Is Internet Porn Making Young Men Impotent?

Thousands of men claim that porn addiction has led to erectile dysfunction – but many in the the medical community are skeptical

"A lot of the guys I talk to say they can't get it up anymore because of Internet porn," says Gabe Deem, who started the website Reboot Nation. Credit: Illustration by Brittany Falussy

One afternoon last March, Tony, 27, logged onto PornHub to jerk off, as he usually did when he came home from work. He had just broken up with his girlfriend, and to fill the time he watched porn a few hours a day, "mostly out of boredom," he says. This time, however, he found that he couldn't get hard – at all. He tried the next day, then the next. Nothing. "It literally happened overnight," he said.

Tony, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, went to multiple doctors and a sex therapist, all of who were baffled by his condition. He took a series of tests to check his testosterone levels, all of which came back fine. "I made it clear that my ED was not brought on by some sudden social-emotional-financial trauma," he says. "I'm a healthy and otherwise content young man."

One of the doctors prescribed him Viagra, which didn't work: Viagra increases blood flow to the penis, which can help strengthen erections, but its efficacy requires the penis to be at least slightly erect in the first place. Tony could not get even a little bit hard, full stop.

So Tony started Googling around. What he found was a website called Reboot Nation, which was created by a muscular, blue-eyed, affable 29-year-old Texan named Gabe Deem. In a series of videos on the website, Deem told his own story, which was not dissimilar to Tony's: one day, Deem found he was unable to be aroused by his girlfriend, and he believed the culprit to be Internet porn. He created Reboot Nation as a way for men who had been similarly afflicted to take charge of their sex lives and "reboot" their porn-addled brains.

For Tony, it was nothing short of a eureka moment. "I discovered porn could have made some damage in my brain," he says. "It was a bit like how a tire wears down and down over constant use, until suddenly, one day, it bursts."

"I have teenage boys age 13, 14, telling me they can't get it up around a naked girl," says Gabe Deem. 

What Tony, Deem, and hundreds of thousands of other young men on the Internet have diagnosed themselves with was porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED). PIED is not in the DSM, which is typically considered the gold standard of diagnostic medicine; nor have there been many comprehensive peer-reviewed studies attesting to the phenomenon. Yet many young men in their twenties and thirties are turning to sites like Reboot Nation – according to Deem, it has approximately 10,000 visitors per month – as well as similar websites like Your Brain On Porn and the subreddit NoFap, to report experiencing symptoms of erectile dysfunction. And the one thing they have in common, they say, is a healthy diet of Internet porn.

"A lot of the guys I talk to say they can't get it up anymore because of Internet porn," says Deem. "Historically speaking, a breeze of the wind would affect a teenage boy, and now I have teenage boys age 13, 14, telling me they can't get it up around a naked girl."

Of course, porn has been around, in various forms, since the dawn of mankind itself; if cave paintings of naked women or silent film loops of blowjobs at stag parties didn't give men erectile dysfunction, why would porn suddenly be causing the loss of hundreds of thousands of boners now? But it is true that thanks to the advent of tube sites like PornHub, which is one of the top 50 most visited websites in the world, porn has become much more accessible to a much wider audience, not to mention much more varied. To many adolescent males, this is miraculous – but to those who claim to suffer from porn-induced erectile dysfunction, like Deem, it is nothing short of a disaster.

"Internet porn is not Playboy or a cave painting," Deem told me recently. "I can see 10,000 girls deep-throating cocks if I wanted to... The novelty and stimulation you get from Internet porn is unlike everything you've ever seen before."

Deem started struggling with porn-induced ED in his early twenties. Although he had been sexually active for years, all of a sudden he couldn't get an erection without porn, "no matter how hard I stroked myself," he says, cheerily. "I felt like I was 90 years old."

Deem did some research on porn addiction. He found oft-cited studies from proponents of the porn addiction model indicating that watching porn triggers the release of dopamine, causing us to feel pleasure, and that when that response is triggered repeatedly, a person will compulsively seek out the activity that prompted the pleasurable response, similar to how a drug addict repeatedly seeks out cocaine to get the same high, over and over again.

A popular TED Talk by Your Brain on Porn author Gary Wilson reaffirmed that view, arguing that as the brain creates more and more dopamine, it tires out, prompting a need for increasingly more frequent and intense stimulation. If a man masturbates to porn too frequently, Wilson explains in the video – which now has more than 8 million hits – "by age 22 or so a guy's sexual taste can be like deep roots in his brain." As they watch porn that gets increasingly more hardcore and aggressive, this leads men to seek out porn that is more and more "extreme," or "porn that no longer matches his sexual orientation." The only solution? To quit masturbating to porn entirely. Once that happens, Wilson explains, "his taste can revert" back to normal, because "brains are plastic."

"I have absolutely seen a pretty drastic increase in ED rates among young men," says one sex therapist. 

So Deem quit watching porn, or "rebooted," as he put it. After nine months of no porn and no masturbation, he says, he was able to have sex again. In March 2014, he also started Reboot Nation, where he counsels men who struggle with porn-induced erectile dysfunction. "I hear from guys who are suicidal and going to the doctors, and the doctors are telling them it's probably performance anxiety," he told me. "But that's just not helping, because that's not the issue."

To be clear, there is no firm scientific consensus on whether porn has a long-term effect on one's ability to maintain an erection, or even if porn has any long-term effects on the brain to begin with. Yet what we refer to as "psychogenic" erectile dysfunction – i.e., erectile dysfunction that does not have a physiological cause — has undoubtedly been on the rise in recent years. According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, nearly one out of four new erectile dysfunction patients is under the age of 40 – a surprising finding, given that erectile dysfunction has traditionally been thought of as an affliction of men in their sixties and seventies.

"I have absolutely seen a pretty drastic increase in ED rates among young men, especially in the last two, three years," sex therapist Vanessa Marin tells Rolling Stone. "My average client base is starting to get younger and younger." In 2015, a Vanity Fair article on hookup apps by Nancy Jo Sales also alluded to the phenomenon, quoting women who complained about the frequency of men losing their erections. "If a guy can't get hard," one woman said, "and I have to say, that happens a lot, they just act like it's the end of the world."

A number of factors have been speculated as being behind this trend, from eating processed foods to taking psychotropic drugs. Yet it's porn that is most frequently cited as the likely culprit, prompting the creation of the term "porn-induced erectile dysfunction," which was coined by Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, an associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard Medical School.

A recent study at the San Diego Naval Center, helmed by urologist Dr. Matthew Christman, brought the purported link between porn and ED into sharp focus. The study surveyed 300 men and women who presented at a urology clinic, finding that there was a link between excessive porn use and various sexual dysfunctions, including erectile dysfunction and decreased sexual desire.

To a large degree, the reason why porn is so often cited as the driving force behind rising ED rates among young men stems from the moral panic surrounding porn in general. In a puritanical society where porn has been attributed as the cause of everything from rising divorce rates to the demise of Anthony Weiner's career, porn is a convenient shibboleth. But that doesn't change the fact that porn is, indeed, everywhere, and that there are many people – both men and women – who claim to be negatively affected by its ubiquity, to the point where they claim they can't have sex altogether. "It's easier to blame porn than to blame a sexual dysfunction," says Dr. David Shusterman, a New York City-based urologist. "It’s easier to blame the scapegoat of porn than say what the real problem is."

"A desensitization process took place that made it difficult for me to be aroused by just one woman in front of me," says Noah Church, an earnest 27-year-old firefighter with a shaved head who is a regular on NoFap and in the anti-porn circuit. "I was so used to being able to click to video to video, seeing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted."

"From the ages of 10 to 23, I didn't cry a single time," says one advocate. "And I feel like that was porn numbing me, emotionally."

Porn, Church told me, not only robbed him of his ability to have an erection, but also his ability to process emotion. "It was like I was living in a grey-scale reality when I was using porn," he tells me, his voice tightening. "But now I can feel things to a greater degree. From the ages of 10 to 23, I didn't cry a single time. And I feel like that was porn numbing me, emotionally."

Deem is not a licensed counselor or therapist. (He proudly states that while he has no degree, he "literally graduated from Google University"). Nor, it must be noted, are many proponents of the porn addiction model, who often tout erectile dysfunction as one of the side effects of excessive porn use. Dr. Donald Hilton, who has coauthored some of the most-cited research on pornography addiction and the brain, is a neurosurgeon who is known for pioneering a type of cervical spine and lumbar surgery, while TED's description of Gary WIlson's talk contains a note: "This talk contains several assertions about masturbation that are not supported by academically respected studies in medicine and psychology. Please do not look to this talk for medical advice."

Many of those in the sex therapy industry, however, are skeptical of porn-induced erectile dysfunction. Sex therapist Ian Kerner, who treats many young men with erectile dysfunction, says that anecdotally, he has seen a slight increase in young male situational ED cases. Yet he says that the link between porn and erectile dysfunction is "more correlative than causal."

"I don't think porn is causing ED, I think porn is one of many factors of a guy with ED," Kerner says, citing performance anxiety, internalized sexual shame, or intimacy issues as possible culprits, particularly as hookup apps create more opportunities for casual sex. "What's underneath the problem isn't porn or masturbation, it's how they're thinking about approaching dating and the anxiety they experience," he says.

Dr. Shusterman, the urologist, believes that men who self-diagnose with porn-induced erectile dysfunction are likely suffering from the effects of a feedback loop: if they can't have sex, their porn use goes up, thus leading them to use porn as a crutch when it becomes difficult to have partner sex. "Porn is so often blamed, but is it the chicken or the egg?" he said. "Is it the porn use that causes ED, or is it the ED that causes porn use?"

Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist who runs the research institute Liberos LLC, has studied the effects of porn on the brain for years, and she is highly skeptical of the porn addiction model. Her skepticism carries over to the concept of porn-induced erectile dysfunction, which she claims is not supported by legitimate medical evidence. (Her stance as a vocal critic of the porn addiction model has prompted Deem and Wilson to release blog posts deconstructing her findings. According to Prause, they have also accused her of being funded by the porn industry, though Deem and Wilson deny this claim.)

"It's no more possible to be conditioned to using porn than it is using a vibrator or having a particular sexual behavior you really like with someone for a long time and you get used to it," she says, citing three independent laboratory studies that found no link between porn and sexual dysfunction, one of which was coauthored by her and Dr. Jim Pfaus. "There's no reason to think that this is a permanent switch or they're unable to respond at all to any real-world stimulus."

She is particularly dismissive of groups like r/NoFap and websites like Reboot Nation, which she claims exploit men's sexual anxieties. "I think it's a horrible thing to do to young men to capitalize on their fear and make them scared they've broken their bodies by natural sexual exploration," she says.

Of course, whether there is or isn't legitimate science behind PIED, that doesn't change the fact that men on Reboot Nation and NoFap are struggling with erectile dysfunction, and that their conditions are causing them pain, regardless of the medical reason. 

"We're not having any conversations about what are healthy ways to engage in porn. So no one has a general sense of what's healthy and unhealthy when it comes to porn," Marin, the sex therapist, says. "And of course it's not black and white either, but I do see a lot of younger men engaging in porn in ways that aren't healthy, in ways that make it more difficult for them to connect with partners and make it more difficult to engage in their own healthy sexuality."

For his part, Tony is still struggling with ED, though he attributes that in part to occasionally "relapsing" – the longest he's ever gone without porn was 75 days. When he can, he uses Viagra, but he sees it as a "crutch for a broken leg. The leg is still broken, but the crutch helps me walk. Walking gives me confidence to walk more. But I can't rely on a crutch forever." That is, of course, unless the leg wasn't broken to begin with.