Best of Doublethink Flashback: Porn Losers

Editor’s Note: The following piece, one of several written by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway for her regular Doublethink sex column, considered why men consume pornography and how it affects relationships. This piece is the seventh installment of a two-week series recalling ten of the best contributions to Doublethink. This item originally ran on February 26, 2006. Many thanks to the three former Doublethink editors — Cheryl Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, James Poulos of The Huffington Post, and Reason Magazine’s Peter Suderman — who assisted in compiling this list. — Joel Gehrke

A few years ago I was sitting in a smoky bar with Maria, my hairdresser of the moment. She was this tall, chic, fresh-faced brunette from Michigan who had just moved to the District with her fiancé. The first time she cut my hair she told me how happy he made her. The second time she spoke of the difficulties of serious relationships. And now, over a dry-and in her case, very bitter–martini, Maria was telling me and a couple of male friends that she was calling off the wedding. Her fiancé was just way too into pornography, she said.

My reaction? I thought she was being ridiculous.

A little porn was nothing to worry about. Only a prude who’d spent her adolescence in an airlock would believe their boyfriend subscribed to Playboy for the home stereo advice and Kissinger interviews. Men like looking at naked women. What’s the big deal?

The two guys who heard her story, however, took her side and assured her she’d done the right thing. I was flabbergasted.

I understood the fantasy life of Maria’s betrothed made her feel inadequate-and disgusted, and on this point I sympathized. It’s impossible to compete against women whose chests would deflate like beach balls if the underwire in their cheap lingerie dislodged. And then there’s the quality of women being lusted after. Men, if you must keep 100 gigabytes worth of porn on your hard drive, could the women look less like they’d dropped out of high school to guest-star in a very special episode of Touched by an Uncle?

Still, I have always had little patience for those feminists who argue that girls such as Maria should understand that porn liberates women. I can’t see how women as a class are better off because some confused girls in the San Fernando Valley think the apotheosis of the female sexual experience is getting paid to have sex with dim-witted men with fake tans and suspicious lack of bad hair. Where’s the liberation in that? Still other feminists go to the other extreme in a crusade to ban illicit materials. They would say Maria was the helpless victim of an oppressive patriarchal culture depraved by pornography. These folks argue the greatest sin a man can commit is to find cheerleaders, school girls, or faux-lesbians hot.

(This reminds me of the time someone tried to explain the lesbian mystique to me. “Well you like chocolate cake, right?” Yes. “Well, imagine one chocolate cake and then imagine another chocolate cake. Now imagine those two cakes kissing.”)

After decades of histrionic articles in ladies’ magazines, breathless media reports, and high-handed academic studies, we all know that porn makes women feel unattractive, reinforces the ridiculous male ideal of submissive women, and puts women in the position of being unable to live up to male fantasies.

But there’s something these critiques don’t explain. If porn is either a) perfectly natural and harmless or b) only damaging to women’s famously fragile self-esteem, then, why, for instance, would Maria’s two male friends agree so readily that she should dump her fiancé? Why would these men (and men, I hear, have certain urges) think the fiancé’s porn consumption problematic? Now, Maria was a babe, and normally I’d be inclined to think they were trying to hit on her, but that was not the case.

The vast majority of studies on male porn usage are done by high-minded public health types wanting to find out effect, not cause. It’s just assumed that the sum total of reasons why men get lost in pornville is that naked chicks are hot–so studies only determine porn’s after-effects, such as its relationship to rape fantasies, sexual violence, and prostitution. And while sexual violence and unrealistic expectations of women are problems for which we should be seeking causes, it’s revealing that all the studies treat men simply as evildoers at the mercy of their Lil’ Slugger rather than human beings with not only desires, but also insecurities and feelings.

After Maria’s story, I talked with both of the men who’d said she’d done the right thing. We talked about their own porn usage, which in both cases started before high school. I guess you don’t find too many straight men who look askance at images of frisky women with bulbs of welcoming flesh. But at some point, the normal attraction to the female form can cross the line into compulsion. In Will’s case he was a sensitive college student struggling to cope with frequent rejection by females, or even just the fear of rejection. After he got an Ethernet connection, he discovered a place where the girls never say no.

In David’s case he was in a relationship with a gorgeous woman who required a lot of work. He loved her but found her confusing and heart-wrenching and there was no outlet for him to express frustration. The girls on his computer monitor never nagged, needed emotional support, or left him wondering what they wanted.

At some point both guys ended up in a situation where the porn usage began to affect their interactions with real women. Both admitted to having to take steps to cut back on their porn usage, and even then they suggested that their problems paled in comparison to other men they knew.

To hear Will and David tell it, the porn industry might feed the insecurity of women but it feeds off of the insecurity of men.

One doesn’t need to spend much time deleting spam to realize that male insecurity is a major factor in the marketplace of sexual desire. If men were sexually confident, then everyone with a computer wouldn’t receive 14 emails an hour promising three-inch penis growth, herbal supplements to help men satisfy women, and cheap drugs for better erections.

Men like porn not just because of the macromastic bodies but because they get what they want emotionally: respect, adoration, and esteem. Men want to feel important and special; they want to be loved and needed. The women in porn never ask anything of men; their men are always satisfying, manly, and in control.

See, size does matter. But why it matters is because no matter how brilliant, charming, or sexy a man is, he worries that he is inadequate, a fear that sometimes takes the form of worrying that his monument is not the largest in the National Park system.

But other types of size matter to men, too: resume size, paycheck size, IQ size. Men worry they will never amount to anything. They are expected to find wives, work regularly for the duration of their life, and support a family. It’s a hard life.

That’s probably why the characters in porn are never well-developed men who earn the adoration of women for a reason. In porn, women do not have incentives, which is how you get a pizza-deliveryman as the recipient of unquestioning intimacy from gorgeous women. Which, come to think of it, mimics the plotline for Sideways.

Some say porn is simply the male counterpoint to chick flicks. Indeed, one definition of porn I came across fits well for both: ‘self-indulgent daydreams in which the participants, seen as objects, lack content and their behavior lacks plausibility.’ The deeper truth, however, is that porn usage isn’t just about fantasy-it’s largely about control. The equivalent to porn for females is eating disorders, not Harlequin Romances or Nora Ephron movies. In a quest to feel in control of their lives, many women master their food intake and outtake. Similarly, men seek control of their sex lives through masturbation. Both afflictions are guilt-ridden, deeply private, and rooted in understandable desires and fantasies.

John Jordan, a British anti-capitalist artist, did a fascinating installation where he asked men about the first pornographic image they witnessed and what their feelings were about porn before and afterwards. The men reported similar patterns of sexual need, followed by excitement and then depression and anger at the power that pornography had over their lives.

“My understanding of pornography was not that it was a site for the celebration of powerful masculine sexuality, but a place of trauma where men search for escapist ways of avoiding the truth of their own emotional experience. A secret world where we are allowed to desire and be desired unconditionally,” Johnson wrote.

Porn is not just a lonely escape, it’s also fun. But the harm to men is completely unexplored by society. I’m not calling for censorship: Pulp Friction and Tea Bagger Vance are protected by the First Amendment. But they may not be healthy to watch.

By delivering the hardest, the hottest, the biggest and the wettest, porn decreases incentives for overcoming the difficulties of courtship. Men run to porn to avoid the heavy work of dealing with women. But this means that they engage in less meaningful relationships and end up feeding the beast of their loneliness.

Porn creates a prison for men where they lose their confidence and ability to seduce actual women or maintain a healthy relationship. Rather than focusing on porn’s deleterious effects on women, cultural analysts should see it is fed by and cultivates male insecurity. Perhaps a proper first response would be for women to ease up on the rejection and show men that they are valuable and needed, loved and adored. Now that’s not saying that women should give it up preemptively or indiscriminately so that men don’t run to other sexual outlets. But certainly women should treat men in such away that acknowledges how, even in a post-feminist world, men shoulder tremendous responsibilities as bread-winners, protectors, husbands, fathers and lovers.

I’m not sure this simple understanding would have saved Maria’s engagement, but I like to think the wisdom her cautionary tale provided me was worth something. Otherwise I’d just consider myself another victim of her fiancé’s indiscretion. After she gave him the boot, Maria moved away and I had to find a new hairdresser.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, an editor at Ricochet, is also a contributor to Getreligion.org. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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