I met the woman at a Broadway show, but the night’s best piece of acting, I’d say, came from me, back at her East Village apartment, after we’d been having sex for about 25 minutes, with Neil Young wailing the song “Comes a Time” from the laptop on her bedside table. The dried-out condom had a full-bodied choke hold on me, but I’d already stopped twice to put on a fresh one, and I knew, as I kept earnestly pumping away, that one more condom wouldn’t make the necessary difference. Had I just given up, things might have played out the way they often did, with shades of confused disappointment and inadequacy on the part of the woman and mumbled apologies and awkward shame from me. But that night, ingenuity struck—unable to actually get off, I found myself flying a fresh route: I faked it.
Why would I, a healthy guy in his thirties, need to fake an orgasm? It was mystifying. I wasn’t on antidepressants, which I’d heard could decrease sensation. I got plenty of exercise. It didn’t seem to matter which woman I was with, or what kind of condom we used, or whether I’d downed one glass of whiskey or ten, or if we listened to Neil Young or Al Green, as I learned through trial and error (mostly error). Over the course of months, I picked a dozen suspects out of the lineup and gradually cleared each one. Except, perhaps, the most obvious.
“Pornography? It’s a new synaptic pathway.” This is what John Mayer said in a candid interview with Playboy. “You wake up in the morning, open a thumbnail page, and it leads to a Pandora’s box of visuals,” he continued. “There have probably been days when I saw 300 vaginas before I got out of bed.”
Porn’s allure and ubiquity isn’t exactly titillating news. The question that still remains, however, is how this tsunami of porn is affecting the libido of the American male or, more selfishly, mine. First I came across a post on Sanjay Gupta’s blog by Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor, who wrote that he noticed a distinct rise in the number of men approaching him with concerns about delayed ejaculation. Kerner went on to attribute much of the problem to a “rapid proliferation of Internet porn” which leads to “over-masturbation,” something I’m very familiar with. Then I read about a University of Kansas study that found that 25 percent of college-age men said they’d faked orgasms, which, I’ll admit, was oddly comforting to hear. But it wasn’t until I interviewed dozens of men with varying porn-watching habits (and a few very open-minded women) that some unexpected themes began to emerge. Porn is not only shaping men’s physical and emotional interest in sex on a very fundamental neurological level, but it’s also having a series of unexpected ripple effects—namely on women.
For decades, hand-wringers have warned of a porn epidemic that would tear the nation’s moral fabric asunder. But if online porn has spread a sickness, it’s one that’s less like Ebola and more like a midwinter cold. The initial symptom for a lot of guys who frequently find themselves bookmarking their favorite illicit clips appears to be a waning desire for their partners. Jonas*, a 34-year-old ad exec, told me, “I get on SpankWire or X Videos—you could carve ice sculptures with my dick. I take a girl home from the bar, though, and I’ll be up for a minute while she’s going down on me, but once I put a condom on and we start going at it, it’s like the Challenger exploded—all the flags are at half-mast.”
Then there’s Stefan, a 43-year-old composer, who has no problem getting aroused when he has sex with his wife. “In order to come, though, I’ve got to resort to playing scenes in my head that I’ve seen while viewing porn. Something is lost there. I’m no longer with my wife; I’m inside my own head.”
As John Mayer told Playboy, “How could you be constantly synthesizing an orgasm based on dozens of shots? You’re looking for the one photo out of 100 you swear is going to be the one you finish to, and you still don’t finish … How does that not affect the psychology of having a relationship with somebody? It’s got to.” Most of the men I interviewed admitted having a similar habit of jumping quickly from porn clip to porn clip (which explains the rise and popularity of “cumshot” montages and other rapidly edited compilations). Kerner went so far as to coin the term “sexual attention deficit disorder.” For a lot of guys, switching gears from porn’s fireworks and whiz-bangs to the comparatively mundane calm of ordinary sex is like leaving halfway through an Imax 3-D movie to check out a flipbook.