Life

The Real Problem With Men Watching Porn

And what to do about it.

A young man looks at his laptop, hand on his head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by nyul/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of Man Up, host Aymann Ismail talked to a young man named Tim who wonders whether his porn habit has altered or even degraded the way he thinks about sex and relationships. To help Tim out with a science-based approach, Ismail turns to Emily Rothman, a doctor, professor, and researcher who helped develop a program to teach teenage students about porn. Below is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for clarity.

For more conversations like this, subscribe to Man Up now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, TuneInStitcherOvercast, or Google Play.

Advertisement

Aymann Ismail: Was there one particular moment where you really felt like your relationship to porn was getting in the way?

Tim: The image that comes to mind is me waiting in my house feeling really nervous, particularly just about having sex and about, “Is she going to enjoy this? Am I going to be able to get an erection and have sex with this person like I want to?” It’s a lot of these images in my mind of what sex looks like in porn and then mapping that onto who I am, and I don’t know if I line up with these guys in porn. The guys who are pure stamina and just ripped abs. It feels like that’s the expectation. And on an actual level, I know that the women that I’m with, that’s not what they’re asking of me. That’s not what they’re saying that they’re wanting and it’s not something that I’m wanting. But I think because I’ve had all of these sexual experiences that are tied to porn since I was like 14, 15, that’s where I get worried that I feel like it’s maybe ingrained in me in a certain way.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Ismail: What effects do you think porn is having on you that you’d like to protect yourself from?

Tim: There’s pieces where I wonder if it gets in the way of, like, a certain level of closeness and intimacy I can have in my relationships. In porn, the sex is all so exciting and so fresh and so new all of the time. You can just pull up another video and find exactly what you’re looking for. And that’s also not how relationships work. In a relationship with a person, things fluctuate, things change, there’s good times, there’s bad times. And I get worried that I’m maybe too quick to just not commit or to jump to the next thing to find that perfect thing. Because that’s the reliable dopamine rush. There’s also the component of this sense that women are being taken advantage of or portrayed in a certain light. And those are the things that weigh on me because I think there’s actually a lot of truth there. And I don’t want to be contributing to this thing that’s demeaning and degrading toward women.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Ismail: You’re concerned about how women are portrayed in these films that you’re watching, and because these films are sneaking their way into your perceived vision for what sex is supposed to look like, you’re worried that those two things are going to intersect. Like maybe you might become one of those people who takes advantage of women. Am I getting that right?

Tim: Yeah. That it’s internalizing this misogyny and this sexism inside of me. It’s a very rote pattern of, “This is what sex looks like.” And it’s 9 times out of 10 the man sort of dominating the woman or the woman just pleasing the man. They’re classic gender roles that I think are super outdated and are very present in porn. And they’re playing out fantasy to a certain extent, but in a lot of ways that’s light years away from what actual sex with a person is like.

Advertisement

Ismail: What keeps bringing you back to porn?

Tim: I don’t really know, other than I guess it’s that same dopamine rush it always is. And I guess that worries me too, and maybe there is some level of addiction in the sense of just coming back out of habit. I don’t know that I know the answer to that, which does kind of worry me.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Ismail: Dr. Emily Rothman has heard this all before. For the last few years she’s been developing a science-based curriculum for teens to understand the influence porn has on their lives. She started by wanting to investigate the root causes of domestic violence and sexual assault, but wound up becoming a leader in porn science. She co-designed and co-taught the very first course on porn at MIT.

Advertisement

Emily Rothman: So, I have done a couple of different studies with adolescents, so people who are under 18 years old, asking them what porn they’d seen and how they thought it affected them. And I was heartbroken about some of the stuff that I heard. In one of the studies that I did, girls who’d experienced dating violence were much more likely to say that they had had a partner who tried to coerce or force them or was threatening them to do things that that partner had first seen in pornography, and they were pretty young in the sample. And then when we interviewed other kids, there were definitely boys who said: “Well, when I’m with a girl I just try to do what I’ve seen the porn stars do. Because I figure they’re the stars, they know what they’re doing.” And it makes me go “Oh no.” How could the kids not know that this is a product where they were trying to set something up and stage it to make money? This is not supposed to be an instruction manual. This is not a documentary about how to have good sex. But then it’s like, “OK, well. They didn’t have good comprehensive sex ed in schools. That’s the real problem here.”

Ismail: Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with porn?

Rothman: I think so. I think it’s like anything else. I’ve talked to people—you probably have too—who have unhealthy relationships with video games, right?

Ismail: Yeah.

Rothman: You can think about it. Work on it, if you have to, if you’re the kind of person who needs to work on it. And you can have a healthy relationship with it. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. But you have to know yourself. You have to know what works for you and what your safe level of use is. And for some people, that could be none. For other people, they might be able to find that middle ground.

Advertisement

Ismail: How do we know if we don’t have a healthy relationship? What if our relationship is actually unhealthy? Is there a way for us to repair unhealthy relationships with porn?

Rothman: There absolutely is, so people shouldn’t worry that they’re stuck or something, the way that they are. I will say that there’s a small percentage of people that probably do need some outside help and cognitive behavioral therapy or something like that if they are really compulsive about it and not able to think about anything else or cut it out by themselves. But it’s a small percentage of people, and you do have to watch out because there is this cottage industry of porn addiction treatment specialists. But for the most part, I think people can change their relationship to any kind of media use by doing the kinds of stuff like setting limits, being mindful about it, talking to partners about it. I don’t think that beating yourself up is helpful. So, trying to stay away from self-shaming, which just tends to make everything worse, and generally treating yourself well.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Ismail: So, what are some ways to get us to be more comfortable and candid about porn?

Rothman: In general, I think openness and transparency is probably good. But particularly if what we’re doing, or you’re doing, is not normalizing thoughtless use, but you’re talking about it and being open about it because you’re having the kinds of questions that you’re talking about here, which is like, “I like it because it’s hot and masturbation is a form of stress reduction, which it absolutely is. And yet I’m having some misgivings about what I’m seeing, and so I’m trying to be more ethical or more conscious in my choices.”

But then there’s a number of other things, too, that I would say are important. So No. 1, you can pay for your pornography. That’s actually a really important one because you get what you pay for. And there are pornography creators who are trying to create workplaces that are ethical and treat their performers well. But in order to have those kinds of workplaces, that costs more money.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Ismail: It’s like free-range porn.

Rothman: Exactly. That is exactly what we’re talking about here. So, I’m just going to name some names because if you hear me say pay for porn and then that means that you go to Pornhub and you’re like clicking on random stuff and paying for stuff, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. A great one that I will name is Make Love Not Porn. Cindy Gallop is the person who created that site. It’s average, regular people—they’re in couples or whatever. They decide to upload some content and you can pay to be a subscriber, I think on a monthly basis. And it’s carefully curated. It’s a site where they are super mindful about things like sexual assault prevention and trying to work with the content producers to make sure that things are ethical. So there you go. That’s one. Angie Rowntree is—I’m naming all female content creators and producers right now by the way.* So her website is SSSH.com. There’s Erika Lust who makes Lust Films. There’s PinkLabelTV.com, Ashley Fires, Nina Hartley. So, you maybe have to know where to look, and they are different than just random content that you’re going to stumble across on Pornhub, and they’re going into it on purpose trying to be mindful about creating content that, yeah, is sexy, but also doesn’t promote social norms that we think could be harmful.

To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “The Secret to a Healthy Porn Habit.”

Correction, March 2, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misspelled Angie Rowntree’s last name.

Advertisement