I'm in New Zealand this week training a marvelous group of psychologists and sex therapists. In addition to issues such as intimacy, menopause, power dynamics, and medication side effects, we've spent some time discussing pornography.
Inevitably, someone raised one of today's most popular myths: that there's an epidemic of young men with erection problems. This is supposedly caused by all their masturbating to porn—getting accustomed to the perfect stimulation from their hand, thereby reducing their interest in, and satisfaction from, sex with a real woman.
I told my Kiwi audience that that's one fact, one misunderstanding, and one complete inaccuracy.
- Yes, men are learning about sex from masturbating to porn, which is unfortunate.
- No, there is no epidemic of ED in young men.
- No, there is no epidemic of young men preferring masturbation to partner sex.
Seriously: go to any high school or college campus anywhere, and ask a bunch of male students what they dream of sexually. None of them will say "I dream of the day when I can masturbate to porn anytime I want, and never have to mess with dating or having sex with an actual person." Young men today want what young men have wanted since the beginning of time: a willing young woman (or young man) with whom to kiss and hug and have sex.
(Yes, there have always been a few guys too shy, inhibited, guilt-ridden, or even disgusted to want partner sex. That hasn't changed, and there's no reason to think it's increased.)
Where's the data about young men's increasing erectile problems? It doesn't exist. While some people think only middle-aged and older men have erection problems, scientists have known for at least 60 years that some 10% of men age 29 and younger have erectile dissatisfaction. I haven't seen any increase in this number since I started practicing sex therapy in 1980 (some 20 years before internet porn became popular), and neither have any of the urologists or psychologists with whom I work.
But a huge number of young men jack off to internet porn, so how about the competition between the perfect hand and the imperfect vagina?
I think it's simple. If sex were about only one thing—physical stimulation—one's own hand would provide better sex than anything else, no question. But sex is about more than friction: it's about feeling desired, touching and being touched, kissing, nibbling, and smelling, pleasing someone else, and feeling part of the ongoing human erotic parade.
Sex with Mary FiveFingers may provide more perfect stimulation and a more reliable orgasm, but when it comes to sex, that isn't everything.
Most young men want to have sex not only with a vagina, but with the person at the other end of the vagina. Of course, most young men are missing some of the skills they need to enjoy both a vagina and its owner. And yes, internet porn is definitely giving its consumers unhelpful ideas about sex. But the rhythm of modern communication—texting, email, social media—is also undermining everyone's ability to read facial cues and voice tone, as well as have the longer conversations that enjoyable (sexual) relationships inevitably require.
So yes, a vagina alone (tight or loose, moist or dry) can't compete with the world's most perfect hand—your own. But sex with an actual female? If a person can relax, communicate, and participate, partner sex offers way more than perfect friction. It offers connection, excitement, validation, arms, legs, hair, smiles, and a chance to explore the universe with a companion. Our hands are great, but they aren't very good company.
Internet porn has a lot to answer for, but not for ruining the enjoyment of sex with a live woman (or man). Imperfect as the friction might be, that's still among the best things life has to offer. And as pornified or textified as most young men might be, it's still what they want.
Recently, an unusually personal and lengthy exchange in the New York Times has raised the question: Did Woody Allen molest Dylan Farrow when Dylan was a child?
I have no idea.
But millions of people have an opinion, many of them quite strong. Across the blogosphere, comments about the subject have been loud, and dominated by three views.
One group—including many survivors of such victimization—believes children never lie about this, and accuses American society of not wanting to hear about its enormous rate of sexual exploitation. Another group—including many people with a very different experience—notes that in bitter child custody battles adults will do and say practically anything, including accusations of abuse, and coaching kids to hate or fear. A third group examines the "he said, she said" facts and allegations, and comes to its own conclusions—giving itself permission to have an opinion despite having no actual knowledge about the alleged event.
America's attitudes about childhood sexual exploitation are deeply troubling. The troubling attitudes start with ignorance—of the structure of human memory, of the incidence of false accusations, of distinctions between kinds of exploitation. It continues with indignation and moralism, claiming that objective attempts to understand and parse this phenomenon ultimately disrespect all victims, and at worse, hide a tolerance of molestation.
It climaxes with pop psychology and sloppy journalism which claims that "1 out of 3 females is molested in her lifetime," lumping together physical coercion, psychological pressure, bullying, bad parenting, and shame induction, so that the category "child molestation" loses its value to describe or explain much of anything—thus trivializing the horrific crime the term is meant to define.
Many general facts about child sexual exploitation are known:
- Many children are sexually exploited
- Many children who complain about molestation go unbelieved
- Many abusers go unpunished
- Many accusations of child molestation are false
- The most common situation in which false accusations occur is a divorce—and tragically, the children are often coached by one parent to accuse the other. Some children are coached by investigators—sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently through unprofessional techniques.
Many activists, policymakers, and the public seem unaware that, proven beyond any doubt, the structure of human memory does NOT resemble videotape—recording everything accurately, and playing back everything accurately under the right circumstances.
If anything, human memory is more like a digital photo that is constantly being photoshopped—by exposure to others' memories, others' opinions, cultural norms, and subsequent events that seem to contradict or confirm the memory. It's surprisingly common for people to believe that certain things happened to them that actually didn't. And it's surprisingly easy to implant false memories in both children and adults. For more on this, see the work and Ted talk of world-renowned scientist Elizabeth Loftus.
Too many of the comments about the Allen-Farrow situation say that Ms. Farrow should be believed because (1) the millions of victims out there are damaged when any molest accuser is disbelieved and (2) not believing an accuser discourages victims from coming forward in the future.
This logic transforms the Allen-Farrow situation involving two actual people—about whom we know nothing—into social forces, about which we all have opinions and desire particular outcomes. It's a call for retributive "justice" similar to the calls to convict Rodney King's tormentors and to acquit OJ Simpson because African-Americans have historically been mistreated by Caucasian police.
And too many of the comments about the Allen-Farrow situation come down to "If you doubt that she's telling the truth, you obviously hate women, tolerate rape, are blinded by male privilege, and/or are a molester yourself."
Consider the crime of murder: most people agree that professionals can study it, differentiate among different types of it, know that some people are falsely accused of it, and study how that happens. Yet no one discussing these points is accused of not taking murder seriously, or not believing that it happens.
We should be at least that smart about child sexual exploitation. Intelligent people not involved in a situation should be willing to say "I don't know what actually happened"—without having their integrity or compassion questioned.
And if an intelligent person is unsure whether something heinous happened in a particular situation, s/he shouldn't have to hastily add that "of course, these heinous things do happen way too often, and of course I'm totally against them."
When those are the ground rules—that doubting that X was molested or harassed or raped is a legitimate (although possibly incorrect) viewpoint—then we can have an actual, serious conversation about this serious subject.
I'm still in New Zealand, travelling from North Island to South Island by (gorgeous) ferry and (fabulous) train.
And I'm pondering the four days of training I just provided the country's sex therapists and marriage counselors. As is the case in every country I work in, everyone here wants to know more about desire. Why does it decline in loving couples? How do we enhance it?
One seminar participant brought up the subject of initiating. Indeed, we all have patients who want sex but don't initiate it. We also have patients who are ambivalent—if their partner initiates they'll have sex, but if not, they'd just as soon skip it.
So rather than pathologize men or women who don't initiate sex, I always assume they have good reasons, whether medical, psychological, relational, or some combination of these. Here are some.
- They don't expect to enjoy it: not initiating sex you don't expect to enjoy isn't a pathology, it's common sense. It's the same reason I don't order broccoli in restaurants—I don't expect to enjoy it.
- They don't expect their partner to accept: everyone needs to be able to hear the word "no" without collapsing. But when experience (or bitterness or even guilt) predicts that "no" is the likeliest answer, not asking is understandable.
- They anticipate criticism: "Oh, you're finally initiating?"; "Suggesting sex? I guess you want something from me"; "If you're inviting me to have sex, it better be more than a quickie"…if this is what someone expects when they initiate, it's no wonder they don't.
- They're tired of initiating: Some people are fine doing virtually all the initiating, as long as the answer is usually "yes." But some people feel such a pattern is humiliating, and they'd rather break the cycle, even if it means less sex. Or at least that's what they think when they stop initiating.
- They don't feel attractive or desired: When people think "sex is for other people" or "my partner would prefer sex with someone else, but settles for me," that can drain the energy out of any erotic situation—and discourage someone from translating sexual feelings into sexual interest or initiating.
- They experience "foreplay" as a chore or as one-sided: if you don't enjoy the kissing, hugging, and transition from not-sex to sex, initiating what lies beyond "foreplay" typically seems like a lot of effort for low return.
- They're waiting to feel incredibly horny: When beginning our sexual careers, desire generally feels overwhelming, unambiguous, irresistible. Ten or twenty years into a relationship, desire typically feels calmer, more rational, more easily directed or postponed. If people in long-term couples are waiting until they feel sexually ravenous, they may wait forever—and never initiate again.
Suggesting sex is an invitation to connect. If connection is not what someone expects or experiences, they'll be slow to initiate sex—and with good reason. If that applies to you or your situation, some clear communication (accompanied by affection) is definitely in order.