Lost in a Sea of Pixels: Men, Pornography, and the Illusion of Control
By Robert Jensen
Published in Public Square Magazine · May, 2023
Is pornography sabotaging men’s emotional connections and ability to experience authentic intimacy? These emotional consequences are often overlooked in mainstream discussions.
Public Square Magazine / May 15, 2023
Over three decades, the many presentations on sexism and racism in pornography that I gave changed as the pornography business and the culture changed. But one constant was a question that inevitably came up in the discussion period, always asked by a woman.
“Why do men like pornography so much?”
Based on years of scholarly research and public engagement, I believe the answer is simple: Pornography produces quick, reliable orgasms without the vulnerability that comes with intimacy. Men can experience sexual pleasure while staying in control. Or, more accurately, the appearance of control. More on that at the end.
First, the feminist critique of pornography—the basis for my writing and speaking on the subject—focuses on the harm to women, psychological and physical, in the production of sexually explicit material; the sexist and racist images that dominate the pornography market; and the influence those images have on consumers’ sexual imaginations.
In the time I’ve been studying the pornography industry, some things have changed. Most obvious is the technologies—from magazines and movies, the industry moved to home videos and the internet. Pornography became more accessible and affordable. Other trends are equally obvious: In those three decades, the women in pornography have been asked to perform increasingly more intense and dangerous sex acts; the cruel and degrading nature of the images has intensified; and more girls and women are using pornography, which once had been almost exclusively a male pursuit.
One thing remains the same for the still mostly male consumers: Pornography appears to provide sexual pleasure without the risks that come with intimacy.
When we are sexual with another person, we open ourselves up to intense emotions that can’t be predicted or easily controlled. In a culture that trains us to stay in control, many men believe sexual intimacy is a potential threat to that sense of power. Pornography provides the illusion of a sexual experience without risk. But it comes with costs.
Behind women’s question about men’s love of pornography is often an experience of male partners who seem remote or disconnected in lovemaking. Sometimes that’s a problem independent of pornography, but men’s habitual use of sexually explicit material intensifies the detachment. I’ve talked to many women after these presentations, and that struggle with men who detach rather than engage emotionally during sex was a common theme. To make it more difficult, some of those habitual users also initiate sexual acts that female partners find uncomfortable or painful—the kind of “rough sex” that is standard fare in pornography.
The feminist critique doesn’t rest on judgments about people’s sexual desire but on the negative consequences for the women used in producing pornography and used by men who consume pornography. The critique doesn’t pretend that the end of pornography would eliminate men’s sexual exploitation of women. But in a pornography-saturated culture, it would be folly to ignore the role of that particular media genre in our lives.
The feminist critique focuses on the harm to women, which is appropriate for that movement. But the feminists I have worked with are also aware of the downside of pornography for men. That doesn’t mean that all heterosexual men have the same experience or that gay men’s experiences are exactly the same. But based on formal interviews and informal conversations with hundreds of men, I believe there is a pattern in men’s distress over pornography use.
That brings me back, finally, to the appearance and illusion of control in pornography. First, as much as men may try to live up to a masculine standard of toughness, we can’t hide from our emotions, at least not for very long. No matter how much we seek control, those emotions surface. I think much of the guilt and shame that many men report from using pornography is a result not of religiosity or prudishness but the recognition that using objectified female bodies for pleasure—the essence of pornography—is at odds with who we want to be. We want to be fully human, and pornography makes that difficult, and we know it.
There’s a second trap in which many men get caught: their habitual use of pornography starts to control them. I’ve listened to many men talk about the pain of realizing how pornography has colonized their sexual imagination. Men have told me they can’t have sex with a partner without thinking of pornography. In extreme cases, men who use pornography compulsively experience erectile dysfunction with partners. But no matter how much they realize the downside, many men cannot stop masturbating to pornography. Whether or not pornography is officially classified as an addiction—and I think it should be—some men cannot get out of an addictive-like cycle.
My only advice to such men is that if they try to cope with their distress alone, they will fail. The only way out of that cycle of arousal and regret is to give up the illusion of control. Therapy can help when counselors understand the destructive dynamics of pornography. Talking openly and honestly with other men is important. For me, the feminist critique of pornography and male dominance more generally was essential to seeing a different way of living. Opening up to a therapist, to other men, to feminists—all require that we open up to the vulnerability, which is part of being human.
Robert Jensen, emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. He is co-author with Wes Jackson of
An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity
Other writing by Jensen is available at https://robertwjensen.org/.
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