This week I was interviewed by journalist Amanda Marcotte of Salon.com about pornography. You can see the 20-minute video here: https://goo.gl/QlD9O6.
After a bit of small talk, we got down to it: What if you fantasize about sex with kangaroos? Should we bring back the psychiatric diagnosis of Possessed By The Devil? And is there such a thing as porn addiction?
Ah, porn addiction. It really does matter what we call these things. We know it matters if someone is "diagnosed" as a "frigid bitch," or a "women-hating queer," or a "nympho." So of course it matters if something is labelled "porn addiction," a new "disease" that was invented just a few years ago—not by sex therapists, incidentally, but by the addiction community. Did you know that?
Here are two facts on which everyone agrees:
1. There are lots of people who are over-involved with porn, or involved in ways that undermine their other goals or commitments;
2. There are lots of porn consumers whose mates are upset—about the fact that they watch at all, or how much they watch, or the content of what they watch.
As a therapist and as a public policy analyst, the questions these facts raise include:
* Who gets to decide whether someone has a porn problem?
* Do porn consumers have the right to watch in their own homes? Do their partners have the right to a porn-free home?
* If it's not "porn addiction," what is it—and how can we help people in pain?
Every week in my office I see people struggling with porn—and people struggling with their mate's porn-watching. When people who "treat" porn addiction accuse me of not understand the pain such people are in, I just shake my head. I work with these people every week. I've been doing it for decades. Not understand their pain?
Here's what happens to a real addict—say, someone addicted to heroin or OxyContin—when they stop using the substance to which they're addicted: they vomit. They hallucinate. They can't sleep. They chew their lips. They suffer gut pain or migraines. It's the anguish of the damned.
Here's what happens to a "porn addict" when they stop using porn: they get crabby. Maybe distracted at work.
Now to be fair, most people who try to quit watching porn also try to quit masturbating (the usual logic-free treatment of "porn addiction", and of the No-Fap movement). That's actually more difficult. These people get really crabby, and yes, may get really distracted. Not suicidal, not chronically nauseous, not delusional, just crabby and distracted.
Which is exactly how you would feel if you gave up masturbating for six or twelve months. What almost never happens is people giving up porn and continuing to masturbate regularly. After a few weeks they'd do what humans have been doing for thousands of years—they'd use their imagination when masturbating, and life would go on.
People confuse the effects of giving up porn with the effects of giving up masturbation. And in any case, neither is even remotely on a par with the experience of withdrawal from actual addiction.
"Porn addiction" is, at best, a metaphor. Tens of thousands of people are spending tens of millions of dollars getting their metaphor treated. And if they imagine that they're "porn addicts," they'll spend the rest of their lives "recovering" from their metaphor. Contrast that with therapy, whose goal is to help people make better decisions, sharpen their values, enhance their internal sense of responsibility—and finish treatment.
What America is struggling with is yet another moral panic about sex. True to form throughout our history, Americans today aren't talking with each other meaningfully about sex–about desire, about choices, about pleasure, about power, about shame, about fear, about intimacy. In various decades, Americans talked about these very real aspects of sexuality by talking about rock 'n' roll, sexual violence, wifely duty, contraception, Communism, "the Gay Agenda," even race.
Today people use the subject of porn to talk about sex. People today speculate about porn causing rape (it doesn't), destroying marriages (it doesn't), addicting young people (it doesn't), or creating perversions (it doesn't). It's all easier than talking honestly about real sex with one's real partner. Or even with one's self.
So as Salon's headline asked, is America struggling with a "pandemic" of porn? Well, if that means there's a lot of porn out there, and a lot of people watching it, and some people regretting how much they watch, the answer is yes. And in that case there's also a pandemic of Kardashian.
But if "pandemic" means a destructive, wildly multiplying, irrational disease that can't be understood or even contained—well, no.
The irrational fear of (and anger about) porn is far more damaging than porn itself. No matter what you call that combination of intense fear, anger, blame, and self-righteous betrayal, anyone can see how damaging that is. And I am, in fact, quite sympathetic about it. In a world filled with porn, that sense of powerlessness and despair must be awful.
I continue to be baffled by the relationship many people have to "foreplay."
I've been putting the word in quotation marks for decades (driving print magazine editors crazy as far back as the 1980s), because it describes a state of mind I don't want to endorse.
First, it supposes that intercourse is "real sex," and everything else isn't—other activities are just second-rate sex. Furthermore, "foreplay" supposes that one is preparing for something—that these activities don't have a satisfaction or integrity of their own.
When I was in high school, "foreplay" was what a guy did to get a girl hot for "real sex." A lot of guys rushed through it, because they had their eye on a bigger prize beyond it ("real sex"). Guys also rushed through it because they didn't enjoy it very much—it was a perfunctory ritual, a necessary procedure that girls apparently wanted, although we didn't much understand what they got from it—other than making us jump through hoops before giving us what we really wanted.
As stilted and empty as that sounds, I see too many adult men and women in my office with the same attitude. They rush through "foreplay," because they simply don't enjoy it. They're too distracted by concerns about erection, lubrication, or orgasm. They're too anxious about succeeding. They're too worried about how their partner is feeling, and how close they are to saying "let's forget the whole thing tonight." No one can enjoy "foreplay" very much when they're distracted like that.
When patients have concerns about how their bodies function sexually, I invariably want to slow them down. I want them to feel their body parts, experience the wonder of seeing and touching a naked person, I want them to activate their sensorium: find something about your partner that looks good to you, tastes good to you, smells good to you, and so on.
I honestly don't care if it's a "sexual" body part (as opposed to a "non-sexual" part like an elbow, knee, or leg hair); anything we can enjoy during sex IS sexual. The elbow doesn't know it isn't "sexual" any more than the thigh knows that it is. Flesh doesn't think; it waits for the brain to code an experience as erotic, annoying, threatening, whatever.
When couples come into my office with virtually no sexual experience (say, an arranged marriage of a virgin and a near-virgin), they often ask my advice about "how to do foreplay." Or they tell me they dutifully have some minutes of "foreplay" before attempting intercourse, at which they repeatedly fail.
The idea that "foreplay" would be a period of relaxation rather than of duty, or a set of behaviors that were enjoyable rather than prepatory, is completely foreign to them. Many actually don't know that some people enjoy those things and do them for pleasure rather than because they're supposedly required for "successful" sex.
I understand that intercourse is necessary for conception (fertility treatments are still crushingly expensive and even risky for many people), and some couples are in a hurry to conceive. Therefore many people prioritize intercourse over other sexual activities. Far more couples prioritize it, however, because they think it's synonymous with sex, real sex, good sex, etc..
Many people have seen little or no "foreplay" of even the mildest kind in movies or TV. If they haven't "dated," they may have no personal experience of it. Imagine going from nervously holding hands to clueless intercourse—you'd want to do things "right," even though that pressure only made you more nervous.
Deemphasizing intercourse would be a great step toward making sex more satisfying, less stressful, and simply easier for a huge number of people. Encouraging people to do what they like during erotic activity, rather than doing sex "the right way" would reduce everyone's anxiety and even promote communication. "What do you like?" "How does this feel?" "Would you like more of this? Want it a little different?"
Those are the sexiest words on earth.
"I want to do foreplay right so we can succeed at sex" never put anyone in the mood, never made anyone relax, never made anyone feel playful or confident. Lovers should not be technicians—in fact, sex is where we can go to get away from the need to do things "right" that's so common in the rest of our lives.
Of course there are men who have sex with men.
But they're not all gay or bisexual.
Or to put it another way, they don't consider themselves gay or bisexual.
Men who have sex with men and call themselves gay or bi—well, that's easy to understand. But men who have sex with men and call themselves straight—that's a little more complicated. And there are millions of such people.
In fact, researchers, health care professionals, and field workers have run into this so frequently that they had to develop a new category—MSM, or "men who have sex with men." Similarly, there are men in the black community who are "on the downlow," slang for men with publicly heterosexual lives and secret MSM activity.
In a world that has mostly hated gay people and their sexuality for thousands of years, it's not surprising that any gay person would hide their orientation. But what about people who have trouble acknowledging to themselves their same-sex attraction? What about people who have same-gender sex, feel shame, and promise themselves they'll never do it again—and keep wanting to do it again?
Recent history is filled with high-profile men who made their careers damning homosexuality and homosexuals—only to be caught "on the downlow." These include US Senator Larry Craig, Evangelical leader Ted Haggard, US Congressman Mark Foley, Governor James McGreevey, and "gender disturbance" psychologist George Rekers.
Each of them pursued secret sex in public places and was caught. In each case, the world was stunned: A straight guy having sex with men? A guy having sex with men making the world more hateful for gay people?
Almost everyone in America learns to hate gay people—including gay people. Almost everyone in America learns to tease men who aren't "manly" enough—including boys and men who feel "UNmanly" themselves. In fact, men who are insecure about their masculinity are among the loudest people telling "fag" jokes, and among the most obnoxious gropers at bars and on the subway. People who feel uncomfortable with themselves are often trying to feel better; some of them will do almost anything to relieve the nagging suspicion that they're not OK, and that everyone sees through them.
Hence men who live as straight, have sex with other men on the downlow, and talk ugly about "those" gays. But whether the subject is sex or anything else, the harder people deny who they are, the stronger the impulse to act authentically gets. And so periodically we see people act in ways contrary to their public persona. Maybe even contrary to their basic values.
That's when someone risks everything—when, he says, he "couldn't help myself." Such a person deserves sympathy for their internal torment. Not for their political malice (Rekers, for example, was a consultant on Florida's ban on gay couples adopting kids). But hating yourself, being unwilling to accept yourself, feeling ashamed when you do something that feels like who you really are—that condition deserves sympathy.
In our sex-negative world, almost everyone has some sexual feature that could keep them in the closet: your fantasies, your preferences, a body part, a past decision, a religious belief you periodically violate. In a culture that so harshly judges sexual normalcy, everyone is eligible to be shamed.
The sexual problem most of us face, however, isn't our sexuality itself—it's our shame about it, the resulting secrecy, and the isolation or periodic acting out that we do as a result of the continual denial of who we are.
Don't find yourself acting out urges you desperately want to believe you don't have. The world isn't divided into "good sexuality" and "bad sexuality." If it's honest, consenting, and responsible, there's only one kind of sexuality—human sexuality, in all its glorious, messy, un-categorizable forms.