A growing body of clinical research in the last two decades shows pornography, now in countless forms to which the Internet gives quick and easy access, is emerging as a public health issue.
By definition, pornography is the use of sexually explicit materials which depict human beings in ways that objectify, dehumanize or degrade them for the purpose of sexual arousal.
It portrays a type of sexuality, as author and researcher Pamela Paul notes in her article, How Porn Became the Norm, that is a “commercialized product, devoid of emotion, stripped of humanity, and essentially an empty experience,” a product that serves mostly to stimulate men to “masturbate and get them to pay for it.”
Increasingly, online pornography is identified as a major factor in divorce cases. Though the public is swayed by the media campaigns of large for profit industries to view it as harmless, studies show pornography usage clearly tends to give way to more frequent use, hard-core material, and risks for sexually acting out fantasies, i.e., with anonymous sex, prostitutes, affairs, and so on.
Perhaps its greatest harm, pornography blocks the formation of healthy couple intimacy in several ways, largely with misleading perceptions, a form of thought control that limits the possibilities for how men and women conceptualize their sexuality and the meanings they hold regarding what it means to be a man and a woman in relationship. For example, it:
- Perpetuates myths about women’s sexuality.
One problem with pornography, noted by psychologist and sex therapist Aline Zolbrod, is that it tends to mislead men with false portrayals of women’s sexuality. “In real life,” she explains in an award winning book titled Sex Smart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It, “women are crock pots and men are microwaves” when it comes to sex.
In contrast, pornography misrepresents women as being sex- and arousal-focused, hot around the clock, notions that are more in line with cultural pressures for what “real” men are like. Authors of Civil Rights Antipornography Legislation: Addressing the Harm to Women, Steven Hill and Nina Silver put it this way:
“In pornographic images and text, (usually) women are presented as continually available sexually to (usually) men for the purpose of pleasing male viewers. The dehumanization of women occurs because the images are not regarded as persons with feelings, opinions, or needs of their own. This is what defines women as commodities: [as if] they exist solely for the purpose of their consumers. The ambience is sexual, but the real setting is the marketplace.”
(It is also interesting to note the larger number of writers for these TV and movie scripts are men.)
- Perpetuates myths surrounding male sexuality.
Pornography reinforces already prevailing myths about male sexuality. In a 1992 publication of The New Male Sexuality, psychologist and nationally recognized expert on male sexuality, Dr. Bernie Silbergeld, describes several “myths” or false beliefs about male sexuality, and notes how often these lead men to mislabel their feelings of love, tenderness as a need for sex. Some of these myths include ideas that “a real man”:
- Isn’t into sissy stuff like feelings and communicating, that a man’s role in the couple relationship is to be “unemotional,” and therefore it is not masculine to express “feelings of love, tenderness, vulnerability” (except in contexts where the goal is sex).
- Regards sex as an “achievement situation” as part of the wider culture emphasis on goal achievement for men to “perform“ as proof of self-worth; and, in sex, the goal is “achieving” an orgasm.
- Should be “able to make the earth move for his partner, or at least knock her socks off” which, in combination with the “performance” expectation makes it another goal. (It is not surprising that some women fake orgasms to protect men’s sense of self-worth.)
- Is ever ready and interested in having sex.
Other myths, Dr. Silbergeld notes, are ones that equate sex with intercourse and an erection, and dismiss the value of shared closeness, fun and empathic communication as essential to nurturing the overall quality of the relationship.
- Defines masculinity in terms of hostility toward emotional intimacy.
Psychologist Dr. Samuel Osherson, in his book, Wrestling with Love: How Men Struggle with Intimacy, explores how men in our culture fight from boyhood with the ambivalence of having to meet the standards that define masculinity in terms of hostility against emotions of tenderness and vulnerability. Safe to say, the efforts to label these emotions as “feminine” have had an overall dehumanizing impact on the psyche of our men, especially when we take the latest findings in neuroscience into consideration.
Without question, the human brain is a relationship organ, and emotions of empathy and compassion are not only fundamental to the healthy formation of intimate relations, as it turns out, healthy relating is critical to individual health and well being.
Osherman holds that one of the most critical issues men face is the inability to embrace their yearnings for closeness without fighting, disowning, suppressing them with defensive walls. The capacity to be open and vulnerable is essential to our growth, development and happiness.
In a stinging critique of mainstream pornography, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, Dr. Robert Jensen adds the following:
“Men typically consume pornography specifically to avoid love and affection. That means pornography has a problem. When all emotion is drained from sex it becomes repetitive and uninteresting, even to men who are watching primarily to facilitate masturbation. Because the novelty of seeing sex on the screen eventually wears off, pornography needs an edge. Pornography has to draw on some emotion, hence the cruelty.”
It makes sense that most pornography users are men. It is replete with themes of dominance that, culturally speaking, men have been conditioned from boyhood to associate with what “real” men do, what they fight for and take pleasure in, even with one another in games, sports, and so on.
Yet, these cultural teachings are not kind to men in the long run.
The men I see in my practice very much care about saving their marriages as well as restoring the friendship and passion with their wives, once shared at the start. When a competitive approach to pleasure is taken in couple relationships, however, it creates a win-lose rivalry that erodes emotional intimacy, and produces no winners—only problems.
Acting out sexually may “make sense” in a cultural milieu that pressures men to express their human needs for love and connection—mainly through sex. A similar though different conflict simmers in the minds of younger women, as now, similar pressures are increasingly placed on them.
- Sets up men and women to fail in fulfilling their needs for healthy intimacy.
Misleading expectations surrounding sexuality are a remedy for failure and serious relational problems.
They are also dehumanizing, setting up an inner conflict, a competition of sorts between the hardwired human need for emotional intimacy and connection with an equally powerful hardwired need, also human, for personal recognition and acceptance of self in relation to the other.
From the get go, it’s a set up for men and women to fail in realizing the emotional fulfillment they yearn for in the context of their couple relationship.
As a form of thought control, these expectations impose either-or thinking patterns that paralyze the otherwise amazing reflective abilities of the brain — with fear. Fear of rejection, not being good enough, not being “deserving” and so on — all on the basis of external standards of performance.
These may be irrational fears, yet they feel very real inside. These core existential fears activate the body’s “fight or flee” system.
But here’s the worst part, the really inhumane part, in my view: Men in our culture are taught from boyhood that they’re “not supposed to” have fears.
Thus, on top of the fears, there is shame. The first step many of my male clients have to take, for example, is to get comfortable with even saying they feel “scared” or “hurt.” There is a lot of shame around this. Younger generations of women also fall prey to these fears.
This shame, in my belief, does not belong to men or women, rather to a culture that still holds onto misleading expectations for “masculine” and “feminine” values.
As a society, it’s time to rethink the impact of these expectations on our men and boys, and now women and girls under the guise of “equality.” Equally dispersing thoughts that cripple the brain’s dynamic processes is not what equality is about. Equality is to be free to follow our hearts — inside — and not external standards as measures of our worth.
And, based on neuroscience findings, yes, we can trust our hearts. By design, it appears, the human heart is inclined toward kindness and compassion. Now that is good news.
Siegel, Daniel J. (1999). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. NY: Guilford Press.