Editor’s Note: This article contains a candid discussion about pornography and other adult themes. For more on online pornography, watch “This Is Life with Lisa Ling” on CNNgo. Catch new episodes Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Porn has always been around; researchers believe they’ve found explicit material dating back to the Stone Age.
In the past, however, it took effort to access porn – whether it was explicit artwork, a private magazine subscription, an X-rated television channel or a store that sold sex-related paraphernalia.
That has all changed. We can get pornography, in all of its extremes, for free at any time of day with a few taps of a finger. And as kids are given phones and other devices with web browsers at earlier ages, they, too, are encountering explicit content – possibly before they’ve even learned about sex or are aware of what porn is.
That is what Alexander Rhodes says happened to him. The tech entrepreneur, whom I interviewed for my CNN series “This Is Life,” says he became addicted to online porn by the time he was age 12, and it changed the way he perceived sex and relationships well into adulthood.
While porn addiction isn’t a medically recognized disease, Rhodes knows he isn’t alone. He began a porn recovery site called NoFap to try to help others free themselves from compulsive porn use; he isn’t a therapist, but in the process he’s cultivated a community.
We couldn’t run the entirety of my interview with Rhodes on “This Is Life,” so I’m sharing more of our conversation here. As you read, I think you’ll find that it speaks to something so relevant to kids and parents trying to navigate this digital world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lisa Ling: Have you always been into computers?
Alexander Rhodes: Yeah, my father is a computer programmer, so I was exposed to computers and knew how to use them from a very young age. I’d say around maybe 4.
Ling: Really? That’s really young.
Rhodes: Yeah, I was playing ’90s video games and, yeah – after the age of 10 or so, anything on the computer was my life.
Ling: When were you first exposed to porn?
Rhodes: I think I was around 11 the first time. I was on the computer on (a) video game-oriented website and I got exposed to a pop-up ad; it was a depiction of simulated rape porn.
Ling: So your first exposure to sex was a simulated rape scene?
Rhodes: Yes. I didn’t immediately [go] from the pop-up into that kind of stuff because I was 11 and I really wasn’t interested. I don’t think I even understood what was on there. I think at the time I was just like, “Oh, naked woman, that’s interesting.”
So I went online and I started looking up like, belly photos, just the female stomach. I wasn’t used to seeing that that much. I started out looking at underwear photos, nothing really pornographic. And then it escalated to breasts, and then eventually to more hardcore stuff.
Ling: How often were you seeking this out?
Rhodes: It started out maybe once a week or so. And then, over time, from once a week to every other day, then, eventually, to multiple times per day.
I think I was addicted to porn almost within the first year of first seeing it. I mean, I was 12 years old and I was using it pretty much all day. I would go at it and then I would play some video games, and then, once I was able to achieve arousal again, I’d go and load the porn back up and do it again and again and again.
Ling: When you say ‘go at it,’ what do you mean by that?
Rhodes: Use porn to masturbate, to orgasm.
Ling: How do you think exposure to hardcore porn affected you as a 12, 13 year old?
Rhodes: It impacted, I think, just my ability to self-motivate, because I really did train my brain to just rely on that orgasm every so often. I think I was very reliant on it to just regulate my emotions, just to get through the day.
I would say between 5th and 6th and 7th grade, I wouldn’t go out with friends as much. I wouldn’t do as much. I wouldn’t do any extracurricular activities; just go to school, go home and watch porn.
If you think about all the time that I could have been putting towards other things, if I, you know, masturbated in moderation without porn, I don’t know where I’d be today.
Ling: At your worst, how often were you viewing porn?
Rhodes: At least 10 times a day, if not 14, sometimes. I was going at it to the point where I was injuring myself. Chafing on my genitals. And I couldn’t even stop for a day to allow it to heal, just had to keep going. And I was, like, “This can’t be healthy.” But I just felt powerless to actually stop it. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t or I felt like I couldn’t.
Ling: Did your parents have any idea of what you were doing?
Rhodes: My parents had no idea … They were working, but also, I was very, very sneaky about it. I would know to wake up earlier or to run home from school so that I could get it in before they came home. I was very good at eluding my parents and making sure that they’re completely unaware. To my knowledge, I don’t think they ever knew anything about this up until when I told them about it.
Ling: Did you have any kind of sex education growing up?
Rhodes: I did have some sex education as early as elementary school but it definitely did not mention porn. Nobody warned me about this.
Ling: So if you say you were addicted to porn at a young age and were watching pretty hardcore stuff, how did you see girls?
Rhodes: That’s a good question. I think porn just took away all of the mystery of women to the point where I just wasn’t really that interested in them anymore. Originally, I was like, yeah, I wanna go on dates and stuff. But when I started getting heavily into porn, I just – I was good. You know, I had porn, I don’t need that.
Ling: How long did this porn addiction go on?
Rhodes: I would say I was addicted to porn between the ages of 11 or 12-ish to probably 25.
Ling: How did that continue to affect you beyond adolescence?
Rhodes: When I first had sex, I did quickly realize that in order to maintain arousal I had to really fantasize about porn and [I] almost ignored the person in front of me. That was the biggest indicator right there that something was happening.
You also have this other effect called delayed ejaculation. It’s also called an orgasm that’s just difficult or impossible to achieve, and that was my main thing. I could not have an orgasm; I just couldn’t because my brain was attracted more to pornography over a real person.
Ling: At what point, Alex, did you realize, “This is a big problem for me?”
Rhodes: I had a few impacted relationships as a result of porn addiction. I was never violent in the bedroom or anything like that. But you could say that I was generally disinterested in sex. It wasn’t that exciting to me. I would prefer pornography over my partner.
Ling: Porn has not been medically classified an addiction. Why do you believe it’s so addictive?
Rhodes: I think porn is addictive simply because it is targeting our sexuality and it’s endlessly available anytime, anywhere.
Whenever somebody hears about porn addiction, they may be quick to discount it because they’re thinking of some of the movements based in the ’50s or the ‘60s; retaliation to Playboy and Hustler, and stuff like that. I’m not against the depiction of somebody nude in some form of media. That’s not the problem here.
The problem is that today’s internet porn is not like your grandfather’s porn. It’s completely different from Playboy. It’s completely different from the porn of the past and that’s why it’s addictive, because our brains are wired to consume as much of it as possible.
Ling: Do you think there’s any kind of porn that is okay for people? We interviewed a married couple that uploads videos of themselves in real world situations just having sex; real bodies and everything.
Rhodes: Are you talking about the MakeLoveNotPorn site?
Ling: Yes. Do you think that there’s any porn that is okay and possibly healthy for people to consume?
Rhodes: I don’t think porn is healthy, but I’m not on a mission to outlaw it. I’m not on a mission to push for legislation. I think it’s everybody’s personal choice whether to consume it or not. It’s like cigarettes, in my opinion. I think that the more of it you use, the more at risk you are for addiction and the more at risk you are of negative side effects.
Ling: In many states, there’s no sex education at all. They have an abstinence-only mandate. And a lot of people are getting educated about sex through porn. What kind of sex education do you think we should be receiving?
Rhodes: If you don’t teach your kids about porn, the porn producers will teach your kids about porn for you. Whether you know it or not. So, it’s absolutely essential that every parent, even teachers, anybody, just warn the next generation about this issue.
I absolutely believe that’s my mission to get the word out there. Not to force people to stop using porn, but to at least allow them to make an educated decision about what they choose to do with their genitals during their free time.
Ling: What is NoFap?
Rhodes: Nice segue. In 2011, I was online looking for answers about why I couldn’t get anything done. I was super ineffective. Thankfully, I was smart enough to make it through school. I never got really great grades though or anything like that. I don’t know how much of it is to blame on the porn or other things.
But I was looking at a study from China that showed that if you abstain from masturbating for a week your blood serum testosterone levels will go up if you have a penis. So, I threw up a forum on Reddit and that’s where NoFap was born. The concept was to not masturbate for, like, a week or a month to see what would happen.
It was really just an experimental ground, like an experimental laboratory for people to come on and just share their experiences of not using porn [and] not masturbating. For a porn addict, it’s really tough to separate porn from masturbation. So, if they tried to masturbate without porn, chances are, they’re gonna be fantasizing about porn while masturbating.
It’s very important to make sure that people know that this isn’t an anti-masturbation website. This isn’t against masturbation. We’re very pro-sex. We’re a porn-skepticism site.
Ling: Is there an instructional guide to being able to cure porn addiction? Can you cure it?
Rhodes: On NoFap.com, we do have a program that people can join to assist them in quitting porn. For some people, it’s enough. For many people, it isn’t. Many people also need to go see a mental healthcare professional; porn addiction might be one component of many mental issues. There is not [a] one-size-fits-all solution.
This isn’t a male-only issue. It impacts women. It impacts people who don’t identify with any gender. It impacts Christians. It impacts atheists. It impacts Muslims. It impacts Republicans, Democrats. It doesn’t matter. We have people from every country, every continent across the planet. Men, women, everybody.
Many people might be like, “Oh, porn addiction, this has to be like this religious camp,” and that’s just not the case. I’m not a religious person. When I founded the site, I was an atheist.
Ling: What can parents who have kids with mobile devices on their person at all times, what can they do?
Rhodes: Well, I think the most important thing that a parent could do is to simply educate their children about porn, because there are always ways around filters [and] barriers that parents put up. Even if you get your kid a flip phone that can’t access porn, their friends can show them. They could go visit a friend’s house. Even schools are giving [kids] iPads and computers. Somebody else could show them porn.
Your kid is most likely, even if your house is like Fort Knox, still going to see porn at some point. I’m not telling you to be okay with it. I’m just telling you to acknowledge that it’s going to happen.
I understand that it’s an awkward subject, right? But would you rather avoid a little bit of discomfort now that sets your child up for a lifetime of potential discomfort and bad relationships and unrealistic portrayals or views on sex? So you kind of have to bite the bullet and just be honest with them. And just talk about it.
That’s why we’re here right now is because people don’t wanna talk about porn. They didn’t wanna talk about porn 20 years ago and it’s still an awkward subject to talk about. You need to get past the awkwardness and realize that if you don’t teach your kid about porn, the porn sites will teach your kid about porn for you.