Why does anyone look at porn?
For tens of millions of American men and women, there's only one answer: To get more sexually excited. The goal of getting excited, of course, is to enhance the process by which people eventually get not-excited—also called satisfaction.
Lather, rinse, repeat three times per week for 75 years.
How someone feels about that—deliberately doing something to get more aroused—is an excellent predictor of how they will feel about pornography. For those suspicious of sexual arousal, porn is bad. For those who think that tinkering with our own arousal is selfish or creepy, porn is bad.
And for those who think arousal is OK, as long as it's directly connected to one's partner's body, personality or sexual behavior, porn is also bad.
When people want to talk about their disapproval of porn's mission of increasing excitement, they generally resort to one of the standard criticisms of porn:
* Watching porn is a form of infidelity
* It's immoral
* It exploits actresses
* It gives consumers wrong/bad ideas about sex
* Consuming porn makes people withdraw from their partners
* It's secretive, which hurts a relationship
* Consuming porn leads to violence against women
* It suggests novel, even "kinky" sexual activities
* It leads men to demand sexual behaviors from women that women don't want to do.
As standard as these criticisms are, each has a straightforward response:
* It depends on how you define infidelity; what about lusting after women in the airport, or fantasizing about them while masturbating without porn?
* Some people prefer to measure morality by reference to ethics or how we treat others, rather than by a private erotic choice hurting no one.
* Watching porn exploits actresses to the same extent that watching pro football exploits athletes, who risk their physical safety for our entertainment. "The money they earn isn't comparable"? So if porn actresses make a fortune (some do), watching porn is OK?
* Most adults watching porn know it depicts fantasy, not a documentary. In every society, in every age, people have held inaccurate or harmful ideas about sex. A lack of real sex education doesn't help in this regard.
* No one withdraws from a sexual relationship that's physically and emotionally satisfying, certainly not for the chance to masturbate to a video.
* People only keep their porn watching a secret when their mate demands it—via ultimatums, demands, or other rigidity. And yes, porn watchers could be braver about confronting this—but porn watching doesn't have to inherently involve secrecy.
* Everyone knows porn watching has gone up, and every law enforcement agency says that the rate of sexual violence has gone down. If anything, there's a strong argument that porn acts as a safety valve to reduce sexual violence.
* If learning new ways to do things is bad, the most dangerous person in town is Martha Stewart, the queen of reimagining what we can do and how we can do it.
* People have been pressuring each other for various sexual behaviors since the beginning of time. Thirty years ago it was oral sex; before that it was intercourse before marriage; before that it was kisses and embraces during courtship. We should be concerned that there are still people who can't say "no" firmly enough within a relationship to prevent future invitations.
The deeper issue here is over ownership of our eroticism. Do we still own it when we're in a relationship, or does the relationship now own it? If we agree to limit our sexual behavior within a relationship (as most people do), does "behavior" include sexual fantasy?
And is it a bad thing to nourish our relationship with our own eroticism?
Anyone who thinks so must also indict industries promoting fashion, perfume, plastic surgery, hairdressing, cars and other large consumer items. Not only are these designed to make us more attractive to others, they are also promoted to make us feel sexier, more glamorous, and more youthful—to affect how we feel about ourselves, not only how others feel about us.
In a world where we're all encouraged to increase our self-esteem and sense of empowerment, doesn't that include our sense of our own sexuality? This is not an abstract thing; increasing our self-esteem and empowerment means, if we wish, increasing our experience of our own eroticism.
Particularly in monogamous relationships, viewing pornography—-with or without masturbation—-seems a particularly benign and effective way to do that.
The Dirty Little Secret of Therapy
It's National Psychotherapy Day.
I've been a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist for 34 years—over 35,000 hours of therapy with men, women, and couples. I make a living from it. Most of my friends are therapists. Like most therapists, I've been in therapy more than once. I really, really believe in it.
Nevertheless, it's time, once again, to critique the institution of therapy. Today's criticism:
If the public knew how little most therapists learn about sexuality, they'd be stunned. While there are exceptions, here's what most therapists (and social workers) in America learn about sex as they're being trained:
* How to define, assess, and treat victims of child molestation;
* How to talk to people who have been raped;
* How to discuss infidelity—generally using a perpetrator-victim model;
* How to encourage couples to "compromise" their differences in sexual desire or preference;
* It's OK to be gay (finally!) (unless you go to some "Christian counselors");
* In general, men want sex more than women;
* Men who go to sex workers have an emotional problem, often a fear of intimacy;
* The traditional Masters & Johnson model of sexual response, in which you either get erect or wet, get excited, and then climax—or you have a "dysfunction."
Like I said, there are exceptions. But the chances are that your therapist didn't learn much more about sex than that. And a lot of it is crap. Almost all of it is negative.
Here's what your therapist should have learned as part of his/her training:
* Exactly how difficult long-term monogamy is for people who like sex. How to talk with—and be compassionate for—people having difficulties with monogamy, or couples having conflict over their different preferences.
* The actual content of most internet porn. Why so many people prefer masturbating to porn than having sex with their partner. How to talk with couples about this without demonizing the porn consumer.
* "Romantic" sex isn't better than other kinds. "Spontaneous" sex isn't better than other kinds. Intercourse isn't better than other kinds of sex. Monogamy isn't better than other arrangements. People's insistence on one or more of these fairy tales is the source of great misery, whether they're patients or therapists.
* Most normal children experiment with sex with their peers in ways that could get them in huge trouble with the law.
* Vibrators. Nipple clamps. Fingers in anuses. Hair-pulling. "Accidental" exhibitionism. "Accidental" voyeurism. Deliberate exhibitionism and voyeurism. What people actually do sexually.
* In adulthood, male sexuality and female sexuality are far more similar than different.
* Not only do women fake orgasm, men do, too. And for the same reasons.
* Straight people have same-gender sexual experiences. Gay people have mixed-gender sexual experiences. Some of these people are comfortable doing so. Others feel awful, and consider it a dark secret. The secrecy is almost always destructive.
* The extraordinary range of human sexual fantasies. Fantasy does not typically reflect true desire; in sex, fantasy doesn't predict behavior any more than it does in other parts of life (daydreamed about killing your boss or neighbor lately?). While some fantasies have "meaning," most are simply low-cost, calorie-free entertainment.
There's a lot more about sex that therapists should know. And therapists should be more comfortable about sex than we are, including activities that a therapist thinks are weird.
It's also important to note that most of what therapists learn about sex is pathology oriented—that is, distortions of sexual behavior and motivation. But what about healthy sexuality—what do therapists learn about that? Other than society's norms (love drives desire; intercourse is the most intimate kind of sex; etc.), not very much. It's the equivalent of going to a knee surgeon who knows all about damaged knees but very little about healthy ones. That's not the surgeon I would pick.
When it comes to sexuality, the fields of psychotherapy and couples counseling are way behind the times. When shopping for a therapist, regardless of your issues, you may want to ask about his/her philosophy regarding sex, gender, and intimacy—because that will color their attitude about a lot of topics that seem unrelated, but aren't.
How to ask? Just ask. Listen to how comfortable your would-be therapist seems, and what vocabulary she/he uses. "Private parts" and "marital relations" is probably not a good sign.
How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one—but the lightbulb really has to want to change. When it comes to sexuality, it's time the therapy field changed dramatically—so we can more effectively help our patients change and grow. Of course, it's unnecessary for every therapist to specialize in sex. But patients' assumption that every therapist knows a lot about sex—and doesn't simply believe common, destructive myths about it—should not be unreasonable.
Last week I went to Tokyo to speak at World Sexual Health Day. Coordinated by the World Association for Sexology, the Japanese Society for Sex Education, and others, the program featured an impressive array of national and international speakers. Some are now new friends.
My talk was the last event of the day, and in a different location from the rest of the program. And so at 6pm my Tokyo host (whom I'd met the previous day) and my sexologist-translator (whom I'd never met) picked me up at my hotel, and after a short taxi ride we arrived at a sort-of nightclub, which had been booked for the evening.
Inside there were dozens of cocktail tables, at which most of the chairs were already filled. As my host had predicted, it was a pretty well-behaved crowd with very little drinking (I'd been concerned about the latter, not the former).
After several short welcomes (including one from the nationally-famous gynecologist who has written a forward to the Japanese edition of my current book, which my Japanese publisher didn't tell me about—but don't get me started on that), my translator Daisuke and I were brought up to the little stage, and just like that we began.
Miraculously, the guy is fantastic, the crowd responds to my (our?) jokes, and we're off and running. My theme is Sexual Intelligence—don't look for perfect functioning, perfect bodies, or perfect sex. Decide how you want to feel, communicate that with your partner, relax, and together create an experience that simply feels good.
Or something like that. Who knows what the talk was like in Japanese. In any case, I give lots of examples involving food and sports, which seem to resonate. I inform the audience that this talk isn't going to be perfect, and say that once I decide that, I can just relax and be present. If I expected to give a perfect talk, I might be nervous, and I certainly would enjoy the experience less. Get the analogy?
I also discuss how sex itself has no meaning, and so people construct its meanings for themselves. And in Japan (I assume) as everywhere else, people construct meanings that create pressure, constrict the experience, and define things arbitrarily. I give a few common examples (if he doesn't get erect, he doesn't love me; if I let him go down on me, I have to go down on him to be "fair;" a real woman climaxes from intercourse; etc.), which the audience recognizes. I casually throw in a few more myths about sex, layering the depth of the presentation.
Ninety minutes later, people are still attentive, and still smiling or nodding or obviously thinking. Virtually no one is looking at a mobile phone, and two dozen people are taking notes. We come to a close, get way more than polite applause, and I call for a short break. Upon resuming, I thank Daisuke publicly, and we have a lively question period.
When it's over, drinks are poured, mobile phones are checked, books are purchased, and people crowd around wanting autographs, photographs, or advice. One young couple sort of surrounds me, clearly concerned about something. The guy asks in perfect English, "We have a problem. She's obsessed with condoms and I don't want to use them. What should we do?"
Obsessed? Yes (I am not making this up), she has decorated her apartment with them, hundreds of them, everywhere. Why? "Because they're so colorful and they help so many people," she says through his translation (did I mention I'm not making this up?). And why won't he use them? "Because sex should be done naked."
Now I've heard a lot of reasons for not using condoms, but this one's a bit unusual—a philosophical- ontological objection. So I say to the guy, "I see we both wear beards. I guess you don't have sex naked, since you wear a beard." No, he says, a beard doesn't count because it's natural, it's part of who he is. He needs for sex to be done naked. OK, "What about the winter time—what if your feet or her feet are cold, do you have sex wearing socks?" No, he says, feeling their bodies in their various states of warmth and coldness is part of intimacy. I'm not sure she agrees with this (she's wearing a shawl while I'm sweating in the crowded club), but I can see that our young philosopher is no amateur.
So I ask, "Don't you ever have sex under a blanket?" He says Gee Doc, you're really focused on this naked thing. I point out that much of my talk has just been about the constructed nature of sexuality; how ideas about "normal sex," "sexy," "undignified positions," "men," etc. are a big part of how people complicate sex and undermine their enjoyment. I note that his "naked" is just another arbitrary construction, which he's carefully designed to rule out condom use.
He measures me carefully, then breaks into a big smile. "Well, you got me Doc," he says. "I use that "naked" thing mostly as a justification. I hate how sex feels with condoms, but that wasn't getting me anywhere. The "naked" thing sounded much better. You busted me, Doc."
And with that he shook my hand, she thanked me, and they left. The irony of him displaying the very constructed nature of sexuality that I had spent the evening discussing (including how people create unnecessary struggles during this process) is, apparently, completely lost on him.
Can someone get me a drink please?