Shmuley Boteach and Pamela Anderson have co-authored an article about pornography in the Wall Street Journal. It starts by decrying the "devastation of porn addiction" and ends by saying that "porn is for losers."
Boteach is a Rabbi who has spent years telling people that sex should be restricted to committed, loving relationships. He says that masturbation is harmful, as it undermines the monopoly that marriage should have on sex, and therefore undermines people's motivation to get or stay married. What a ghastly diss of marriage.
Anderson has spent half her career taking off most of her clothes, and half her career taking off all her clothes. Now we shouldn't judge people's opinions based solely on their past behavior. But she appeared in Playboy (for the 14th time) only 10 months ago, and posted a nude photo of herself on Instagram just last week. Apparently she only opposes porn that she's not in.
So this odd couple—the anti-masturbation crusader and the still-stripping professional titillator—write an article warning of the terrifying dangers of porn addiction. They insult some 60-80 million American porn consumers, insisting that they all compromise themselves as parents and spouses. Given that most porn consumers walk the streets each day and go home each evening in completely unremarkable fashion, it's hard to imagine how anyone could think that porn inevitably damages everyone who looks at it, or simply lives in a society that tolerates it.
Ironically, Boteach and Anderson leave out a legitimate complaint about porn—that it presents a vision of sexuality that isn't entirely realistic. It shows unusual bodies in unusual situations doing unusual things. Of course, if people had proper sex education, and were encouraged to communicate about sex effectively, they would deal with porn's fictions the same way they deal with other media fictions—like cooking shows, Stephen King novels, and Mel Gibson's films.
But people like Boteach and Anderson are very much part of the problem that they don't discuss: they also present unrealistic visions of sexuality.
Teaching that sex has an inherent "meaning" or "purpose" independent of circumstances or the people doing it is harmful. Teaching that masturbation betrays one's partner (or one's God) is shame-inducing. Teaching that adults who use porn put their kids at risk of permanent damage is horribly manipulative.
And where exactly does Anderson get the cojones to condemn porn in any form? If you meticulously titillate viewers—including millions of adolescent boys—then keeping a few inches of cloth on your breasts and crotch doesn't make you better, or your work more wholesome, than a naked porn actress on the internet pleasing several actors at once. Whether nude or bikinied, Anderson was so good at portraying sexual fantasies (and still, apparently, is), that she became rich and famous doing it. So one of the most famous porn actresses in the history of the world is warning us against the "other" kind of porn. It's a phony distinction. I won't say she's a hypocrite but…well actually, I think I will.
It's troubling that the Wall Street Journal would give its powerful platform to people who are biased and obviously conflicted about the very subject on which they opine. The WSJ should have said "Disclaimer: Boteach is against masturbation, and Anderson still undresses and titillates for money." It's dishonest that these authors didn't include this information. It's like an oil company consultant writing about oil stocks. Would the WSJ publish that guy's opinion without noting his relevant background?
As for their warnings about porn addiction, nonsense. Let me remind you about real addiction, involving substances like heroin, Oxycontin, or alcohol. If you're addicted to such a substance, your body's ability to metabolize it is compromised (which does indeed affect your judgment about using it). Take away the substance from the addict and s/he vomits, shakes violently, suffers night sweats and nightmares, and may even hallucinate.
Take away porn from habitual, even self-destructive users, and there's no such reaction. If they continue to masturbate without porn, they just get a little crabby. If they stop masturbating too (as required by many porn addiction "treatment" programs), they get really cranky. You would too if you gave up masturbation for a year.
Addiction? No one who has ever seen real addiction withdrawal would confuse it with being really cranky. Porn addiction? There's no such thing. There's loneliness, there's depression, there's anger and fear. There are situations in which people withdraw sexually because of chronic conflict or long-term emotional wounds. There are couples who have lost interest in each other sexually.
After 36 years as a sex therapist and marriage counselor, I can tell you this: no one ever leaves a vibrant, satisfying sexual relationship for masturbation to porn. But for people who are suspicious about sexuality, or who have a political agenda around sex or gender, consuming porn can never be a harmless or understandable activity. It can never be just one more thing that normal people do (perhaps imperfectly) in a normal life.
People who demonize or mistrust sexuality shouldn't be telling the rest of us what to be scared of. And they shouldn't look down on others simply because they disapprove of their sexual expression. Especially not if they're professionally committed to being compassionate, or if they've made a huge amount of money tantalizing a generation of "losers."
For sixteen years and 1,000 posts, everything I've written in Sexual Intelligence has been about sex.
This piece is, too. To get there, though, you'll need to be a bit patient. C'mon in.
I'm writing this on my way home from a week in Ireland. After a couple of days of teaching, I drove myself around the country for five eventful days. For history buffs (I am) or beer drinkers (I'm not) Ireland is a great place to visit, but the country has a serious, well-known drawback—horrible roads. They're extremely narrow, poorly marked, and completely unlit. Americans would call many of them country lanes rather than roads for cars.
Reminder: like their British cousins, the Irish drive on the "other" side of the road.
So on an overcast Irish morning (forgive the redundancy), I climbed into my rented car with steering wheel and gearshift on the "wrong" side, heading to hidden-away thousand-year-old towns on twisting roads laid out in medieval times.
What could possibly go wrong here?
As I eased out of Dublin and into the old-fashioned countryside, I soon found out. I was continually facing cars coming toward me that were way too close. I kept edging to my left, only to hear the sounds of roadside brush scraping the car. I'd quickly move to the right, only to see the next car rushing toward me with what seemed like only inches to spare.
Move left, hit brush or loose stones, move right, get nervous, move left. Lather, rinse, repeat. See a 12th-century monastery, talk with a professional guide and/or colorful locals, get back in the car, do it again.
Eventually I drove a little too far to the left, hit some sharp stones, a rain gutter, and only God (this being Ireland) knows what else, and when I finally wrestled the car to a stop, I discovered I had destroyed my left front tire. It wasn't flat—I had destroyed the tire and bent the rim. Disrupted my trip a bit, yes.
Fast-forward through getting the spare sort-of tire on the front, driving way too carefully for an hour to my next town, finding a shop, buying a new tire, and getting everything all fixed by the next afternoon. That's not the interesting part.
The interesting part is how much trouble I had driving after that—because of awful feelings I couldn't even identify. It was more than fear. I know what that feels like.
It took me an entire day of wretchedly careful driving, clumsy stopping, not wanting to make right turns (which cross traffic, like an American left turn), and feeling confused about my terrible internal state before I sat down, after a late and unhappy dinner, to talk about what I had done and how I felt. To a pub-keeper. He was undoubtedly surprised at my earnestness, especially since I wasn't drinking, or even complaining—I just needed to talk out loud and discover what I was feeling. And after a half-hour of talking about myself, I found out.
I was ashamed of what I'd done. Events had proven me arrogant, inadequate to a challenge I was dismissively certain I could manage.
But much worse, I now no longer trusted myself. Driving—an American's most basic right, most basic skill, most basic experience—I suddenly couldn't do it without thinking. I didn't trust my own judgment—of distance, speed, geometry, safety—and I was terrified.
Get this distinction—I wasn't so much terrified of driving, or of getting hurt, as I was terrified of not being able to trust my own judgment. My judgment: my trusted companion through a 35-year clinical career, life as a self-employed entrepreneur, the deaths of my parents, high-profile involvement in contentious political issues, the gradual erosion of my aging body, financial and legal decisions about which I lacked sufficient knowledge.
And now I didn't trust my judgment. Without it, I could barely inch forward at even a deserted country intersection.
And yes, I felt humiliated—like discovering I was a fraud, which I've never feared I was. But the shame didn't cripple me. What crippled me was something my patients talk about all the time—the Lack of Confidence.
And now we're finally coming to the sex part. Thanks for your patience.
* * *
For three decades, patients have asked me, begged me, pleaded with me: "How do I develop more confidence sexually?"
My answers have varied, depending upon the person:
* You don't need confidence. Sex is that special thing that you can just enjoy no matter what happens.
* Go ahead and feel confident—not about any particular outcome (like erection or orgasm), but about the fact that you can enjoy whatever you do, and can enjoy being with the person you're with (depending on how you choose your partners, of course).
And in the longer term…
* We'll identify what makes it hard to trust yourself sexually, resolve that, and then you'll feel confident. This could be anything from fear of your "promiscuity" to fear of believing you're OK.
* We're going to reconceptualize sexuality so that just being yourself is all you need to "do" to be adequate. Then you'll feel confident.
* We're going to investigate how religion, culture, and other influences have created visions of sexual adequacy that you can't possibly live up to. We'll resolve those, and then you'll feel confident.
* We'll help you accept your own sexuality so you can imagine a partner accepting your sexuality.
* We'll help you communicate better and be more open to the sexuality of someone you care about, so you'll feel more confident about handling whatever comes along.
This sort of thinking has helped a lot of people over 35 years.
I've always felt that sexuality was sort of the low-hanging fruit of human experience—it's so much easier to navigate than things that are legitimately difficult, like raising a child, learning another language, installing skype, or saying no to a donut.
My patients keep telling me otherwise. They insist that sexuality is a terribly difficult thing to relax into, to feel familiar with, to talk about, to improvise. They lack Confidence.
Now I understand this a little bit better. Almost everyone trusts their judgement about something—whether it's shopping for groceries, matching their clothes, doing their job, handling their kid's cough, following a football game, or yes, driving.
For many of my patients, sex isn't one of those ordinary things they trust they'll do adequately. Of course, to them it seems that everyone else in America is good at it—great at it—presumably every day, and twice on Sunday. And now I have a slightly better sense of why that's so disconcerting, so disruptive.
Every week I see people who are one lost erection away from disaster, one didn't-quite-orgasm away from humiliation, one not-tonight-dear away from feeling emasculated. They want me to fix something so that they'll be able to trust sex and themselves, even if they never have before.
I tell them that by itself sex is pretty simple, but that their unique experience of our culture (say, punitive religion), their unique biography (say, alcoholic parent), and their individual psychology (say, feeling guilty for their submissive fantasies) are combining to make sex so complicated that of course it's hard to relax and trust it—or themselves.
Many people are terrified to trust their judgement about whether they're sexually normal, or sexually attractive, or sexually adequate, or perceiving their partner accurately, or communicating effectively. They're afraid to trust their judgment about the "right" way to kiss, or whose responsibility birth control "should" be, or whether it "should" be an intrusion.
This week, a narrow, twisting Irish road and a green-eyed Irish pub-keeper helped me understand this a little better.
The answer is yes.
Here's a sample of America's complicated sexual landscape:
* The U.S. Navy just named a ship after Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in America. Things have changed in just 22 years, when gays were barred from serving in the military.
* In 2009, the city of Sandy Springs, GA passed a law criminalizing the sale of sex toys (that's 2009, not 1909). Last month a federal appeals court upheld the law, referring to a similar existing ban throughout Alabama.
* There are increasing legal protections for trans people, and one rarely sees the acronym LGB or GLB anymore—the T is now a firm part of the sexual alphabet. On the other hand, there's a vicious internecine battle going on about who's a "real" trans person, whether a trans person is a "real" woman or man, and if sincere, intelligent people can actually debate the issues around transgenderism without being called transphobic—or worse.
* More Americans try anal sex and oral sex than ever before. More Americans experiment with BDSM than ever before. More Americans go online for sex advice than ever before. More Americans give online sex advice than ever before.
* Most Americans say they support sex education in school. Most Americans don't want schools teaching kids about pleasure, pornography, why people have sex, how to decide when to have sex, or most other relevant subjects.
* It's harder to get an abortion than to buy a gun. It's harder to get an abortion than to buy an a semi-automatic weapon. In many states, it's almost impossible to get a legal abortion. In every state it's possible to get a dangerous, expensive, illegal one.
* The federal government now insists that if two college students get drunk and agree to have sex, one can call it rape and try to have the other expelled from school. At the ensuing hearing, the accused student will not be allowed a lawyer, nor will he be allowed to cross-examine his accuser. This destruction of due process is supposed to be "progress."
* At least sixty million American men, women, and couples use porn regularly.
* Nearly half (45% or 2.8 million) of the 6 million pregnancies in the United States each year are unintended. There are 45 unintended pregnancies for every 1,000 women aged 15–44—so nearly 5% of reproductive-age women have an unintended pregnancy each year. How can that many people be that irresponsible year after year?
* You can buy sex toys at Walmart and Amazon.com, along with dozens of brands of lube and condoms.
* You can become a Licensed Marriage Counselor without hearing the words "sex toy" in your training.
* The federal government and various states spend tens of millions of dollars to plant detectives in adult chatrooms. They role-play being teens; when chatroom visitors role-play with them, assuming that the person claiming to be a teen is in fact an adult, the visitor is arrested and accused of thinking he was texting with a real teen, which is a felony.
* A majority of Americans think gay people should have the same rights as straight people.
* * *
In a perfect expression of ambivalence, Americans are more sexually adventurous in their own bedrooms, but increasingly supportive of restrictions on other people's sexual expression. Fear of sexual violence (which has steadily declined for years, but is regularly whipped up by both the Left and the Right) is one explanation. Fear for their children's safety (although in many ways kids have never been safer) is another. And confusion and anxiety about the rapid pace of social change is surely a factor, too.
More information hasn't necessarily helped: myths about predators, child porn users, pedophiles, swingers, age-role-players, and "perverts" such as nudists and cross-dressers have proliferated as public awareness of such people has grown without corresponding facts and insight about them.
In private at home, many Americans are able to leave these concerns behind, and explore their bodies (and each others') with an abandon many people didn't have twenty or thirty years ago. Still, too many people experience high and unnecessary levels of sexual frustration, disappointment, and "failure." A gentler approach to the sexuality of people "out there" would surely help people relax, accept themselves more, and create more enjoyable, less self-conscious sex.