Is porn addictive? What Gary Wilson said about your brain on porn | Opinion

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

When most people think of efforts to raise awareness about pornography’s harmful effects, the image that comes to mind is “religious” and “conservative.”  But one of the most impactful voices in drawing attention to the impact of modern pornography didn’t identify as either. 

Science instructor Gary Wilson was an atheist and was initially an unwilling participant in the anti-pornography movement. He was drawn into it by his wife’s work.

Wilson’s wife was a lawyer and author who explored the science of pair bonding and sexuality. Around the time that streaming porn became available, men began leaving comments on her website. They were complaining about not finding satisfaction with their partners, lack of attraction to real people and escalation to bizarre tastes that they found unsettling. Many of these men felt comfortable at her site because it was focused on the science of sex.   

In an effort to help these men, Wilson’s wife shared what she was learning from her husband about brain plasticity. The two began to wonder, were porn users training their brains to overvalue artificial sexual stimuli at the expense of real relationships? 

Some of these men began to experiment with eliminating online porn use. To their amazement, they began to heal. Not only did their sexual problems abate, but they experienced other unexpected benefits. Many reported improved concentration, improved mood and increased confidence. They also noticed stronger romantic and sexual attraction to their partners, along with less objectification towards women and greater respect.  Tendencies towards extreme porn also began to fade away. 

With such positive outcomes, people kept asking why there was so little public discussion about the negative effects of online porn, when it was clear that these men were only a microcosm of men around the world. In 2010, Wilson launched a website, YourBrainOnPorn.com, with the latest research on brain plasticity and behavioral addiction. Two years later, he gave a TEDx talk, “The Great Porn Experiment,” which has been viewed more than 15 million times. 

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By this time, it was becoming clear that porn wasn’t simply a guy’s issue — and addicted young women began reporting similar benefits as they were introduced to the same research. Their struggles with boredom during sex, sexual desensitization, sex toy overuse and obsessive sexual or romantic fantasies lessened, replaced by a return to natural sensuality from the inside out, rather than constant stimulation from the outside in. Sometimes it took weeks or months for these shifts, but both women and men commonly reported improvements within days of quitting porn.

Several years later, Wilson wrote “Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction,” which has been translated into German, Japanese, Dutch, Russian, Arabic and Hungarian. Royalties from its 125,000 purchases have been donated to a U.K.-based charity, although there have been many more downloads from pirated copies (the Arabic version alone has been downloaded 150,000 times). The book has become a go-to resource for those seeking help around the world, as well health care practitioners serious about understanding and treating compulsive pornography use. 

After Wilson died last year, I wrote that virtually no one had done more to free people from the consequences of pornography addiction than this humble man, whom I was lucky to consider a friend. 

What explains the popularity of his message? I believe it’s how clearly he communicated the stunning consistency of the preponderance of scientific research when it comes to the impact of pornography.

That may be news to you.  You may be one of many who have heard that the research on pornography is “confusing” or “contested” or “unsettled.” If that describes you, it might intrigue you to review Wilson’s summaries. For instance: 

  • More than 85 studies link porn use to poorer mental-emotional health and poorer cognitive outcomes.
  • More than 80 studies link porn use to less sexual and relationship satisfaction — with another 40 studies also linking it to sexual problems and lower arousal to sexual stimuli. 
  • More than 40 studies link porn use to “un-egalitarian attitudes” toward women and sexist views.
  • Out of 55 neuroscience-based studies of porn users and sex addicts, all but one provides evidence of pornography’s addictiveness. Another 60 studies demonstrate indicators of addiction, including signs of porn use escalation, and associated tolerance, habituation and withdrawal symptoms. 
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Despite this all, it’s still remarkably common for people to hear messages like this, “Porn’s really not that harmful — certainly not addictive … it actually improves relationships and gender attitudes … Didn’t you know porn use decreases rape rates? … Only religious people are alarmed about porn addiction … Don’t you know porn users really just have high sexual desire?”

None of that is true. Each claim has been debunked in the studies that Wilson collected.  Thanks to this clarity, innumerable teens and adults around the world have been encouraged to begin finding freedom from pornography. And awareness is growing about the many victims of this industry. Just yesterday, a judge ruled that Visa could be held liable for processing payments for a major pornography site exposed as profiting off underage videos in a groundbreaking 2020 report by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof.

Even amid the documented increase in porn addiction during the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrities like Terry Crews and Billie Eilish have also recently opened up about the impact of this addiction on their lives and the benefits of getting some space from it. If there’s any doubt about what this precious freedom means in real lives, spend time reviewing the more than 5,000 firsthand accounts of people making progress in their own recovery. 

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Wilson’s work especially counters the pervasive myth that it’s only moral or religious concern that drives people to be uncomfortable with pornography, and that for those who have left behind faith, porn ought not be such a big worry.  

Gary Wilson, in an undated portrait provided by his family.

Gary Wilson, in an undated portrait provided by his family.

He approached the subject scientifically, asking what the evidence said. And he rightly believed that education and experimentation with eliminating porn would prove his points. Still, he became the focus of fierce online attacks by pornography advocates, and near daily harassment and cyberbullying gradually ravaged his emotional health and inflamed his intense physical pain associated with Lyme disease. This directly contributed to his death a little over a year ago, on May 20, 2021. 

Those who raise their voices to advocate uncomfortable truths have, of course, always been opposed and even persecuted. As Albert Einstein said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Yet so many who pursue a higher mission to share truth do so out of belief in a higher will or divine plan. Gary Wilson did this all without any of that conviction. Imagine what kind of extraordinary courage, strength and love that would take.

So, yes, there’s one more atheist in heaven now. Thank you, Gary, for all you did for so many, including me. You paved the way for many to find freedom from porn — and led many others to speak the truth with greater clarity and courage. 

Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”

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Author: Jacob Hess