Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The price men pay for their addiction to porn

The technological revolution that has given us television, the internet and almost inexhaustible sources of image consumption has also, concomitantly, given viewers and internet users access to pornography on a scale almost unimaginable. But, as one should know by now, technology is a pharmakon – poison AND cure – and therefore it should come as no surprise that this technologically-mediated access to porn comes with a price in many respects, including the toll it is evidently taking on young men’s sexuality.

In a recent article, titled “Porn and the threat to virility” (TIME, April 18, 2016, pp. 32-39), Belinda Luscombe draws attention to this phenomenon, which manifests itself in the inability of young men – who have become used to “satisfying themselves” by masturbating while viewing pornographic images that are freely available on the internet – to engage in sex with women. Evidently this is the case even when they are strongly attracted to the young women concerned – they can’t function in the “normal” manner. In other words, much to their consternation, they are suddenly confronted by what is euphemistically known as ED – erectile dysfunction.

What interests me here is that, judging by the article, people do not really understand the reasons for such sexual malfunction on the part of these porn-addicted young men, even if some of their probings seem to be on the right track. In an age when few still value the insight afforded by psychoanalysis, it nevertheless enables one to understand why these unfortunate individuals suddenly, after spending many hours sating themselves on mediated sex, cannot enjoy “the real thing”, as it were.

In case you are wondering why I put “the real thing” in scare quotes, it is because its meaning requires careful specification, as I shall try to show. It casts doubt on whether one (man or woman) is ever really able to experience what is “real” – because, as Jacques Lacan argued regarding the human subject, fantasy always mediates (comes between us and) what is “real”, even in encounters with another human being instead of images on a screen.

AFP

AFP

But if fantasy always intervenes in what is called “sexual relations”, why do fantasies based on pornographic images have such a deleterious effect on male sexuality? (And on female sexually too, albeit in different ways, like being expected by their boyfriends to behave like porn stars; Luscombe, p. 34.) Let me start by quoting Luscombe (p. 34):

“Noah Church is a 26-year-old part-time wildland firefighter in Portland, Ore[gon]. When he was nine, he found naked pictures on the internet. He learned how to download explicit videos. When he was 15, streaming videos arrived, and he watched those. Often. Several times a day. Doing that which people often do while watching that genre by themselves.

“After a while, he says, those videos did not arouse him as much, so he moved on to different configurations, sometimes involving just women, sometimes one woman and several guys, sometimes even an unwilling woman. ‘I could find anything I imagined and a lot of stuff I couldn’t imagine,’ he says. After the appeal of those waned, he moved on to the next level, more intense, often more violent.

“In his senior year of high school, he had the opportunity to have actual sex, with a real partner. He was attracted to her and she to him, as demonstrated by the fact that she was naked in her bedroom in front of him. But his body didn’t seem to be interested. ‘There was a disconnect between what I wanted in my mind and how my body reacted,’ he says. He simply couldn’t get the necessary hydraulics going.

“He put it down to first-timers’ nerves, but six years went by, and no matter which woman he was with, his body was no more cooperative. It responded only to the sight of porn. Church came to believe that his adolescent internet indulgence had somehow caused his problems and that he had what some are calling porn-induced erectile malfunction.”

Noah is only one among an increasing number of young men who find themselves in this position, and it is significant that what they have in common is being exposed to a never-ending stream of pornographic images through electronic devices, which comes with the territory of living in the internet age. The other significant thing comes from something said by Alexander Rhodes who, like Noah, was a virtual porn addict by his late teens. He claims (Luscombe, p. 35) that when he was having sex with his girlfriend everything went well while he was fantasising about porn. But as soon as he started focusing on the girl, “his body lost interest”. Alexander has finally given up all porn watching, and is now running a website called “NoFap.com”, for support and counselling of men with the same problem. And he is not the only one who has done this because of his own negative experience with sex.

Although Luscombe provides a lot of statistics to show that there has been a huge rise in ED among young men from 1992 to the present, and quotes some medical doctors saying relevant things, she does not look in the right direction to understand the problem. Dr Ajay Nangia (quoted on p. 35), for instance, observes: “There’s a kind of desensitisation of these men, and they only reach the point of feeling stimulated when sex is like it is on a movie.” But so what? What does this imply regarding images and sexual pleasure? The insights offered by biologists like Professor Gary Wilson (p. 36) regarding ways in which the human brain is affected by dopamine-inducing pornographic images, also merely state the obvious, namely that the brain is trained in always expecting the same high dopamine (a neurotransmitter) releases, and nothing less (like “ordinary” sex) will do. All that brain researchers are doing is to report on the brain conditions corresponding to the porn-induced sexual experiences, instead of offering insight into WHY it is happening.

This is where Lacanian psychoanalysis can help. Very briefly, for Lacan, fantasy plays an indispensable role in sex, insofar as every subject has a personal “fantasy-formula” for sex to succeed with their lover(s). This is what he means by saying, notoriously, that “There is no sexual relationship” (for a revealing discussion of this, see Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (Granta Books 2011, Kindle edition, location 745 – 808). In simpler terms, this means that, if people were to allow themselves to be confronted head-on by all the nuts and bolts of sex – the mechanics involved, the blemishes on their lovers’ skins, their less-than-perfect figures, the hair in their nostrils, and even the smell of their skins (remember Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun … ”?) – sex would probably end disastrously every time. Hence people generally allow their sexual desire for their lovers to be filtered through a fantasy of sorts, BUT importantly, as it is embedded in the language individuals use between themselves and those they desire sexually.

Without language (the symbolic) embodying and embedding people’s fantasy, it would be located solely in the Lacanian imaginary order, which is the realm of images, like the porn images in question here. Where these function without speech passing between two people – the language (including “body-language”) in which their sexual desire for each other is expressed – the effects of this (presumably mutual) desire on the body is undermined, in the shape of ED in men, for example. To be sure, fantasy plays a role in viewing porn videos too, but there it is not “grafted” onto the lover’s body via symbolic exchange. Someone who has become accustomed to gaining sexual release through auto-eroticism while viewing pornographic image sequences, would find it difficult to adapt to a sexual encounter with a concrete, flesh-and-blood person.

Small wonder, then, that men who “trained” themselves, and their bodies, to respond to screen images, cannot respond to another person in the flesh, and have to resort to fantasising about those remembered images while they are having sex “with a woman”, but not “really” with her. Under those circumstances her body is merely an instrument taking the place of their hands. If they want to recover their “normal” sexuality – which is evidently becoming less “normal” by the day in our image-saturated society – they will have to take the time to learn the role of speech in sex. That is why it is called “love-making”.

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