How not to make love like a porn star

Hey, guys: Are adult films making you bad at sex?


Mary Elizabeth Williams
November 2, 2009 5:29AM (UTC)

He'd been jackhammering away for what felt like hours. "You like that, baby? You like that?" he asked, though he didn't notice I wasn't answering. And then, somewhere around the 18th time he said it, it hit me -- I wasn't just having bad sex. I was having bad porn sex.

Unlike other recreational pleasures -- bowling, baking pies -- sex, unless you're a swinger, isn't something people get much firsthand observational experience with. Forget about getting real information from school about how awesome it’s supposed to feel. And the trainer from the gym isn’t going to stand by while you’re getting your freak on, telling you your form is off.  Hence the instructional uses of the erotic feature.

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We are thankfully a generation away from the days one had to do a stealthy walk of shame to the back room of the local video store for a glimpse of naked people going at it. We can, if we so choose, sit around in our underwear all day and watch Tera Patrick do what she gets paid to do. The rise of youporn.com and other user-generated sites means that "face-sitting in latex" is easier to get than a Domino’s delivery -- and about as good.

Convenience, ubiquity and the goal-oriented, money-shot, male-centric perspective of most porn (hint: Women don’t need to see that much fellatio) have changed us. Much has been written on how porn’s transformation into the modern sexual lingua franca affects women -- the pressure to be bush-shaved and adept at pole dancing didn’t come from Oprah or Martha Stewart. But porn has changed men too -- what we expect of them, what they demand of themselves. And the problem is that thinking you can learn to make love to a woman from watching porn is like thinking you can learn to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."

Porno sex is about the angles and displaying the goods. Whether the actors who are putting in a hard day's work on the job are actually enjoying themselves doesn't matter. It's about performance, and performance, more and more, is just another aspect of life in general. We tweet what we're eating for dinner. We upload a photo of the party we're celebrating right now on Facebook. And some of us are screwing like we're trying to go viral, long on ego and short on originality.

It’s hard to feel fully in the moment when you’re thinking of what it would be like to watch it. And there’s something cold and sad and deeply unerotic about being in the throes of it with somebody and thinking, "Why does this remind me of ‘Weapons of Ass Destruction 4’?"  As a friend said recently, "Just because it looks good doesn't mean it is. Then I wind up feeling inadequate because I'm not enjoying it." Soon after, another friend mentioned a man she'd been dating, whose erotic repertoire included withdrawing his member at key moments to thump it on her. After puzzling over it with friends, she finally figured out: It's a porn move. Listen, if you're a professional showing off his stuff for the camera, that sort of thing almost makes sense. Out of context, however, it's another situation entirely. You know what description you never want a woman you've slept with to apply to your sexual technique? "Baffling."

Of course, everybody is different, and what wins one person a fan for life can send another rushing to book an emergency shrink session. But if we learn by example, does anybody really want an education from someone who has a fluffer?

If you’re still unsure how to answer that question, I refer you to the funny, sexy and often spectacularly gross new book "Rock Her World: The Sex Guide for the Modern Man" by Adam Glassner. Glassner, better known as gonzo porn auteur Seymore Butts, cheerfully peppers his tome with behind the scenes anecdotes from the world of adult films -- and many, many episodes involving bodies and their fluids going wrong. The man who makes his living in adult features doesn’t advocate for theatrical antics. Instead, he recommends his readers have a "desire to give pleasure" and "genuinely like women."

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A person who is out to have a nice time, who has spent at least some of his adult life in the company of living, breathing humans, already knows that. If he has a very strong opinion about the declining standards of the Girlvana series, or if most of the urls on his bookmarks have an .xxx at the end, maybe he doesn't. Perhaps then he's like the gentleman I went home with once, who spent the entire time watching himself in the mirror. He did not have sex with me. He had sex on me.

I'm not doubting, by the way, that women are likewise vulnerable to conflating dirty movies with good sex. I am no stranger to the notion of trying too hard myself, as a few chafed former partners would likely attest. Women have a long history of performing during sex -- but our unrealistic, rock-your-world expectations are just as likely to come from "The Notebook" as they are from "Interracial Cheerleader Orgy." My male friends have their own versions of ill-fated hookups with would-be sex queens. I've heard the tales. I just haven't seen a lot of other women in action.

Likewise, I've known plenty of men who don't treat intimacy like a camera-ready event. I'm just saying to those who do: I once saw an adult movie in which the leading man hoisted a woman upside down, standing, the better to have her service him orally while he dangled her from her ankles. When you feel a particularly ambitious move coming on, ask yourself, am I Rocco Siffredi? Then no.

"Men have been imitating porn forever," says author and sex educator Anne Semans of Babeland.com. "When the Kama Sutra came out did they start busting out the weird moves?" Now, however, "It’s become more acceptable to buy into the porn fantasy." Last year when Babeland conducted a poll about sexual attitudes, one of the questions was, "The most inaccurate perception men have picked up from porn is ..." The top four responses from women were:

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  1. How women can have orgasm from just vaginal intercourse
  2. The idea that women love semen in their faces
  3. The notion that anal sex is sexy
  4. That women prefer huge cocks

So now that you know, you can take that pressure off us. Take it off yourselves. Because in spite of or because of the mythology of the ever-rarin'-to-go, hot-blooded man, the physical and emotional reality of male sexuality is far more complicated. A man has to hope his equipment is of pleasing dimensions, that it rises with his desire, that he doesn't finish too soon or go on too long. So When Mr. Jackhammer asked, "Does that feel good, baby?" he may well have really been trying. And did I pipe up and say no? I did not. I ran away and never saw him again, prompting a friend to say with a sigh, "Now he's just going to go do that routine to some other poor woman."

For all the sex we watch and all the fancy moves we know and all the people we've ever seen without their pants, sex remains one of the hardest things in the world to speak truthfully about. 

Life's not like the movies. Sex isn't just a matter of doing what comes naturally. I'm eternally grateful to Dr. Grafenberg, the authors of the "Lesbian Sex Secrets for Men," and all the intrepid explorers who've followed in their fingersteps. I have nothing but admiration for anyone who's ever had the guts to simply come out and ask a lover what works and what doesn't. I'm all for going at it on the pile of coats at the party or bringing in a treasure box of toys or talking dirty till the break of dawn if that's what you're into. Because -- and this is key -- it seems like fun. Remember fun?

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You don't see a lot of laughing in porn, but some of the best sex in my life has been punctuated with fits of giggles. You don't see a whole lot of genuine female orgasm in porn either, and believe me, that's a pretty big part of what makes a memorable evening for a lady. Aping an adult star doesn't make a person a lover any more than playing Rock Band makes him a musician. Good sex makes room for honest passion and uninhibited enthusiasm, and doesn't feel like an audition for AVN rookie of the year. It's messy and silly and profound. And unscripted.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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