What’s Hot About Porn?
At the Rowe Labor Day retreat in Massachusetts for gay, bisexual, and questioning men, I conducted a workshop called "Learning from Porn." I felt ever-so-slightly scandalous broaching this topic while attending a conference at a Unitarian Universalist retreat center. At the same time, like my teacher and mentor Joseph Kramer I’m committed to healing the split between sexuality and spirituality in our culture. We all have bodies, and it is our spiritual invitation to inhabit them fully and mindfully. And reading a poster in the Rowe library enumerating the core values of Unitarian Universalism, I resonated with its championing "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning."
As a number of participants in the workshop immediately acknowledged, almost every male adult has some kind of love/hate relationship with pornography, that ubiquitous form of entertainment that heavily influences the norms by which we judge our bodies, our desires, and our sexual partners -- but we hardly ever talk about it to anyone. I wanted to create a safe, non-judgmental context in which to consider a few pertinent questions: What is hot about porn? What myths about sex does porn perpetuate, for better or for worse? What aspects of pleasurable sexuality never show up in porn? I quickly learned that men have plenty to say on all these topics.
Most public discussions about pornography tend to focus on addiction, abuse, exploitation of women, and so on. Those problems clearly exist, but I believe that as human beings we always have a positive reason for doing what we do. And as a sex therapist, especially one who works with a lot of gay men, I’m acutely aware of the paradox of porn -- that however much it contributes to shame, compulsiveness, and distorted ideas about sexuality, looking at pornography is for many men an important doorway into erotic existence. So I purposely wanted to open the discussion by asking what’s valuable about porn. Some responses:
• It portrays sex as fun.
• I feel alive watching it.
• Jerking off to porn is sexual activity that’s safe and private and I can enjoy it without the fear of being rejected.
• It can kickstart sex for couples.
• It can expand my menu of options. I can find out what I like and don’t like and learn other ways to enjoy sex.
• I can experience sexual fantasies vicariously that I might not have access to or even want to have in my own life.
• Porn validates and affirms my sexual desires. It lets me know I’m not alone in my desires.
• It expands and enhances my orgasms.
• It provides access to gay sex and gay culture for men who live in rural areas or isolated situations.
• Gay porn often depicts healthy masculine sexuality, muscular bodies, and same-sex desire between men in traditional occupations (police, military, handymen, etc.) in such a way that defies old stereotypes of gays as sissies and weaklings.
Anyone who is heterosexual grows up with abundant role models for courtship, dating, sexual exploration, partnering, parenting, even dealing with conflict and loss. We live in families that model all that for us, and mainstream culture leaves no corner of heterosexual romance unexamined. For gay men, pornography provides not only entertainment and excitement, but also crucial education about what same-sex attraction, desire, and behavior is possible and what it looks like.
As a curriculum for adult sex education, however, pornography is dangerously incomplete and distorted. Heaven help the poor lesbian who tries to figure how women pleasure each other by viewing pornography -- girl-on-girl porn scenes exist exclusively for the enjoyment of straight male viewers and have much more to do with their cartoonish imaginations than with real lesbian sex. Any astute adult viewer can see that. And yet we often consciously or unconsciously accept gay male porn as if it’s an instruction manual, mistaking its formulaic narratives for documentary filmmaking.
At Rowe, I asked my guys to identify some of the myths that porn perpetuates about male sexuality. Here are some that were mentioned: Dicks are always huge and always hard. Sex always leads to fucking, with limited foreplay or preliminaries. Everyone can fuck and get fucked. Everyone squirts gallons of jizz. Everyone is great looking, perfectly groomed, buff, and tattooed. Sex is instantaneous -- as soon as you want it, you can have it, and you cut right to the chase. There’s no expression of emotion, no setting of boundaries, and no talking or negotiating about HIV status or using condoms. Macho grunting constitutes normal communication. Group sex is normal, as are spitting and punching. Everything works, and sex is easy.
If only. Right?
We talked about the distorted notions that arise as a consequence of steeping yourself in the world of porn. In porn, everyone is always available, but in real life making a connection is much more confusing and complicated. The gap between how easy it looks online and how difficult it is offline exacerbates social anxiety, and the digital devices on which many of us have grown increasingly dependent can wreak havoc for people with addictive/compulsive tendencies. Porn promotes extreme objectification and unrealistic standards of male anatomy and performance. All emotions are sexualized. Pornography can take over your erotic imagination so completely that you equate sex with porn, and it becomes easy to forget that you don’t have to be sitting in front of a computer to have sex.
One of the most insidious effects of pornography, especially for men with an extremely robust relationship with looking at porn and extremely limited experience of actual sexual contact with another person, is that it imprints your erotic imagination with a rigid attachment to types. Thanks to Google, X-Tube, and Tumblr, you can narrow your search online to extremely specific body types, parts, and functions to the point where your erotic being doesn’t know how to respond to a real live person who doesn’t match your ultimate fantasy to the letter.
Meanwhile, there are lots of things that happen in real-life sex that you never see in porn. As sex education, porn skips over some of the most delicious parts: cuddling and after-care, tenderness, the expression of love and affection, taking your time, taking a break, taking a nap together. It’s so obvious that it almost goes without saying, but porn focuses on the visuals at the expense of the other senses (touch, smell, taste). Video porn prizes action because it’s photogenic and avoids what isn’t, subtle pleasures such as light touch, gentle nipple play, the tangle of tongues, and exploring non-genital hotspots.
There are mundane realities that never show up in porn, such as preparing for sex (douching) and cleaning up afterwards, doing laundry and washing dildos. For many people, sex goes hand-in-hand with the use of substances, whether that’s a glass of wine, a hit of pot, poppers, or boner pills. (Virtually every performer you see in a porn film has either taken Viagra/Cialis or injected his dick with Caverject, which unlike ED drugs produces an erection even without arousal, but you never see that happen onscreen.)
Then there are the personal interactions that lead to better sex, such as asking what your partner would like and giving your partner feedback or encouragement or some kind of response. Independent feature films have gotten pretty good at capturing the nuances of emotional intimacy between men (I’m thinking especially about recent films such as Andrew Haigh’s "Weekend," Ira Sachs’s "Keep the Lights On," John Cameron Mitchell’s "Shortbus," and Travis Mathews’s "I Want Your Love"), but if the only gay films you watch are porn, you don’t get a chance to observe difficult conversations, make-up sex after a fight, or virtually anything about emotional or romantic life beyond sex.
For me, the best thing about this workshop was witnessing the powerful questions that the men in attendance asked themselves as a result of participating in an open and honest community discussion about how pornography affects our lives. How do I use porn as validation? How does porn train me to treat real men like objects? How do I use porn as a barrier to intimacy, as a substitute for contact? How is porn a gateway to addiction for me? How does it perpetuate unhealthy compartmentalization in my life? How does it lull me into thinking everybody has to identify as either a top or a bottom? How does it keep me stuck in my shame?
I’m all for waking up to the joy of life in a body. Pornography can contribute to the joy of physical pleasure and emotional connection, and it can also turn into an obstacle. I hope to continue this conversation to make space for awareness of both possibilities.
Don Shewey is a writer, therapist, and pleasure activist in New York City. You can find him on the web at BodyandSoulWork.com. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org