Monday 23 September 2019

Donal Lynch: 'Our sex problem: how porn ruined a national pastime'

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

ERA OF LOVE: A couple kiss in the crowd at a music festival in 1970 — a time of sexual revolution. Picture: William Lovelace/Getty
ERA OF LOVE: A couple kiss in the crowd at a music festival in 1970 — a time of sexual revolution. Picture: William Lovelace/Getty
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

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.

Sunday Independent

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