The Porn Myth
In the end, porn doesnt whet mens appetitesit turns them off the real
By Naomi Wolf in New York Magazine
At a benefit the other night, I saw Andrea Dworkin, the anti-porn activist
most famous in the eighties for her conviction that opening the floodgates
of pornography would lead men to see real women in sexually debased ways.
If we did not limit pornography, she arguedbefore Internet technology
made that prospect a technical impossibilitymost men would come to
objectify women as they objectified porn stars, and treat them
accordingly. In a kind of domino theory, she predicted, rape and other
kinds of sexual mayhem would surely follow.
The feminist warrior looked gentle and almost frail. The world she had,
Cassandra-like, warned us about so passionately was truly here: Porn is,
as David Amsden says, the wallpaper of our lives now. So was she right
She was right about the warning, wrong about the outcome. As she foretold,
pornography did breach the dike that separated a marginal, adult, private
pursuit from the mainstream public arena. The whole world, post-Internet,
did become pornographized. Young men and women are indeed being taught
what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by
pornographic trainingand this is having a huge effect on how they
But the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The
onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to
real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy.
Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are
worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone
hold, their attention.
Here is what young women tell me on college campuses when the subject
comes up: They cant compete, and they know it. For how can a real
womanwith pores and her own breasts and even sexual needs of her own (let
alone with speech that goes beyond More, more, you big stud!)possibly
compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable
at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the
consumers least specification?
For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or
celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time
in human history, the images power and allure have supplanted that of
real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.
For two decades, I have watched young women experience the continual
mission creep of how pornographyand now Internet pornographyhas
lowered their sense of their own sexual value and their actual sexual
value. When I came of age in the seventies, it was still pretty cool to be
able to offer a young man the actual presence of a naked, willing young
woman. There were more young men who wanted to be with naked women than
there were naked women on the market. If there was nothing actively
alarming about you, you could get a pretty enthusiastic response by just
showing up. Your boyfriend may have seen Playboy , but hey, you could
move, you were warm, you were real. Thirty years ago, simple lovemaking
was considered erotic in the pornography that entered mainstream
consciousness: When Behind the Green Door first opened, clumsy, earnest,
missionary-position intercourse was still considered to be a huge turn-on.
Well, I am 40, and mine is the last female generation to experience that
sense of sexual confidence and security in what we had to offer. Our
younger sisters had to compete with video porn in the eighties and
nineties, when intercourse was not hot enough. Now you have to offeror
flirtatiously suggestthe lesbian scene, the ejaculate-in-the-face scene.
Being naked is not enough; you have to be buff, be tan with no tan lines,
have the surgically hoisted breasts and the Brazilian bikini waxjust like
porn stars. (In my gym, the 40-year-old women have adult pubic hair; the
twenty-somethings have all been trimmed and styled.) Pornography is
addictive; the baseline gets ratcheted up. By the new millennium, a
vaginawhich, by the way, used to have a pretty high exchange value, as
Marxist economists would saywasnt enough; it barely registered on the
thrill scale. All mainstream pornand certainly the Internetmade routine
use of all available female orifices.
The porn loop is de rigueur, no longer outside the pale; starlets in
tabloids boast of learning to strip from professionals; the cool girls
go with guys to the strip clubs, and even ask for lap dances; college
girls are expected to tease guys at keg parties with lesbian kisses à la
Britney and Madonna.
But does all this sexual imagery in the air mean that sex has been
liberatedor is it the case that the relationship between the
multi-billion-dollar porn industry, compulsiveness, and sexual appetite
has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods,
supersize portions, and obesity? If your appetite is stimulated and fed by
poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up. People are not
closer because of porn but further apart; people are not more turned on in
their daily lives but less so.
The young women who talk to me on campuses about the effect of pornography
on their intimate lives speak of feeling that they can never measure up,
that they can never ask for what they want; and that if they do not offer
what porn offers, they cannot expect to hold a guy. The young men talk
about what it is like to grow up learning about sex from porn, and how it
is not helpful to them in trying to figure out how to be with a real
woman. Mostly, when I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends
on audiences of young men and young women alike. They know they are lonely
together, even when conjoined, and that this imagery is a big part of that
loneliness. What they dont know is how to get out, how to find each other
again erotically, face-to-face.
So Dworkin was right that pornography is compulsive, but she was wrong in
thinking it would make men more rapacious. A whole generation of men are
less able to connect erotically to womenand ultimately less libidinous.
The reason to turn off the porn might become, to thoughtful people, not a
moral one but, in a way, a physical- and emotional-health one; you might
want to rethink your constant access to porn in the same way that, if you
want to be an athlete, you rethink your smoking. The evidence is in:
Greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity.
After all, pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain: It is
Pavlovian. An orgasm is one of the biggest reinforcers imaginable. If you
associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what,
over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream
of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex slaves, that is what it will
take to turn you on. The ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but
Other cultures know this. I am not advocating a return to the days of
hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex
are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap
all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that
leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather,
because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep
men and women turned on to one another over timeto help men, in
particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, rejoice with the wife of
thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times. These cultures urge
men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond
between parents is a key element of a strong family.
And feminists have misunderstood many of these prohibitions.
Iwill never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become
an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her
jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over
it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. Cant I
even see your hair? I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. No,
she demurred quietly. Only my husband, she said with a calm sexual
confidence, ever gets to see my hair.
When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw
the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only
with her husbandthe kids are not allowedthe sexual intensity in the air
was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic
intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in
the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all dayin
Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another
She must feel, I thought, so hot.
Compare that steaminess with a conversation I had at Northwestern, after I
had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. Why have sex right
away? a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. Things are
always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing
someone, he said. I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over
with. You know its going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the
Isnt the tension kind of fun? I asked. Doesnt that also get rid of
Mystery? He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he
replied: I dont know what youre talking about. Sex has no mystery.