The Male Animal: Internet Porn Nearly Ruined His Life. Now He Wants to Help.

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The Male Animal: Internet Porn Nearly Ruined His Life. Now He Wants to Help.

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Alexander Rhodes sat along a stretch of grass, looking out over the Allegheny River. The two of us were sitting in a quiet space on the outskirts of Pittsburgh where we had planned to spend the night in tents camping out.

“The key thing to consider is that I am not a very good businessman,” he said. “I’m not really anything but a guy who was addicted to internet porn.”

A few years ago, Mr. Rhodes, 26, founded a website as an online space meant to help others who share his particular problem. It has about one million unique visitors each month, he said, and nearly breaks even.

Mr. Rhodes, who grew up in western Pennsylvania and worked at Google until recently, is now hoping to make his site into something larger. With the help of his father and other family members, he is transforming part of an abandoned church into a base of operations for his fledgling company.

“It’s one thing to look back and regret what happened in terms of growing up, being addicted to internet porn,” he said. “You might look back and be like: ‘Oh, man. I was a loser. And if I never watched it, my life would be so much better.’ And maybe that’s true. But at the same time, the fact that I was addicted to internet porn, the fact that I was so mediocre, makes me uniquely qualified to help humanity.”

In recent years, Mr. Rhodes has emerged as a spokesman against a “disease” that hasn’t been officially recognized by the medical establishment. He seemed uneasy with his new status.

He was careful with every word and asked to go off the record more than a government official. He would not confirm whether he was involved with someone, saying only that, since giving up pornography “for good” in 2013, he has been able to have meaningful relationships with women.

In some ways, his story is that of the digital age. His father was a computer programmer, and he was exposed to digital technology from early on. He gravitated to Nintendo Game Boy and eventually moved to the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation.

At 11 or so, he said, he clicked on a banner ad by mistake and found an image depicting rape. By the time he had reached adolescence, so had the internet, and Mr. Rhodes came to rely on high-definition pornography that was easy to find and often free. By college, he was masturbating while watching it up to 14 times a day, he said.

“I would say, ‘O.K., I have to take a few days to recover from this, like physically recover,’” he said, “and I couldn’t last for even a day.”

Mr. Rhodes’s seeming dependence on porn didn’t help matters with his first girlfriend, whom he started dating when he was a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. It was his first real chance for sustained intimacy, and he blew it.

“I don’t think it was all due to internet porn,” he said. “But I can tell you that the sex life didn’t go very well. I had porn-induced erectile dysfunction — a very mild form, and this is all very self-diagnosed, because doctors won’t diagnose this — but I was able to maintain an erection by fantasizing about pornography. That was the only way.”

A Time for Change

In 2011, Mr. Rhodes was lost and in search of support. He created a discussion forum on Reddit on the topic of abstaining from masturbation and pornography. He realized he was far from alone and began his stand-alone site soon after.

After college, he continued to build the site while working as a contractor for Google, specializing in data analysis. He said he earned good money and was able to put a good amount into the website (called NoFap.com, from a slang term for masturbation). But he was still using the supposed vice he was railing against. It took another failed relationship to get him to quit.

“I think I was relying on pornography as some kind of emotional crutch,” he said. “If anything bad would happen, you would go to porn, because it would always be there.

“I knew it was bad for me,” he said. “But I also realized it was bad for women I was involved with, and that was the moment that I said: ‘I need to leave this thing behind. It is completely distorting my sexuality to the point where it could actually be harmful or at least not enjoyable for other people who I am involved with.’”

Mr. Rhodes came to believe he had a calling greater than his work in data analysis at Google. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said of his leaving the job last year. “But ultimately it was what was best for humanity.”

The website serves as an online umbrella for men looking to escape pornography. It has advertisements for porn-blocking software and online programs that promote the idea of steering clear of pornography and masturbation. The site also has discussion forums and includes testimonials by men sharing stories of their successes and failures.

And it helps match men with “accountability partners” meant to serve as Alcoholics Anonymous-style sponsors, to keep a person on the right path. The site generates revenue through subscriptions and advertising, Mr. Rhodes said.

To make it into something more robust, Mr. Rhodes needed to “come out” as a spokesman of sorts. After he appeared in a New York magazine article in 2013 about men who had quit masturbating, he told his mother what was going on, much to her horror. Other interviews followed.

While his family remains supportive, there are limits. When he showed his mother a recent article in Time magazine in which he was quoted, she said, joking, “I shouldn’t be reading these types of things about my son,” Mr. Rhodes said, recalling his mother’s reaction.

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The Confession

On the first day I visited Mr. Rhodes, we climbed the stairs of the former St. Clement Church in Tarentum, Pa. The structure, built in 1906, had long since been abandoned, its pews, confessional and attached school crumbling and gathering dust.

His father, Phillip Rhodes, had recently bought the sprawling complex at auction for $50,000. While the church is likely to house other businesses, the younger Mr. Rhodes sees a future there for him and a fully staffed operation.

He sat on one side of the church confessional while I sat on the other. “Tell me the last time you watched porn,” I said, joking.

Despite the location, he has largely kept away from religious people, especially evangelicals wanting to team up with him, even though such a relationship could help fund his work.

“I have viewpoints that don’t mesh with their viewpoints,” Mr. Rhodes said. “I’m very sex-positive. I’m not a religious person. I’m not someone who supports religion. I’m not against religion, but I don’t support it. And I completely, firmly believe in premarital sex.”

Mr. Rhodes said he has also endured the wrath of those on the other end of the ideological spectrum. People have tried — and failed — to hack the site’s servers, and its forums have been bombarded with pornographic images, he said. His father received pornography in the mail, Mr. Rhodes said, and he himself has gotten death threats.

“It’s just something you have to deal with and let the proper authorities follow up on anything,” he said. Soon it would grow terribly cold, making for a terrible night of sleep in spite of a tent and a supposedly insulated sleeping bag that I bought at a suburban Target.

On the morning of our second day, Mr. Rhodes sat near the extinguished campfire from the night before, laptop on his knees. Soon we’d be departing the campsite, heading back to the city, to “civilization.”

But first he had to present a webinar for another pornography-addiction outfit. During the chat, he spoke with people who asked about avoiding triggers. As the session continued, he spoke less about pornography than about the need to take care of oneself, both physically and emotionally. He talked about developing good habits and routines, about changing one’s life in general.

When a health care worker asked about fatigue and how he believed it often led him to pornography, Mr. Rhodes told the man that he needed to take care of his own health as well.

“It’s like if you’re on an airplane flight,” Mr. Rhodes said, “and they say, ‘Oh, you have to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others with theirs.’ It’s because you’ll pass out trying to get a mask on to somebody else. You have to make sure you’re in a balanced spot in order to best serve other people, in order to best serve the world.”

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