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#150112 - 04/10/07 09:04 PM Men and pornography
Ken Singer, LCSW Offline

Registered: 08/24/00
Posts: 5781
Loc: Lyons, CO USA
Came across this book review that might be of interest:


Shame and Guilt

Excerpt from a NEW Book

Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity


Robert Jensen, journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and

board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center

If we are to fashion not only an argument from justice but also an argument from self-interest, the task is to explain to men why giving up those commercial sexual transactions and striving to achieve greater equality and power-sharing in our lives is a good thing -- for men. Much of this book has laid out the argument that whatever benefits men derive from the dominant conception of masculinity, they come at a huge cost; we never feel man enough, and hence remain in an uneasy state in relation to ourselves, other men, and women. I have argued that when we objectify women and use sex as a way to feel power over women, we reduce the richness of intimacy and experience sex primarily as a quest for an ultimately unfulfilling narrowed sense of physical pleasure.

From that somewhat abstract level, I want to talk in more specific detail about the emotional realities of using pornography, in an attempt to go deeper into men's struggles. And then I want to put those emotional questions back into political context, to make sure we stay focused on the question of justice, for all.

One of the most noticeable changes in the way men use pornography in the past three decades is the level of openness with which men discuss the subject. When I was a young man, the ways we acknowledged pornography use to other men was complex. As children, a lot of pornography viewing was in groups, in part because the magazines were available but still a rather precious commodity and hence shared. As we grew older, there were some collective outings to see pornographic movies and some group viewing of magazines, but by that time much of our pornography use was solitary, and primarily to facilitate masturbation.

As teenagers and young adults, we all knew we were all doing it, but we didn't talk much about it. That was in part because pornography use was always double-edged. On the one hand, it was a guy thing that we all did; to use pornography was to be one of the boys. Yet open acknowledgement of the use of pornography as a masturbation aid left one open to possible ridicule, especially once boys reached the age when sex with girls was plausible (sex with other boys was equally plausible, of course, but unacceptable to acknowledge). We had to be careful about how openly we talked about pornography use, lest another boy use our admission against us by suggesting that we masturbated to pornography because we "couldn't get any," meaning sex from a woman. At the same time pornography use helped define you as a man, it also could be turned against you as proof you weren't man enough.

On this front, things have changed. For many men today, open and explicit talk about pornography is common. No doubt many men still feel conflicted and hide their use, especially from female friends and partners who may disapprove, but for men to acknowledge that they regularly use pornography is no longer so fraught with the same danger. Howard Stern -- the radio/television host whose talk show regularly features pornography performers -- and his imitators have made it common fare in mainstream media, and that open acknowledgment of pornography use seems to have become the norm for many men.

Although it is more out in the open, I'm not sure men using pornography today totally escape the struggle with shame that many of my generation remember, or still experience, around pornography use. In an earlier chapter I talked about the cycle of men being attracted to pornography because of the intensity of the sexual experience it provided, in a context that doesn't require us to be open to a sex partner and hence vulnerable. After orgasm, many men feel that shame.

That shame can lead to a declaration to oneself not to use pornography again, which typically is abandoned the next time the desire for a sexual feeling without the complications of another person arises. That cycle can go on indefinitely. To paraphrase an observation attributed to Mark Twain about smoking, many men might say, "Quitting pornography is easy -- I've done it hundreds of times."

I'm not suggesting that is how all men experience pornography, but that basic pattern was very much my experience, and I have heard it from many other men over the years. It produces in men a very conflicted sense of self and sex, as seen in this comment from one of the self-identified pornography users I interviewed in a study in the early 1990s. This man was at the time of the interview a 34-year-old heating-and-refrigeration repairman, who spent much of his work day driving from one job site to the next, which presented the opportunity to drive past pornographic shops. Even when he had no conscious plans to visit one, he said:

It's like a #@*%ing bee line to the [adult bookstore]. I'll be thinking about something else and driving along, and all of a sudden there the #@*% I am, sitting in front of the place. I've felt like, you know, why control it. Just #@*%ing do what you want to do, and whatever. Pretty much constant my whole life. I think sex is fun and sex is good, stuff like that. I don't see anything wrong with that at all.

That comment captures much of the internal turmoil that many men experience.

Pornography use can have addictive-like qualities, and the desire for that rush of intensity that pornography provides can seem to overwhelm one's ability to make conscious decisions. In the face of the power of those images, it's tempting to resolve the tension by suppressing it, by adopting a "porn is harmless fun" line, not only with others but with oneself.

The problem, of course, is that the internal tension is not so easily erased.

Pornography's defenders often argue that this is simply a by-product of a sexually repressive culture, and no doubt for some men a history of sexual repression, often rooted in religious ideology, can play a role in their feelings of shame. But from my experience -- and, again, similar experiences reported by other men -- there is another process at work: the recognition that turning women into objects on a page or a screen in order to feel sexual pleasure is unhealthy for everyone, that it demeans everyone. After two decades of listening to men speak about this, I believe that many of us -- no matter what we say in public or to ourselves -- at some level understand that such a sexuality and such a use of women is inconsistent with building a decent world based on our stated principles concerning justice. We know it, as much through our emotional experiences as through rational thought, and that knowledge bedevils us, leading to shame.

That knowledge is important, but the shame is counterproductive and undermines our ability to find our way clear. To help in that process, I want to suggest that men work to replace that sense of shame with a sense of guilt.

At first glance, that may seem like a nonsensical statement, given that the terms shame and guilt are often used in tandem, as if they name the same concept. I won't attempt a full philosophical or psychological analysis, but instead point to a common distinction made between the two -- "shame" names the feeling that one is bad, while "guilt" describes the recognition that one has done a bad thing. In this sense, shame is destructive because it can so easily lead to a self-loathing that hinders a person's emotional development. If one believes oneself to be bad in some intrinsic sense -- as if it is a part of one's self -- then it becomes difficult to imagine modifying the bad behavior that stems from an intrinsic failing. Shame, in this sense, is always a negative.

But guilt is more complex. It's a positive aspect of human psychology to be able to recognize when one has engaged in an act that is contrary to one's own moral and/or political principles, especially when that act injures another. Without the capacity to recognize that gap between who we say we are and how we behave, it's difficult to imagine individuals or societies making moral and political progress, toward a more just world. In that sense, guilt is a necessary part of the process of acknowledging our mistakes, being accountable for them, and moving forward. Yet it's also possible to feel excessively guilty, to focus on one's mistakes in an unbalanced fashion that leads not to action but to a kind of emotional or moral paralysis.

So, shame tends to keep us locked in dysfunctional behavior, while guilt can be a step toward accountability for past actions and change in the future. If we reject shaming men about their use, misuse, or abuse of women, we need not reject the positive role of guilt, which can be a productive part of a process by which one comes to see that an action was morally unacceptable and can rectify, to the degree possible, injuries done to others and begin the process of ensuring the bad action is not repeated.

Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity begins with the simple demand of the culture: "Be a man." It closes with a defiant response: "I chose to struggle to be a human being." And in between, it offers a candid and intelligent exploration of porn's devastating role in helping to define conventional masculinity. In other words: In our culture, porn makes the man.

Robert Jensen can be reached at and his articles can be found online at

Blissfully retired after 35 years treating sexual abuse

#150168 - 04/11/07 01:44 AM Re: Men and pornography [Re: Ken Singer, LCSW]
roadrunner Offline
Administrator Emeritus

Registered: 05/02/05
Posts: 22045
Loc: Carlisle, PA

Originally Posted By: Ken Singer, LCSW
One of the most noticeable changes in the way men use pornography in the past three decades is the level of openness with which men discuss the subject. When I was a young man, the ways we acknowledged pornography use to other men was complex. As children, a lot of pornography viewing was in groups, in part because the magazines were available but still a rather precious commodity and hence shared. As we grew older, there were some collective outings to see pornographic movies and some group viewing of magazines, but by that time much of our pornography use was solitary, and primarily to facilitate masturbation.

This reminds me of how things were with porn when I was a teenager. Where I grew up, porn usually meant nothing rougher than "Playboy", and yep, copies got shared around and pawed, and you were soooo cool if you were the one who could snag a copy from your big brother's stash.

In college we got really raunchy 8 mm porn films on themes like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" or "Woman's Best Friend" and so on and so forth. Our source was our garbage man lol.

I remember when "The Joy of Sex" came out. What a sensation. No one had the courage to go buy a copy, but one of my friends stole one and of course was mobbed by all the rest of the group for weeks.

In the past my attitude was pretty laid back about porn. I didn't worry about my son seeing it, simply because I felt that he would see it regardless of what I said or did and I didn't want to add to its allure the attraction of being forbidden.

In recent years, however, I've become rather more negative about it, though I don't judge guys who enjoy it or use it. It just seems to me that in addition to being exploitive it turns sex into something purely physical and transactional. There's a lot of my abuse issues in there, of course. Porn reminds me of how I was treated as a boy.

Much love,

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking my freedom highway.
Nobody living can make me turn back:
This land was made for you and me.
(Woody Guthrie)


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