5 Ways Porn Conditions Men to Have Worse Sex

I recently found a streaming version of the first porn I ever watched and was stunned by a blend of amazement, nostalgia, and shame.

Soooooo much has changed since my 13-year-old self stumbled on an unmarked VHS tape in the caverns of my dad’s closet.

Today, porn is an estimated $97 billion industry. Porn sites get more traffic in the U.S. than Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Pinterest, and LinkedIn combined. In 2019 alone, the equivalent of nearly 6,650 centuries of porn was consumed on Pornhub, one of the world’s largest porn sites.

All I had was a grainy 80-minute movie soundtracked with cheesy 1990s slow jazz.

It got me thinking: How has porn shaped the ways I think about sex as a cisgender, heterosexual man? How does this conditioning hold me back when having sex today?

One thing I want to stress is that porn is not inherently bad. My point is not to shame you for watching porn or desiring anything in particular. My point is to help you, me, and others (especially cishet men) accept the ways we’ve been conditioned to think about sex.

Not “accept,” as in, throw our hands up. “Accept,” as in, let’s face the reality so we can start trying things differently, grow, and have better sex.

The mainstream porn that dominates (more on that word in a moment) is conditioned by our capitalist society. Like other industries, it’s controlled by a small handful of corporations and powerful businesspeople (mostly men). Like social media, they collect user data and sell it for ad revenue. Sex workers have little to no power on the job.

These unequal power dynamics condition the sort of porn that gets made and how we consume it. There are a number of sites that offer more ethical porn, like Bellesa. You can also go directly to sex workers through their websites and OnlyFans.

But until we transform our economic and political systems to give everyone — especially working people — the same freedoms, the porn that the average teenage boy will stumble on will likely continue to be the dominant, capitalistic, exploitative kind.

With that said, I’ve started to improve the sex I’m having by noticing and accepting the ways mainstream porn has conditioned me. Here are five big ways:

1. Porn depicts sex as mostly penetration

After having sex with a number of partners in my adult life, I’ve learned an obvious lesson: People with vaginas usually don’t orgasm through “normal” sex, or penetration.

Surveys have backed this up — an estimated 80 percent of women don’t orgasm from penis-in-vagina penetration.

But watching porn taught me otherwise. Women in porn often appear to find penetration extremely pleasurable and even sometimes (supposedly) orgasm from it. A majority of sex scenes depict penetration as the “normal” way of having sex. Foreplay is brief and usually focused on pleasuring the man. The only variety comes with different sex positions involving penetration.

This is so the opposite of great sex! There’s nothing wrong with penetration — it can be very enjoyable for everyone involved. But it’s only one option among many ways to pleasure our bodies.

2. Porn overemphasizes visual stimuli

Researchers have gone back and forth on whether cisgender men’s and women’s brains differ in their responses to sexual imagery. The latest research appears to show that there’s no difference.

Either way, I know that the way I like to have sex has been shaped by watching porn, rather than, say, reading or listening to it.

Along with showing a variety of penetrative sex positions, the typical porn scene features an assortment of camera angles. These often focus on women’s butts, boobs, and vaginas, while minimizing shots of the men’s bodies other than their penis.

Male pornstars have talked about this: “You need to get yourself in uncomfortable positions, because it disconnects you from the scene. And it allows the audience to put themselves in.”

This has definitely distorted how I show up in the bedroom. It’s hard to imagine feeling pleasure if I closed my eyes or was wearing a blindfold.

Just like with the emphasis on penetration, focusing on vision is a narrow way to experience sex. There are sensations, sounds, words, tastes, smells, and who knows what else floating around the room.

In fact, a new study found that people who place more value on their sense of smell in romantic encounters consistently had a stronger sexual desire for their partners.

Fortunately, there are now a number of sites the feature audio porn. “Audio really stimulates someone’s inner life, their imagination, which is fertile ground for sexual fantasy,” writer and host of the “Why Are People Into That?!” podcast Tina Horn told Men’s Health. There’s also erotica, or written word porn.

3. Porn makes men think they have to be dominant

This one might as well have been the first one I listed. To this day, every time I have sex there’s a part of me that thinks it’s “unmanly,” “feminine,” “gay” to let my partner take control.

I’m happy to report that this part of me is getting quieter. This is because I realized that porn (and our patriarchal society) was distorting my thinking.

Most porn shows men throwing women around like blow-up dolls and penetrating them like a jackhammer. The women enthusiastically play along, often appearing to find pleasure in being submissive.

The thing is, taking control, dominating, being a leader — these aren’t inherently “masculine” personality traits. All human beings, regardless of gender expression, are capable of and enjoy them.

And to be honest, after a long day of holding space for therapy clients, I sometimes enjoy just going along for the ride, as “feminine” as that allegedly is.

I’ve learned that the more I can get out of the binaries of man/woman, masculine/feminine, the more fun, vulnerable, and connecting sex can be.

We can look to the BDSM community for wisdom in this area. Here’s dominatrix and BDSM practitioner Yin Q.:

“There is grace and strength in submission, and men are often not allowed to explore this role without loss of dignity. Women who take on the dominant role are stereotyped as cruel and bitchy. But to be a responsible Dominant or Top, one must embody humility and mercy. The paradoxes of power exchange are subtle, but when they are understood and exercised with intention, the results can be transcendent.”

4. Online porn offers orgasms on demand

This one is about the form that today’s porn comes in — free, easily accessible, on-demand, available on those powerful computers in our pockets.

Research suggests that watching porn can transform the brain’s dopamine reward system and leave it unresponsive to other sources of pleasure. This sometimes can lead to difficulties achieving an erection or having an orgasm with a real-life partner.

I used to have trouble “performing” in the bedroom, until I started going to therapy and exploring what my body actually finds pleasurable (as opposed to what porn depicts as pleasurable).

I also sometimes find myself trying to fit porn into my schedule like it’s just another task to complete — like taking out the trash or working out. I often masturbate before bed, using porn to orgasm within two or three minutes, numbing out the stress that built up during the day.

When intense, hardcore porn is right in my pocket, sometimes a part of me thinks it would just be easier and less uncomfortable to masturbate than to have sex with my partner. Which is okay — but veering too far in that direction can make it harder to keep the fire burning in my relationship. And, according to neuroscience, it can change our brains in ways to undermine intimacy.

5. Porn makes it seem like sexual desires are something to hide (and be ashamed of)

This last one might be the most harmful. It’s less about mainstream porn itself and more about how we talk about porn. Or, don’t talk about it.

Despite porn sites being among the most visited in the world, porn is only whispered about in day-to-day life. When porn or masturbation are discussed — say, in a movie — it’s often making fun of a man for being like a teenager, as if he can’t control himself.

For liability issues, many porn sites ask visitors to “certify” they are 18 years or older, under “penalty of perjury.” Due to some absurd law somewhere, you also must affirm that “you are not offended by nudity and explicit depictions of sexual activity.” This makes it feel like we’re potentially breaking the law, even if we’re older than 18.

All of this contributes to many men feeling ashamed of watching porn and the particular types of sex acts they enjoy.

The problem with shame is that it’s a toxic, debilitating emotion. It often pushes us to do even more of the thing we’re feeling ashamed about.

“The experience of shame — feeling fundamentally deficient — is so excruciating that we will do whatever we can to avoid it,” writes meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach.

Who would want to try to change if they’re feeling “fundamentally deficient?”

This leads many men to hide their porn consumption and sexual desires. They feel safer keeping it locked away in a corner of their brain than asking their partner to collaborate with them to get their needs met. This starves the relationship of the open communication and vulnerability needed to create deeper intimacy.

There’s a reason the term “sex positive” exists. “Sex positivity is based on the belief that sex isn’t something that we should be embarrassed about,” writes the obstetrician-gynecologist Kate Shkodzik. “People who believe in being sex positive have a positive attitude regarding sex and respect other people’s sexual preferences.”

Just to be sure, again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with porn or wrong with you for enjoying it.

If your porn consumption is causing you stress or getting in the way of a healthy relationship with your partner, then you might want to seek therapy.

But the mainstream porn we have is shaped by how it’s produced and who produces it. Until we change that, we (especially men) are going to have to talk about it more with each other, with our partners, and in public.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a therapist and writer. Subscribe to my weekly email to get posts like this straight to your inbox here.

To work with me in individual therapy, join one of my therapy groups, or hire me to teach wellness skills to your organization, get in touch.

Download my free ebook on how meditation has made me less anxious and transformed my life.

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Jeremy Mohler

Jeremy Mohler

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Writer, therapist, and meditation teacher. Get my writing about navigating anxiety, burnout, relationship issues, and more: jeremymohler.blog/signup