Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Allure of Pornography

By Kevin Murphy,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Pornography is an enjoyable and necessary part of human life; an activity that free, liberated people can engage with as they wish. It represents an openness around sexuality that is refreshing and unrestrained, and it provides very visible answers for anyone who has any questions as to how the sex act should be conducted. It should be applauded not criticized for the work it does in the democratization of sex. It allows access to the viewing of sexual acts to all adults. Any attempt to stifle the free sexual expression that pornography symbolises is an attempt to bring us back to the dark ages when sexual issues were forbidden from being discussed. Pornography is the ultimate freedom.

I think that more or less sums up the position of those on the side of pornography. They are sentiments you will no doubt have heard in one form or another. And, of course, pornography is no longer pornography, it is adult entertainment.
Well, it is certainly that, even if you might quibble with the nature and content of the entertainment on offer. But one thing is certain, sex sells. There are no shortage of users for this form of ‘entertainment’, the scale of the pornography industry is enormous and there are plenty of candidates willing to tell you that it is healthy and wholesome. But is it?

I’m not arguing from a moral or religious point of view or from the concern about the commercial exploitation of one gender or another. Rather I am taking a view from the perspective of mental health and mental wellbeing. So let’s have a look at some of the things that pornography users talk about when they present themselves in the clinical setting. First and foremost, it is predominantly men. Women, in my experience, may use internet pornography but they seem to use it in a way that does not have them seeking help to get away from it.

So it is predominantly male, at least in the confidential setting of my private practice, and the predominant feature is that they wish to get away from using it, to stop altogether. I find this an interesting phenomenon. Pornography is a ‘pleasure’ product – like so many products on offer in our culture – and yet here we have men saying they are indulging in too much pleasure and want to stop. That’s because too much pleasure is the same thing as un-pleasure. And we never know we’ve crossed the dividing line until it’s too late. That’s something we never hear debated much these days.

The next feature worth mentioning is that they find they cannot stop using it. It has become a compulsion, an addiction if you like. And like all addictions, it is a way of regulating our internal pleasure economy, as one analyst describes it. The problem is that this chosen method of regulation of our pleasure gets out of control and instead of us controlling it, it controls us.

The next point to bear in mind is that some men come to realise how destructive internet pornography is to their real relationships. When so-called perfect bodies are engaging in so-called perfect sexual acts and giving all the impressions of getting so-called full satisfaction from it, it is difficult to get one’s real life experiences to match. Real life is not always like that. So pornography creates an illusory ideal. And illusory ideals can be one of the most destructive elements in our thinking. We can never reach them, they never go away and the uncomfortable tension between these two positions can last indefinitely. Men will often tell you that their real life partners just do not excite them after watching pornography.

The other psychologically destructive point is that pornography is not real. You’d be surprised at the number of people who disagree with this statement. No, they will say, pornography is real, there are real people on screen, I can see them! The key words here are ‘on screen’. It is a virtual world, a world of make believe, where fantasies of male potency and pleasure can be acted out without consequences. There is no engagement with a real, living person, no relationship is forming, and even more importantly no real lessons in how to love or engage sexually with another human being are being learned. Rather it is a repetitive exercise that eventually takes on the form of an unsatisfying cyclical experience that is devoid of human contact.

But bear in mind, the choice of pornography for most men is made for this very reason. It is a move away from reality, away from the demands of the real other person, into a world of imagination where no demands are made and no expectations are imposed. Unfortunately, the impersonal, self sufficient, self pleasuring gain, for those who do come for therapy, has long ago been far outweighed by the loss involved. And what is the loss?

Pornography remains a solitary act, an essentially empty pleasure which draws us in with great promises that are never delivered. At the end of it we remain the same as we were when we started; isolated, questioning and alone. There is no enrichment worth speaking about, other than a momentary, facile pleasure. When this experience comes to dominate the experience of users of pornography, they then seek therapy. Or when some other real life interruption ‘jolts’ them out of the fantasy.

The lure of the forbidden, though, always has a certain cache, a certain alluring gravitational pull. To combat this, you will hear some pornography users talk about it as if it were an active, directed choice. They make it sound like the kind of thing that men of action do, a kind of taking control of one’s pleasures in a rational, almost heroic way. All men do it (by implication, all men of action) and so do I, you’ll hear them say.

And yet internet pornography – an industry of massive scale – is a passive act. There is no action involved here. Even interactive pornographic experiences are ultimately virtual in nature – there is no real interaction and it ultimately involves passive viewing. It is essentially the passive viewing of others’ enjoyment, one in which we share only at the level of a visual experience. We can certainly join it as a masturbatory experience, as practically all men do, but it is still not ours, it is somebody else’s. This passive position usually sits at odds with most men’s view of themselves as being active and in control of their lives. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find examples from other parts of their lives where they watch and secretly engage with other people’s experiences. But, on the other hand, if you were to look for the first possible examples of where the urge to view others having sex might arise in a person’s life, you might find yourself asking if it has Oedipal roots.

Which brings me to my last point. There are many different forms of pornography on the internet. You can probably find every sexual taste catered for in some form or another. Most involve consenting adults while others are in the realm of serious violence against vulnerable women and children, cynically masquerading as liberal sexual practices. Not all forms of pornography mean the same thing. Some people are looking to escape the real world of human relationships; some believe an ultimate form of pleasure exists and it is only a matter of finding it; others use pornography to deal with anxieties that masturbation might comfort; others still are engaged in more complicated relations of domination and submission; and those who seek to hurt are giving free rein to the basest instinct of all, the violent urge to destroy lives.

Generally speaking, for most men pornography is a pleasure-seeking escape into fantasy from reality. Until, that is, for some it becomes a reality they have difficulty with and so their daily lived experience becomes impoverished and problematic as a result. The allure of pornography is that it offers forbidden pleasures along with the promise that the ‘freedom to enjoy’ is as simple as turning on a computer. But freedom to enjoy is a much bigger thing. It involves understanding what we want to enjoy, how we want to enjoy, and with what real, other, consenting person we might choose to enjoy. If passive and solitary viewing of the sexual acts of others on a computer screen were the answer, we’d have been recommending it long ago.