DID YOU SEE: The Atlantic on the impact of pornography

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert writes an excellent thoughtful piece about the impact of pornography, as it is reflected through Tom Perrotta’s novel Mrs. Fletcher and a podcast called The Butterfly Effect.

“It’s a surprisingly simple argument, and yet a shocking one, in a culture that’s as polarized over porn as it is over everything else. What if porn is neither good, nor bad, but both? What if it enables some people to feel less isolated even while it conditions others to do things they regret?”

Check it out here and let me know what you think.

THE PARADOX OF PORN: Joe Kort on straight vs. gay approaches to porn

Recently, my partner Andy and I shared a barbecue dinner with three straight women in their 40s of various marital statuses — one married and cohabiting, one married but living apart for work reasons, the other not married but cohabiting. It was a wide-ranging adult conversation, and I got up the nerve to pose a question I’d never dared to ask a group of women: how much time do you spend looking at porn? The woman in the long-distance relationship admitted that she sometimes looks at porn when she’s horny (she wouldn’t reveal what she looks at — we weren’t that friendly). The others said they virtually never look at porn, though one said her first exposure to porn came from accompanying friends to a gay bar. They all agreed that their men probably look at porn almost every day.

This conversation confirmed the basic thesis of gay sex therapist Joe Kort‘s recent article in the Huffington Post, “Porn Is Not a Public Health Crisis for Gay Men: Then Why Is It for Straight People?” Kort asserts that men tend to view porn matter-of-factly, as a ready source of healthy sexual stimulation. In relationships between two men, it’s assumed that both partners look at porn on a regular basis and it’s not a problem, whereas in relationships between men and women there is often tension about the men’s porn-watching, which is seen as tantamount to infidelity. It’s a very interesting and complicated topic, which Kort covers with considerable nuance.

Porn typing on the white keyboard. Online porn concept

He says, among other things, “The real public health crisis is a lack of sexual education. A step in the right direction could be having a conversation about gay men and lesbians who watch porn and are not in crisis over it. It would be better if all children in schools could receive a proper sex education that included balanced representation of porn and all the ways that exist to be sexual that are not primarily and only heterosexual. There is no sex education in schools for gay boys, and so they have to turn to porn to get it. Discovering gay pornography is almost a rite of passage for young gay men. For sexually fluid men, or sexually repressed men, watching porn can begin to connect them to who they really are sexually.

“Sex is messy, politically incorrect, taboo on so many levels. Porn is not what we would do in real life. Just like in watching movies, it is fantasy. Straight people need to learn what porn means to men. Men objectify more than women, who are more relational. And it is a scare tactic to say that watching porn leads to infidelity, as some have said. In fact, it is often way of not engaging in infidelity, an outlet that allows them to vicariously enjoy an act that they cannot do, like watching football—they can’t play it but boy to they enjoy watching it. Some may say, ‘see what porn did to you?’ but my belief is that they are discovering something already alive within them, and can begin to move toward more authentic sexuality.”

Check out the whole article online here and let me know what you think.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: how teenagers view pornography (well, Swedish teenagers, anyway)

I recently came across online a blog post that’s five years old but nevertheless intriguing to read. On the website for Psychology Today, Michael Castleman summarizes the results of a study in the Journal of Sex Research that explored how 73 middle-class Swedish teens, age 14 to 20, actually felt about pornography.

psychology today
Castleman found the researchers’ conclusion reassuring: “Most participants had acquired the skills to navigate the pornographic landscape in a sensible manner. Most had the ability to distinguish between pornographic fantasies on the one hand, and real sexual interactions and relationships on the other.”

Read his article online here (or check out the original journal article here) and let me know what you think.


Thomas Bradshaw is a 33-year-old black American playwright who might as well have his middle name legally changed to Provocative, because no one seems to be able to talk or write about his work without conjuring that adjective. The most recent of his eleven plays, Intimacy, has been playing Off Broadway for the last two months; the production at the New Group concludes its run Saturday March 8. I’m fascinated by this play not just as a theater scholar but also as a sex therapist. Bradshaw’s plays almost always address hot-button issues of race, class,  and sexuality very directly and explicitly. His previous play, Burning, performed at the New Group two years ago, took off from the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom and included several extremely graphic scenes of simulated sex by naked actors only a few feet away from the audience. Intimacy goes even farther by taking as its main subject the prevalence of pornography in American culture specifically as it plays itself out among three suburban families.

intimacy logo

Let me see if I can summarize the plot succinctly. Matthew is a white high-school senior and aspiring filmmaker whose Wall Street financier father, James, is still deep in mourning for his wife, a doctor run over by a reckless driver. Matthew spends a fair amount of time masturbating while spying on his classmate and neighbor Janet, the voluptuous blonde daughter of a mixed-race couple, Pat and Jerry, though he’s dating Sarah, the daughter of Fred, the Latino contractor who is renovating his father’s house. Sarah is determined to remain a virgin at least until prom night, but since she and Matthew are both hormonally alive teenagers, she shows him how to engage in frottage to enjoy sexual pleasure together while preserving her virginity. Although James has become a born-again Christian seeking solace in the church, he also consoles himself by looking at pornographic magazines. He becomes outraged when he discovers that Janet has a budding career in porn, which her schoolmates (including Matthew and Sarah) know about and accept, as does her mother. James confronts Jerry about his daughter’s scandalous profession, and Jerry becomes furious until Pat reminds him that they enjoy looking at pornography together and that his objections are hypocritical. Meanwhile, Fred’s wife works day and night at WalMart so he lets off steam by masturbating to gay porn. Rather than waste money on college tuition, Matthew has talked his father into buying him an expensive camera and giving him start-up funds for a first film, which Matthew decides should be a porn film about frottage starring Janet with everybody else in the play as supporting characters.

intimacy cast

Thanks to the brave cast and the uncompromising direction, the show is full of alternately hilarious and squirm-inducing sex scenes that they can’t help eat up a lot of the audience’s attention. The actor playing Matthew (Austin Cauldwell, making his professional debut) handles his prosthetic penis with aplomb, twice sending projectile liquids flying through the air close enough to produce squeals from people sitting in the front row. Two or three scenes of simulated sex being filmed are interspersed with clips from actual porn projected onto a large screen. It’s difficult to pay attention to a conversation Matthew and Sarah (Déa Julien) have while standing in front of a screen showing a scene from Deep Throat. And the actor playing Fred (David Anzuelo) actually manages to drop trou and display a throbbing erection on cue, not once but twice during the play, which I must say I’ve never witnessed before in all my years of theatergoing – at least not outside the late lamented Gaiety Burlesk strip joint in Times Square. This is clearly wicked fun on the part of the playwright and the director Scott Elliott, who writes in a program note: “There is nothing you’ll see in Intimacy that you haven’t seen before; it’s just that when it’s onstage, it is impossible to ignore.” It’s only after you’ve recovered from the shock of seeing rampant nudity and sexuality acted out on the stage that it’s possible to assess what the play is getting at, which turns out to be quite a lot.

Bradshaw’s playwriting is deceptively simple on the surface. He portrays recognizable human beings speaking everyday language in familiar settings. But his characters speak the supernaturally straightforward language of comic books – no poetry, no subtext, no beating around the bush. “I’ve got to get fucked on camera now,” Janet (Ella Dershowitz) says to her father (Keith Randolph Smith). “I don’t need your patriarchal double standards distracting me.” It takes a little while to realize that even though the tone has the cheerful brightness of TV sitcoms, the subject matter is distinctly adult, and there’s an edgy humor to it. In these ways, Bradshaw is a kindred spirit to non-naturalistic comic playwrights like Christopher Durang and Wallace Shawn.

Bradshaw manages to pull off two other seemingly contradictory strategies. His plays have a kind of earnest teaching quality reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s politically minded Lehrstücke, “learning plays” that impart practical or ethical instruction to audiences. Intimacy contains a string of what almost seem like public-service announcements, brief conversations that convey small important lessons: how homophobia contributes to transgender suicides, when to schedule a colonoscopy, how different people live out their bisexuality, the statistics about guns in the home being used against their owners, the various ways to engage in frottage (non-penetrative sex), the sensitivity a woman requires for sex after having an abortion. That’s a lot of ground to cover in one play!

Simultaneously, Bradshaw steals a page from classic French farce by having his earnest, plain-spoken characters take actions that seem perfectly rational at first but slowly escalate from slightly absurd to completely outrageous. The desire of Pat (Laura Esterman) to support her daughter’s dreams unconditionally seems reasonable enough. But that leads directly to viewing one of her porn videos with her husband and encouraging him to stop thinking “I’m watching my daughter have sex” and replace that thought with “I’m helping her further her career,” which is a little more dubious and sounds like something a character in a Joe Orton play might say. As a precocious student of cinema, Matthew admires the films of Jonas Mekas, Lars Von Trier, and Rainer Fassbinder, but when he decides that making porn is his calling, he looks back to 1970s skin flicks with a rosy-eyed view of porn as art about “watching souls connect,” which is a debatable way of describing Deep Throat.

intimacy prod 1

For me, the most interesting aspect to the play was its acknowledgement that everyone has some kind of relationship to pornography these days. And the characters model the kinds of conversations we might have with each other about pornography if we weren’t afraid to talk about it. I appreciate that these conversations don’t fall predictably into one category (Yay! Porn is great!) or another (boo! Porn is bad!). Jerry and Janet’s discussion about whether porn exploits women brings up compelling points without favoring either position. The conflict for James (Daniel Gerroll) between his religious beliefs and his sexual desires is genuine, as is Janet’s wondering whether what drives his interest in porn isn’t so much addiction as simply loneliness and lack of physical affection since the death of his wife. The play addresses sexual shame in a way that is humorous, blunt, and poignant, as when Jerry confesses to Pat, “I thought you would think less of me if you knew I had an obsession with licking buttholes.”

The farcical elements of the play are Bradshaw’s way of provoking dissent and debate among the viewers (again, a Brechtian theatrical strategy). When Fred asserts that it’s OK for his teenage daughter to appear in porn as long as there’s no penetration, the playwright is asking you to decide: is that reasonable or ridiculous? Is extreme permissiveness good parenting, or not? The parents arrive at the conclusion that if they enjoy pornography, it’s only fair to assume that it’s OK for their kids. True or false? And how does that apply to casual racism and financial exploitation?

intimacy prod 3
The play cleverly juxtaposes the organic/fumbling/authentic sexual interactions among the characters with the stylized costumes and behavior of the porn scenes that Matthew films, highlighting the contrivance and behind-the-scene maneuvering required to make sex look “real” on camera. After shooting scenes involving all the characters (including oral and anal sex, frottage and ejaculation), Matthew makes a speech that hilariously parodies a director’s wrap-up:

When we began this artistic endeavor I thought it was about frottage. But after being with all of you, and witnessing the emotional and transformative breakthroughs that we’ve gone through together, I now see what my film is really about. It’s about Intimacy. It’s all about intimacy.

I don’t think the playwright intends us to take this speech at face value, though. Matthew may think that everybody in the neighborhood getting naked and having sex together on camera constitutes intimacy. Does the playwright agree? Do you? Discuss.

MEDIA: “Has Porn Ruined Our Sex Lives?”

Reporter Jill Hamilton interviewed me (by e-mail) for an article she wrote for the online magazine Dame recently. The magazine primarily addresses itself to a heterosexual female audience (“For Women Who Know Better”), and the article definitely skews in that direction, leaning heavily on commentary by Dr. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and founding member of Stop Porn Culture. Hamilton contacted me because she wanted to get some perspective from a male sex therapist. I personally choose to pitch conversations and pronouncements about pornography in a way that acknowledges and honors sexual pleasure, and I try to combat the sex-negativity that can creep into anti-porn arguments. But I absolutely believe that the ways gay men consume pornography and the ways it affects gay male behavior and relationships — for better and for worse — are distinctly different from the ways that pornography affects dealings between hetero men and women. So I read Hamilton’s article with a lot of interest. It reminded me of the smart, cogent, and well-considered objections that observers like Dr. Dines have about the culture of porn. The article is called “Has Porn Ruined Our Sex Lives?” Check it out here and let me know what you think.


LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: porn-influenced performance anxiety

sex-porn graphic
There’s an epidemic afoot in the land these days that has gone unreported and rarely discussed but I see it so much that I’ve given it a name: PIPA, for porn-influenced performance anxiety. Starting with the advent of home video in the early 1980s and amping up in the last 15 years when the internets have become an essential part of everyday life, access to stills and films of sexual activity has become so easy and ubiquitous that pornography has shifted from an entertainment medium to an educational model. Mostly without even thinking about it, people who watch porn – whether casually, obsessively, or somewhere in between – have started to internalize its formulaic choreography as if it were the rule book on How to Have Sex, not unlike the way fashion magazines with their freakishly skinny, digitally airbrushed models brainwash young women into thinking that’s what they’re supposed to look like. As a result, a lot of guys have started to put enormous pressure on themselves and/or their partners to Perform Like a Porn Star, with the result that sex is not nearly as much fun as it’s supposed to be.

Let’s think about some of the myths perpetuated by gay male porn:

  • everybody is good-looking, white, buff, and healthy;
  • everybody has a big dick that always gets hard and always shoots;
  • everybody loves to suck cock is good at it;
  • everybody loves anal sex, bottoms love to get fucked and open their asses easily;
  • everybody is able to move into sex easily on a moment’s notice;
  • nobody ever has difficult getting and maintaining an erection;
  • nobody ever has difficult staying hard while putting on a condom and achieving penetration;
  • nobody ever says “Ow, ow, take it out, it hurts”;
  • nobody ever has conversations about HIV status or negotiating likes and dislikes;
  • nobody ever has difficulty ejaculating.

Meanwhile, many of the things that are most enjoyable about sexual intimacy you never see in porn, because they’re not especially photogenic:

  • taking your time and getting to know each other;
  • making out at length, keeping your clothes on for a while, at least your underwear;
  • holding, cuddling, and spooning;
  • frotting (rubbing bodies or dicks together without penetration);
  • napping afterwards or making tea;
  • laughing together;
  • lying on the couch together after a stressful weekend with the family….

It’s funny to break down the differences between porn sex and real-life sex, but plenty of guys fall into the trance of not knowing the difference between the two. If you can’t Perform Like a Porn Star in every way, there’s something wrong with you. If your partner can’t Perform Like a Porn Star, either he’s not attracted to you or there’s something wrong with him. If the rigidly enforced chain of events that typifies a porn encounter – meet, lock eyes, strokey-strokey, sucky-sucky, fucky-fucky, shoot-shoot, the end – doesn’t feel so good when you try to reproduce it in your own life, there’s something wrong with you. If what you like doesn’t match what you see in porn, there’s something wrong with you….

When all roads lead to that recurring refrain, maybe it’s time to consider where you’re getting these ideas about what constitutes acceptable/pleasurable sexual behavior. What you like to watch in porn may be different from what feels good when you’re having sex with a partner. How do you know? How do you keep from confusing the two? Talk to your friends. Talk to your playmates. Talk to your partner. Talk to your therapist. You can always talk to me. Let me know what you think.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Learning from porn

8-13 learning from porn
At the Rowe Labor Day retreat in Massachusetts for gay, bisexual, and questioning men, I conducted a workshop called “Learning from Porn.” I felt ever-so-slightly scandalous broaching this topic while attending a conference at a Unitarian Universalist retreat center. At the same time, like my teacher and mentor Joseph Kramer I’m committed to healing the split between sexuality and spirituality in our culture. We all have bodies, and it is our spiritual invitation to inhabit them fully and mindfully. And reading a poster in the Rowe library enumerating the core values of Unitarian Universalism, I resonated with its championing “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

As a number of participants in the workshop immediately acknowledged, almost every male adult has some kind of love/hate relationship with pornography, that ubiquitous form of entertainment that heavily influences the norms by which we judge our bodies, our desires, and our sexual partners — but we hardly ever talk about it to anyone. I wanted to create a safe, non-judgmental context in which to consider a few pertinent questions: What is hot about porn? What myths about sex does porn perpetuate, for better or for worse? What aspects of pleasurable sexuality never show up in porn? I quickly learned that men have plenty to say on all these topics.

Most public discussions about pornography tend to focus on addiction, abuse, exploitation of women, and so on. Those problems clearly exist, but I believe that as human beings we always have a positive reason for doing what we do. And as a sex therapist, especially one who works with a lot of gay men, I’m acutely aware of the paradox of porn — that however much it contributes to shame, compulsiveness, and distorted ideas about sexuality, looking at pornography is for many men an important doorway into erotic existence. So I purposely wanted to open the discussion by asking what’s valuable about porn…. Read more

MEDIA: What does a session of sex coaching look like?

Have you ever checked out my website and wondered what a session of sex coaching might look like? If so, you might want to have a look at this column that my friend Brian Moylan wrote for the online version of Vice magazine called “How to Quit Porn and Not Entirely Ruin Your Life.”

Brian spent a few years blogging about what is euphemistically called “adult video” for Fleshbot and recently decided, as an experiment, to take a break from masturbating to porn. To his consternation, he found that his libido evaporated without the high-intensity video stimulation he was used to. So he came in for a session with me to consult about this situation, and then he wrote about it in some detail.
brian moylan
Brian is a good writer who’s also hilariously matter-of-fact about sexual matters (“filthy” is a term of high praise for him). Describing our session, he says:

“After talking to him about my past habits and current predicament, he told me that my mind was so used to the excess stimulation of bodies rutting on screen that it was having trouble remembering how to enjoy a good old fashioned stroke like my grandparents used to. He suggested breaking all of my usual habits during “gentleman’s time.” He told me to experiment with a new time of day, new positions, new lube, and maybe even some new hand movements to shock myself out of complacency. We did some “body awareness” exercises, where I explored parts of myself other than the organs surrounding the taint to see what else gave me an erotic charge. He also taught me some new strokes—taking your dick and rubbing it with both hands like you’re trying to start a fire sounds ridiculous until you give it a whirl.

“All of those things helped, but the most important thing he told me was to not worry about squirting. I should enjoy playing with myself just for how good it made me feel, he said. With that advice, I started self-molestation all the time: in the morning, at work, in an empty row at the movies, while watching Real Housewives of New York… just about everywhere. Well, at least everywhere that wouldn’t put me in legal danger.”

He took away from our session a few useful principles that he was able to apply on his own at home. He describes finding some old sexy magazines, getting turned on by them, but choosing to stick by his determination to take a break from porn as an aid to self-pleasuring. “I decided to try everything that Don had told me: a new room in the house (bathroom), a new position (sitting perilously on the edge of the tub), some different lube (something called Stroke 29)… everything out of my comfort zone. … As I had done for the past few weeks, I enjoyed it for just what it was, but after a couple of minutes I knew I was finally going to cross the finish line (and after a week, what a finish line that was). While cleaning up I felt triumphant, albeit in a sort of Lance Armstrong-y way. Yes, porn had given me the initial, um, courage, but I relied on all my other senses and training to get the job done. Maybe this was a way of weaning myself off? I decided this meant I wasn’t 100 percent cured, but I was definitely on the way to becoming porn-free.”

Have you ever found yourself consumed with looking at porn in a way that felt excessive to you? Ever tried taking a break? I’d love to hear how that turned out for you.