Women Who Stray

Notes on the history and current practice of female infidelity

Gender Hypocrisy in Porn Debate

The new film Don Jon exposes porn double standards.

In Don Jon, the gender war over sex and porn takes center stage
The ubiquity of male porn use has become the current battleground of a huge cultural war. People are afraid of the consequences of porn use and fear that it damages men, their brains, their sexual performance, their attitudes towards women, intimacy, and sex. The dialogue has changed, since the days of Take Back The Night, when Andrea Dworkin declared that pornography was rape, and should be restricted. Today, feminist values and perspectives still permeate the anti-porn debate, but they serve as a backdrop for the argument that porn is an addictive stimulus that overrides our natural evolutionary responses, changing our brains and bodies. Porn is presented as scary, insidious and deceptive. We are told to “be afraid, be very afraid” of what porn is doing to men.

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The new Joseph Gordon-Levitt film Don Jon tells a different message, and suggests that the real problem with porn is not that it is scary, but that it is free, convenient, and offers men a discounted option to the high cost of sex. There is a fascinating subplot in the film, which explores the way that sexuality has been turned into a commodity. Scarlett Johansson’s character uses her sexuality deliberately and blatantly to manipulate Jon’s character into complying with her wishes of how and who he is supposed to be. Commercials shown in the film depict how men are manipulated by sexual images and themes in advertising.

Scarlett’s character flies into a rage when she finds out that Jon has continued to watch pornography, ostensibly because she finds out he lied to her. But, is she really angry about the lie, or is she angry because Jon’s easy access to porn takes away some of her power? Baumeister and Twenge wrote a fascinating article in 2002 where they argue that it is actually women who suppress the sexuality of other women, not men. Their argument suggests that control of sexuality was historically one of women’s only commodities, and that women had to control the market, so to speak, by stigmatizing, shaming and suppressing those who might offer free, easy, or cheap sex. This reiterates the old argument that women have to defend the value of sex, because “nobody buys a cow, if it gives away the milk for free.”

Men use porn because it's free, easy and convenient, not because it's addictive
At one point in the film, Jon actually says that "real" sex is less satisfying than porn and masturbation, because during sex with a woman, “it’s on me to do all the work.” But, during porn, Jon can sit back, watch for free, “lose himself” in the fantasy of porn, and not have to work. He can be selfish with his sexuality. Because porn is free, and convenient, Don Jon can relax and focus on himself, exploring his fantasies, rather than maintaining focus on the needs of his partner. That is frightening to many, because there is a cultural value that sex isn’t supposed to be free, easy or casual. Sex, according to the current antiporn narrative, is supposed to be costly, expensive in both effort and emotions. It is supposed to involve intimacy, and emotionally transparent surrender. The convenience and easy, free access to porn undercuts the power and high value that sex has held for human history.

In the film, it’s not that Don Jon is a “junkie” for porn because his brain has been warped, or because it overrides his sexual evolutionary design. Instead, it’s because Jon, like all men, has been subject to a world where sex is constantly held out on the end of a string in front of them, and a man has to work like a horse to earn that sex. The high value of sex has been programmed into men. But all of a sudden, men don’t have to work that hard to get sex, or at least a reasonable simulacrum. Internet porn represents not merely a cow that gives away the milk for free, but a world where milk simply gushes out of a tap in the kitchen, at the mere twist of a knob. All of a sudden, women who rely on sex for their power and value have a new, powerful threat on the market, and men’s ability to negotiate for sex and in relationships has changed substantially.

In another recent take on the gender issues of this porn, I highly recommend this playful (SFW) video, which also shows the gender hypocrisies embedded in this debate. The culture war, or dare I say, gender war, over porn is not going to end any time soon. But, I hope that films like Don Jon continue to move the debate forward, towards greater levels of honesty over what we are really arguing about.

(Before the angry, vitriolic commenters begin, let me tell you that I am not an embittered man, angry over past or current sexual rejections. I actually share the end message of Don Jon, that good sex is sex between equals. I think that the gender war over porn reflects a significant equalization in sexual power, changing an outdated, unnecessary imbalance which ultimately hurt both men and women.)

David J. Ley, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Insatiable Wives, Women Who Stray and The Men Who Love Them, available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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