictions of the future impact of climate change, but probability distributions (read them if you don’t believe me).
On the basis of the current state of science, we have a preponderance of evidence leading to a rationally justified belief that never-before-seen levels of greenhouse gases and temperature increases create an unacceptable level of risk of negative outcomes, including catastrophic outcomes, so that some kind of collective action (putting aside angry debates on what kind of action) is justified to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Earth is much too complex for us to understand it completely, and this is actually the best argument for why it’s reckless to pump it full of chemicals at unprecedented levels. After all, we don’t have an Earth 2. (And yes, paradoxically given conservatives’ reluctance to embrace ambitious action on climate change, this is an inherently conservative argument.)
You can see where I’m going: however precious Earth is, so are our brains; however complex Earth is, so much so are our brains, which are the most complex artifacts in the known universe. I don’t see why the same logic doesn’t apply.
The stakes are comparably high, the logic for action is the same, and yet these respective causes get wildly divergent levels of public attention and political capital.
It took a long time between the moment when the evidence for smoking’s link to lung cancer and a whole host of negative health outcomes became incontrovertible. And it took a long time between that moment and when we as a society accepted that evidence and decided to act. This was in part due to legitimate scientific questions early on, in part due to the influence of greedy, monied interests, and in part because of misguided pseudo-libertarian rhetoric. But also in part because so many people were reluctant to admit that their beloved, pleasurable habit, was in reality a destructive addiction—and they were all the more reluctant to admit it because they knew, deep down, that it was the truth.
I still smoke. But, at least, I have stopped lying to myself about why I do it. It’s time we as a society stopped lying to ourselves about what has become the biggest threat to public health.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writing has appeared in numerous publications. He is based in Paris.