Guys Who Gave Up Porn: On Sex and Romance

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Today's media equates "sex positive" with zeal for orgasm. According to this formula, the more orgasms we demand, deliver or procure, the more "sex positive" we are. This makes Internet porn and sex toys, with their ability to override our normal sexual appetites so we can orgasm when we otherwise could not due to satiation, the most "sex-positive" inventions in all of human history. Or does it?

This definition of "sex positive" rests on a misunderstanding of how intense stimulation can potentially numb the pleasure response of the human brain. It also discounts the gifts of flirty exchanges, and human touch exchanged with a trusted mate. Given that affectionate touch and enduring relationships are generally positively associated with increased wellbeing, these omissions are especially unfortunate.

For reasons that lie at the heart of evolution, our brains are extremely responsive to today's super enticing versions of food and sex, such as junk food and Internet erotica. Alas, more is not better for some brains; it desensitizes them. This is why many of us are obese and/or furiously fertilizing our screens—yet feel more dissatisfied than ever. Recovering porn users describe their experiences with desensitization:

Imagine if you were on an extreme rollercoaster for 10 years straight. Then you get off the rollercoaster and have to make do with the swings at a children's play area. After 10 years of extreme rollercoaster riding, you won't be able to obtain any kind of buzz from the simplicity of the swings. You have become desensitized. Porn ruined my appreciation of and responsiveness to normal sexual acts, and masturbation to porn ruined the sensitivity of my penis so that the gentle caress of a lover was barely noticeable. It was so used to being pounded with a sledgehammer that when it came to being tickled with a feather, I didn't even notice. Unless I felt something pretty hard and heavy, it simply didn't register.

Feeling so emotionally numb to every girl I've dated also caused me to doubt myself. This led me to suspect that I was gay. I am not. Once my brain started to heal, I became much more interested in all girls.

Biology not morality

Long before the Internet, the father of modern sexology warned of desensitization. Alfred C. Kinsey cautioned his photographer Clarence Tripp that, "As soon as we get you to photographing sex every day and paying attention to sex right, left and center, pretty soon nothing will turn you on, nothing in the area, nothing visual will turn you on. Because you'll lose all those sensitivities." 

For the same reason, Kinsey counseled his staff to "Be cautious with sadomasochism because the human body adjusts rapidly, and so levels of pain can escalate rapidly." [James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey, W.W. Norton & Company (1997): 610] Unfortunately, many of today's experts have forgotten Kinsey's warnings, which were based on his personal experience. They teach only, "If it feels good, do more of it."

In fact, however, desensitization is having a major impact today. The more some people rely on cyber erotica, the more frequently they may feel the "need" to climax,  and the more extreme material they often require to get the job done. For many, erections also grow weaker. Escalation and youthful erectile dysfunction are often signs that someone is inadvertently numbing the brain to subtler pleasures.

I sold porn on the Internet for over 10 years. It ruined relationships and led me down a dark road of heavy use. I became totally desensitized. I remember when certain acts were taboo or at least non-mainstream. These acts are now part of most mainstream productions.

Desensitization is an addiction process related to a drop in dopamine sensitivity. Nora Volkow MD, Director of NIDA, explains:

Once the brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine, it "becomes less sensitive to natural reinforcers" such as the "pleasure of seeing a friend, watching a movie, or the curiosity that drives exploration."

Tragically, the now-less-enjoyable pleasures often include the rewarding feelings of human touch and close, trusted companionship. This is how extreme stimuli can indirectly interfere with our innate pair-bonding tendencies—causing dissatisfied unions.

Becoming restless in your relationship due to too much porn use isn't a character defect. It occurs because too much stimulation causes physical changes in your brain. These may be gradual, but for some, the introduction of highspeed porn is the turning point for radical desensitization:

Highspeed porn changed everything. I began masturbating more than once a day. If I didn't feel like masturbating, but wanted to relieve stress or go to sleep, porn helped me get aroused. I found myself looking at porn prior to sex with my wife because she just couldn't do it for me anymore. Delayed ejaculation was a huge problem: I could no longer orgasm from oral sex and I sometimes had difficulty with orgasm in a vagina. I masturbated after sex with my wife because I couldn't get off any other way, and sometimes even masturbation didn't work. Once I eliminated porn from the equation (which hasn't been easy), my masturbation frequency dropped and my sex life improved.

The good news is that former users can indeed reverse this desensitization. They give their brains a rest from frequent sexual stimulation (sexual fantasy, masturbation, orgasm) and steer clear of porn. It's tough. Most experience weeks of uncomfortable, temporary withdrawal symptoms, such as mood swings (irritability, anxiety, despair, apathy, restlessness), insomnia, fatigue, very frequent urination, intense cravings or flat libido, etc. One man charted his ups and downs.

Happily, recovering users often become more responsive to pleasure even before the withdrawal symptoms and hypersensitivity to porn cues stop:

After 34 days I tested myself. I could masturbate to orgasm without thinking about anything for the first time of my life. And erections came much more frequently and stronger. At the same time I knew with absolute certainty that the process wasn't finished yet.

What lies on the other side of withdrawal discomfort?

Here's what men reported as their brains returned to normal sensitivity to pleasure:

  • [Single guy in his 30s] As my body recovers, sex is already feeling twice as good as it was. It's funny how the decline was so gradual that I just didn't notice that sex had lost the whole "WTF JUST HAPPENED?" feeling. It's back.
  • [Married, age 50] I never thought I had ED...I managed to have sex with my wife. Boy, was I wrong! Since my recovery, my erections are way bigger, fuller and longer and the head is flared. My wife comments each time. I also remain erect even after orgasm, and think I could keep it up for a loooong time. My morning wood is also bigger and fuller. I just shrug and laugh each morning, now that I realize I really had ED and was too caught in my addiction to realize it. Keep in mind I am 50, though in pretty good shape for my age and clean living. I believe you will find the sensitivity of your penis improves all on its own. I am circumcised (wish I was not). The sensitivity is so much better than I ever remember. Very light touch by my wife feels so strong! Now, after 68 days of no masturbation to porn my erections are like in my teens!
  • [Age 26] Last night I had sex with my partner twice and reached climax both times! I've been in a really buoyant mood since Day 28 [of no porn/masturbation]. Once we started kissing and touching each other, I couldn't hold back on my urge to penetrate her. It felt so natural. The sensitivity in my penis has definitely returned, plus I sense there's more to come.
  • Young lovers[Age 21] I can honestly say now that porn really is the problem with relationships nowadays. Sex with my girlfriend took a little over a month, but time flew so fast because I was enjoying just hanging out. Just holding a girl never crossed my mind as pleasurable before. When you're masturbating every day, with or without porn, you really do relinquish your innate ability to connect with the opposite sex. I am 100% sure of this now. Before I went 100 days I still had some doubt about the benefits of giving up porn, but now it doesn't even cross my mind as a serious activity. As far as sex goes, I was questioning whether I should have sex with her or wait a little. Then I found out that she also wanted to wait because she cared about me. Naturally I took it slowly, and we were holding each other for a long time before we decided to do it. I really wish that everyone here could have not only successful sex, but a passionate exchange between two people who care about each other. We even continued to cuddle after we were done (both times). I really couldn't be happier about my first time.
  • [Married, 52] I have many decades of porn under my belt (so to speak). I have not looked at any porn or masturbated for nearly 4 weeks, and all I can say is the change is dramatic. This morning, I woke up with one of the most intense erections I have ever had. My wife noticed, and was nice enough to give me a wonderful BJ, all before 7 AM! Prior to this, I cannot remember ever waking up like this, except when I was a teen. Plus, the feeling was very intense, much better than any porn release I remember. While I was receiving this wonderful gift, not one porn image flashed before me! I was strictly focused on her, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in a while. I am stoked! This only strengthens my belief that I can never look at porn again. Eventually, my ED problem is going to be a memory. In another 3 to 4 months, I cannot even imagine where I will be, but it is going to be a much better place than "Pornoland."
  • [Age 24] About 5 weeks after stopping porn/masturbation, I slept with a female friend; a drunken one-night stand. Despite being hammered, I felt totally different about the sex. I was much more passionate. It felt better; and I was more turned on and worried less about performance, which was always a big concern. I was just enjoying myself. Normally, when I go to put on a condom, I freak out and go limp, but this wasn't an issue this time.
  • [Married, 42] Not being able to trust your own body to back you up when you want to physically express yourself to your mate is mentally devastating. To once again feel your body respond without effort eliminates self-talk and doubt and frees you to focus on the one you love. For me that meaningful connection makes sex with a partner transcend mere masturbation. My skin is feeding me far more input from my wife's touch than it has in a long while. Orgasms are also much stronger. They FEEL better. Sex is reprogramming the healthy, normal and natural pleasure pathway that was lost to me during my porn years. The more I achieve and maintain an erection through just caressing and holding my wife, the fainter the voice of doubt about sexual performance gets, and the more immediate and impressive my body's response is.
  • [Husband, 37] The reward for 4 months of no porn has been an improved sex life with my wife, and after nearly fifteen years of being together, that is a considerable reward. Hurrah for "vanilla" sex. I seem to feel more than I used to. I experience more physical sensation from being in her vagina or her mouth. Before, I rarely came from a BJ. Delayed ejaculation is not a problem anymore. And premature ejaculation has not replaced it, thankfully. I actually feel more in control of my arousal and orgasm now, than I did when I suffered with low libido and other sexual dysfunctions. The old anxiety is beginning to be assuaged by frequent, successful lovemaking with my wife.
  • [Age 50] Over the years, I suggested to my wife various activities straight out of porn stories. She was okay with some of them, but it never satisfied at all. Although we had a decent sex life relative to most people our age, I was always comparing the porn scenarios with my real life and real wife and feeling dissatisfied. Now, things are shifting. During intercourse last night, I felt suddenly very intimate, almost scarily intimate, deep contact I have never experienced before. It felt kind of shocking to me. It was wonderful in a way I can't describe, but I am in a kind of awe over it. It feels scary-wonderful.

Those without partners notice benefits too:

  • [Age 20-something] - I'm starting to have genuine feelings of desire and interest for women again. For a while I somewhat questioned my sexuality. Not that I was interested in men, but I just didn't have any interest in women. I'm noticing women's attractive features more and more. I've even had a desire to kiss them. That is very new for me. I haven't felt it in years. I was talking briefly with a fellow student and noticed she had absolutely gorgeous eyes. I never noticed those things while using porn. Also, I no longer fantasize about porn scenarios "starring" potential mates or women I know. I try not to fantasize, but when one creeps in, it's now all first-person, one-on-one, and nothing kinky or odd. Refreshing.
  • [Age 19, gay] When it comes to relationships, I don't "like" people often, and there are very few people who can maintain my interest beyond maybe 3 weeks, maximum. This may seem weird, but even though I watched porn... I've never really been one to want sex. Anyway, there are TWO guys who have managed to grab my interest and maintain it. However, I think porn/masturbation was suppressing my longing to be with either of them. Last night, I suddenly had this intense realization that I really like those two, and I could see myself completely happy in a committed relationship with either. Suddenly it felt like...my heart was reaching out for them. Idk, it was weird. Instead of daydreaming, my body was like, "Let's go make this happen in real life." I don't really understand it, but I'm pretty sure it's a good thing. I just know that all of a sudden I felt this huge wave of some weird attraction-type energy surge over me. [He soon began a relationship with one of them.]
  • [Age 20, day 67 no porn] I've always been the type of dude who wanted a girl every now and then but never really needed one. But for whatever reason today I feel different. I'm not sure if I could ever really stay committed to a female completely, but I can't help but feel the need to bond with one ... Even if it doesn't mean actually date a girl but at least get intimate with her ... play, kiss, crack jokes, smile, gaze deep into her eyes, whisper in her ears, play with her neck, etc ... doesn't necessarily have to lead to f*cking but I just miss those feelings. I never thought that porn could desensitize me to a point where I no longer craved for those feelings of intimacy until now.
  • [Age 30] The reboot has really driven home to me that we humans are social beings. Porn can fool you into believing that you can be content in perpetual solitude, but it is an illusion. When porn is out of the picture, especially if you go as far as no fantasy, you will be madly driven to make connections with real women.

Warning - Cutting out porn may be a one-way street, as this man found when he experimented with porn again:

The binge wasn't as enjoyable as I expected. For the first time, being in the perspective of the voyeur felt wrong and kind of sickened me. It had always just felt normal to me since I'm a longtime user. This time, masturbating without any context/connection felt strange and perverted. I now can't imagine doing that in real life, just having a woman sit there emotionless opening up her holes in front of me. During the reboot I felt more attracted to women as a whole. Now, I can imagine myself looking into a woman's eye at orgasm rather than focusing on her stretched holes in a detached way.

Restoring relationship harmony                              

ears pluggedI believe that during porn addiction, it is basically impossible to connect romantically. It just zaps that part of you and burns it away. I am on week six of my reboot, and for the first time in 5 or 6 years I find myself really feeling like connecting with a female when I am speaking to her in person. I notice all the things I used to notice when I was younger, and inside I feel this now unfamiliar urge to get closer to her, look deep into her eyes, smile etc. I have not been able to look a woman in the eyes like that for a long time, never mind smiling! It's great.

How we use our sexual desire appears to have a powerful influence on how loudly we hear our pair-bonding programming. Unlike us, our ancestors weren't driven by unending, novel erotic visuals to climax beyond normal satiety. They were more likely to allow their brains and bodies to rest and renew themselves.

Returning the brain to homeostasis in between passion bouts may turn out to be very healthy for those who want relationships. The greater the brain's sensitivity to pleasure, the more rewarding we perceive our intimate relationships.

I looked up at her and our eyes locked, and then she smiled very warmly, and *BOOM*, I literally got this surge of chemical loveliness up my spine and into the back of my head. I smiled back, of course. The feeling was so physical, so palpable, that it really surprised me. It instantly made me feel extremely happy and optimistic. I don't ever remember being so affected by a smile or glance. It's just astounding. To go from being so numb, where only the most vile and shocking sexual images triggered a response in me, to getting such a positive sensation from a simple smile and meeting of the eyes...that is what makes this whole process worth it. Curing E.D. or other such problems is just an added bonus. Feeling ALIVE again is where it's really at!

If too frequent orgasm alters the sensitivity of the brain temporarily (and it appears to do this in some brains), then it makes perfect sense that when we overdo it, our mate doesn't look so hot—until our brain returns to homeostasis. Trouble is, thanks to today's hype that "more is better," the unsuspecting heavy porn user is unlikely to realize what's going on until he hits a wall. This can lead to futile churning in intimate relationships.

 As the men quoted above stopped the intense stimulation of Internet porn, the pleasures of closeness gradually grew more tangible and satisfying. For them, "sex positive" now has a whole new meaning, and has led to some insightful reflection. One of them posted the following passage from Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning":

The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.

Could Frankl be right? Might our frenzied use of sex-aids be spoiling our pleasure? If so, what about redefining "sex positive" in terms of pleasure and sensitivity rather than mere quantity?