What porn does to men

There’s an episode of Friends in which Chandler and Joey discover they have tuned into a porn channel. It’s free. They leave the TV on.
By the end of the episode, Chandler is seeing the world through porn-tinted spectacles.

“I was just at the bank,” he complains, “and the teller didn’t ask me to go do it with her in the vault.” He decides: “We have to turn off the porn.”

We are further from turning off the porn than ever. Pornography is everywhere — masquerading as “gentlemen’s entertainment” in the form of clubs, infiltrating advertising and soon to be available in our back pockets, thanks to a deal by adult entertainment giant Private Media Group to beam porn to cellphones.

Hardcore pornography is now accessed in Britain by 33% of all Internet users. Since the British Board of Film Classification relaxed its guidelines in 2000, hardcore video pornography now comprises up to 17% of censors’ viewing, compared with just 1% three years ago.

In the United States, with the pornography industry coining up to $15-billion a year, people spend more on porn than they do on movie tickets and all performing arts combined. Each year, in Los Angeles alone, more than 10 000 hardcore films are made, against a Hollywood average of just 400 movies.

Pornography is not only bigger business than ever, it is also more acceptable, more fashionable, more cool. From pieces “in praise of porn” in the sober Prospect magazine, to such programmes as Pornography: The Musical, to Victoria Coren and Charlie Skelton’s book about making a porn film, to the news that Val Kilmer will play porn actor John Holmes in a new mainstream movie, there is a widespread sense that anyone who suggests that pornography might have adverse effects is laughably out of touch.

Coren and Skelton, former Erotic Review film critics, scarcely trouble themselves with deeper issues. “In all our years of watching porn,” they write, “we have never resolved what we think about how, why and whether it is degrading to women. We suspect it might be. We suspect pornography might be degrading to everybody.”

It seems as if the sheer scale of the porn phenomenon has conferred its own respectability; serious analysis is hard to come by. Only occasionally does broadcasting provide insight. Channel 4’s documentary Hardcore, shown two years ago, told the story of Felicity, a single mother from Essex who travelled to Los Angeles hoping to make a porn career. Arriving excited, and clear about what she would not do — anal sex, double-vaginal penetration — she ended up being coerced into a submissive role and agreeing to anal sex. Felicity — whose own troubled relationship with her father was mirrored by the cruelty of her male co-workers — eventually escaped back to the United Kingdom.

Yet what about the millions of consumers, the men — for they are, despite pornographers’ claims about growing numbers of female fans, mostly men — who habitually use it? How are they affected? Is pornography, as most these days claim, a harmless masturbatory diversion? That episode of Friends suggested a heavy porn diet might encourage men inappropriately to expect sex. Is that true? And what about more profound effects? How does it affect relationships? Is it addictive? Does it encourage rape, paedophilia, sex murders?

First, some definitions. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the word “pornography” dates to 1864, when it described “the life, manners etc of prostitutes or their patrons”. More recently it has come to signify material, in the words of Chambers, “intended to arouse sexual excitement”. Its most common themes, however, are power and submission. By contrast, “erotica”, which is pretty hard to find now, carries additional connotations of “amorousness” and is far less concerned with control and domination.

No, it is pornography plain and simple, from teen magazines such as Front to venerable “wrist mags” such as Playboy, to the daily bombardment of pornographic e-mails, that ceaselessly confronts us.

The received wisdom, pushed hard by mass-market magazines such as Loaded and FHM, is that men derive uncomplicated enjoyment from porn. That is the argument of the musician Moby, who once said: “I like pornography — who doesn’t? I don’t really trust men who claim to not be interested in porn. We’re biologically programmed to respond to the sight of people having sex.” Danny Plunkett, then features editor of Loaded, takes an equally relaxed view: “We know a lot of people enjoy it and take it with a pinch of salt. We certainly don’t view it as dangerous.”

Is it so simple? One of my best friends is a man with no interest in porn. Moby may distrust him, but his sex life has always seemed to me perfectly robust. He is, however, so much in the minority as to seem almost odd.

For most men, at some point in their lives, pornography has held a strong appeal. I first saw pornography during puberty. At boarding school, dog-eared copies of Mayfair and Knave magazines were stowed behind toilet cisterns; this borrow-and-return library system was considered normal and was either never discovered by the masters or was tacitly permitted. Long before my first sexual relationship, porn was my sex education.

No doubt my friends and I were driven to use porn through loneliness: being away from home, we longed for love, closeness. The women over whom we masturbated — the surrogate mothers, if you like — seemed to offer this but were never going to provide it. The untruths it taught me — that women are always available, that sex is about what a man can do to a woman — I am only now finally unlearning.

From men everywhere come similar stories. Nick Samuels (46), an electrical contractor and now a respectable father, says he discovered the power of pornographic images at 16, when he found a copy of Mayfair in his father’s garage. “I can even remember the picture — a woman walking topless past a building site and the builders ogling her. It was soft, but it kicked off my interest. Before long, through a friend, I was introduced to hardcore videos.”

Si Jones, a 39-year-old north London vicar who regularly counsels men trying to “come off” pornography, admits it was also his introduction to sex. “As a teenager, I watched porn films with friends. It was cool, naughty and everyone was doing it.” Set against today’s habit of solitary Internet masturbation, Jones’s introduction to porn seems sociable.

Today, boys no longer clandestinely circulate magazines after school; nor do they need to rummage through their fathers’ cupboards. Access to Internet pornography has never been easier, its users never younger, and the heaviest demand, according to the New York Times, is for “‘deviant’ material including paedophilia, bondage, sadomasochism and sex acts with animals”.

Pornography answers human curiosity. Adolescent boys want to know what sex is about, and porn demonstrates the mechanics.

David Morgan, psychoanalyst at London’s Portman Clinic, which specialises in problems of sexuality and violence, describes this phase as “transitional, like a rehearsal for the real thing. The problem begins when, instead of being a stop on the way to full sexual relations, it becomes a place of residence.”

Morgan’s experience of counselling porn addicts convinces him that “the longer you spend in this fantasy world, the harder it is to make the transition to reality. Like drugs, pornography provides a quick fix, a masturbatory universe people can get stuck in.”

For most men, the way pornography objectifies sex strikes a visceral chord. Psychotherapists Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon suggest objectification starts early. “By adolescence, a boy wakes up most mornings with an erection. But the feeling isn’t always, ‘Look what I can do!’ The feeling is often, ‘Look what it can do!’ — a reflection of the way a boy views his instrument of sexuality as an object. What people might not realise when they justly criticise men for objectifying sex — viewing sex as something you do, rather than as part of a relationship — is that the first experience of sexuality for a boy comes from his experience of his own body, having this penis that makes its own demands.”

But the roots go back further. Research has shown that boy babies are treated more harshly than girls and, as they grow up, boys are taught that success comes from competing. To deal with this harsh masculine world, boys can learn not to trust their feelings or express emotions. They become suspicious of other men, with whom they’re in competition, and often feel isolated.

Yet men, as much as women, hunger for intimacy. For many males, locked into a life where self-esteem is entwined with performance, sex involves an almost unsustainable burden of demands and needs. Not only does the act become the only way many men can feel intimate, it is also the way they find validation. And sex cannot satisfy such demands.

Into this troubled scenario porn finds easy access. In pornography, there is no criticism, real or imagined, of male performance. Women are always, in the words of the average Internet site, “hot and ready”, eager to please. In real life, men find women are different: they have higher job status, demand sexual satisfaction, are increasingly combining careers and motherhood.

Men, say psychologists, also feel threatened by the “emotional power” they perceive women wielding over them. They are painfully aware that their only escape from isolation comes from being sexually acceptable to women. This sense of neediness can provoke intense anger that finds expression in porn.

Unlike real life, the pornographic world is a place where men’s authority is unchallenged and women are their willing, even grateful servants. “The illusion is created,” says one male writer, “that women are really in their rightful place.”

Seen in this light, the patently ridiculous scenario of the pretty female apartment-hunter happy to be gang-banged by overweight, hairy-shouldered couch potatoes makes psychological sense.

The porn industry, of course, dismisses such talk, yet, occasionally, comes a glimmer of authenticity.

Interviewed in 1991 by psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, Bill Margold, one of the industry’s longest-serving film performers, was blunt: “My reason for being in this industry is to satisfy the desire of men who don’t care much for women and want to see men getting even with the women they couldn’t have while growing up. So we come on a woman’s face or brutalise her: we’re getting even for lost dreams.”

As well as “eroticising male supremacy”, in the words of anti-porn campaigner John Stoltenberg, pornography attempts to assuage other male fears, in particular of erection failure. According to psychoanalysis, porn answers men’s fetishistic need for visual proof of phallic potency.

Lynne Segal, professor of gender studies at the University of London, writes: “Men’s fears of impotence, feeding off infantile castration anxiety, generate hostility towards women. Through pornography, real women can be avoided, male anxiety soothed and delusions of phallic prowess indulged, by intimations of the rock-hard, larger-than-life male organ.”

Pornography, in short, is a lie. It peddles falsehoods about men, women and human relationships. It seduces vulnerable, lonely men — and a few women — with the promise of intimacy, and delivers a transitory masturbatory fix. Increasingly, though, men are starting to be open about the effect pornography has had upon them.

David McLeod, a marketing executive, explains the cycle: “I’m drawn to porn when I’m single, lonely and sexually frustrated. But I can easily get disgusted with myself. After watching a video two or three times, I’ll throw it away and vow never to watch another again. But my resolve never lasts very long.” He has, he says, “seen pretty much everything, even pictures of men being buggered by a pig. But once you go down that slope, you get quickly jaded.”

Like many men, McLeod is torn. Quick to claim that porn has “no harmful effects”, he also acknowledges that it is “deadening”. Andy Philips, a Leeds art dealer, says there have been times when he has been “a very heavy user”. His initial reaction, like that of many of the men to whom I spoke, is studiedly jokey: “I love porn.” Yet, contemplatively, he admits: “I’ve always used it secretly, never as part of a relationship. It’s always been like the other woman on the side.”

Again and again, despite now being married, he is drawn back. “You can easily get too much of it. It’s deadening, nullifying, gratuitous, unsatisfying. I used a lot of porn when I was single ... After a while, it made me feel worse. I’d feel disgusted with myself and have a huge purge.”

Extended exposure to pornography can have many effects. By the time Samuels reached his mid-20s, it was altering his view of what he wanted from a sexual relationship. “I used to watch porn with a girlfriend, and I started wanting things I’d seen in the films.” Sometimes, this was OK. “She was an easy-going person.” At other times, “it shocked her”. Married for 15 years, he admits he carried the same sexual expectations into the marital bedroom. “There’s been real friction over this: my wife isn’t like that. And it’s only now, after all these years, that I’m moving on. Porn is like alcoholism: it clings to you like a leech.”

Psychoanalyst Estela Welldon, author of Mother, Madonna, Whore, has treated couples when such scenarios have spiralled out of control. “A lot of men involve partners in using porn. Typically, they say, ‘Don’t you want a better sex life?’ I have seen cases where first the woman is subjected to porn, then they’ve used their own children.”

When couples use porn together there is, says Welldon, “an illusory sense that they are getting closer. Then they film themselves having sex and feel outside themselves. Porn dehumanises the other person, the relationship and intimacy.”

Even in loving relationships, men who have used porn say they often see their partner through a “pornographic filter”. Writes sociologist Harry Brod: “There have been too many times when I’ve guiltily resorted to impersonal fantasy because the genuine love for a woman wasn’t enough to convert feelings into performance. And in those sorry, secret moments, I have resented deeply my lifelong indoctrination into the aesthetic of the centrefold.”

Running through all porn use, says the Portman Clinic’s Morgan, is desire for control, which has roots in early childhood. “A typical example might be a boy with absent parents, either emotionally or in fact.” The boy can grow up wishing “to find something over which he can have control. Pornography fills that space.”

But porn users are also psychologically on the run, Welldon adds. “They feel dead inside and are trying to avoid that awareness. There is a sense of liberation, which is temporary: that’s why pornography is so repetitive — you have to go back again and again.”

Lost in a world of pornographic fantasy, men can become less inclined and able to form lasting relationships. In part, this is due to porn’s underlying message. Ray Wyre, a specialist in sexual crime, says pornography “encourages transience, experimentation and moving between partners. It does damage because it encourages people to make their home in shallow relationships.”

Jan Woolf believes it might prevent a relationship starting. A former special needs teacher, she lasted only six months as a censor in 2001, when she watched hundreds of hours of hardcore videos. At the time she was single. “If I’d been in the early stages of a relationship, I would’ve been watching what I might have been expected to do, except it would never have been like that.” She left the job because the porn was starting to make her feel “depressed — I wanted my lively mind back”.

The more powerful the internal distress, the more compelling the pull towards pornography. For John-Paul Day, a 50-year-old Edinburgh architect in his first “non-addictive” sexual relationship, the experience of being a small boy with a dying mother drove him to seek solace in masturbation.

He says he has been “addicted” to pornography his entire adult life. “Unlike real life, it is safe. I’m frightened of real sex, which is unscripted and unpredictable. So I engage in pornography, which is under my control. But, of course, it also brings intense disappointment, because it is not what I’m really searching for.”

Day, who has attended Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings for 12 years, says: “Pornography is central to my sex addiction, in that sex addiction is an escape from reality. Even in my fantasies about ‘real’ people, I am really transforming them into walking pornography. It is not the reality of who they are that I focus on, but the fantasy I project on to them.”

Like drugs and drink, pornography is an addictive substance. Porn actor Kelly Cooke says this applies on both sides of the camera: “It got to the point where I considered having sex the way most people consider getting a hamburger. But when you try to give it up — that’s when you realise how addictive it is, both for consumers and performers. It’s a class A drug, and it’s hell coming off it.”

The cycle of addiction leads towards ever harder material. Morgan believes “all pornography ends up with sadomasochism”. The infamous Carnegie Mellon study of Internet porn found images of hardcore sex were in far less demand than more extreme material. Images of women engaging in acts of bestiality were hugely popular, the most frequently downloaded being of a brunette with — in the pornographer’s lexicon — “a huge horse cock in her tight pussy”.

The mechanics of the pornographic search — craving, discovery of the “right” image, masturbation, relief — makes it, says Morgan, work like “a sort of antidepressant”. The myth about porn, as a witness told the Minneapolis public hearings, is that “it frees the libido and gives men an outlet for sexual expression. Not only does it not liberate men, but it is a source of bondage. Men masturbate to pornography only to become addicted to the fantasy. It is mood-altering and reinforcing — ‘you want more’ because ‘you got relief’. It is this reinforcing characteristic that leads men to want the experience they have in pornographic fantasy to happen in real life.”

In its most severe form, this can lead to sexual crime, though the links between the two remain controversial. Wyre, from his work with sex offenders, says: “It is impossible not to believe pornography plays a part in sexual violence. Sex offenders display a wide range of distorted views that they then use to excuse their behaviour and blame the victim. They seek to make their own behaviour seem normal, and interpret the victim’s behaviour as consent. Pornography legitimises these views.”

One of the most extreme examples is Ted Bundy, the US serial sexual murderer executed for his crimes in January 1989. The night before his death, he explained his addiction to pornography in a radio interview: “It happened in stages, gradually ... My experience with ... pornography that deals on a violent level with sexuality is that, once I become addicted to it … I would keep looking for more potent, more explicit, more graphic material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder, something which gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far ... It reaches that jumping-off point where you begin to wonder if, maybe doing it will give you that which is beyond just reading about it or looking at it.”

Bundy stopped short of blaming pornography for his actions, though it was an intrinsic part of the picture. “I take full responsibility for whatever I’ve done and all the things I’ve done ... I don’t want to infer that I was some helpless victim. And yet we’re talking about an influence of violent types of media and violent pornography, which was an indispensable link in the chain ... of events that led to the murders.”

The average man is no Bundy. Yet for addicts, the road to a pornography-free life can be long and arduous. Si Jones advises: “Make your computer accountable, let other people check what you’ve been looking at.”

And the alternative to pornography, says Morgan, is not always easy. “Relationships are difficult. Intimacy, having a good relationship, loving your children, involves work. Pornography is fantasy in the place of reality. But it is just that: fantasy. Pornography is not real, and the only thing human beings get nourishment from is reality: real relationships.

“And, anyway, what do you want to say when you get to the end of your life? That you wish you’d spent more time [masturbating] on the Internet? I hardly think so.” — Â

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