Backchat: Sex and Relationships

 In response to Walter Marsh’s: ‘The real thing almost didn’t turn me on enough’: how is online porn shaping the sex lives of young men? in The Guardian

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As the Guardian’s article on male porn consumption and its real-life impacts makes clear, it’s no longer puritan to be alarmed by the ubiquity of pornographic content online, it’s vital. The heteronormative, objectifying gaze of mainstream pornography is nothing new, although its harms are becoming more widely known. But in the age of the internet, it’s not just what we consume, but how we consume it, how often and how easily, that has become the biggest social concern.

In recent years, sites such as OnlyFans have created a shift in the landscape of sex-work online. Ostensibly a less exploitative way to consume pornographic content, sex workers are better able to create and manage their own stream of income, independently from management that might take a disproportionate cut of profits, or demand a certain type of content. As mentioned in the Guardian article, porn that is independently produced has more scope to be representative of bodies, relationships and proclivities outside of the heteronormative formulas of mainstream pornography. There is no denying that the ability to explore different expressions of sexuality online can reduce shame and destigmatise the prioritisation of one’s own pleasure during sex.

There is no denying that the ability to explore different expressions of sexuality online can reduce shame and destigmatise the prioritisation of one’s own pleasure during sex

But excessively consuming sex online can also have extremely negative repercussions for real-life intimate relationships. After extracting intimacy from sex, or else simulating intimacy through parasocial relationships with sex workers (something the individuated quality of independent sex work can encourage), those who consume pornography to excess can struggle to reconcile sexual satisfaction and emotional intimacy in real life. When sex fails to gratify, pornography becomes a crutch to feed this urge, and the gradual normalisation of more and more extreme, or specific, niches of pornography only makes it harder to readjust to regular sex. This toxic cycle, as the article indicates, can either lead to the implementation of violence or other extreme practises to achieve gratification during real-life intimacy, or else a complete inability to satisfy oneself, with conditions such as erectile disfunction and anorgasmia on the rise in young men. And its not just men who are affected- Billie Eilish’s recent comments on porn normalising violent fetishes, and the subsequent normalisation of abusive sex, expose the universality of porn’s harmful precedents.

Ultimately the sex industry, like any other, works on a supply-and-demand basis: some would advocate tracing blame back to consumers of pornography, others to those who make a living from creating it. An argument which villainises sex workers feels narrow-minded. Online, podcasts abound in which sex workers are invited as guests to be openly shamed by male hosts, a toxic rhetoric that tends to sidestep discussion of their own pornography habits in favour of a Madonna/whore condemnation of women. Exploitation on every level, from coercive relationships to sexual slavery, proliferates throughout the porn industry, but the opportunity to make fast money through legal sex work, in the face of widespread financial struggle, is also an understandable motivator for many. Equally, placing blame solely with consumers ignores the fact that many are exposed to pornography at a young, impressionable age, many before conventional sex education is taught in schools. By the time the negative repercussions of pornography materialise, consumption will have become habit, and may well have escalated towards something akin to addiction. Opportunities for open discussion about the shared responsibility of sex workers and consumers to find a healthy, middle ground, one that recognises and fights exploitation and addiction but does not further stigmatise sexuality, are missed in favour of reinforcing archaic gender stereotypes and failing to confront the reality of one’s own porn reliance.

If personal responsibility is difficult to assign and maintain, the solution, as the article seems to advocate for, lies in the courts. It remains to be seen how legislation can keep up with the rampant growth of online pornography and the dangers it poses, without curtailing freedom of expression and victimising sex workers themselves. Meanwhile, as difficult as it might seem, scrutinising our own consumption habits, and how they might affect our real-life relationships, as well as talking more openly about the issues pornography creates, are key to tackling what will only become a growing concern.

In response to Emily Nagoski’s ‘I’m a sex educator. Here’s the biggest myth about desire in long-term relationships’ in The Guardian

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Sex is normal, and no sex is normal. All types of sex, providing they are consensual, are normal. However, the key to sex is not desire, but pleasure. This is the key message of Emily Nagoski’s Op-Ed in The Guardian, in which she argues that desire is sold to us as the key motivation for sex, when in fact it should be the pleasure we gain from it that denotes whether or not we are enjoying the sex that we’re having.

According to Nagoski, pleasure is an absolute; it always feels good to feel good. In contrast, desire is not necessarily always good. You can desire someone, but that could manifest itself in negative ways. We have all impatiently waited for a text from that someone, and been angry or frustrated when they have not answered. That sensation is desire, but it is not necessarily a good feeling.

You can desire someone, but that could manifest itself in negative ways. We have all impatiently waited for a text from that someone, and been angry or frustrated when they have not answered

Pleasure, on the other hand, always feels good. Nagoski argues that we should “center pleasure” because the key signifier of a healthy sex life is not “how enthusiastically you anticipate sex”, but rather “how much you like the sex you are having.” According to her, pleasure can only be experienced in a positive environment; only when feeling safe, secure, and valued, can someone truly experience it. Thus, pleasure taken as a whole is an absolute positive experience and is the key to sexual relationships, because only pleasure (and not desire) can fulfil your long-term sexual needs.

However, I think Nagoski misses a key point in her analysis of pleasure. Often the things people feel in the bedroom, however positive, are complicated by social conditioning outside of it. Despite progress towards sexual liberation, women are still shamed for their sexual lives, and members of the LGBTQ+ community face threats from expressing their sexual identities and sometimes internalised shame from doing what feels natural to them. A person cannot experience pleasure as an absolute if even the most intimate experiences are corrupted by internalised shame. Nagoski fails to take into account the social (and socialised) aspects of sexual pleasure that influence people’s lives, psychologies, and identities. Her differentiation between desire and pleasure may ring true, but her failure to acknowledge the socialised aspects of pleasure is perhaps less convincing.

In response to Ed Cumming’s ‘The one redeeming quality of Valentine’s Day’ in The Telegraph

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Let’s be honest, according to most people, celebrating Valentine’s is cringe. So writing about Valentine’s is definitely cringe. But sadly, my Editor needs me to cover it, and I’m the person who didn’t say no.

Most of us seem confused about how to spend Valentine’s Day. Those who say we should ignore it invite criticisms that they are envious singletons who are alone. And those who pull out all the stops as romantic Romeos, are mocked on social media for being ridiculous, and sometimes, rightly, fake.

Earlier this week, I discovered some Brits are so apathetic that jumpers declaring “I don’t need a Valentine, I need a nap” are sold-out; anti-Valentine’s balls celebrating “hate, venom and gore” are taking place; and some couples are buying each other personalised cat litter trays. Quite literally, we now think that this holiday belongs in the toilet.

Having a day when people feel energised to ignore inhibitions; to not overthink and just go with it, even if it is all for the silly pursuit of romance, is something I find quite delightful

Feeling dispirited after reading this, I’m glad I then found Ed Cumming’s comment article – “The one redeeming quality of Valentine’s Day”. Ed notes that whilst an intoxicating Valentines’ fever sweeps our supermarkets and restaurants, the day’s one redeeming value is the opportunity to experiment with our overambitious cooking at home.

This is not some disingenuous hype, he says Valentines’ is the day when we can be overconfident, think we’re Michel Roux and rustle up a Baked Alaska. It doesn’t matter if it’s inedible, says Cumming, because “[humiliation] is a social lubricant and no food is more romantic than toast anyway”. The freedom to be confident and try something when you know it will end in failure, if that is what Valentine’s elicits, is exactly why we should (even if half-heartedly) keep its place in the calendar.

Yes, Love’s firm grip on life for a day can be insufferable. And getting your partner’s name imprinted on a litter tray may be cause for couples’ therapy. But, having a day when people feel energised to ignore inhibitions; to not overthink and just go with it, even if it is all for the silly pursuit of romance, is something I find quite delightful.

As the The Times’ columnist Caitlin Moran advises, to those planning grand gestures, “see how you get on instead. It is the happiest thing I can think of”

Image credit: William Adolphe Bouguereau via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Backchat: Sex and Relationships

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