Pornography, it seems to me, presents a highly distorted image of men. While my research with thousands of men shows a different picture of “who men are sexually,” pornography imposes a rigid ideological view on male sexual feelings, expression and behavior. They are not the monolithic beings depicted in most porno images, nor do they find their authentic selves in pornography.
Ironically, pornography seems friendly to men — more than to women — but its underlying message makes fun of men. Subliminally, it tells men that their sexual expression is ridiculous, base, insensitive, even grotesque. Visually it frequently makes men look ugly and coarse, foolish and unappealing.
Who hasn’t seen porno images? They’re all around us, in magazines, on the internet and even in fine art. The makers and distributors of the images must believe men like them, that they are generally making “what men like,” because they market it to men, and the industry is growing. Although few women buy porno, most industry spokespersons claim that “the number of women is increasing”; any gain they refer to is nominal.
Do most men really like pornography? Do they find it laughable or do they think to themselves: I wish I could be like him, lucky guy?
It’s difficult to know whether men like the way they are portrayed in porno. If you’re male, you’re raised with the idea that if you find something revolting, you must look it straight in the eye and say: “Wow! I like it! I’m bad!” Boys are not supposed to shy away from vulgar things; doing that makes them “girlish.” Therefore, the more disgusting a pornographic visual is, the more a “real man” should not show disgust. But, privately, do most men really think they are “like that,” or do they experience their sexuality as more subtle, more diverse, possibly more erotic and even spiritual? Of course, not all men look at porno, so why is it generally considered for men? Is it because women supposedly don’t need to jerk off? Or because the material puts men on top as “the winners,” denigrating women as “the losers”?
In porno, there is a subliminal text. Men are almost always presented as predators with erections, almost as rapists. One of the unspoken clichés of porno is that the man must show no feelings, but follow a strictly physical sexual scenario.
Porno portrays men having pleasure focused on erection and ejaculation, rarely seeking eroticism, or other purely sensual activity, for its own sake. And porno rarely presents men in love or sexually active in a non-focused way. It does not show men seeking full-length body contact or needing to hold another person and be held.
Sexual exuberance, desire, elation, love not satisfied by orgasm, fantasy — these states are about something other than a biological drive to reproduce the species, the “male sex drive” that in pornography is central to sex. Today, male sex drive as a concept has taken on a mystical ring. During the late 20th century this term was used so often that it became “unquestionable truth” and is now assumed to be biological.
But is it? Logically, if men supposedly have a biological drive to “thrust,” then shouldn’t women have a complementary reverse “drive” to open? Or is the entire idea of “sex drive” a fraudulent ideological category masquerading as scientific fact? What about the other sexual states that men experience, which are not seen in porno? Are men as mechanical and aggressive by nature as they are depicted? Society has tried to insist that a real man should “get hard” at will, whenever appropriate, meaning in a private situation with a reproductively aged female, but it is impossible to will an erection into being.
In truth, the penis is a delicate part of the male being, responding with exquisite sensitivity to every nuance of emotion a man can feel. Erections come and go in men, during sex and during sleep. Most men say they seek desire, not the mechanical means of orgasm or creating erection. Desire and arousal are the pleasures that spread through the body; orgasm, after all, can be attained alone during masturbation. The beauty of male sexuality is not so much about erection. It is about all the gestures and subtle meaningful body movements, including the ups and downs of erection — tumescence and non-tumescence, de-tumescence and re-tumescence — ways in which the body speaks.
These movements represent a man’s beauty and personality and are very erotic. Pornography as we know it does not represent that diversity of expression. It often pretends to be avant-garde by being shocking, passing itself off as incredibly open when compared to the old value system of prudery. But it is not revolutionary. Such images do not address a more valuable and interesting view of who men are sexually.
What is male sexuality? Why is it so closely identified with intercourse in a reproductive scenario?
The answer involves understanding centuries of enforcement of the idea of sex as an animalistic physical desire to be controlled by putting it into a reproductive context within marriage. Yet this ideology contained the seeds of its own destruction by furthering the idea that men’s sexuality can only be freely experienced outside the family.
THE MIND-BODY SPLIT
In my research, it seems that the split between “body” and “mind” or “soul” — as pornography depicts — is the crux of the problem men experience, not whether or not they are in a reproductive relationship. The definition of sex created to go with our social order and family structure, originating about 3,000 years ago, has been focused on the reproductive act. This detracts from other activities because we have evolved from a culture that wanted to increase reproduction to one in which most of us use birth control. Men’s sexual nature is “polymorphous-perverse,” as a New York Times book review characterized the picture of men that emerges from The Hite Report on Male Sexuality.
Men in my research show great diversity. Take, for example, masturbation. This can allow a man to express his sexuality without a focus on reproduction or coitus. As one man puts it, “I have more or less two sex lives, one with my wife and one with myself.”
Men say they enjoy masturbation because they can fantasize about whatever they want and there is no pressure on them to perform. During masturbation, in my research, men stimulate themselves in many more places than they do when with a partner.
And this one: Anal stimulation. In my research, many men express a hidden desire to be caressed and “penetrated” — possibly by a finger — anally, since just inside the anus in men there is proximity to the prostate, which when stimulated can result in orgasm. However, most men do not explore the various feelings they wish to express during sex with a partner, especially a female partner, but instead try to follow the reproductive scenario depicted in most pornography. Our sexual acts have been channeled into too limited a form of expression; sex could be more interesting if it was not always focused on one scenario: “foreplay” followed by “penetration,” the high point being fucking, coitus or “the act.” The appearance of Viagra and the fear of HIV have increased rather than decreased the focus on erection. For example, many men are nervous about having to put on a condom and consequently losing their erection or their sexual desire. Not only are men asked to use condoms, they are expected to provide clitoral stimulation to orgasm in many cases.
But many men cut short foreplay because they are afraid they may lose the erection which they have been taught is necessary to enjoy sex and which would be “shameful” to lose. More men could reach much higher peaks of feeling and arousal if they did not feel anxious about how they should behave sexually.
WHAT’S BAD FOR THE GOOSE…
How do men feel about how they are depicted as treating women in pornography and about the violence to women shown in most pornography?
Most men feel perplexed, and wonder why this can excite them. Although pornography frequently denigrates women — showing women beaten, black and blue, and liking it — it also denigrates men. It cheapens and brutalizes their sensibilities, destroying their possibility of personal sexual discovery, blocking their power to express themselves with others and implanting clichés such as “a real man is the one with the biggest, hardest erection.” Pornography’s implication that men are beasts whose underlying unchangeable natures make them likely to be violent to women is misleading and dangerous. Porno’s messages bisect men psychologically, showing sexuality as separate from emotion and the soul. This can affect men in a very negative way, causing them to think that they are two people — the sexual animal and the thinking, spiritual individual. Pornography is above all propaganda — an ideological construct used to direct men toward a certain style of reproductive sexual activity, to tell them the kind of attitude they should have towards sex and women. Women in pornography serve the basic purpose of legitimizing the male sexual expression.
In fact, pornography presents the most negative outdated versions of who men are to the rest of the world. If we change our basic views of what sex is, then we will contribute to a better world, a new world.
Dr. S. Hite, visiting professor of gender and culture at Nihon University in Japan, has lectured at universities around the world including the Sorbonne, Harvard, Columbia, Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics. Dr. Hite is the author of 12 books, including the groundbreaking, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, which has sold more than 48 million copies, and The Hite Reader (Seven Stories Press, 2006).