modern love

Could porn be ruining your sex life?

We Gen-Xers cobbled together a sex education by perusing the Playboys left lying around by friends’ fathers and listening furtively to Dr. Ruth’s radio show, Sexually Speaking, on our Walkmen. Spin the bottle made way for Seven Minutes in Heaven, and when we came of age we paired up and took to the backseats of our cars or narrow dorm-room beds to figure it out for ourselves. Most people would not have seen pornographic videos, or at least not very many, before having had some sexual experience.

Given the ubiquity of internet porn today, such innocence is, of course, unimaginable. But rather than liberating the libido, mainstream porn seems to be dampening it for both sexes. Erotica has been around since Cro-Magnon man took charcoal to a cave wall. But as Naomi Wolf observed:

For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women.

Young women report feeling that they can’t compete with the on-screen avatars, despite going to greater and greater lengths trying. Demand for vaginal surgeries for cosmetic reasons, in a quest for ‘designer vaginas’, is on the rise. (What next, molds of the Kardashians’?) Between the impact of female porn stars’ feigned rapture at the male-scripted scenarios and the hook-up culture prevalent on campus—in which students aren’t benefitting from steady partners with whom to explore—one can’t help wondering if young woman aren’t getting the short end of the stick.

The stick turns out not to be so happy itself… Men, too, are suffering, as the proliferation of porn has left them less able to connect erotically to women. As Found editor Davy Rothbart admitted in a New York Magazine article, some men are defaulting to the ease of point-of-view porn over sex with real-life women. How did we get to a place where Pornhub and spill became more compelling than Netflix and chill? According to retired anatomy & physiology teacher Gary Wilson, the proliferation of porn has had an adverse effect on the chemistry of the male brain.

Some studies show that masturbating to porn releases the neurochemical dopamine as a response to the sight of a novel mate. The problem is that this evolutionary mechanism to encourage eager young men to pass on their genes did not evolve in an environment in which copulating women could be conjured with a click: in a Playboy interview, John Mayer confessed that there are days when he sees 300 vaginas before getting out of bed. The male brain evolved in a context when the sight of a naked woman was not only rare, but arrived at after great effort. Wilson maintains that consistent exposure to pornography can lead to ‘arousal addiction’, in which, men begin to prefer the image of a novel woman because of the dopamine effect to having sex with a flesh-and-blood woman. Not to mention the need for increasingly intense images to achieve the same effect.

According to the Pornhub, women make up 24% of its viewers (and, rather interestingly, search for the hardcore stuff with more frequency than men). Overconsumption of pornography by women has also been found to correlate to desensitization, with women then finding arousal more difficult under less intense sexual triggers.

But even if the habit stops short of addiction or desensitization, porn still presents itself as the easier solution—the TV dinner of sex, if you will. In the words of Germaine Greer, we’re willing to trade real encounters for stereotypical fantasy because:

Real encounters carry with them the possibility of rejection, of humiliation, of being deceived, exploited, of being impotent. They are adventures. Sex is a blood sport. We approach each other with trepidation. As intimacy intensifies, the possibility of hurt becomes greater…Sex is as difficult as conversation, where there’s greater propensity for going wrong.

In an Intelligence Squared debate on the topic, Greer, who herself was involved in an alternative pornographic magazine in the 1970s called Suck, argued eloquently against the motion that ‘Pornography is Good For Us’:

Pornography doesn’t make us less repressed. Pornography is a way of making money out of the fact that we are repressed…

I’m in favor of erotic art. I am desperate to find a way to reincorporate sexuality in the narrative that we give of our lives and it’s virtually impossible because for some reason it gets hived off into this special realm.

Like much else in our consumer culture, porn doesn’t really fulfill desire as much as create a need in order to fill it. Like junk food, it’s not only addictive, but it ruins the appetite for the delicious spread you could enjoy if only you had the patience to wait. In the words of Greer:

Relief of tension is assured, but ecstasy is out of reach, out of sight, unimaginable…

We need not commercial pornography, which exists to suck the money out of the pockets of men, but an integration of carnality in the narrative of daily life. We need to rediscover, or maybe reinvent, intimacy.

You Might Also Like