A HOW-TO-GUIDE TO CURBING YOUR PORN HABIT

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

Your eyes blink open and you sleepily roll over to your nightstand. It's only 2:00 a.m.? Restless and frustrated, you peel yourself from the sheets and grab your laptop. You flip the screen on and squint as the bright blue light suddenly illuminates your dim bedroom. It starts off slowly at first. You crank out a few Google searches to distract yourself, yet quickly find yourself Googling something more exciting.  You tap on the keys and the words "porn hub" appear on your Google search. Like a fly in a spider web, you're already ensnared. Nothing seems to satiate your appetite in your search to find “just the right” clip to get off to. You’re finding that what used to satisfy, no longer does. “MILF…” “Japanese…” “Threesome…” Eventually, that does it. You finally work yourself up enough to orgasm.  Yet immediately, you flip your laptop screen shut and feelings of shame fill your mind: how did I end up doing this again? Our culture’s relationship to porn exists on a spectrum, both in deed and thinking. Is porn bad? Is it morally neutral? Is it just a harmless habit? You may find the above experience to describe your life to a tee. Or maybe you wouldn’t even say you struggle with porn. It’s just something you do occasionally.  Yet undoubtedly there remain some of you that clicked this blog because you want to know how to stop watching porn. You may even say you have a full-on porn addiction. Addiction is somewhat of a "taboo" word in our society that's often reserved for things like drugs and alcohol. However, leading research makes a compelling case that porn is a drug. In her New York Times bestseller Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anna Lembke lists it among the modern-day narcotics. As the Director of Addiction medicine at Stanford, she carries some serious authority into the conversation.  An emerging non-profit, Fight the New Drug, was also founded in 2009 with the mission to enlighten people on the damaging effects of porn on both other people and our own minds.  And if you break down the word addiction, it's defined as "the condition of being unable to stop using or doing something as a habit, especially something harmful" by the Oxford Dictionary.  The keyword in that phrase is "harmful."  If this topic seems morally ambiguous to you, perhaps a better starting point to this conversation would be learning about the impact that porn is having on our brains, our society and our relationships. But let's say you’ve learned all about that, and you want to get past the formalities.  You want to know how to stop watching porn. You have a full-blown porn addiction, or at the very least, a pesky porn habit. Just like pulling weeds, part of the process is going to involve looking beneath the surface and getting to the heart of why you keep indulging this habit.  For some, that's going to be messier than for others.  Which goes to say, if you're looking for a miracle pill on how to stop watching porn, you aren't going to find one. However, if you're willing to be open to the process and the different strategies that can produce meaningful change, we invite you to explore what that could look like.

INDULGE BEAUTY, NOT SHAME

As we contemplate a path forward for our porn addiction (or habit), we need to first understand the destructiveness of shame. The scientific research behind this has been heavily documented.  Sex researcher Dr. Justin Lehmiller explains in his book Tell Me What You Want, “the more shame.. people feel about their sexual desires, the more likely they are to avoid talking about sex at all, and to experience sexual performance difficulties, finding it challenging to become (or stay) aroused or to reach orgasm.” As it relates to sex, the origins of shame culture is often associated with the religious right and the early 2000s purity culture in the American church. This has caused a massive backlash, especially in progressive circles, as people advocate for embodying a “sex-positive” mindset while also celebrating porn. While they were right about shame, the pendulum has shifted way too far to the other side as the damaging effects of porn have been well-documented. Extremes tend to be a weakness in our culture, highlighting the need to strike a balance. One that fights against the destructiveness of shame, but also acknowledges the ugly realities of porn. As you peel back the layers, you discover that shame was never something that came from the teachings of Jesus or the Bible.  As author Kristi McLelland puts it, “There's something about shame that when we feel it, it makes us want to move back. We feel embarrassed. [But] Jesus is a shame killer. He's coming for every part of you that wants to back away and run.” Long before science documented the destructiveness of shame, Jesus was echoing the same message. He knew that we must lead with beauty and love, not shame.  While porn is not beneficial for our brains, society or relationships, sex will always be something that is beautiful. To desire sex is a good thing. To have sexual desires is part of what it means to be human. It’s about discovering how to express them in their proper context. All the scientific research will tell you that we long to be connected with another human being, in a securely attached way, where we can explore the fullness of our sexuality. And that’s a very, very good thing.  In his bestseller Unwanted, therapist Jay Stringer explored unwanted sexual behavior and how to take steps to defeating them. He writes, “sex, if we allow it, will awaken us to the deepest reservoirs in our souls for pleasure and connection.”  This is our starting point for learning how to quit porn – to indulge beauty, not shame. To go into our struggle with the understanding that sexual desire itself is a good and beautiful thing.

BECOME CURIOUS

The next step is to begin the process of looking beneath the surface. We need to discover what we are looking for when we run to porn. On a surface level it may be a sexual release, but underneath there is often so much we are unaware of. In this way emotions, feelings, habits and desires can be likened to an iceberg. On the surface, we’re horny. But below the surface, what is happening? Stringer advises us to listen to our lust, equating our sexual behavior to a roadmap. He writes, “Sexual failures, internet searches and browser histories.. are roadmaps. The choice of.. sexual behavior is never accidental. There is always a reason. Your path.. begins with finding the unique reasons behind yours.. if we are willing to listen, our sexual struggles will have so much to teach us.” You probably won’t get all your answers in one night. Gathering insight happens over time, and might require some healthy processing with your therapist. But ultimately, developing this roadmap will do wonders for overcoming your porn addiction (or habit).

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CHANGING THE LANGUAGE

Walter Mischel, who is credited as being the father of the science on self-control, has proven that the way we talk about and perceive something matters. In his book the Marshmallow Test, he explains how we view the attractive stimulus is very important, which in this case may be the sexy person on your computer. Everything might feel like it’s raging in you to give in, but part of this has to do with how you perceive the situation. “The power is not in the stimulus, however, but in how it is mentally appraised: if you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes. The tempting chocolate mousse on the restaurant dessert tray loses its allure if you imagine a cockroach just snacked on it in the kitchen.” Which goes to say that on a meta level, the way our society casually talks (and celebrates) porn can be problematic on a deeply subconscious level. The more we mindlessly listen to these narratives, the more it muddies the truth about porn and messes with our convictions. It’s important to behold this truth as we actively fight against our habit. The truth about what it’s doing to our brains and how it’s frying our pain-pleasure balance. The truth about the amount of rape content and child porn that is widely circulated on every major porn website. The truth about how our porn usage affects our present (and/or future) relationships. When we behold this truth, and change the language surrounding porn, it becomes easier to exercise self-control.  By sharing and circulating this information, the aim is not to shame other people (going back to our first principle), but to raise awareness. For example, the trend around cigarettes and smoking are an excellent case study, which further proves Mischel’s research on a macro level. In 1965, a whopping 42.4% of the adult population smoked cigarettes. But today, that number is just 13.7%. How could that be?  The language was changed. Mass advertising in the early 2000s, which often featured repulsive imagery, caused a giant reversal in the trend.  On the flipside, when teens see smoking portrayed in TV and film in a “cool” or positive light, it makes them more likely to smoke. Words are powerful, and often they have the ability to alter our perception. If we can see porn not as a socially accepted junk food, but rather as a threat to our brains, our children and our relationships, it'll change how we approach it.

SELF-BINDING

When Jesus conducted his famous Sermon on the Mount, he made a stunning statement that is incredibly relevant for overcoming our porn addiction (or habit). Speaking on lust, which essentially means objectification, he says:  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” To be clear, Jesus is not advocating for self-mutilation. It’s a play on words, a figure of speech, a metaphor to make an important point: which is that we should go to extreme measures to put guardrails in place. Science has confirmed the effectiveness of this strategy, which Dr. Lembke calls self-binding in Dopamine Nation.

“[Self-binding] is the way we intentionally and willingly create barriers between ourselves and our drug of choice in order to mitigate compulsive overconsumption.”

Self-binding may include, “[creating] literal physical barriers and/or geographical distance between ourselves and our drug of choice,” says Dr. Lembke. Not limited to just porn addictions, some examples from her patients include:
  • “I unplugged my TV and put it in my closet.” 
  • “I banished my game console to the garage.” 
  • “I don’t use credit cards. Only cash.” 
  • “I call hotels beforehand to ask them to remove the minibar.” 
  • “I call hotels beforehand to ask them to remove the minibar and the television.” 
  • “I put my iPad in a safety deposit box at Bank of America.”
 What is the key towards effective self-binding? Dr. Lembke explains: “First to acknowledge the loss of voluntariness we experience when under the spell of a powerful compulsion, and to bind ourselves while we still possess the capacity for voluntary choice.” The metaphor of being under a “spell” is compelling. It can often feel like that in the moment, when the urge to indulge our porn habit is most seductive.  To which Lembke explains: “If we wait until we feel the compulsion to use, the reflexive pull of seeking pleasure and/or avoiding pain is nearly impossible to resist. In the throes of desire, there’s no deciding. But by creating tangible barriers between ourselves and our drug of choice, we press the pause button between desire and action.” James Clear, the author of the New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits, famously outlined the benefit of leaving your phone in the other room while you work. Like Dr. Lembke, Clear argues that the simple act of creating resistance or a barrier to checking your phone lessens your likelihood of wanting to use it.  But as Lembke admits, self-binding doesn’t always work. At times, the urge to engage may grow stronger or you’ll find yourself trying to overcome the obstacles that you yourself put in place. Like going into your bedroom to get the phone. Which leads us to our next strategy, advance planning.

ADVANCE PLANNING

Mischel calls advance planning "If-Then" plans.  If situation [y] happens, then I will do [x].  If I’m alone at home at night, and I have an intense spontaneous urge to watch porn, then I will do… Mischel shows that through studies done at New York University, they were able to identify “simple, but surprisingly powerful If-Then plans for helping people deal more effectively with a wide variety of otherwise crippling self-control problems – even under very difficult and emotionally hot conditions, when they were trying to pursue important but hard to achieve goals.” If there is no plan established, then the urge is likely to win out. Springer gets at the same idea, telling us to anticipate our struggles. Like Mischel he warns, “if you do not have a plan for these times, you will default to your past behavior.”

FINDING A SUBSTITUTE

Part of your advance planning might include finding a substitute for when you want to watch porn. Which goes to say, overcoming your porn addiction (or habit) is not just about removing the habit, but replacing it with something else. Going back to cigarettes, in the late 1970s the Swedish company AB Leo unveiled Nicorette, a series of products (such as gum and patches) to help curb smoking cigarettes. Citing the Nicotine Replacement Theory (NRT), the company proposed that people could quit their smoking habit if they could slowly taper off of nicotine without going cold turkey.  The same idea applies when trying to reduce porn use. What if you could find another outlet that serves as a "release" or "stress relief" of sorts? Many have found that channeling their energy into something like walking, running, or another form of exercise can help get their mind off of porn while still getting that dopamine and adrenaline rush they seek from porn. In psychology, Freud originally came up with the theory of sublimation, which is the practice of channeling your sexual desires into something else. Mischel gets at a similar idea, where he found that some who were successful in delaying gratification distracted themselves by engaging in another behavior. There are healthy, reliable alternatives to getting a similar dopamine, endorphin-producing rush. Our brains are often spinning the moment we desire porn, but if we are to learn how to stop watching porn by finding a substitute, we might forget about the initial craving in the first place.

RADICAL HONESTY

Porn is something that largely stays in the shadows. While it might be viewed more favorably by the general public, that does not mean we want to talk to other people about our personal use of porn.  But to overcome any problem, dependance, addiction -- whatever you want to call it -- it requires bringing other people into that struggle.  Dr. Lembke is a huge advocate for radical honesty, and cites all the scientific research that surrounds the idea of honesty and vulnerability.  “Radical honesty promotes awareness of our actions. Second, it fosters intimate human connections. Third, it leads to a truthful autobiography, which holds us accountable not just to our present but also to our future selves.” Then of course there is Brene Brown’s famous 2011 Ted Talk on vulnerability, in which she discusses the extensive power behind it. To be clear, we’re not advocating for sharing your struggles with just anyone. It’s important to find someone that provides a safe space for you, perhaps even someone to which you can hold them accountable as well. A trusted network of people, or even one specific confidant (whether that be a friend, family member, or counselor) can non-judgmentally keep you on track with the mission. It goes without saying that this trusted network of individuals also have to share the same philosophy on porn, which goes back to changing the language.  Alcoholic Anonymous is an excellent example of how this can work. Many who've sat in on AA meetings have confessed that it's one of the most beautiful expressions of community they've ever seen. People are brutally honest with one another, but it's because they're unwavering in their mission to rid themselves of addiction and instead thrive.  Accountability is helpful anytime you're trying to accomplish something, whether it's a fitness, academic, or work goal. Vulnerability and honesty might be hard when it comes to porn, but it’s necessary.

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CHANGE IS POSSIBLE

Mischel dedicates a portion of chapter 18 in The Marshmallow Test to talking about neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to rewire itself. The way we once behaved and thought is not static. It can change, and as a result, the brain also makes physical changes as well to adjust for that. That bodes well not just for us personally, but our society as a whole. Intentionally practicing all of the things we’ve discussed in this blog – beauty, curiosity, changing the language, self-binding, advance planning, substitutes and radical honesty – will go a long way towards rewiring your brain. But remember to give yourself grace. Most often, change doesn’t come overnight and it’s a process. In the end, we find that any meaningful change starts with a change of the heart, which then extends to our outward behaviors. For more on sex, visit our Sex Hub here.

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