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“Our society doesn’t fully understand the potential harms that pornography provides.”

When Breanne Saldivar was 12 years old, she saw online porn for the first time, while doing research for a school project. “This was right when the Internet was really taking off, and I had this general interest in all that was out there,” says Breanne. “And there was just so much. It was like, ‘Oh, wow, what about this, and look at this.’ It was a constant process.”

Eventually, Breanne’s curiosity in online porn evolved into a full-blown obsession. From the ages of 12 to 18, she says she looked at porn every day, sneaking down to her family’s password-protected desktop computer a few times a day. Every time, she’d delete her browser history so she could hide her habit from her religious parents.

When Breanne was 15, she started visiting chat rooms. “I started to realize there was power in the fact that I was a woman and there were plenty of men out there who wanted to see naked women,” she remembers. “So I would do things I never thought I’d do before to get that kind of high.” She says she would strip for men on her webcam and post explicit photos of herself online.

Breanne’s social and academic life eventually became subsumed by her life online. She’d sleep only a few hours a night, and would become “extremely agitated” if she didn’t have immediate access to her computer.

“There were times when I wanted to stop and go to sleep and quit doing it and I couldn’t,” Breanne, now 24, remembers. “I’d say, ‘OK, maybe I’ll do it, but only once a week’, or ‘I’ll  only talk to guys that aren’t married or whatever,’ and set up these parameters for it. And time and time again I would fail the very boundaries I set up.”

When Breanne was 18, she got her first personal laptop. That was when, she says, “my addiction really started to spiral.” One day, she left it open on the kitchen table and her mother spotted IMs from one of Breanne’s chatroom buddies. When Breanne came home from school, her parents had confiscated her laptop, her cell phone, and her camera. “I was devastated,” she remembers. “It broke my heart that they saw who I really was. Because at that point, I hated who I really was.”

Eventually, Breanne’s parents sent her to the Meadows, a treatment center for sex and porn addiction in Arizona, where she was diagnosed as a porn addict. After spending three months and $40,000 at Meadows (and enduring a few relapses), Breanne returned home to Houston. It was there where she heard about a new group aimed at helping people like her, teenagers who had discovered pornography at an early age and identified themselves as addicts. It was called Fight the New Drug.

Fight the new drug

The study of pornography addiction and identified addicts like Breanne is relatively new, in part because pornography simply hasn’t been as prevalent as it is today. Yet thanks to the Internet and the widespread availability of online smut, the concept of pornography addiction has been widely popularized, and the body of research surrounding it is expansive and ever-growing. An entire porn addiction treatment and rehabilitation industry has also popped up, from inpatient treatment centers like the Meadows to feminist and religious groups like Gail Dines’ Stop Porn Culture, Porn Harms, and the XXX Church that speak out against the evils of online pornography.

But Fight the New Drug, an anti-pornography organization devoted to using “science” to fight this addiction, is fairly unique in two ways: 1)Unlike many other anti-porn activist groups, it purports to be non-political and non-denominational, and 2) it attempts to reach a demographic that is fairly overlooked in the addiction community: millennials aged 18 to 24. In their efforts to resonate with this age group, they’ve kick-started aggressive social media campaigns, with their “street team fighters” (the term they use for volunteers) spearheading #pornkillslove and #fightthenewdrug hashtags on Twitter:

Fight the New Drug was launched in 2009 by Clay Olsen, a marketing specialist and Brigham Young University graduate, out of a “growing recognition and understanding that our society wasn’t fully understanding the potential harms that pornography provided in our culture and society.” FTND was also borne from Olsen’s personal connection to the issue: When he was a pre-teen, Olsen’s cousin was imprisoned for “crimes of a violent sexual nature.” Upon his release, Olsen’s cousin attributed his violent impulses to his longtime addiction to pornography.

“That was a stick of dynamite in our family and opened my eyes to what this could lead to and what it’s teaching so many as far as helping define the sexual template in so many young individuals,” says Olsen, an affable man with a mop of curly brown hair. “We wanted to bring this topic to a national stage and bring it out of the morality arena that it had existed in for so many years.”

In addition to their “street team” and social media outreach campaigns, Fight the New Drug also has a Web-based recovery program called Fortify, which purports to use the “brain science of pornography addiction to help you find the path to freedom.” While the approximately two-month program is free for teenagers between 13 and 20, it costs about $39, or the sponsorship of one teenager, for adults.

With its social media acumen and slickly produced, stylishly shot YouTube videos, Fight the New Drug is clearly trying to be taken seriously as a youth-driven social media activist movement. Its claims that pornography is harmful and addictive, they say, are based in incontrovertible fact rather than any  moral or religious stance. The message is that pornography is bad for you, the same way smoking cigarettes or snorting cocaine is.

“When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, we have billboards, campaigns, and we help individuals understand the potential harms,” says Olsen. “But when it comes to this topic, we’ve been flying in the dark for so many years. But science has caught up with truth to help us understand what this is.”

The science of pornography addiction, which is what Olsen’s group and many other anti-pornography organizations often cite, is basically as follows: Watching pornography triggers a release of chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin into the reward pathways of the brain. As these chemicals are released, they build up in your brain to the point where your brain becomes immune to their effects, requiring more and more stimulation to get the same so-called “high.”

Olsen and FTND believe that much like a curious teen can dabble in cocaine a few times without going full-blown John Belushi, it’s possible to watch pornography and not become addicted to it—”people have different predispositions and it can affect individuals in different ways,” he says. Fight the New Drug’s stance is that the potential for neurological addiction to pornography, coupled with “material that is increasingly harmful and aggressive and demeaning towards women,” means that the harmful effects of pornography “really can impact our entire society, especially within relationships.”

When Fight the New Drug says that pornography is harmful, they’re referring to all kinds of pornography, from Playboy to non-mainstream or feminist pornography to couples’ erotica. Even with pornography that might endorse progressive, sex-positive or female-friendly values, “there’s still an addictive potential, and the novelty aspect,” says Olsen. “A real relationship can’t compete with the constant stream of novelty of watching other people having sex. So we would stand by the idea that it’s probably not healthy for your relationship and your own sexuality to watch other people having sex versus having that experience with your own trusting and loving partner.”

In this respect, despite its claims, Fight the New Drug takes a moral stance against individuals consuming pornography, rather than the values associated with most mainstream pornography. In this sense, it might seem like a traditional anti-pornography group, many of which are formed by leaders in the Latter Day Saints (LDS) community, which takes a hardline stance on pornography and masturbation.

Fight the new drugWhile many of Fight the New Drug’s members are LDS, and the group regularly speaks at LDS events, Olsen says it is not affiliated with the church in “any way, shape, or form.” In this sense, Fight the New Drug is unique: an anti-pornography group that is—or at least, purports to be—totally secular, its agenda motivated by facts and figures rather than faith.

FTND’s supposedly science-based argument against pornography is precisely what inspired Saldivar, a frequent speaker to the group, to come on board. She had just moved back home and relapsed a few times when she heard about Fight the New Drug from a friend, taking a 12 hour bus ride from her home in Texas to Louisiana to join them on a public school speaking tour.

“It’s not even about proving that pornography is right or wrong. That’s not what FTND does,” says Saldivar. “They just present the facts and say, look, this is an addictive drug. And that’s good to me because it’s from a medical standpoint that’s not really debatable.”

The thing is, though, Fight the New Drug’s stance—that there is a neurological basis to pornography addiction—is debatable; in fact, it’s one of the more contentious issues in the addiction research community. While most researchers and mental health professionals believe that it’s possible for excessive use of pornography to have deleterious effects on your mental well-being, many, like sexologist Dr. Louanne Weston, draw the line between a pornography addiction and a compulsion, in the same vein as compulsive nail-biting or trichotiliomania (pulling out one’s hair).

“People who say pornography is an addiction, they tend to come  from the addiction community and not always the field of mental health or sexuality,” says Weston. “They tend to say ‘This is dangerous, porn is fraught with danger. You better watch out, it’s a slippery slope.’ It was sort of the same as people in the drug addiction community saying if you smoke pot, you better watch out or you’ll be doing heroin.”

Weston says that much of the research conducted on pornography’s dangerous effects on the brain comes from people who have a moral, religious—or, in the case of the addiction treatment community, financial—stake in classifying pornography as addictive. “[Porn addiction studies ] come with conclusions built in mind,” says Weston. “[Researchers] tend to want to find data that supports these built-in conclusion.”

There’s an emerging body of research contradicting the claims of pornography addiction specialists, many of which has been conducted by Dr. Nicole Prause, a research neuroscientist at UCLA. Last year, Dr. Prause and her team used electroencephelography (EEG) to analyze the brains of those who claimed to suffer from a pornography addiction, comparing the results to the brains of those who suffered from cocaine addiction. What they found was that the brain activity of a “porn addict” did not share similar brain patterns to other self-identified porn addicts when presented with erotic stimuli, unlike cocaine addicts, who all presented similar brain activity.

The researchers’ findings stood in stark contrast to the work of neurosurgeons like Dr. Donald Hilton of the University of Texas-San Antonio, who have presented evidence that pornographic stimuli triggers deleterious chemical changes in the brain. “It is absolutely true that if you show someone sex pictures or a sex film, it activates areas of the brain associated with rewards,” says Prause. “The problem is that this evidence is necessary but not sufficient.”

Prause says that self-identified addicts will display similar brain activity when presented with porn as foodies do when presented with a photo of their favorite chocolate, or Florida Gators fans when shown an image of their mascot. “Any preferred stimulus, you’re going to show an increased reward response, and that is not any evidence of addiction,” she says.

This is not to say that Prause does not believe people like Saldivar, who claim to struggle with watching pornography. Like Weston, she believes that excessive viewing of porn could be classified as a compulsion, rather than an addiction. She also believes that people who claim to suffer from pornography addiction experience legitimate psychological and emotional turmoil, in part due to how pornography viewing conflicts with their religious or moral value system. One recent study concluded that the stronger someone’s religious beliefs were, as Saldivar’s were, the more likely they were to self-identify as a porn addict. “I think that strongly speaks to the likelihood that many people who are distressed are because of value conflicts, not because they’re actually having a psychopathological issue that needs to be treated,” says Prause.

But although she doesn’t discount the fact that self-identified pornography addicts could be suffering from legitimate emotional issues, Prause doesn’t think that groups like Fight the New Drug and their Fortify program are sufficient in helping them with their problems. In fact, she thinks they might be doing more harm than good.

What I worry about is that these groups are framing porn as an addiction because then you could use an inpatient model and charge a lot of money to treat it like a drug addiction. That really worries me, because I can’t think of any other reason why they would pursue that model. There’s just no good evidence to do that… and I think there’s a very good chance they’re doing harm, honestly.

But there’s one person who clearly doesn’t think Fight the New Drug is doing harm: Breanne Saldivar, who has been sober from her addiction for eight months to a year (Sex Addicts Anonymous, or SAA, defines sobriety differently than groups like AA or NA do, so their sobriety dates are a bit murkier). She works a 40-hour-a-week job, which she juggles with volunteering at church, working at a teenage maternity home, and vlogging about her love of indie music and firearms on her YouTube channel. She says she is much happier than she was when she was in her teens, staying up all night to strip on webcam and watch porn online. The only thing that still hurts her is when people say that her struggles with porn aren’t real, that the pain she felt couldn’t be classified as a “real addiction.”

“I lost a job to my porn addiction. I had to quit school for it. I spent all my money on it. It has destroyed every functioning relationship I ever had in my life,” says Saldivar. “And for someone to look at me and say, ‘Whatever, that’s hardly an addiction,’ or to high-five me and say, ‘Hey, that’s the best addiction to have’—as an addict, when you are entering into recovery, what you need in that moment is to be like, hey, good job for getting clean. But people were either totally disgusted by me, or laughing at me.”

It’s tempting to attribute Saldivar’s and other addicts’ struggles with pornography to their religious upbringings, or the stigma our society imposes on women who express themselves sexually and watch porn online. It’s tempting to postulate that, perhaps if she had grown up in a house with a non-password-protected computer, or a more tolerant attitude toward teenage sexual expression, she would not have ended up in rehab, or on speaking tours for Fight the New Drug, and Fight the New Drug itself wouldn’t have an audience at all.

But despite your feelings about online pornography, or whether or not it’s possible for one to become addicted to it, Saldivar wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “No matter what your stance is on it, you need to realize that there are people who seriously struggle with it,” she says. “Whether you want to call this a drug or not, fine. Whether you call it addictive or not, fine. But you have to respect people who say that it is a problem for them and you have to support them in it.”

And to those who disagree with her about the dangers of online pornography, she has this to say: “Porn is very much like fire. if you think of fire when it’s contained, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the right context, it can bring light to a room from a candle, it can help meld metal together. But you have to be very careful with fire. Because a single flame can burn out acres and acres of forest.

“That’s what pornography addiction is like. It’s that cute little flame that’s been hanging over your head your entire life, their entire lives and then before they knew it you’re standing in a field of burnt-out trees wondering what the hell just happened.”

Illustration via Jason Reed

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson is a writer and editor who primarily covers sex, dating, and relationships, with a special focus on the intersection of intimacy and technology. She served as the Daily Dot’s IRL editor from January 2014 to July 2015. Her work has since appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mic, Bustle, Romper, and Men’s Health.