Guest Columns

What’s the Matter with Sex?


Elizabeth Benedict

  Sex has had a rough few months.
  Just about every week, a new book appears with a title that describes the erotic zeitgeist in a few chilling words. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution. The Case Againstthe Sexual Revolution. The books are often accompanied by splashy excerpts in the New York Times that shout: Pay attention: This is news. Several months ago, Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who’d read one or two of these tomes, declared that “sex-positive feminism” had gone the way of padded shoulders and sideburns. Gone too, it seems, is the joy of sex.
  This tranche of books doesn’t come to us from the National Review or the Christian evangelical press. The authors are urbane women under 40 writing for secular audiences about the abysmal state of affairs in their own lives and those of the young women they teach, interview, or encounter in anti-violence campaigns. We might think of the writers as counterparts to the daring women in the 1970s who wrote Fear of Flying (Erica Jong), “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” (Anne Koedt), and The Hite Report (Shire Hite). Their work contributed to the era’s embrace of female sexuality, to our understanding of the ways in which it’s different from men’s, and the necessity for women to speak up about what they want and need. And it wasn’t only women making the case back then. In 1972, Dr. Alex Comfort (he/him) produced The Joy of Sex, A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking, with explicit drawings that left nothing to chance. Written for straight couples, it sold 12 million copies, has been updated over the decades, and invited spinoffs: The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex.
  But whither all that joy? Recent news stories and surveys report that (primarily straight cis-gendered) young people are having less sex than they used to. If it’s not because of societal pressure preaching chastity, what’s going on? How did all this hard-won sexual liberation vanish? What of the long arc of the moral universe bending toward more sexual pleasure? Wasn’t that the promise as we shed Victorian prudery and understood sexuality as a fact of life rather than a benefit reserved only for married people.
  I’m sorry to say that these new books do a good job delivering the answers to those of us who’ve been on the sexual sidelines for the past few decades. The primary explanation – Internet porn – might well come with a trigger warning, not for skittish undergraduates but for protective parents and grandparents and those of us who think we are open-minded about other people’s intimate lives. I find it a deeply disturbing world to delve into, and more disturbing still to learn how pervasive it is likely to be in the lives of the many young people I know and care about. And to read about how pervasive it is in the lives of men who are way beyond college. Yet the impulse to critique porn is fraught – though that may start to diminish with the publication of these books. A hearty condemnation can make us bedfellows with right-wing forces arrayed against abortion and contraception. It can put us in the crosshairs of some feminists who believe that sexual choices should be ours to make, even if they involve consensual violence or support industries that exploit women. Finally, Internet porn is so ubiquitous in younger generations that arguing too forcefully against it amounts to criticizing the sexual appetites and habits of loved ones. Not exactly a winning position either.
  I should say right here that I have never gone to Pornhub or any other online porn site. I’ve seen porn movies and erotic movies in theaters and on TV, and I have read enough to know that what I would see online would haunt and disturb me. It would be hard to “unsee.” Plus, I can’t imagine the email and advertisements that would show up on my computer. Even looking up “Pornhub” on Wikipedia could be enough to trigger a flood of porn-related ads. What these new books have pointed out to me are some of the details of the industry that are relevant to the discussion. Pornhub, launched in 2007, is the tenth largest porn site in the world. It was bought by MindGeek in 2010, and according to Wikipedia, is blocked in India, China, the Philippines and elsewhere – and offers virtual reality porn. The company’s scope, content, scruples, and reach come through in this one Wikipedia paragraph:

Incidents have been reported of Pornhub hosting non-consensual pornography. The company has been criticized for slow or inadequate responses to some of these incidents, including the hosting of the high-profile channel GirlsDoPorn, which was closed in 2019 following a lawsuit and charges of sex trafficking. In December 2020, following a [Nicholas Kristof] New York Times article on such content, payment processors Mastercard and Visa cut their services to Pornhub. On 14 December 2020, Pornhub removed all videos by unverified users. This reduced the content from 13 million videos to 4 million videos.

  Call me naïve. I will claim the descriptor. Until I read these books, I thought the sex drought might be addressed by simply talking to young people, describing the world of their parents – The joys! The multiple orgasms! The fun we had! – and assuring them that we wanted them to have fun too. Imagine this: old people telling young people to have more sex!
  Sad to say, I now understand that the porn channel in people’s lives is so loud and all-encompassing that a few sex-positive personal stories may sound like a mosquito buzzing at your ear, like parents telling you not to talk to strangers and to go to bed every night at the same time. According to these authors, who’ve gathered research of all kinds, years of watching Internet porn have had an effect on young men’s brains and bodies. It’s made it difficult for them to want relationships or find them as sexually intense as what they have experienced, year after year, often since 10 or 12 years old, masturbating to porn that is extreme, often violent, and bears little relation to real life.
  Another layer to the sexual landscape is that, for several decades, “consent” has become the public face of sexuality for young folks. During college orientations, it’s drummed into students that they must ask for consent (the aggressors/guys) and give consent (usually women/sometimes men) to every sexual move, even from moment to moment. While other sex ed information might be shared at orientation, the only message on the marquee is CONSENT.
  Several of these books argue that consent should be the floor, not the ceiling to sexual encounters and expectations. And that though consent is most often for the benefit of the women, they are the ones losing the most here, because men’s and women’s sexual needs are so different. When the only consideration is whether or not there’s consent, couples are not primed to communicate about what happens after that. Survey after survey of sexual satisfaction among young people say that women frequently experience pain and only infrequently experience orgasm.
  The fixation on consent follows decades of college women being raped, coerced or roofied into unwanted sex, to say nothing of their complaints and reports, even to police, being ignored, taken lightly, or not effectively adjudicated. Hook-up culture – the dominance of one-time encounters, most often infused with alcohol – became a fad in the 1980s and 1990s, and was driven by a huge increase in campus drinking and a trend in feminism: young women bucking relationships for more swaggering, commitment-free sex. The combination of forces at work in the last few decades has been a perfect storm of sexual dissatisfaction – and romantic misery. Christine Emba, writing in Rethinking Sex, quotes writer Alana Massey, who called the later stages of this trend “the Blasé Olympics” in a Medium article from 2015:

Chill has now slithered into our romantic lives and forced those among us who would like to exchange feelings and accountability to compete in the Blasé Olympics with whomever we are dating…. Chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings.

  Internet porn adds an extra dreary spin to the chill factor. Until reading these books, I did not understand this mixture of burdens: pretending to be chill about real feelings, painful sex, and degrading porn. I did not fully appreciate what young lovers are up against. But Peggy Orenstein’s 2020 book, Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent and Navigating the New Masculinity gave me insights into how matters look from the guys’ side of the ledger.
  “I never asked a boy in my interviews whether he had watched porn,” Orenstein explains. “That would have shot my credibility to hell. Because of course all of them had. Instead, my question was when they first saw it.”
  It’s hard to pluck out an example or two, but here’s a representative sample from her interviews with about 100 young men:

Although Mason viewed more porn and more extreme content than most of the boys I talked to, he was hardly alone. “I don’t consider the porn I watch to be representative of the person I am,” said Daniel, a freshman at an elite Midwestern college…. “Like the whole category of ‘Unwilling’ [women who say no to sex, then change their mind when ‘force fucked’]. It’s very appealing to me even though I know it’s wrong. And I do truly believe it’s wrong. I would never do it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it.” … He’d had three hookups in college; while he could get an erection, he wasn’t able to orgasm in any of them. He’d also found it “a bit of a struggle” to climax during intercourse with his high school girlfriend, with whom he’d been in love. Their sex wasn’t stimulating enough; it wasn’t intense enough—it just wasn’t enough… . When he told her he wanted to “take a break” from their relationship, she offered up anal sex to change his mind… He accepted, but the experience was nothing like what he’d seen on-screen. “It was really difficult… and it hurt her intensely. She was in pain. That was nothing I wanted to see. It was fucked up. And I felt like shit afterward.”

  There are books to be written about the economics and politics of the Internet porn industry, but Orenstein’s brief description of what it does to men and women is illuminating:

In an oversaturated media marketplace, attention is the most prized currency. The best way for porn to capture and keep its share is to perpetually up the ante on aggressive and cruel acts—face fucking! Bukkake! Stealth ‘Creampie’!—none of which are likely to result in orgasm for most women. Quite the opposite: some recent porn trends are so physically demanding that female performers later require surgery to repair prolapsed vaginal walls or anuses (there is little regard for women’s safety on set, and certainly no worker’s comp or disability pay).

  I don’t mean for one undergraduate’s smarmy experience to make the case here. Boys and Sex is packed with such stories, and they are consistent with the other books I’ve consulted. In Rethinking Sex, author Christine Emba, a writer on the Opinion staff of the Washington Post, describes anal sex as “going to fifth base.” In other words, a destination that young women have been pressured into believing is required. She writes:

Porn has become sex ed in a real sense, a place where people learn about and develop their erotic imaginations. It provides models of behavior and guides expectations. The categories through which videos are inevitably sorted – oral, anal, ebony, blond, MILF, gangbang – mold preferences and shape desires. And porn has mainstreamed certain acts – choking, anal sex – that used to be significantly rarer…

  The more I read in these books, the clearer it became that the “consent conversation” my older friends and I imagine, about whether a hand can move from a back to a backside, may more realistically be about whether a woman will consent to a man choking her, ejaculating in her face, or buggering her. More to the point, these conversations may not take place in the context of a relationship but during hook-ups, when people barely know each other and when there is no expectation that they will meet again. Has Erica Jong’s zipless fuck, when strangers on a train meet for a quickie, become our default, our highest ambition, the only flavor available for romance and relationships – but with a 21st century, Pornhub twist?
  The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by British journalist Louise Perry, who is also the press officer for a UK campaign called We Can’t Consent to This, comes out hardest against the effects of porn. She’s against women getting drunk with men because they lose decision-making capacities, and she endorses marriage, though she knows it’s extremely unpopular. She sounds downright prissy when she opines in these directions, but she sees the world of Internet porn as truly destructive for the totality of women’s lives – including the right to life itself. We Can’t Consent to This tracks the increasing use of the defense, by men charged with killing women, that they just had consensual rough sex that got out of hand. In the 60 cases Perry’s campaign mentions, 30 of the judges exonerated the men who used this defense. The group reported that many more women were injured than are included in the 60 deaths.
  Perry argues that sex practices that were at one time “niche” and restricted to BDSM, are now on the front pages of Pornhub. For those of us not schooled in BDSM, the learning curve has been steep. Näif that I am, I had no idea what choking had to do with sexual pleasure until a few months ago. Cutting off the breath, which involves someone squeezing your carotid arteries, causes an intense high. The websites on which I’ve read about it all come with warnings of its dangers. Words fail me on my lack of interest in this, and fail me harder when it comes to the more urgent matter of how many women feel pressure to consent to these acts as part of a relationship bargain, even if it is “only” a hookup.
  Several nights ago, I tuned into a debate, “Sex, Porn, Feminism,” on Bari Weiss’s podcast, Honestly, between Louise Perry and American lawyer and journalist Jill Filipovic. What was this “breath play” the women spoke about so casually, so knowingly? Why was it shocking when Louise Perry told Weiss and Filipovic that feminists should not watch porn, “full stop”? When Weiss asked if Perry had banned her husband from watching porn, and Perry answered, “Of course,” I would not have been surprised to see the eyes of the other two women widen in amazement.
  “Long before we married,” Perry said. “It’s a fundamental value. It teaches you to regard sex as a spectator sport. And you don’t know if people have consented. I don’t think a truly ethical porn exists.” She said later that watching porn was like buying clothes made in sweatshops, and that “the left is letting off the hook one of the most exploitative industries.” To this Jill Filipovic responded that she did not want to ban porn, that there should be more “transparency,” and that a “capitalist critique is overdue.” Not exactly an answer to the issues raised by Perry, but a plausible alternative position.
  In the feminist porn debates of the 1980s and 90s, I was not on team Andrea Dworkin. I did not think heterosexual sex was rape. But I knew one of the issues was whether viewing porn led to violence against women and led men to have narrow, distorted views about women. It was difficult to “prove” much of this before the Internet, when porn’s availability made it much more than an exotic option. But in 2022, Louise Perry’s anti-porn position makes more sense to me than Andrea Dworkin’s did decades before. It is at least a start. What would happen if women stopped watching this shit – and wanted that shared refusal, or disgust, in their lovers? What would happen if more women and “feminists” argued that women in the industry are exploited and physically and psychologically harmed – and that consent is a more complicated matter than just saying yes? Or having said it once long ago and just going along ever after because, lest we forget, these are workers, and a paycheck is involved.
  It’s a good thing that the temperature around these issues has risen enough to prompt many women to write books – and to speak up about the sorrow, the loneliness, the crappy sex, and the guys who don’t get it.
  Obviously there is much more to say and investigate here, more even beyond the diminishing joy of sex that we need to understand. I don’t think I am the only one late to the game, the only one who thinks we have to find ways to talk about matters as difficult and troubling as this one. I’m imagining public conversations, private conversations, exchanges based on facts, feelings, anatomy, economics, politics, and the exquisite, elemental joys of sex and intimacy. These might be as good a place as any to start.