Porn is not the enemy of good sex: Don't blame a male "virility" crisis on browser histories

Young men may grow up saturated in Internet porn choices, but viewing habits alone aren't to blame for bad sex

Published April 5, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>Stone36</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Stone36 via Shutterstock)

Time magazine’s latest cover story is illustrated with a hazy black and white silhouette of a naked woman wrapped in the arms of another person, followed by an ominous looking four letter term: Porn, with a glaring red X inside the “o” followed by “Why young men who grew up with internet porn are becoming advocates for turning it off.” It’s clear just looking at it that pornography is not going to fare well. Inside, the headline of Belinda Luscombe’s story is even more sinister: “Porn and the Threat to Virility.” (The issue is out now, but online, the article is behind Time's paywall.)

It goes on to paint a portrait of young men who at one time were internet porn’s most avid consumers (largely of free pornography, rather than paying customers), who’ve now become self-described porn addicts and crusaders against such easily available XXX images. As Luscombe puts it, “A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.”

For these men, such as Alexander Rhodes, who left a job at Google to start “community based porn recovery website”, porn became something that controlled him, rather than vice versa, with him using porn to masturbate 10 times a day by age 14. What’s missing, though, from this treatment of porn is that this isn’t the whole story of modern porn consumption, nor is it a fully accurate one. When her subjects pit porn against real life sex, Luscombe doesn’t question them—but she should.

It’s a dangerous, slippery slope to slide from saying something to the effect of “Porn caused problems for me and my sexuality” to “Porn kills love”—but that’s exactly what many of these advocates, along with “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” actor Terry Crews, are doing. Crews proudly sported a #PornKillsLove t-shirt in a smiling Instagram photo, a product created by the group Fight the New Drug, who Luscombe approvingly cites. Yes, in their worldview, porn is a “drug” one can easily become addicted to—and quite the vicious one. (Incidentally, Fight the New Drug is cited in court filings by an attorney who’s suing Apple for allowing him to access porn on its devices.)

Fight the New Drug quotes a video Crews made called "Dirty Little Secret," where he says, “My issue was, and is with pornography, is that it changes the way you think about people, people become objects, people become body parts; they become things to be used rather than people to be loved.”

But why are we singling out porn and only porn as a purveyor of sexism and dehumanization? Why are we discounting the millions of men and women who use porn and are still able to see people as people? Why aren’t we trying to backtrack and explore when porn went from being something used for recreational fun to being a problem in these men’s lives, rather than equating porn use, practically by definition, with addiction and harm?

I’m not trying to argue that Crews and the men quoted in Time did not feel deleterious effects based on their pornography use; I’m saying that it’s quite possible those effects could have been avoided or lessened if they were given a context, whether at home and/or at school, about what porn signifies, and what it doesn’t. For instance, take the advice Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, founder and president of The Child Mind Institute, offers at Time Ideas, where he urges parents to tell kids that sex in porn is not the same as sex in real life. He writes, “In the real world, people don’t relate to each other this way. They have complex needs, and sex is usually just one part of their relationship. Real people don’t have intercourse for hours at a time, and they don’t always use the language and have the attitude towards each other that are common in porn films.”

Does that mean we shouldn’t watch porn? No, but that we should watch it with an educated eye and awareness that it’s not a documentary. There are ways we can critique the conflation of fantasy and reality when it comes to porn without blaming porn for things it hasn't actually caused (see Cindy Gallop’s TED Talk “Make love, not porn” and her website of the same name for an excellent example).

For the men afflicted by what they call PIED (“porn induced erectile dysfunction”), porn is viewed as a monolithic beast that one can either enjoy casually or something they must abstain from entirely lest it interfere with their personal sexual relationships. This is a draconian either/or that ignores female porn viewers and ways of interacting with porn that might mitigate what they see as its ill effects.

Are we just replacing one type of shame (at overusing porn) with another (missing porn)? That isn’t so far-fetched when you consider a rapturous post on NoFap by a “Fapstronaut” who will soon be getting married and “will be able to have a natural release with my wife.” But this comes at a cost to his psyche: “At times I felt like I missed P so much it was like mourning the death of someone.” By treating porn as a dangerous drug-like substance, we’re buying into the idea that all porn has negative consequences, and that porn is a relationship deterrent.

Does porn have to be treated as something that only men, and only solo men at that, enjoy, or are curious about, when we know that plenty of women watch porn themselves? In fact, 85 percent of women in a 2013 survey said they watched porn as a “fantasy escape.” So presenting porn only as a male crisis, and men seeing porn as something they can only either surrender to or overcome, is a false dichotomy. I’m not denying the experience of Gabe Deen, founder of Reboot Nation, which describes itself as “a community of people who have discovered the negative effects of pornography.” But when he tells Time, “The reason I quit watching porn is to have more sex,” rather than unquestioningly accepting that porn abstainers get laid more often, we have to be clear that porn and sex can and do go hand in hand, so to speak, for plenty of viewers—whether that means watching porn on their own in addition to partner sex, or watching porn with a partner.

I asked David J. Ley, Ph.D., author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction” and the forthcoming “Ethical Porn for Dicks, a Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure,” who’s quoted in the Time story, for his take on it. He said he was dismayed by the way the story “elevated the anecdotal experiences of people without giving any credence to the need to be critical of a patient's self report.”

Further, Ley strongly questioned the linking of not being able to get hard with a female partner with proof that there’s a threat to a man’s “virility.” According to Ley, “There are many reasons why a person might have difficulty getting an erection when they're with another person versus when they're masturbating to pornography. Those issues have to do with the fact that masturbation and sexual intercourse are two very different experiences that require different levels of activity, self-awareness, negotiation communication and integrity. It makes perfect sense that a man masturbating to pornography can relax and get an erection more easily versus when he has to be mindful and worry about whether he is a good lover with a partner. The difference has to do with the person, not the pornography.”

This attitude was echoed by others I spoke with, such as Hernando Chaves, a college sexuality professor and licensed marriage and family therapist. “Rather than promote abstinence campaigns against porn, the better approach is implementing early education and porn literacy training,” said Chaves. “In my ten years as a college human sexuality professor, with more than 1,500 students, I have never had a student state they were taught about porn, the realities of the adult industry, how to use porn as a pleasure enhancer or taught how to feel good about their sexual explorations with porn. It’s a failure of the parenting, educational, and societal systems to turn a blind eye to young adolescents who are seeking out porn yet have no opportunity or platform to process or discuss the material they discover.”

In other words, that men like the ones Time profiled were stuck navigating the vast array of porn at their fingertips completely alone is what we should be more concerned about, rather than considering porn itself the culprit. Indeed, it’s alarming and disturbing that an 11th grade student told Peggy Orenstein, as reported in her new book “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape,” “I watch porn because I’m a virgin and I want to figure out how sex works.” But is the problem porn—or that this girl feels she has no other options to learn about sex? I strongly believe it’s the latter.

Shira Tarrant, Ph.D., a professor at California State University, Long Beach and author of “The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know,” told Salon, “It is definitely possible—and important—to advocate for men moving away from compulsive porn use. That does not mean we have to demonize all porn in the process. It’s a lot like video games or food in that regard. People find a lot of pleasure in both but, when there’s a problem, we want to support people in healthier lifestyles without eradicating video games or dinner.”

It’s telling that Deem explains that when he was a teenager, porn “was normal and it was everywhere. It wasn’t something we were ashamed of.” That statement could be read as him wishing he and his peers had indeed felt more shame, which I hope is not something we want to add to the burden of today’s teens and young men and women.

It also goes back to something Ley told me: that the Time article was “heteronormative” and focused only on “extremely heterosexual, procreation focused views of sexuality.” Of the men complaining about their porn addiction issues, Ley observed, “They are all almost exclusively reporting erectile dysfunction when they are trying to have sex with a woman. These don't appear to be issues in the gay community. Why is that? Perhaps it is because neither porn use nor erectile dysfunction are issues that are significantly shamed in the homosexual community.”

Just as the Time story went online, I was attending sexuality conference CatalystCon, where I got to hear porn producer (link NSFW) Kate Sinclaire offer a timely lecture on the need for media literacy when it comes to pornography, which is all too often treated the way this article does: as an evil lurking in society we must maintain constant vigilance over. When I asked her if porn is indeed a threat to “virility,” she said we need to understand what goes into making porn in order to decrease its power over viewers like the men Time profiled.

“We have this pressure that people who have a penis need to be able to get hard at the drop of a hat, any time and anywhere, especially if a person they’re attracted to is present,” explained Sinclaire. “The men in the Time article are complaining of an inability to perform after using porn as a reference for years upon years. Porn typically displays something that isn’t real: instant erections. Almost always, behind the scenes, dicks are not automatically hard. There’s fluffing, there’s breaks, some people even use medications sometimes. These men are seeing that they should just automatically have an erection and, when they inevitably don’t, they think this means that they are broken."

"If they aren’t living up to what they have seen in porn, does that mean they have failed as a lover? Of course not! But these viewers might not have had the real life experience to understand that erections can take time, and that sometimes they don’t come at all, and that’s okay," Sinclaire added. "So much of an erection comes from being comfortable and relaxed, and not constantly thinking ‘oh my god my erection isn’t instant I have failed as a lover.’”

In other words, to reiterate my earlier point, porn shouldn’t be used as sex education, because that’s not its intended purpose. Perhaps asking burgeoning porn viewers to watch with a more critical, discerning eye, seems like it might be ruining the fantasy, but clearly, the pleasure they once got from porn has morphed into something more unpleasant. We need to lessen the stigma and shame around porn use.  Since porn isn’t going anywhere, we need to give young people tools to grapple with it, to know that “porn” is an industry with as much variety as mainstream television or movies. Just as we need to talk to teens about airbrushing and how the bodies they see in magazines shouldn’t be unthinkingly emulated, so too do we need to talk about porn with kids—not as a boogeyman, but as a normal part of many people’s lives.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

MORE FROM Rachel Kramer Bussel

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

Porn Pornography Pornography Addiction Sex