Our sex prob­lem: how porn ru­ined a na­tional pas­time

Tech­nol­ogy and iso­la­tion have made sex an af­ter­thought for the mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion, writes Donal Lynch

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Irish Life -

IT feels, doesn’t it, a bit like a new era of free love. A bit like that small, fa­bled win­dow of time be­tween the sex­ual revo­lu­tion of the 1960s and the Aids panic of the 1980s. Thanks, in part, to PREP and PEP (the pre- and post-HIV-ex­po­sure treat­ments) it’s as though death no longer looms and sex is not only free but su­per-pow­ered by dat­ing apps and porn. It’s on our phones and in the ether. We live in a world where the shape of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent’s pe­nis is re­ported on, and MeToo scan­dals light up the head­lines daily. Kids grow up with sex as the wall­pa­per of their lives. Dick pics and sexting are sec­ondary school staples. Porn is still what we mainly use the awe­some power of the in­ter­net for. And sex, it seems, is ev­ery­where.

And yet there is some­thing weirdly un­sexy about it all. A bit iron­i­cally anti-sex­ual. If any­thing, ac­tual sex, is a bit on the wane, es­pe­cially with the young. If Ir­ish men in their twen­ties are any­thing like men of the same age in Ja­pan, Amer­ica or Canada, they will lose their vir­gin­ity later than any other gen­er­a­tion be­fore them.

When they do dive in they tend to have more prob­lems: erec­tile dys­func­tion and ejac­u­la­tion is­sues — tellingly Vi­a­gra is now the most coun­ter­feited drug in the world. Re­cent re­search, con­ducted in the US, found that the per­cent­age of young adults aged be­tween 20 and 24 who re­ported hav­ing no sex­ual part­ner af­ter the age of 18 in­creased from 6pc among those born in the 1960s, to 15pc of young adults born in the 1990s. Fig­ures like that gave rise to a spate of ‘no sex we’re mil­len­ni­als’ head­lines, but the re­al­ity is that this is also the first gen­er­a­tion which grew up with smart­phones and broad­band. Far from be­ing mod­ern pu­ri­tans, th­ese young peo­ple are just some­what dis­in­ter­ested in the real thing af­ter be­ing raised on a vis­ual diet of porn. Don’t ex­pect them to grow out of it. Here in Ire­land the di­rec­tor of the Rut­land Cen­tre spoke last year about the com­ing “tsunami” of porn ad­dic­tion cases.

But what do we now, when it seems the horse has long since bolted, do about a world that has an in­creas­ingly patho­log­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with sex? How could we en­sure that kids who are grow­ing up now don’t even­tu­ally think it’s OK to grab women’s breasts un­bid­den, for in­stance. And who aren’t ren­dered in­sen­sate by porn?

One way might be to get a lit­tle bit more real­is­tic and hu­mane about what con­sti­tutes a sex ad­dic­tion. One re­flex­ively thinks of a Peep­ing Tom or a Harvey We­in­stein char­ac­ter, dan­ger­ous, amoral, in epic need of ther­apy. But per­haps the ev­ery­day re­al­ity is a bit more be­liev­ably mun­dane. Per­haps, like food, is­sues with sex run on a con­tin­uum, from grabby mid­dle-aged men to porn-ad­dicted col­lege boys. And per­haps, like food, it is one of the ‘silent’ ad­dic­tions, of cop­ers, of men who can’t af­ford to get wasted on co­caine or heroin, of men who need to hold down a job and a fam­ily or pass an exam.

But they cer­tainly needn’t ex­pect un­der­stand­ing or sym­pa­thy just yet. Think­ing of men as ‘ad­dicts’ just be­cause they like the ride a lit­tle too much, or watch the odd bit of porn, has al­ways been a hard sell. Med­i­cally speak­ing, the idea of it as an ad­dic­tion is con­tro­ver­sial and hasn’t caught on amongst the gen­eral pub­lic; the dis­graced MeToo stars who fled to re­hab cen­tres were widely mocked for do­ing so. But we can’t have it both ways: vil­i­fy­ing them while scoff­ing at their ef­forts to change.

To those pow­er­ful show busi­ness men it must seem like the moral or­der has been up­ended. To the young, see­ing the un­think­ing and pos­si­bly de­struc­tive di­rec­tion their sex­ual and ro­man­tic drive takes them as an ad­dic­tion, prob­a­bly med­i­calises it a lit­tle too much to ever gain very wide cur­rency.

Per­haps a more real­is­tic way to change the world might be to en­cour­age young peo­ple to have as much sex as they want, but the right kind. Which means: not with an im­age or video, and prob­a­bly not with loads of peo­ple they barely know. Not be­cause th­ese things are morally wrong but be­cause they mit­i­gate against what sex is prob­a­bly for in the end: to bring them closer to an­other per­son. And our whole lives co­a­lesce around our abil­ity to do that. Russell Brand said that most men must sooner or later re­alise that there are con­se­quences to their or­gasms.

Per­haps some­where be­tween the moral­ism of the past and the deca­dence of the present there is a mid­dle ground of com­mon sense that ac­knowl­edges that while sex is fun, there are lim­i­ta­tions on our ner­vous sys­tems.

Dr Derek Freed­man, a sex­ual health spe­cial­ist with a colour­ful turn of phrase, was once in­ter­viewed briefly in the au­di­ence on The Late Late Show and was asked what his mes­sage about sex­ual health would be. You in­stinc­tively braced for some stern lec­ture but in­stead his re­sponse seemed to ap­ply al­most as much to the mind as to the body.

“I would tell them to have re­ally good sex. Be­cause re­ally good sex is sat­is­fy­ing,” he said. “And you don’t need lots of it with lots of dif­fer­ent peo­ple.” In an era of free love those seem like words to live by.

‘I would tell them to have re­ally good, sat­is­fy­ing sex’

ERA OF LOVE: A cou­ple kiss in the crowd at a mu­sic fes­ti­val in 1970 — a time of sex­ual revo­lu­tion

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