The late psychoanalyst and author Erwin Singer observed how “active striving” or searching in life is essential for psychological survival – but the only action that carries with it the risk of significant loss and failure.
Man’s undoing is not failure itself, Singer argued. Failure is inevitable and vital to the creative process. Failure spurs growth and discovery. The tragedy, Singer said, is when the threat of failure reduces man to mindless “pseudo-activity” – or surface-dwelling pursuits void of authentic ambition and meaning.
Singer related pseudo-activity to “pseudo-listening,” or a man’s tone-deaf inattentiveness to his own inner emotional life and to others.
Performance Pressure and Futility
What makes pornography such an addictive, absorbing “pseudo-activity” is that it promises an effortless return to the pleasuring, reassuring rule of Eden.
As premised in Part 1 of this series, a man’s fear of not measuring up is rooted in Adam’s cursed struggle with futility after The Fall.
Outside of Eden, his labor and resourcefulness would be thwarted by a cursed, unyielding land. We live now in a post-agrarian society, but man’s fight to find fruitful, fulfilling work remains – whether he’s tilling the hard soil of the marketplace, school, the sports playing field, or any other creative endeavor.
In these performance arenas, men are subtly hounded inside by a doubt-filled question: “Do I have what it takes?” “Am I adequate?” “Can I be the ‘hero’.” A man will wonder if he can be that important mythic and psychological archetype?
The Scene: Set-Up and Submission
These are loaded questions – in the shame-based way they’re usually posed. If a man has not yet learned to embrace failure and tragedy as part of his redemption story, then he will never know his strength and wisdom. And so his only recourse when faced with this question is … to save face.
In other words, he needs something to compensate for his terrifying sense of impotence. (Especially if his view of masculinity is stuck in narrow cultural stereotypes.)
Although it’s often unconscious, men are soothed by the praise, power, and performance that dominates the porn narrative. For a moment, it’s a potent brain-chemical boost of oxytocin – what guys like to call “tension release.”
A typical porn scene is set up to serve the man. The woman is generally in a subservient role, often literally and metaphorically on her knees, waiting expectantly for the degradation to come.
Porn’s Power to Degrade
Research indicates that 70 percent of all paid sex is for oral sex. Oral sex is often less intimate and so less emotionally risky. There is no real face-to-face encounter, only an up-and-down positioning of power inequity.
Even when a porn scene casts a woman in a seemingly more powerful role, through her cunningly coy eroticism or “on top” position, it’s largely a temporary ploy that serves to build plot tension and fire the adrenaline.
The finale is the same: an objectified woman worshiping a conquering or rescuing man who is pleasured at her expense.
Risk and Loss
In the end, the man subdues his fear and futility. His porn-addled “performance” props up his confidence, at least until the next time. And here is a big part of pornography’s payoff: There is always a next time, and it is always predictable.
Think back to Singer’s words: We are hard-wired to be creative risk-takers.
And yet our fragile egos are masterful, risk-averse saboteurs. In other words, our sabotaging and safe-guarding strategies actually cut against the grain of our biology and spirituality.
Calculating the Cost
The predictability of porn is poison to the soul. But at first, this toxicity seems worth the price of admission.
That’s because marriage is harder than fantasy. When a man isn’t working to grow his inner emotional life – with himself, with other men, with his spouse – then he cannot bear naked honesty and mutual risk-taking with others. He cannot enjoy the passionate fruit of relationship.
Those wounded and insecure parts of himself – stuck in the shadowlands of his soul – begin to act out and seek solace in the safety of fantasy.
The Chemistry of Connection
A man’s sincere longing for adventure and deep connection drowns in the shallow pool of pornography. Over time, knocking back porn shots of oxytocin and dopamine fails to provide the same brain-and-body buzz – because these chemicals are better stimulated and sustained with another human being.
There’s no substitute for the sheer volume of chemicals emitted in love-making with your spouse – from pleasure-spiking dopamine to the connective calming of oxytocin.
It’s a co-created experience of togetherness in which power is shared, the risk of failure and vulnerability is embraced, and one’s face is fully exposed and turned towards the other.
Sex and Story
Good sex makes for good story – we’re created for both. They share the same basic elements and narrative flow: Seeking and discovery. Risk. Tragedy. Redemption. Excitement rises towards climax and exhales into a “denouement” that loosens the knot of dramatic tension – but without ever resolving the sacred mystery of ‘two-becoming-one-flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).
The French phrase la petite mort (“the little death”) describes the transcendence and melancholy that we can sometimes collapse into after orgasm’s ecstasy. Indeed, the sexual encounter can reveal how marvelously thin the line is between life and death.
This is the daunting and messy playground of intimacy: where hope and doubt mingle with joy and trauma, beauty and loss. It’s where the familiar and the unknown are encountered not only as a couple, but also as two separate stories that are still being healed and reimagined in union with their Creator.
The devastation of pornography is that it peddles a kind of pseudo-connection that leaves a man feeling increasingly detached and disempowered by addiction – and the accompanying resentment, anger, self-doubt, hatred, isolation and shame.
In Part 3 of this 4-part series, we’ll begin exploring practical steps that men can take towards emotional health and Self-awareness.
Professional Christian counseling itself is a co-created experience that can help a man to rebuild trust and healthy connection with himself, and with others. If you are looking to heal a story of fear and loss and broken promises, you are welcome to contact me here.
Singer, E. (1994). Key Concepts in Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Aronson Press.
“Chained,” courtesy of Trevor Leyenhorst, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Oh Dear,” courtesy of Varvaram Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)