Getting off (line): What’s lost in the age of internet porn

"We’re an army of unmanned drones, piloting our libido through the ether"

By Mark Slouka
February 22, 2016 5:30AM (UTC)
main article image
(Ollyy via Shutterstock)

        Every technology amputates the function it extends.

          Marshall McLuhan

It’s a rhetorical question – I don’t need a show of hands:  How many men have recently "lain with a woman," as the prophets might say, and found themselves unmanned because they’d been partaking of too much porn?  Or found that, in order to man themselves, they needed to superimpose a recollected online image onto the scene like a high-school biology teacher placing a transparency of the endocrine system on the overhead projector?


It’s a fair question, maybe even -- given the unsolicited anecdotes I’ve been picking up from the men and women who are confident enough to talk about the issue – an important one.  Important because the case of online porn opens a small window onto what happens when we outsource our imaginations, when we begin to accept generic, instantly accessible fantasies in place of the ones we used to have to work for.  Extend ourselves for, as it were.

What happens is we’re screwed, that’s what happens.  Not in a good way.

To make my case, I have to digress from porn to the University of Chicago, where I once professed, and from thence to a crack house in Winslow, Arizona. Bear with me. 


Though at present I’m a sojourner in civilized life again, I taught college for 30 years, during which time, not surprisingly, I saw some changes:  office hours grew virtual, chalk was digitalized, professors (with heroic exceptions) morphed into entertainers teaching to customer satisfaction surveys filled out at the end of the term. So far, so good; nothing’s perfect. Underlying all this "progress," though, was a steady, graphable rise in student itchiness, an inability to stay the fuck still. To follow an idea, to immerse in a book -- to go deep.  I’d watch it in the library, make bets with myself: two minutes before she checks her phone? Less?  Worse, I began to notice the same thing in myself – a current of distraction, like static in the brain.

Not long after I saw a distracted colleague sweep his index finger across the cover of a physical magazine, I left the halls of almost-ivy and, having nowhere much else to go, moved with my family to a small house in Winslow, Arizona, where my desk looked out on Route 66, dust storms and a crack house.

I liked working at that desk.  Whenever the novel I was working on gave me trouble, I’d look up and study the young man with the cantaloupe-size biceps who sat on the porch across the street, tilted back on a wooden chair in front of the plywood-covered windows.  His leg jerking like he was carrying a charge, he’d sit for 20 or 30 seconds, fidgeting, scratching, then grab his phone. Sometimes he’d leap up and walk quickly back and forth on the cracked sidewalk, talking – laughing, yelling, cursing – until a customer pulled up, at which point he’d exchange goods for legal tender through the passenger-side window, walk rapidly back to the chair, shift the phone to his left hand, snatch a barbell off the floorboards and do a few quick curls. Then the phone again. 


This would go on for hours.  I’d disappear into my book for an hour or more, then reemerge and there he’d be: pacing, scratching, fiddling with the phone, pumping iron – a hundred sets of two – most sincerely strung out.

And then a desert epiphany came to me as it came to John the Baptist: subtract the barbell, ratchet down the craziness, upgrade for decency (if not necessarily IQ), and I was looking at one of my former students.  Here was the same inability to be still, to do one thing, any thing. To throw one leg over the other and watch the dust storm coming in, to be in your own skull.  The conclusion was as inescapable as it was uncomfortable: We – maybe all of us, to one degree or another -- were exhibiting signs of addiction; the drug might be legal (in fact, universally sanctioned and more or less mandatory), and the effects less toxic, but the similarities were striking.


I was wrong: The effects were just as toxic, they just manifested themselves more gradually, less visibly; instead of targeting your liver, say, this drug hit your ability to think, to contemplate your world, to use your imagination, to be alone. It let you keep your teeth and your job while it quietly paved your soul.

All of which brings us back around to online porn, something I’ve partaken of – might as well clear that right up -- as has pretty much every man capable of curiosity and possessed of a penis.  Truly, there’s something extraordinary about this virtual edifice, this million-room whorehouse catering at a keystroke to every conceivable taste and fancy, entirely free of the old-timey risks of disease, danger and social embarrassment.  A parody of the marketplace?  This is the quintessence of it.  This is what the piled centuries since Adam Smith have been building toward: a universal human need -- for most of our lives nearly as essential as shelter -- commodified, then abstracted into light, then delivered friction-free to the customer waiting dry-mouthed by the door. What could be more perfect?

Unfortunately, the term "friction-free" is the thread that, once pulled, starts the unraveling. Why?  Because beyond the method of delivery there’s really nothing friction-free about it, because even the slightest deviation from the main channel suddenly finds you backpedaling out of ugly back eddies where the subjects look like they’re in eighth grade and the forces of manipulation, coercion (and worse) are all too visible.  Because, at the end of the process, actual human beings are actually involved, many of whom don’t get a vote.  Because there’s fucking -- to speak plainly -- and then there’s fucked-up. 


But setting aside the truly insane shit – the kids and the rape porn and the crush videos, etc., best left to the cops – still leaves us with a continent’s worth of stuff catering to people who just want to get off.  Which is where the second problem with "friction-free" delivery comes up, namely, that it’s just that.

A certain amount of friction – in the bedroom as in a democracy – is a good thing, a beneficial thing. It tells us we’re alive in a world of skin and fur and opinions not our own; it forces us to reckon with others, to contend and argue and accommodate. It asks something of us. It makes us stronger. Ultimately, despite the headaches, it makes us happier, too, if only because we evolved in relation to the messy, physical world, and you don’t erase a million years of evolutionary adaptation in the space of a generation without some interesting side effects. 

So what’s the appeal of friction-free?  Simple: convenience, comfort, cost.  Physical space requires energy and money to cross; social interaction carries risk. As human beings, we’ve been courting the Big Easy – softening the hard edges of the world, conquering distance and time, developing technological prostheses that enhance our limited natural abilities – for half a millennium and more. The problem, though, is that we’ve gotten too good at it, too indiscriminate about which edges we plane smooth. Having saved ourselves a great deal of time and labor (easier, faster, smoother) we’re moving on to saving ourselves the trouble of thinking. Conquering the world, we’ve allowed ourselves to be conquered.


At times it has the feeling of a natural law: soften the hard edges, you soften yourself. It’s not hard to see where this leads. Eventually, surrounded by the accessible, the instant, and the effortless, you can barely feel your life at all – except as an occasional source of irritation that things aren’t more accessible, instant, effortless.  At which point it occurs to you that "friction-free" is a synonym for "dead."

How does all this apply to pornhub? Pretty well, I think. The irresistible lure of online porn is that it’s easy, risk-free; the sting in the tail is that not only is there no accountability, there’s no presence. We’re not involved, really. We’re an army of unmanned drones, piloting our libido through the ether, one hand firmly on the controls, risking nothing. 

And yet, we are – more than we think.   

To explain the fine print charges on your last, more-or-less friction-free transaction with Brandi Love requires a brief, impressionistic history of porn and the male imagination.


A Brief Impressionistic History of Porn and the Male Imagination

In the beginning, or near enough, there was probably shape: the soft cleft in the skin of a fruit, the curve of a root. With the object of our affections elsewhere and absence making our heart grow fonder, we saw her (or a reasonable stand-in) everywhere, and knew what to do. Eventually, to enhance our doing, representation kicked in: a finger drawing in the dust, perhaps a cave painting not like the ones usually found on the Discovery Channel.

Over time we lent substance to our musings, carving fertility goddesses with impossible breasts and mountainous buttocks (and, because it doesn’t hurt to dream, gentlemen sporting phalluses that would require a 12-foot partner to put into practice) and so forth.  Other modes and materials – pigment on canvas, stone, etc. followed.  Some of these, because they were good, became art (and blasphemous though it may sound, one can imagine the artist’s pulse ticking up a bit as he chisels the undercurve of that marble ass), the vast majority did not.

Since nothing much happens for a while, skip a few centuries to 1970,  where we find my 12-year-old, sullen self walking down the side of a country road in Tarrytown, New York, kicking at garbage on the shoulder.  When I boot a rain-soaked paper bag, magazines spill out.  I peel back the tearing, sodden pages -- how erotic that memory still is -- and there they are! Girls -- because that’s what they were then. With breasts! My heart beating  like a jackhammer, anticipatory shame reddening my face, I stuff them in my jacket, praying to whatever gods there be that my mother doesn’t find out.  She doesn’t.  The contraband is successfully transferred to my friends, Matt and Andy, who secret it in the clubhouse under the floorboards where it remains, fingered over, until it disintegrates into molecules.


So far, then, from tree roots to, I don’t know, Japanese erotic prints to Swank magazine, nothing much has changed.  Admittedly, photography has added a layer of realism, but one all-important constant holds: The object of desire is static, silent.  To animate her we have to imagine how she’d move, what she’d do, how she’d sound. 

In the 1970s she begins to move and, in a manner of speaking, speak.  Pornographic films, heretofore a specialty interest, and quite illegal, go mainstream; a last few legal hurdles are cleared, and the floodgates of the wonder-world swing open. For a short time, Linda Lovelace does what she does amusingly broken up by the censors into a hundred tiny frames (forcing some last, tired twitch from our imagination), and then, thanks to the Supreme Court, she and the requisite part of her costar, Mr. Harry Reems, cohere into a single image.  Our brain is no longer needed; in fact, given the "dialogue," it’s probably best left at home. 

There’s only one problem left to solve. To get where we want to go, we still have to get up – that is, move our corporeal body to that drugstore or newsstand to buy the mag where we may have to brave the sales girl who takes one look and knows it’s another Saturday night and we ain’t got nobody; we have to take the subway to Times Square and walk into that movie house on 43rd and 8th, then sit next to nasty old guys in raincoats, staring at a movie that’s two hours too long and doesn’t really fit the bill anyway . . . This takes dedication.

But the powers that would improve our lives never rest. The video player introduces a wider range of consumer options, at-home convenience and the miracle of the rewind button (though the actual cassette still has to be secreted away in the sock drawer), and then, before we know it, the digital revolution is upon us and the last barriers fall: from here in, to quote Don Henley, it’s everything, all the time. The options are endless, and endlessly gratifying; instantly here and – equally helpful -- instantly gone.  No need to get dressed, go out, spend money, court rejection, perform, talk, escape. Better still, we can get off pretty much anywhere, any time - no fuss, no muss.  Having a little trouble with that report today, or maybe just bored?  A few quick strokes and we’re in, glandular overload in five, four, three, two seconds. Given men’s more objective, fuel-injected mechanics (“Breasts?  Wham!), this is freebasing sex, and, as with the other, there’s nothing free about it.


Stuff yourself at the All-U-Can-Eat long enough, you forget to taste the food; after a while, you forget how. Stuff yourself on others’ fantasies, and you lose the ability to form your own.  There’s something paternalistic about the process, infantilizing: “You just sit there, baby – I’ll do everything.  No need to trouble your little head.”  Not that one, anyway.

In this context, Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “every new technology amputates the function it extends” has a particularly unfortunate ring. Still, whatever literal un-manning may be taking place (and who can fail to see the link between skyrocketing impotence rates and the expansion of on-line porn), the real violence is being done to our heads, which are, after all, connected to the rest of us. Step by step, to recall e.e.cummings, the world of the made replaces the world of the born; the machine colonizes the mind.

To experience, um, firsthand, what I’m talking about, try the following experiment – call it Independent Study No. 1. The next time your fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, tap into whatever site you’d ordinarily tap into, and pay attention. Remember – this is homework. Notice how quickly your interest peaks -- tap, tap, in! – and how swiftly you disconnect once the mission’s been completed – exit, exit, now back to that report.

A graphic representation (horizontal axis for duration, vertical for pleasure), would resemble an alp. I’m not going to draw it for you – imagine it.     

We’re not done.  The next time the urge befalls, resist going the usual route and instead, go solo, all by your lonesome, in your very own, unmediated head. Call it Independent Study No. 2.  It may feel unfamiliar at first -- a bit like reading a novel, which, come to think of it, requires much the same equipment -- but persevere anyway.  If it’s difficult, boring or impossible, stop to consider how scary this is (“This is your brain on technology”), recall that line from McLuhan, then dedicate yourself to regrowing your sexuality by reclaiming your imagination. If, on the other hand, you’re able to find a nice place in the sun in which to spend a fruitful moment or two, notice how different it is from Study No. 1. Note, first, how much slower the buildup is, how your mind flutters and dips from flower to flower before it settles in for the ride, how you actually have to work that muscle a bit (still talking about your brain) before arriving at the station, just to mix a few metaphors. Notice, above all, after duly getting off at that station, how comparatively nice it is there. How you’re in no hurry to get back to work; how you want to just sit on the bench a while, and smile.

Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka’s work has appeared frequently in Harper’s, Granta, The Paris Review and other publications. His novels and essays have been translated into sixteen languages, and he lives with his family in Brewster, New York. His memoir, Labyrinth of the Heart, will be out with Norton in fall 2016, and his blog, Notes From The Shack: On Nature, Culture, Politics and Technology, can be found on

MORE FROM Mark Slouka

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Pick Internet Pornography Life Stories Love And Sex