How evangelical culture and porn warped my idea of male sex drive

A lot of men my age (I'm 40) get on some kind of sex-boosting pill. Snake oil supplements promising to improve your manliness quotient by 4000% are a dime a dozen. Testosterone replacement clinics are popping up all over the place (which I actually think is a good thing, but not necessarily for sex). At my work, there are basically two types of commercials on the radio: car dealerships promising easy credit approval, and male-enhancing clinics or supplements.

Here's the thing about "erectile dysfunction": it's a made-up syndrome used to sell pills. There's no medical criteria for ED; essentially, a man just goes to his doctor and says he's not getting hard when he wants or expects to, or he's not staying hard as long as he wants or expects to, or he's not ejaculating as soon as he wants or too soon or not as often or not at all. Essentially, ED means "I'm not performing the way I expect to be." But where are those expectations coming from? Are they realistic?

I'm not going to say there are never instances where a pill might be warranted, but I think most "ED" probably has a simpler explanation: performance anxiety. And it all relates back to how we men are exposed to sex, how the ubiquity of porn gives us an unrealistic view of sex, and how we're not taught to acknowledge and communicate our insecurities with our partner(s). So I want to take a bit of journey through my own sex education, or lack thereof, and talk about how becoming educated has made me happier and more fulfilled without resorting to pills. I know, it sounds like a sales pitch, but I'm not selling anything except some self-reflection.

Inappropriate for children

These days, I strongly believe it's vital for parents to talk with their children about sex—about consent, autonomy, pleasure, communication, safety, etc. Those can be uncomfortable topics for parents, and there's a good chance their parents didn't talk to them about those things. Mine didn't. 

When I was growing up, sex was just kind of hushed away. My parents would screen r-rated movies; I could watch them if they were violent, but I was supposed to close my eyes during any sex scenes or nudity. (It's a reflection of our society as a whole that we're much more squeamish about sexuality than grotesque violence.) I never got any kind of talk about sex at all; no description of anatomy, no safe-sex talk, nadda. I was essentially left to get it from my youth group leaders, and the extent of sex ed in the church was basically "wait for marriage." There was no talk about masturbation, but lots of talk about how "lust" was a sin—so, you know, pretty much the one thing every teenage boy is thinking about all day is dooming him to Hell. Good ruse, Christianity. 

If you want to wait for marriage, that's fine—you do you. But even those who wait for marriage need to hear about what makes for healthy expectations and communication about sex. Because there is so little communication about sex, a lot of young men in our society get their "education" from the most readily available source: porn. Porn is everywhere. It's a search word away on your phone, laptop, or desktop. Gone are the days when young men had to scrounge through a dumpster to find discarded issues of Hustler; porn today is ubiquitous and usually free. 

Porn and expectations

Porn is not real sex. Porn is performance by actors who have exceptional anatomy, flexibility, and often specific types of genitalia (I vaguely recall an interview with Larry Flint in which he said he didn't shoot with women who had a large labia). We're naturally curious and we enjoy being aroused, so it's normal to be drawn to porn. But porn displays the male sex drive as central and essentially unquenchable. Men are ready all the time, rock hard at the first sign of a woman's nipple. Women are always ready to have intercourse and are more or less waiting for the man to make his move. The sex is primarily about his pleasure; it probably starts with the guy receiving a blow job before engaging in unrealistically long sex (which the woman always enjoys), and the porn is over when the guy ejaculates. The whole time, the woman only wants more: harder, faster, longer. Yes! More! 

Did you see the porn where the guy didn't come, but stuck around to pleasure his partner? How about the one where they began by communicating their needs, desires, and boundaries? No? Did you see the one where they talked about protection? Emotional intimacy and vulnerability? How about the porn where someone farted, someone fell off the bed, or accidentally bit a lip? Sex, like all human intimacy, isn't neat and tidy; it's clumsy.

When this fake, exaggerated depiction of sex is paired with a patriarchal culture and a dearth of sex education, men end up believing that their sexuality should be not unlike that of a porn star: always ready, virtually unquenchable. It's even a common joke that guys just think about sex all the time and basically just want to fuck without taking the time to be emotionally intimate. But that's not true—guys need emotional intimacy, too. Guys are not machines, either, but biological creatures whose moods, physical well-being, and anxieties can profoundly affect sexual performance. 

Sometimes, you're tired and you can't come. Sometimes it takes longer to get hard, or maybe you can't get hard at all. Sometimes you stay hard for a long time, sometimes not. Sometimes you come really soon, sometimes you don't. These variations in performance are normal. But men have been taught that sex is outcome-driven—it's "good" when everybody comes. So if it looks like the outcome is going to be difficult or impossible, a man starts to question his entire masculinity. That's when they start looking at pills. 


Good sex is divorced from outcomes

Image by Michael Alan Boudoir
Porn makes sex seem easily accessible without the need for communication, vulnerability, mutual respect, and consent. It makes the act itself look far tidier and easier than it really is. Real sex, though, is enhanced by communication and realistic expectations. 

We've normalized a woman having intercourse without orgasm, but we view it as problematic when a man doesn't come. It's only a problem when the man makes it a problem, though. Unrealistic expectations clash with the harsh realities of complex human relationships and the unpredictability of human biology. If a man lacks the perspective to normalize those variances in performance, he's going to develop performance anxiety. Anxiety makes the problem worse, which leads to more anxiety. The result is that lots of men may simply stop initiating sex or start avoiding it altogether. 

Women, also misguided by the cultural view that men should have unquenchable and relentless sex drives, start to feel neglected. They might wonder if their partner is cheating. And for a man who does cheat, part of the appeal of cheating is that a lot of the deeper intimacy necessitated by a long-term partnership is superseded by the novelty of a new partner. It feels good just to be desired and to fuck without all that extra emotional stuff.  

For any long-term partnership to flourish, though, sex has to be divorced from outcomes. Sometimes she won't come. Sometimes he won't come. Sometimes it'll be over fast, sometimes it won't. Sometimes one partner will be more aroused and ready to keep going while the other partner is spent. These outcomes don't mean there is anything wrong with either partner; we're simply biological creatures who aren't going to look or perform like actors in a slickly-produced porn. 

Good sex is rooted in respect for and appreciation of bodies; in openness, vulnerability, and reciprocity; in patience, playfulness, and experimentation; in consent, boundaries, and communication of desires. Human sexuality can and should encompass a variety of acts that aren't focused on achieving ejaculation. There are a huge variety of ways in which we can pleasure each other that aren't defined by their ability to achieve a specific outcome.

Porn may not be harmful, but you'll probably have better sex if you skip it

There is healthy debate to be had about the effects of pornography on humans, and it's beyond the scope of this post to dig into it all. Since I was taught that any sex outside of marriage was "sin" and that "lust" was a thought crime, I rebelled after my deconversion and, to a degree, embraced porn. I thought porn was fine and normal and not a big deal. 

I've changed my tune. I don't think porn is necessarily immoral, although there are certainly legitimate issues of the trafficking and exploitation of women. Perhaps in small doses and if clearly acknowledged as fantasy, it may not necessarily be damaging. But I think porn's real harm lies in setting up unrealistic expectations about what sex is and should be. Men should be taught from a young age about the importance of bodily autonomy, about the messy and and unpredictable nature of human sexual performance, about the importance of reciprocity and mutual pleasure, about consent and boundaries, about safety and respect. Entering a sexual relationship with such attitudes is a recipe for a more fulfilling sex life divorced from the burden of trying to live up to the impossible standard of a porn star. 

I think that porn has thrived during the 21st Century in no small part because men are not taught these things and, given their historically privileged positions in society, have not had much incentive to make themselves emotionally vulnerable with their partners. Personally, I've come to find porn boring. The fakeness of it all is completely disconnected from what my sex life is like with my partner. We communicate frequently and openly about our needs, desires, and vulnerabilities. We're goofy and clumsy. We laugh and talk and experiment and don't fixate on outcomes, instead focusing on pleasure and reciprocity.

It's worth noting, too, that if you're whacking it to porn often you can desensitize yourself and make sex more difficult. The inside of a vagina doesn't provide the kind of grip and speed your hand does, and when that's combined with the acclimation to exaggerated visual stimulation, real sex can seem pedestrian and  by comparison. (There's a great movie about this exact topic called Don Jon—written, directed, and starring Joseph Gorden-Levitt.) 

Whatever you do, talk

I'm discovering all this relatively late in life, and I can only imagine how much more fulfilling my sex life would have been in past relationships if I had known then what I know now. It's worth pointing out that for a time, I was worried that I was going to need a pill. I was able to avoid that by realizing I didn't have a physical problem, but anxiety born out of unrealistic expectations. Once I talked to my partner about those anxieties and how they were affecting me, my sex life improved dramatically. Ironically, getting away from stress over outcomes has resulted in consistently better outcomes.

I still wrestle with some anxieties. Recently my partner surprised me with some lingerie, candles, music, the works. We'd been sexting all day, building up the anticipation. But with her there dressed up in a sexy outfit and knowing she was excited about sex, I was nervous about whether I'd be able to please her. But instead of popping a pill or avoiding sex, I simply said, "I'm going to need a little time tonight". She smiled and said "no pressure baby, take all the time you need" and we had a fantastic night. The more honest you and your partner are about your vulnerabilities, the more you can work together to enjoy a mutually fulfilling sex life. Isn't that, after all, what it means to be partners? 


For further reading, I strongly recommend this interview in GQ with Belgian sex psychotherapist Esther Perel, author of the books Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs (both of which I very highly recommend):

Esther Perel on What Men Get Wrong About Sex

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