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A Tangled Web: Don Jon Highlights Real-life Effects of Internet Porn

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s new film raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? In  Verily’s upcoming Nov/Dec Issue, Mary Rose Somarriba gives an answer.

“How do you watch that s***?” exclaims Scarlett Johansson in what is possibly the best minute of acting in her career. She’s playing Barbara Sugarman, the flame of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his recent film Don Jon.

Barbara is livid with rage and baffled; she found a string of porn sites in her boyfriend Jon’s browser history. They had a good relationship, she thought. Why did he need to look at other women?

“Everyone looks at porn,” Jon retorts. As he sees it, porn is as American as apple pie. While he may keep it private—the only real person he tells is his priest in the secrecy of confession—porn is a big part of his life, something he needs on a daily basis.

For Gordon-Levitt’s first written and directed feature film, Don Jon (which sensitive viewers should know is filled with porn clips) raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general?

Don Jon is a bold contribution to a recent trend in entertainment, giving audiences a real—and grim—snapshot of 21st-century relationships. Call it post–Sex and the City realism. There’s the recent film Lovelace, contrasting the exciting story, as we were told it, of Deepthroat star Linda Lovelace, and the completely un-sexy version as it really was. There’s Girls on HBO, known for showing ugly, lifelike sex scenes. There’s Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, managing to make ultra-risqué performances devoid of any sex appeal. It’s as if sex is no longer sexy in pop culture. What was once a warm and alluring mystery is now a cold, anatomical display. If intimacy is dead, porn may have killed it.

Still, many think porn has mostly good effects. Porn helps people express their sexuality, some say. It helps men live the fantasies they can’t with their partners. It’s an escape. It can even add spice to tired relationships, Oprah and Dr. Ruth suggest.

But in reality, porn can make it harder to appreciate real sex. As Pamela Paul documented in her 2006 book Pornified, dozens of men whom she interviewed anonymously revealed, “I used to view porn online, but I began to find it more difficult to stay aroused when having sex with a real woman. . . . Real sex has now lost some of its magic. And that’s sad.”

How Porn Affects Women

That sadness comes through the many laughs of Don Jon. It was sad, for instance, to see the way the men treated women. How Jon and his clubbing buddies constantly sized them up—comparing each to the fantasy women in porn. An all-around attractive girl was a 10, also known as a “dime” (Scarlett Johansson qualified). But most girls fell short of the ideal, so the boys resorted to zeroing in on different body parts. One woman’s breasts were a 4, for instance—hardly worth their time.

Here the film offers a glimpse of reality. In a 2004 Elle/MSNBC.com poll of 15,246 Americans, one in ten men admitted that porn had made him more critical of his partner’s body.

Not surprisingly, many women feel deficient next to porn-star competition. According to Paul’s commissioned nationwide poll conducted by Harris Interactive, six out of ten women “believe pornography affects how men expect them to look and behave.”

Of course porn isn’t the only avenue through which unrealistic expectations of beauty can make women feel inadequate. Major motion pictures, television shows, even commercial advertisements have long employed sex appeal as an effective draw. But the mainstream acceptance of porn has no doubt influenced other media; content once considered too explicit is now regular fare on network television. And, while television networks may deal only in Porn Lite, it’s no less disruptive to our perception of women.

Don Jon captures this well in a family-dinner-table scene. With the large-screen TV playing in the background, a bikini-clad model suddenly steals the conversation. Jon and his father (a cringe-inducing and convincing performance by Tony Danza) are mesmerized by the suggestive ad, while Jon’s mother and sister (Glenne Headly and Brie Larson) avert their eyes and wait for it to be over. Within seconds, the tableside dynamic is shattered—something that could have been avoided with just a click of the TiVo-fast-forward button. But of course the boys are oblivious, both to how the ad affected them and to how it affected their female counterparts.

Later in the film, the television once again serves as the women’s antagonist in a climactic scene. Brie Larson’s character, who thus far hasn’t uttered a single line in the film, opens her mouth to share her feminine intuition about Jon and Barbara’s relationship. But no one can hear her over the television.

This is where Gordon-Levitt gets it. His nearly seamless script reveals remarkable acumen for a man of his generation. He’s done his homework on the porn issue, and he tackles it extremely well. He loosens up the audience with laughs, all the while sprinkling the film with digestible insights.

How Porn Affects Men

Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Don Jon’s portrait of a porn user suggests at the very least that we might not be aware of its overall effects.

The Don, for example, never stops to consider the seeming strangeness of his behavior. Why does a man who has no trouble getting attractive women to sleep with him on a regular basis need to sneak out of bed after each encounter to follow it up with porn?

The answer is that porn-using men aren’t exactly feeling fulfilled in bed. In the Elle/MSNBC.com poll, 35 percent of men said real sex with a woman had become less arousing, and 20 percent admitted real sex just couldn’t compare to cybersex anymore. Porn, on the other hand, is exciting more men than ever.

As Gordon-Levitt’s character put it, “I lose myself. . . . Nothing else does it the same way.” Girls in porn will do things real girls won’t. And the shock-value element can be addictive.

Many young men today become porn junkies, making a daily habit of visiting porn sites, hiding it from their partners, and having trouble stopping. Those who try to stop as an exercise in self-control, as Jon does later in the film, often cite feelings of withdrawal and increased difficulty maintaining their resolution if they so much as have Internet access.

Jon’s quirky, middle-aged night-school classmate, played by Julianne Moore, aptly (and rather jarringly) captures the experience of the porn addict after listening to him describe his addiction: “So you like porn better than sex.”

When the imitation of a thing becomes more desirable than the thing itself, what does that mean? To put it lightly, it means that these men have been sold a bill of goods. To put it gravely, it means these men are facing the irrationality that is addiction. Sure, the experience porn offers may feel exciting while it lasts, but it’s often followed by feelings of guilt or disappointment. There’s something unsatisfying about being alone seconds after you just had a woman looking utterly enthralled by you. And there’s something universally depressing about seeing that hours of time have passed on a rewardless activity.

As one man interviewed for Pornified put it, “A man starts to feel like a computer himself when he realizes that he’s dependent on computer images to turn him on.”

Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, described in his best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself how pornography consumption can rewire men’s brains, restricting their free choice. As he put it, “Those who use [pornography] have no sense of the extent to which their brains are reshaped by it. . . . The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act.”

Doidge describes this pattern as a sort of urgent thrill-seeking. “Porn is more exciting than satisfying,” he explains, because of the “pleasure systems in our brains. . . . Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated.”

For many men, Internet porn is a gateway to strip clubs, escort services, and prostitutes—real, live women who are paid to feign enjoyment and perform acts similar to those in porn. Norma Ramos, head of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, finds this a disturbing trend. “Porn is corrupting male sexuality by moving it in the direction to buy prostituted sex,” she told me in an interview. “Johns are not born, they’re made.”

One man revealed in Pornified that he too developed interests he previously didn’t have, like the day he stumbled on child porn. “It was scary for me because I was turned on and also because it obviously depicted kids who had been abused and tricked.” Another man said, “I would see some young girl in porn and then read a horror story in the newspaper about sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, but I just mentally discarded the connection. . . . I couldn’t let myself feel anything toward these women other than the means to satisfy my desires.”

All of this can further a false sense of what is pleasurable for women. As one sex therapist in Paul’s book explains, “In pornography all a man does is touch a woman and she’s howling in delight in two minutes. If men think this is how real women respond, they’re going to be horrible lovers.”

What Porn Does to Us

In 2009, I attended a conference at Princeton University, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The findings, later compiled in the book The Social Costs of Pornography (2010), include papers from nearly a dozen experts. But the words that have stuck with me most are Roger Scruton’s concluding remarks: “Psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by pornography, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. . . . This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.”

And there’s the rub. If porn affects individual men and women, then it affects relationships. It prevents the possibility of an us. Porn sells the idea that you can, literally, put a person on pause, fast-forward through the messiness of human feelings and foibles to the “good parts,” and, when you are through, discard him or her for another. The tragedy, Scruton recognizes, is that while glutting a person’s sexual appetites, porn risks thwarting another human desire: to give love.

This is what is captured in the poignant line from Moore’s character in Don Jon: “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.”

This line comes just moments before the most awkward sex scene in the movie. While the rest of the film’s slapstick sex references filled the theater with uproarious laughter and crack-ups, at this moment you could’ve heard a pin drop. It was the kind of encounter that was as special as it was private—the kind that makes you feel as if you shouldn’t be watching, as if it was just for the two of them, as if they are just for each other. Despite the film’s many porn-infused snippets, this one offers something much more powerful: intimacy.

When You’re At the Bottom, the Only Way to Go Is Up

Does the prevalence of porn use among today’s young men mean we’re all doomed to pornified love lives where intimacy is dead? No. If there’s a lesson to the fable of Don Jon, it’s that it’s possible to get beyond this.

Porn is not the only way in which we can poison our relationships—a point that Gordon-Levitt expertly weaves into Don Jon. One could easily add possessiveness and jealousy to the list, or impatience with others’ flaws, or the all-too-common temptation to try to manipulate and change the other to our liking. The popularity of pornography has been fostered, perhaps, in part by a larger cultural tendency toward individualism, a perception that relationships are primarily tools used by an individual on his or her solo journey of self-understanding and satisfaction.

Don Jon responds to the question of pornography not through statistics (although, as we have seen, they’re there) but, ultimately, through a simple assertion, powerfully made through the stories of the characters: Like it or not, authentic relationships are not one-sided. “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.”

Mary Rose Somarriba, culture editor of Verily Magazine, is completing a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship on the connections between sex trafficking and pornography.

By: Mary Rose Somarriba

Mary Rose is the Executive Editor and Culture Editor for Verily Magazine with years of experience in magazine publishing. She has written articles and organized events on women’s issues for several publications and organizations. Among her favorite things in life are Latin dancing, karaoke, and a Basil Hayden manhattan on the rocks.