Is porn ruining our love lives?

It's destroying Cindy Gallop's romps with men raised on smut. Now she's calling for sexual re-education

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published October 27, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)

Cindy Gallop, creator of "Make Love Not Porn"  (Ioulex)
Cindy Gallop, creator of "Make Love Not Porn" (Ioulex)

Cindy Gallop has intimate experience with how porn is changing sex. That isn't because she's a member of the so-called porn generation -- but because she sleeps with younger men who are.

The 51-year-old isn't afraid to admit it, either -- in fact, it was her opener when giving a TED Talk two years ago about her business venture, the website Make Love Not Porn. A video of the successful British entrepreneur, with her angular blond bob, tight leather pants and stilettos, giving the raunchy four-minute speech at the venerable conference quickly went viral. The popularity of the clip wasn't just a result of her cheeky frankness, but because she articulated something about our modern sexual experience that is either talked about in a moralizing manner or not at all -- that the proliferation of porn is profoundly changing the way that we have sex.

With little concern for the tame, academic tone of the conference, she began calling out pornographic myths -- like that all women enjoy being on the receiving end of the adult industry's celebrated "money shot." "There's an entire generation growing up that believes what you see in hardcore pornography is the way that you have sex," she said, adding that this miseducation is only exacerbated by our "puritanical double-standards culture where people believe that a teen abstinence campaign will actually work, where parents are too embarrassed to have conversations about sex with their children and where educational institutions are terrified of being politically incorrect if they pick up those conversations."

This week, the topic of porn's impact was raised again in response to a survey reporting that young Italian men reported performance problems related to excessive porn viewing. [Ed. note: Some have called the survey's merit into question. See NSFW analysis here.] So, I decided to give Gallop a call -- at her all-black Manhattan "bachelorette pad," which was formerly the men's locker room at the historic YMCA -- to talk about smut-induced erectile dysfunction, the sex talks parents should be having with their kids and what she really means by "make love not porn."

What are your thoughts about this survey's claims about porn's effect on young men?

When I talk about "Make Love Not Porn," I always have to explain that the impact of porn as default, stand-in sex education is actually much more fundamental and insidiously ingrained than a lot of people have ever thought. So, in that context, this report doesn't surprise me at all, because I observe in my own personal experience a number of things playing out that are very much in line with what the report talks about.

Can you elaborate a bit for those who haven't seen your TED talk or read the e-book version of it?

I'm 51, I'm old enough to remember back in the day when the guys I slept with were extremely keen that I came, that I came first, that I came at least once, if not several times. These days, I don't come and it's not even remarked upon. Bear in mind that I date utterly lovely younger men – but this is simply what has been imprinted on them. Because 99.9 percent of all mainstream porn is made by men for men, the entire raison d'être of every single mainstream porn film is to get the man off. As a result, an entire generation of guys and girls is growing up believing that the be-all and end-all of sex is to get the man off.

It always amuses me when people talk about "watching porn" as if it's like watching any other form of entertainment -- because no one's "watching" porn, they're wanking. If you are watching several hours of porn per day and night and you are wanking consistently all the way through that, then men can get so sensitized to the way that they bring themselves off that they can no longer [come with a woman]. This is something that I'd observed myself and had corroborated by Dr. Ian Kerner, who runs the website "Good In Bed." He calls this "idiosyncratic masturbatory syndrome" -- a number of his patients struggle with the fact that they can't come through normal intercourse.

It's funny that porn is geared toward men, it's made for them, and yet it can have this negative impact on them.

Yes, let me also say, "Make Love Not Porn" is a gender-equal proposition, because what is being imprinted on men is also being imprinted on women. I talk to 20-something guys who say to me, "My girlfriends are doing everything they see in porn and it's getting in the way of the real connection." Girls go into the experience having no idea how to really get fulfillment for themselves, having an enormously difficult time articulating that and believing that their focus has to be to get the man off otherwise they're not good in bed.

The reason I say that what I'm combating is not porn but a lack of dialogue around it is because if you boiled my entire message down to one thing it would be purely and simply: Talk about it. We all get enormously vulnerable when we get naked. Sexual egos are very fragile and people find it bizarrely difficult to talk about sex with the people they're having it with while they're actually having it -- because you're terrified of hurting another person's feelings or derailing the entire episode. At the same time, you do want to please your partner, so you seize the cues from anyplace you can and if the only cues you have are from porn, then those are the ones you'll take.

Somewhere I read that you consider yourself not anti-porn but anti-bad porn. Is that right?

Well, I'm pro-porn generally. I don't judge what is good and bad porn. The issue I'm tackling is not porn, it's the complete lack of an open, healthy dialogue in our society around sex and porn. Most parents are way too embarrassed to teach their children about sex. Now, back in the day that meant having a conversation about the birds and the bees, about the sheer logistics of what happens. Today, the conversation a parent should have with their children is even less likely to happen, because today the conversation would have to be: "So, darling, I know you're already online and I know you've probably already accessed a whole bunch of Internet porn sites. What I need to say to you is that, actually, a lot of women don't like being choked and spat on and tied up and gang banged." No parent is ever going to have that conversation. The need to create an open healthy dialogue around this is even greater now.

This makes me think of the attempts, especially in the U.K., to protect children from pornography (which I've written about here). It's funny, we're not very willing to talk about sex, but we're also attempting to censor this default resource for information on sex.

It's such a wrongheaded move, Tracy, because the answer is not censorship. I completely concur that children should not be seeing these things, but anyone who sets out to try and protect children, block them and censor porn is on a hiding to nothing. The biological chemistry of human sexual desire has outlived all attempts to censor and repress it and always will. If anybody really wants to, the way to address this is to be open and healthy and talk about it -- with children, with adults and in the media generally.

We're seeped in porn and yet we're not willing to talk about it. How do we begin that conversation?

Well, clearly, what I'm planning on doing is absolutely designed to stimulate that in a very interesting way. I believe in order at all to be effective you have to make the dialogue around this socially acceptable and socially sharable. I believe you have to take all of the dynamics that are out there in social media and apply them to sex, and that's what I'm planning to do. Everything we're talking about and everything this latest survey reports on is so endemic that we really have to tackle it in ways that are designed to be equally endemic within popular culture.

With "Make Love Not Porn," I'm tackling the single biggest impact technology is currently having on the most fundamental aspect of human behavior, which is our sexuality. It actually informs everything about how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about other people, our relationships, our lives and our happiness.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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