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Fighting pornography: Group warns about dangers of 'new drug'

Students slowly filed into the auditorium at South Hills Middle School on Oct. 26.

It was a typical assembly — music played, a screen was set up and the lights dimmed as teachers told their students to quiet down a bit. The teens chattered excitedly, glad to be out of the classroom for a little while and wondering what the assembly was all about.

It was the Riverton middle school's Red Ribbon Week, so the assembly was expected to be all about drugs. The students weren't there to learn about tobacco and alcohol, though. They were there to learn about a "new" drug: pornography.

Fight the New Drug (FTND) is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization that does just what its name says it does: It exists to fight pornography with drug science, educating in ways that include assemblies like the one at South Hills.

It began in Logan when four friends and business students at Utah State University got together one night in 2006 to discuss entrepreneurial endeavors. The conversation eventually turned to fighting pornography. Cam Lee, Clay Olsen, Ryan Werner and Beau Lewis started putting some ideas together. Each took turns working full time on the project, juggling school and other full-time jobs while they were at it. In 2009, they were granted nonprofit status, and FTND officially launched its efforts in early 2010.

Back in their new Salt Lake City office, three of the four founders, all in their late 20s now, discussed their passion for the organization. The yellow, black and red walls, which the men painted themselves, match the website and logo. There's a makeshift movie studio in the back and an interior design company across the hall. They talked about their varied motivation behind the work that brought them to where they are today.

Each of the founders is united by the desire to somehow contribute to society in a way that will help the next generation of young people. They've found some facts and felt compelled to share, no matter the work or sacrifice. Werner, for example, worked full time on getting the organization going for about a year without a paycheck.

Olsen had an extra personal driving force. He recounted the story of a family member who had become addicted to pornography at 8 years old. The addiction led to loss of a job, loss of family and a prison sentence.

"He told me, 'Had I known what pornography had the capability of doing, I would've never touched the stuff,'" Olsen said. "He walked into it blindly. … Most people walk into it thinking there are no consequences and then they have a very, very scary rude awakening later on in life when they realize they're out of control. The idea of being able to help others avoid that is all the motivation I need."

While some may reject the idea of pornography being a drug, Derrick Hull, CEO of Candeo, an online pornography and sex addiction recovery program, believes it is. Hull has a master's degree in education technology and a master's degree in cognitive neuroscience from Harvard University.

"When you're looking at the neuroscience behind addiction, it's all the same," Hull said. "The reality is, the brain changes in response to the things we expose it to — whether it's chemicals or experiences."

Pornography is a behavioral addiction, he said, one that manipulates the chemistry of the brain just as drugs do.

"In seeing the science and the research that Fight the New Drug has put together, I'm impressed. It's unlike anything I've ever seen," Hull said.

"We invite critics to prove to us … that it isn't addicting," Lewis said in a later phone interview.

When it comes to anti-pornography, groups like Focus on the Family, Voices for Virtue and Morality in the Media come to mind.

While they commend the efforts of such organizations, the founders of FTND make it clear that they do not have any kind of religious, moral or political agenda.

"We didn't want to speak just to a specific demographic," Werner said. "When you talk science, all ears are open."

"I think it's got a broader way of impacting students," said Janette Milano, principal of South Hills Middle School, who was pleased with the outcome of the assembly. "I mean, you can get in there and talk about it on an addiction level or a physical level a lot easier than you can on a moral level."

In explaining their science, be it on their website or in their assemblies and presentations, the founders of FTND often compare the porn industry to the tobacco industry. They showed an old black-and-white television ad during the assembly. The commercial promoted Camel cigarettes because "more doctors use Camel."

Today, because of things like ad campaigns, Red Ribbon Week activities and DARE programs, the fact that drugs are harmful is a no-brainer to kids and adults alike.

The FTND founders pointed out there was a 30-year debate over whether or not cigarettes were unhealthy following some initial findings that linked smoking to lung cancer.

"Changing people's minds on how something affects you is almost impossible," Werner said.

But not so impossible that the people at Fight the New Drug won't try.

For now, FTND's focus is to do as many assemblies in middle schools and high schools as it can. It originally targeted college-age students but has since shifted focus.

"If we want the college-aged crowd to change their perceptions and attitudes and behaviors, we've got to get them before they're in college," Olsen said. "The biggest impact that our organization can make is with the teens."

Hull discussed how teenagers' developing brains are more susceptible to any kind of addiction. "It's a perfect demographic to target," he said of FTND's approach.

With everything from short movies to detailed animations to games, the founders do what they can to engage the students and make the presentation both informative and entertaining.

The assembly at South Hills was the first they had done this school year. Lee and Olsen, who are the presenters at most assemblies, made multiple changes to the presentation for another one they had in St. George the next day.

They're always trying to improve.

"It's always a work in progress," Lee said. "You learn by experience about how to really connect with the teenagers and what's important to them, what's not important to them."

And, Olsen interjected, what will ultimately lead to necessary changes.

At South Hills, Lee and Olsen picked out seven students to come up to the stage and become "fighters."

"Our fighters are the mouthpiece to this organization," Olsen explained.

The group estimates that between their old Facebook group, the new page, registration through their website and their email list, they have about 10,000 fighters.

The people at FTND provide the material and resources.

"But our fighters are the ones that take it from there and spread it to conversations in the locker room, conversations on the football field, conversations at home, conversations with friends and family, and pushing this knowledge on a peer-to-peer level. Teens will listen to a peer most often," Olsen said.

To date, schools and groups in Las Vegas, New York, St. Louis and Idaho have already contacted FTND, and they have also had contacts from South Africa, Brazil and Germany. The group is making a trip sponsored by The Rucks Family Foundation in a few months to Louisiana to visit 10 different schools.

But FTND feels it will be best to set up roots in Utah.

"It's not just because we're here," Werner said, explaining the recent studies that have found Utah has some of the highest numbers for paid subscriptions to pornography. "There's good reason for making this the place to start."

The founders are using before-and-after surveys to tweak their assemblies and are working to perfect their model here. There are FTND chapters — driven by fighter efforts — running at six to eight high schools and universities each year.

The group is putting together a downloadable video version of its presentation for curriculum. It has had video contests with prizes. It hosted a free awareness concert with the band Parachute this past summer. It even has plans to eventually develop a free online recovery program.

Lewis, whose background in accounting has helped him in managing finance and taxes for the group, said a lot of the group's plans and growth depends — as is the case with most organizations — on financing.

"We are two-and-a-half people," Olsen said. "And we have to realize that. We have limited resources. … If we spread ourselves too thin, we'll have less of an impact."

Olsen and Lee work full time for the group now. Werner, who has another full-time job, and Lewis, who does not live in Salt Lake near the other founders, contribute as much as they can.

Many of their resources so far come from the financial backing of groups like the Boyer Company.

"I think they understand the problem fully and understand the severity of the consequences it (pornography) has in society," Lewis said of why they were able to work out a deal with the foundation.

Between backing from Boyer and other groups like the Ashton Family Foundation, plus private contributions, FTND has stayed afloat — even thrived.

Lee and Werner pointed out how fortunate they were to make it, especially considering the environment for nonprofit organizations and the economy in general at the time of FTND's formation.

Olsen agreed.

"If there wasn't such a need for this I don't think that we would survive financially," he said.

While the founders believe there are multiple ways the movement could grow, they hope they will at least be able to create a model that can be replicated and franchised for use across the nation and around the world.

"Our goal is to have this campaign live on beyond us," Olsen said.

They imagine people from a variety of backgrounds, certified by FTND, delivering the message to their communities in ways that best suit the communities. The secret of success, they believe, lies in their "army of fighters" — a grassroots movement uniting otherwise vastly different people.

"Our chapters are comprised of people that possibly have struggled in the past, people that are just angry about what it's doing to society … or people that are just passionate about the cause," Olsen said. "And we don't know which one they are, because we don't ask — and who cares? It's kind of a 'Come one, come all. Let's do something about this."

To learn more about Fight the New Drug, visit the web site or FTND's Facebook page.