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Offline: how do you look at porn?

offline porn paul

It was late June, about two months after I left the internet. I was in Mexico City, and there was no HBO in my hotel room, so at around midnight I ventured out into the narrow, dark streets, bouncing from convenience store to convenience store in search of a magazine. I tried to buy it casually, disguise it among some snacks, but my face was still flush as I handed over the pesos.

The magazine was soft core to the max — pillow soft. I found only one of the women in it attractive, and was soon bored with my purchase. To hide it from the hotel maid, I put the magazine in my bag, and that's how it ended up flying home with me back to New York. As I cleaned out my bag the next day I found the magazine, and instead of throwing it in my own garbage can, risking discovery by my roommate, I walked to the street corner with the evidence in a plastic bag and threw it into a public trash can.

That magazine, now in a New Jersey landfill, was the only item of pornography I've ever purchased.

See, I'm anti-porn. I think it's wrong morally, but also aesthetically repugnant — like a hate blog wrapped in a terrible WordPress theme. I think porn turns naked bodies into commodities, turns users into variety addicts, undermines relationships directly and indirectly, and is ultimately lung cancer for a "liberated" society that can't quit it, or doesn't want to try.

I'm an anti-porn, Christian porn user

I'm also a Christian, and I think porn is a sin, and while forgiving of all sins, that doesn't mean I'm a fan of any of them. Porn sort of flies in the face of the whole "deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me" aspect of Jesus's message.

And that's my problem; I'm an anti-porn, Christian porn user. I've been careful to avoid the purchase of porn paraphernalia all these years, avoid open admission of my problem to a store clerk, but I've looked at porn on a regular basis for roughly a decade, thanks to the privacy of the internet. I make sure to feel guilty about it, to swear I'll stop... but I do it anyway. Online porn is just so easy, so rapidly available. It's sex at the speed of Google.

Now I'm off the internet, and people ask me "what do you do for porn?" That's how they say it, verbatim.

Well, the basic, circuitous answer to that loaded question is: I don't. Aside from the Mexico magazine and hotel room HBO, I haven't looked at any porn since I left the internet, and it hasn't even been a challenge. With all the accountability and potential for shame and long-walks-to-the-convenience store that offline porn involves, I've found it an easy vice to give up. I feel like I disappoint people when I tell them this; they were looking for porn-acquisition hijinks, or perhaps the revelation of a secret hard drive stash, or just straight up surreptitious internet use to get my fix. Nope, I'm porn-free and I love it. After years of wanting so badly to stop, a quick rip of an ethernet plug was all it took.

I immediately began to notice changes that my newfound abstinence wrought. Specifically, my sex drive learned about "effort," and "ideation."

My sex drive learned about "effort," and "ideation"

Mass Effect has one of the best space opera setups in any medium. I bought the game soon after it came out, and was immediately enthralled. Unfortunately, it was difficult, and time consuming, and the space car driving mechanics sucked. My efforts at romancing the blue aliens were unsuccessful, and I eventually gave up on the game entirely.

Soon after I left the internet, however, I decided to give Mass Effect another shot. I started from scratch, soldiered through the rough parts, and finished the game in about a week. But what really surprised me about the game was how much effort I put into the virtual relationships inside the game, specifically with the women. True to its reputation, Mass Effect lets you go to sexytown with either an alien or a human, and your in-game choices and sweet-talking dialogue options make it happen.

Now I'm not saying I've never put that much effort into an IRL relationship, I'm just saying I've never put that much effort into an opportunity to see a few hints of 3D generated nudity.

Thankfully, my sex drive didn't stop there. I also began to think about going out to bars. Not virtual "cantinas," but real bars. A fully-formed phrase would pop into my head: "I should go out. Like to a bar." Unsuspecting me was reading The Odyssey, and then suddenly hit with a desire to leave the house and meet women. This might sound like a no-brainer any time you're reading The Odyssey, but it was a new mood for me.

This wasn't a plot to insta-seduce lonely women and follow them home and sleep with them, mind you. My pious brain was concocting elaborate, chaste chains of events, where I'd meet someone really special, and we'd get to know each other, and there'd be a whirlwind romance and then we'd marry and have babies. My instinct was verbalizing this grandiose, supra-animalism concept with "let's go to a bar, Paul." God bless it.

So I went to a bar, and read The Odyssey there, and made some small talk with a cute girl who had just seen the interactive 3D Katy Perry movie. Eventually the two of us, inches away on our bar stools, worlds away in our mental landscapes, found common ground in the decision that Katy Perry is a bit like Woody Allen — you love or hate their work, there's seldom a middle opinion. I went back to my book, and then my eyes got tired from reading in the dim light and I went home. I'm not very good at bars.

My doctor recommended regular ejaculation;
my pastor thought I should get a second opinion

But it felt like a good step forward. It felt right. Online you can be sexually gratified faster than it takes to order a drink at a bar, much less give that drink to a woman, find out her name, meet her parents, etc. Porn is a short cut, but it also seems like it might short-circuit the natural order of things.

Another "perk" of my porn-free life was that I began to masturbate way less. I've gone a week or two without, in past attempts to quit porn, but it was always a serious struggle. Without the internet, the urge just has less opportunity or persistence. I felt like I was gaining a small amount of self-control.

But a funny thing happened on the way to asceticism. Essentially, a medically diagnosed case of blue balls. "Swollen pipes" would be one way to put it. Epididymitis is the technical term. It hurt, like a low-grade kick to the balls. My doctor recommended ice, Advil, tighter underwear, and regular ejaculation; my pastor thought I should get a second opinion. Needless to say, it's confused my crusade.

I'm not really any sort of expert on the science side of all this stuff, more like a conspiracy theorist. I know some people who never masturbated or looked at porn before marriage; I myself didn't masturbate until my 20s. Other people speak of masturbation as a physical necessity, and porn as a healthy pastime. There's plenty of science on both sides of the masturbation / porn coin. I hear there are TED Talks that really suss all this stuff out. My pastor's opinion, and one that I share, is that most masturbation distorts a primary purpose of sex (he calls it the "unitive purpose"), away from a partner and toward one's self — porn is just the gross trappings of this problem.

Still, while I believe these things are manageable, and worth quitting, I haven't stopped them entirely. The most difficult advice to hear is from porn-cured married men, the ones who write the sorts of Christian books I read. They talk about how they "struggled" to quit porn and masturbation after they were married, and how they wish so much they'd figured it out "while they were single." I'm not saying they're liars, I'm just saying they have sexual options. As a single, no-sex-until-marriage type of guy, I find the "nofap" way of life (Google it) difficult to pull off — even without the confusion of my particular medical situation.

See, I'm porn-free now, but I'm not porn-cured. I'm mostly just a porn user without any porn. I see less, and struggle less, but mostly because there's less to see and less to struggle with. The "what do you do for porn?" crowd will be happy to learn that I've found several alternatives, or at least alternative temptations.

For instance, film nudity is an intense distraction these days. I throw R-rated movies away when I'm high on will power, re-watch them when I'm not. Even when they're not used as a porn substitute, they heighten my awareness and weaken my resolve — a good billboard or magazine ad can do the same.

Frequently, in airport terminals, I've considered a purchase of 50 Shades of Gray. Ultimately I've suppressed the urge due to its associated retail-interaction shame — I typically buy a pulp sci-fi novel instead, and then read SkyMall on the plane — but I have written my own sexy stories, which I've since deleted. (footnote: Please, if you ever meet me in person, don't ask me about them. I will melt in shame, Wicked Witch of the West-style, right in front of you, and it's just going to be really awkward.)

After years of wanting so badly to stop, a quick rip of an ethernet plug was all it took

And, of course, there was that moment of desperation in Mexico. A long walk in a dangerous neighborhood to purchase some empty calories and an unfulfilling drug.

So yeah, I don't have this figured out yet. A second trip to my doctor revealed that my medical situation might be unrelated to my masturbation, but that hasn't solved all my problems — problems that feel more spiritual than physical, if I can be honest with you. Ultimately, I'm scared that when I go back to the internet, I'll go straight to my old habits, and this will just have been a bizarre year-long detour that resulted in some physical discomfort and an embarrassing Offline entry.

But, like many things in the no-internet year, what I hope to learn in my remaining IP-free months is to want the long-term benefits of no-porn more than I ever liked the short-term porn high. I've tried the whole pursuit of pleasure thing and it didn't work for me, so now I'm going to pursue "happiness," in the Aristotelian, ethical sense of the word. Aristotle says happiness is gotten by virtue, and virtue is won by overcoming an "irrational aspect" of the soul that fights it. The way to win is, simply enough, practice a virtue.

Yeah, Aristotle: real simple.

The Verge
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