Bringing Sex Into Focus

The quest for sexual integrity.

Pornography Splits Men's Consciousness

Surprising ways that consuming pornography shortchanges men and their partners.

Pornography affects us because sex is as much “in the head” as it is in the body. Pornography gives pleasure only because arousal can be triggered by imagination. But pornography not only arouses, it tutors our imagination. What we repeatedly imagine shapes how we perceive ourselves and others.  Philosopher Harry Brod gives good reason for concluding that pornography is a lousy tutor—especially for men. 

Mirror Mirror
Mirror Mirror by antkriz
http://www.flickr.com/photos/ananth/279721111/
Harry Brod is concerned with how pornography shapes male expectations. He observes that in pornography men are routinely depicted as “sexual acrobats endowed with oversized and overused organs”  (see Pornography and the Alienation of Male Sexuality.”  Women in pornography are depicted as perpetually available and eager for sex. Pornography tutors men to have expectations that real women do not meet. Because real women are far more complicated than the eager women depicted in pornography, women fall short of the expectations created by pornography. Real sex can disappoint. One “solution” to disappointment is resort to fantasying about pornographic images during sex rather than focusing on their real-life partner.

But Brod is at least as concerned about pornography’s contributes to male performance anxiety. This performance anxiety creates “bifurcated consciousness.” Sex should be engrossing, but pornography encourages men to rate their performance during sex. And “How am I doing?” is a distancing and distracting question. As Brod observes, “Relating to one’s body as a performance machine produces a split consciousness wherein part of one’s attention is watching the machine, looking for flaws in its performance, even while one is supposedly immersed in the midst of sensual pleasure. This produces a self-distancing self-consciousness which mechanizes sex and reduces pleasure.” 

Ian Cook echo’s this concern in an article in the Journal of Men’s Studies. [“Western Heterosexual Masculinity, Anxiety, and Web Porn.”Proquest search.] Cook gives evidence that not a few internet porn sites “appear to intensify [male anxiety about sexual performance] by making it harder for men to prove that they are truly ‘man enough.’” Some men would rather avoid anxiety by replacing real sex with fantasy sex (See "Not Tonight Honey, I'm Logging In").

Brod’s points about the effect of pornography on what is “in the head” of male consumers raise both self-interested and ethical concerns. A man who allows his sexual consciousness to be shaped by pornography may be shortchanging himself and his sexual partner. Being fully present within one’s sexuality during sex is an important aspect of being human. To undermine this capacity in one’s self fails to respect one’s own humanity. One also owes it to one’s sexual partner to be fully present to him or her during sexual intercourse. To have undermined one’s capacity to be fully present is disrespectful to one’s partner.

Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the author of Bringing Sex Into Focus.

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