Porn not only messes with young men’s minds, but their bodies too

Barbara Ellen
‘Male performance anxiety is on the increase.’ Photograph: Havana1234/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Far from porn being the great inspirer of sexual play, could too much early exposure contribute to erectile dysfunction and male performance anxiety?

A study of 2,000 British men has reported that 50% of those in their 30s were having trouble getting and maintaining an erection. While this does not mean that they suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED), or have such difficulties all the time, male performance anxiety is thought to be on the increase (among gay as well as straight men). They fear they’ll fail to be erect enough to have sex – unlike “real men” who are always ready for action. What’s striking is that this is one of the first generations to be overloaded from an early age with easily accessible hardcore internet porn.

There’s been much concern about the effect of net porn on young minds, including director-campaigner Beeban Kidron’s 2013 documentary, InRealLife. More recently, Ian McEwan observed that porn was warping young people’s expectations of sex. However, what if one of the recurring concerns (the saturation/normalisation of porn) has resulted in the paradox of less real-life sex – but increased sexual anxiety – for that young male generation?

The focus is often on how the pornification of culture affects young women – from how they’re expected to look (swollen lips and breasts; no pubic hair) to how they’re supposed to behave (hypersexually). What this report seems to suggest is that young males have also been affected by porn, which is showing itself in ED and performance anxiety.

Would this be so surprising? Just as young women might feel intimidated by how sexuality is depicted in porn, likewise young men. Moreover, sustained exposure to porn from a young age would give boys clear instructions on how they’re expected to “perform” as mythical “real men”. In a twisted way, male porn stars almost become role models, with impressionable young minds going away with the feeling that porn doesn’t just portray a certain kind of sex (an option), but, rather the only kind of sex worth having. To add to the confusion, the hypersexual, perma-impressed porn actresses are not the kind of women they’re likely to meet in real life.

It’s hardly surprising that some young males feel nervous that they (and their erections) might fail to live up to the false and toxic sexual criteria set by their generation’s unprecedented early exposure to hardcore porn. Or that this anxiety could be strongly linked to the immature mind witnessing not only the excesses of porn but also the absence of crucial realities, such as, jeez, don’t worry, chaps, in the real world, occasional erection failure is normal and nothing to worry about.

Just as porn objectifies women, it also fetishises male performance, seemingly leaving a lot of young men worrying about their own performance, to the point where they can’t perform. Strange, isn’t it, how porn is supposed to be “for men”, but works against them?

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist