Tom Matlack talked to men and women all across the country about pornography. Are you ready for what they said?
I was at a dinner party recently with the CEO of a company involved in the video infrastructure of Verizon’s FiOS service. He told me (in gory detail) how the capacity constraint on the system is quite literally being driven by $14.99 pay-per-view pornography.
He was understandably amused by the stupidity of guys across the country, who eagerly consume porn movies—only to turn them off after an average of eighteen minutes. A porn purchase lasts 15 percent as long as a two-hour movie and still drives the capacity requirements of the entire system.
It is difficult to overstate the role that pornography plays in American life (especially, one could argue, in Utah, the nation’s most prolific downloader of online porn), or the hysteria that surrounds it.
Is Internet pornography really turning us all into sex addicts? Will boys who grow up on degrading porn be unable to form healthy sexual relationships as adults? Is repetitive porn viewing really changing our brains?
And, most importantly in my mind, are we—as guys—talking honestly about any of this? Are we ready to have a frank discussion about the role that online pornography plays in our lives? Are we ready to man up and tell the truth?
I recently set out to speak with readers and thought leaders about pornography in modern America. The response, which you can read below, was overwhelming. I invite you to continue the conversation in the comments area.
“What is going on to create such an accelerating and insatiable appetite for porn among men in our country? You clearly have no idea how much of 1985-1989 I spent looking at the same three 1978 Penthouses.”
—Joel Stein, Time
“The inherent problem with porn, from a female perspective, is there is minimal kissing or tenderness, much less sensuality. How many women want to wear high heels to bed? I would like to view what transpired between Rhett and Scarlett after he carried her up those stairs.”
—Cherie Welch, Atlanta, Georgia
“If you have to ask whether porn is good or bad, then you already have the answer. The question is how bad?”
—Todd Dagres, Spark Capital and owner of Twitter
“A couple of years ago, this tall, very fun, smart, and pretty 22-year-old woman told me she’d been with men her age at least twice who couldn’t have sex with her because she did not look like, or do in bed, what they’d seen in pornography. How depressing is that?”
—Margery Eagan, Boston Herald columnist and talk radio host
“An older gentleman friend told me that all that his 19-year-old grandson (who is a university student and lives with him) did with his time was visit porn websites online and that he, the grandfather, was convinced that it was why the grandson was failing at the university. In fact, the grandson had viewed so many of the sites that the computer became unusable; it had become infested with sexually explicit spam. He said he couldn’t decide whether to throw the computer or his grandson out.”
—Antwone Fisher, author of Finding Fish: A Memoir and How to Tie a Tie
“Porn just is. It’s not inherently good or bad. You can’t legislate desire. As soon as photography was invented, the French immediately began taking dirty pictures. As soon as the Internet was invented, Americans (and everyone else) immediately began sending dirty pictures. I think anything that is consensual, respectful, and above the age of 18 is okay. The problem comes when women are objectified and degraded. I think it’s a huge problem that encourages and leads to violence. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of porn has gone. And the porn involving children is horrific. Does this mean that porn is inherently bad? I’m not sure.”
—Michael Kamber, New York Times photojournalist
“Personally, I think there’s cause for concern, but I don’t think porn is the problem. The concern I have is with the lack I see of rational vocabulary about sex among young men and men in general. It’s easy enough to find porn of somebody having sex with themselves, or with lawn furniture, or whatever, and always has been. But if that’s all it is, sheer titillation and masturbation, then everybody involved is ultimately harmed in some way; consumers, distributors, and producers alike. My observation is that there’s precious little context for young men trying to figure this all out. And a lot of times, that precious little context is being provided by men who are still trying to figure it out themselves, or worse yet, by people who are profiting by exploiting the confusion.”
—Todd Mauldin, Bluesman, Reno, Nevada
“The hysteria around pornography is just not useful. A good bit about it is an ugly side-effect of the negative part of modern feminism; unattractive women who can’t get what they want, and instead of doing the logical thing, doing the best with what they have, they demonize male sexuality.
We live in what are ‘evolutionarily novel’ times. Men evolved to be visual—it was part of continuing the human race. Women evolved to be more circumscribed about who they have sex with—they have a far greater cost per sex act (potentially being pregnant for nine months and then having a child to raise). Male sexuality isn’t wrong or nefarious—we just live in times where there are forces playing on our evolved preferences.
Similar to the hysteria about porn consumption, people are beside themselves about young people ‘hooking up.’ Well, at a certain point, many or most will tire of that and want something more. And then they will go look for that. You can become addicted to lots of things—food, porn, shopping, collecting action figures. If it’s disrupting your life, keeping you from what you want, it’s a problem. Maybe not all men will want to connect or to develop themselves to a point where they can connect. This is their choice. Some will. And it’s up to parents to do the actual work of parenting to see that their kids turn out in a way where they have values, and can make choices that enhance their lives.”
—Amy Alkon, syndicated advice columnist, advicegoddess.com; author, I SEE RUDE PEOPLE: One woman’s battle to beat some manners into impolite society
“The scale of porn is huge. What causes the acceleration? It’s not abundant supply. It’s demand. Porn and teenaged boys have been inseparable since the beginning of time. The Internet offers more extreme porn than the airbrushed Playboy images I grew up on, but that’s not a reason to get unduly riled. I’m much more concerned about porn and adult males, many of whom seem to use it as a substitute for real relationships. Substitution quickly becomes distance, and distance becomes an unbridgeable chasm—and the porn-obsessed masturbator develops an unhealthy view of sex and women. Millions and millions of sick men out there. If I were an American woman, I’d be very cautious.”
—Jesse Kornbluth, former AOL editor-in-chief
“I don’t know how we put the genie back in the bottle on this one. I mean, it’s nice that the courts are taking a look at teen sexting, but what really has to be faced is the way we’re seeing a pornification of the culture—where young men are taught that the objectification of the self, the marketing of the sexual persona to others in slick media formats, is normal.
If you stand in a CVS and look at the magazine rack, you’ll see guy after guy who could be an Ultimate Fighter or porn star, and it feels like the message coming off the culture is that to succeed, or just to live, we all need to turn into killer porn stars; with tattoo sleeves and no privacy. If you look at the blog (NSFW) Guys With iPhones, I feel like what you see are picture after picture of guys looking to see if they fit that mold yet. And I don’t think that blog is hot—those guys all look lonely. I’m actually very pro-porn and erotica, but what I wonder is, where is all this loneliness coming from in the booming age of so-called social media? I think that loneliness is more of a problem than the porn which, to my mind, is just a symptom.”
“Sex sex sex; America’s favorite neurosis. While I always support relative, appropriate boundaries and a parent’s right to determine those for their family, we too often jump to the presumption that we all agree that porn is at its moral core a negative. Whether it’s ‘wrong’ or ‘detrimental’ or ‘anti-progressive’ (a catch-all for feminist, gender sturdy, marxist, etc. critique), I cannot help but be aware of Foucault. The archeology of attitudes on porn in America begins in Puritanism.
If you think that is reductionist, I listen, but refer you to psychotherapy; sometimes a core issue is just that simple, despite the layers of complexity it engenders. We are ‘not supposed to have sex’ or, certainly, ‘wrong sex’ as defined by any number of social codes stemming from a 1,500-year history of cultural repression.
Consider this: in this code, we are ‘not supposed to be gay.’ Period. We all know that has hung in our emotional philosophies since they burned us fags out of the culture by the millions. Thankfully, the social progeny of the Enlightenment/American philosophy of liberty and equality is changing this slowly.
My short answer to why porn proliferates is that it’s about time we expressed our sexuality in its natural fullness again. Porn is the toe in the water made possible by new technology.
Regarding teens and porn… every family must set their guidelines. I myself have no problem with the natural sexuality of children, provided it is guided and channeled and not abused. Porn provides fantasy images, and I do not find that the majority of people, young or old, mistake it for either reality or the same expectations from the visual fantasy to the real relationship, other than wanting to try a technique discovered.
The problem with addiction and unrealistic sexuality comes from the absence of fathers in the post-industrial revolutionary world, and the narcissistic abdication of parents and elders from their traditional jobs as trainers and mentors. Fill that ancient and human need in children and teens and watch additions recede. Teach people how to be a full human being and watch the freedom of their exploits in reality.”
—Bennett Schneider, Los Angeles
“Not only is most of it deeply misogynist, but it provides both men and women an incredibly unrealistic sense of what sexuality is. Porn has nothing to do with actual, real-life sex, which is—above all—a deeply emotional experience, charged with shame and desire and anger and sadness and ecstasy. Porn is more like an infomercial for Sex: the Rowing Machine! I’d hate to be a teenage boy inundated by porn—it just makes them feel inadequate and angry and dismissive of women and their desires.”
—Steve Almond, author of Candy Freak
“Porn addiction will one day be recognized as a major public health crisis on the scale of alcohol and tobacco abuse. My primary concern is the use of porn for sex education. For many people, the first exposure to the intimate realm of sexual behavior is these selfish male fantasies which use female bodies with no reciprocity. We who advocate an enlightened sexual ethic find the messages in porn contradict true intimacy between couples. My second concern hurts fewer people, but far more deeply. The exploitation of young women and men who work in the porn industry is a sickness fed by high demand and all porn users bear some responsibility.”
—Haji Shearer, Fatherhood Advocate
“Clearly, there is a lot to say about how insidious and deleterious porn can be for women. But then there’s the whole argument that I even hear from my friends and peers about consensual porn use etc., everyone wants to say it doesn’t hurt them, just others. Anyway, I tend to go with the idea that sexual health is good for men (for themselves and their relationships—straight or gay) and the flood of pornography isn’t helping the sexual health of boys. All that being said, I think there’s another question for you about how you lead into this and whether you discuss the idea that we’ve known for a long time; that pervasive pornography has hurt women and girls but we haven’t stepped up for that, and now we step up because it isn’t good for boys… I think you can find a way to say something about both. This is what I think you are referring to overall (and you are not alone) for every time you discuss manhood, you will get the ‘what about women?’ question. It’s legit because of the context in which we live.”
—Lonna Davis, Family Violence Prevention Fund
“Porn is a core economic driver in Southern California, and a huge driver of hardware and software innovation on the internet. The press focuses on the ‘victims’ in the industry, which is undoubtedly true, but Jenna Jameson and Jenny McCarthy have used it as a starting point for more mainstream careers. The empowerment of women has been pushed real hard. In my view, one of the unintended consequences of that empowerment is that porn, strip clubs, etc., have become socially acceptable career paths. I could handle most anything, but the thought of one of my children in that business may be more than I could take.”
—Andy Oleszczuk, former Senior Vice President responsible for cable channel development, Tribune Company
“My concern about the rise of pornography—or the rise in its ease of access, especially online—is that it desensitizes both boys and girls, it makes serious activities casual and thereby serious relationships casual, and it rushes kids into matters that need maturity, if not adulthood. In different terms, it simply raises the pressure by raising the exposure. Does it cause more sex? More babies? I don’t know—and one needs to look empirically and not just react emotionally. But in a world where it is harder than ever for kids to be kids, I worry that the pressures only increase.”
—Rick Melvoin, Headmaster, Belmont Hill School for boys
“I’m probably the wrong guy to ask about porn because I don’t see nearly enough of it. Truly, I’m abashed when I’m among men who clearly do see their share, because I haven’t kept up, and it can be borderline embarrassing: flashback to talking to upperclassmen in high school and not wanting to reveal that you’re still a virgin. No man wants to be seen as a prude…
Aside from the well-documented and galling exploitation of those who work in porn, my general complaint with it has always been that porn’s so damn artless, so crass. Fast food versus slow food.. .Now that I’m raising boys, I expect I’ll get more and more sensitive to how ubiquitous it is, because I guess I do believe that a steady diet of porn warps guys’ expectations about sex. Yeah, I get the argument that a little arousal, self-abuse might be cathartic, and fantasies are better than rape. But I think porn generally encourages objectification of women’s bodies and leaves boys obsessed with sex acts/techniques rather than getting to know the person they’re having sex with.
I can recall guys for whom porn got in the way of real discovery. They thought porn was showing them something/spilling secrets, but it left them kind of screwed up/unable to even approach women. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to keep my boys from it, but I will discourage it, although maybe at some point I’ll watch it with them so I can express what I don’t like about it: It’s that so much of it is crude, ultimately numbing, that it steals power from something that should be great in your life. Porn cheapens sex, and if we all want to boast of cheap sex once or twice, we want better than cheap sex for all-time.”
—Brad Wieners, Executive Editor Men’s Journal
“Don’t forget the porn mongers at the S.E.C. While the country is crumbling and they’re supposed to fix it, these guys are spending eight hours a day surfing and downloading from porn sites.”
—Kevin Williamson, Los Angeles, California
“Porn is the biggest business on the Internet. There is currently an epidemic of men across America who prefer masturbating to porn over sex with their partners. Adolescents and children are overexposed and overstimulated. While I see nothing wrong in erotic material per se—there are couples who enjoy porn together—there’s a difference between eroticism and inundation. You could land in any major city in the U.S. in the morning and have a willing sexual playmate that evening. The Internet has distilled the porn industry, strengthened its breadth and reach.”
—Terry Real, author of I Don’t Want To Talk About It
“Just imagine the pressure inexperienced teens must feel, particularly those exposed to hardcore porn. They know it’s a fantasy, but how could they not be affected, consciously or otherwise, when their first time/first relationship finally arrives? As if there wasn’t enough pressure already (longer! stronger!), pornography simply adds one more layer of distortion (bite me! spank it!) and misinformation (hurts so good!) that impressionable teens don’t need. On the bright side, maybe porn has an intimidation factor that will frighten some youngsters into keeping their pants on a bit longer? Naw …”
—Jeffrey Wallace, writer and father, Orange Country, California
“We’re asking the wrong questions about porn: How bad is it? Is it morally wrong? The discussion I’d like to see us having, especially as it relates to teenage boys, is about the emotional impact of porn…what do boys ‘get’ from viewing or using porn? What is the charge (not just physically, but emotionally as well)? Are they aware of any feelings of disconnection, either before, during, or after viewing/using porn? Do boys feel that porn impacts their actual relationships with girls and women? If so, how? Would boys look differently at porn if they were aware that many of the girls/women who are shown in the images/videos are likely not enjoying the experience? Would they experience porn differently if they knew some of the girls/women are coerced or forced into being objects for their desire?”
—John Badalament, author of The Modern Dad’s Dilemna
“For me… I would rather approach from a pragmatic place rather than a values place. Approaching the subject from a good or bad place is engaging with parts of the psyche that are not (in my opinion) going to help someone face honestly what is going on in their relationship to porn.
In my life, it triggers the years that I discovered porn as a prepubescent born again Christian. Porn and sex were entirely entwined with guilt, shame, fear of my mother and God, and fear of becoming my father. It continues to be difficult to disentangle myself from early associations; dark and dirty, filled with cigarette smoke, the smell of body odor, and emotional paralysis.
Was it good? Bad? YES. Absolutely. Making a judgment call about porn creates a clear line in the sand that, in my experience, has been ineffective in helping men come to a healthy understanding of themselves and others.
Did it work? Yes and no. It provided an escape into fantasy out of a life that was often very dark and scary. And, at the same time, I developed a relationship with my own body and the bodies of women that was not tied very well to reality and definitely harmed my relationships… all the way to today.
Does porn work in the culture? For whom? When? How? It most definitely does not work well for a vast number of women who perform in the sex industry. In my opinion, it does not work well for boys trying to develop a realistic and functional way of creating intimacy with women. It may work in some adult relationships where a consenting couple chooses to actively ‘spice’ up their bedroom life. It may work for some men as a stress relief and a way to engage the right brain in a way that they are not encouraged to do in our culture. It also easily becomes addictive and compulsive (the SEC workers are a great example).
It works well to help boys and men create a dual existence —a kind of split personality which I believe strongly translates into a lack of emotional integrity or authenticity. Men lie about porn; to themselves, to each other, and to their partners. This lying becomes a habit… a way of interacting with the world. And I believe that any transition to a new masculinity is going to AT LEAST require that we get honest about it and ask ourselves… is this WORKING in our lives as men? And, what needs to change in order to make it work better?”
—Boysen Hodgson, Mankind Project
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In September, 2009, Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.