Don’t blame porn for erectile dysfunction. The truth is complex | Archie Bland

The claim, in a BBC documentary, that the sexual problems experienced by a few young men can be attributed to pornography is not just simplistic – it smacks of moral panic

You can tell the story in a way that sounds plausible. A teenage boy has been furiously masturbating over videos of semi-synthetic bodies in hairless collision for years. For the first time, he is faced with the real, slightly wobbly form of someone his own age. This person doesn’t conform to his expectations. He freaks out. He can’t get it up.

But you can tell another plausible story, too. A teenage boy has been furiously masturbating because he is a teenage boy. For the first time, he is with a real person he can touch, who touches him back. The person is nothing like his expectations. It is nonetheless, obviously, the most thrilling experience of his life. Everything works just fine. If anything, it’s a little too efficient.

The first version of this story is the one that we worry about, and a new BBC documentary has brought it up again. According to Angela Gregory, an NHS psychosexual therapist, porn has led to a significant increase in the number of young men who are referred to her with erectile dysfunction. “These younger men do not have organic disease, they’ve already been tested by their GP and everything is fine,” she says. “So one of the first assessment questions I’d always ask now is about pornography.”

Shorn of context and reheated by secondhand news reports, what Gregory is describing sounds like a crisis. And for those young men who come to see her, it is undoubtedly awful. To reach a point where the images you’ve absorbed have made you physically incapable of responding to the flesh and blood version who is actually interested in you is too depressing for words. It’s natural enough that we should look at the sequence of events – exposure to porn, desensitisation, erectile dysfunction – and see an obvious culprit.

If this account sounds too straightforward to be complete, that’s because it is. Indeed, it bears some of the hallmarks of a moral panic. It implies the existence of a golden age when a six-pack meant beer, breasts were all natural and reared on organic farms, and our strapping sons of Albion strutted around with erections like hosepipes. It’s worth noting, too, that erectile dysfunction is a suspiciously simple problem to focus on. Fix the binary matter of a man’s ability to “perform” – up or down, that’s the only question – and everything else will be great as well. The answers, unsurprisingly, are equally binary and hopeless. “Block online porn”, the campaign logo read on the Daily Mail’s report of the story this morning; if we could only get rid of the grot, we’d return to the golden days.

Here is a more complicated and more realistic account. First of all, if the erections of our youth are in crisis, it is a pretty marginal one. It’s absolutely not Gregory’s fault that her interview has been turned into a diagnosis of generational catastrophe, but it’s also no substitute for proper evidence. And when we look at the proper evidence, the story isn’t quite so scary. In May, a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health gave a picture of young people’s sexual problems that was sad enough in itself: about one in 10 young men and one in 10 young women had experienced a distressing sexual problem for at least three months in the last year. Erections, however, do not seem to be in decline. Among sexually active young men, the number who reported difficulty getting or keeping one was 3%.

The fact that 97% of the group in question don’t have a particular problem doesn’t lessen the problem for those who do. But it does suggest that it might be the wrong subject for our anxiety, being addressed in the wrong way. Moreover, since excessive use of pornography and erectile dysfunction are both associated with depression, causation may not be so simple even for that 3%: we might be looking at two effects of the same root cause.

I have no doubt that porn can have desensitising and disastrous consequences – but any solution that starts with its eradication is plainly as much of a fantasy as all those fake breasts. If we could just get all the erections out of the way, we could focus on more important things: the normalisation of sexual violence, the importance of sex education that acknowledges pornography and explains its hopelessness as a guide to reality, the fostering of self-esteem among an age group that struggled with it long before internet porn was a phenomenon. The causes of sexual distress among young men and women are far more complex and various than erectile dysfunction. If we don’t want young men to think with their penises, perhaps we should stop thinking about them quite so much.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sexting could see teenagers branded as sex offenders
Sending an erotic selfie should not automatically land teenagers a criminal record, say anti-censorship campaigners

Damien Gayle

04, May, 2015 @4:41 PM

Article image
‘Today we’re talking masturbation’: sitting in on a sex education class
As bill to make sex education a statutory requirement gets its second reading in the Commons, Sally Weale attends a lesson

Sally Weale, education correspondent

23, Oct, 2014 @2:25 PM

Article image
Why don’t I enjoy sex? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Nichi Hodgson
Every day millions of internet users ask Google life’s most difficult questions. Nichi Hodgson takes on one of them

Nichi Hodgson

25, Oct, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Inclusive sex education is vital – and British schools aren’t delivering it | Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell: Why isn’t there a mandatory requirement to teach children about sexual health and diversity, including LGBT, in the same way as other curriculum subjects?

Peter Tatchell

18, Sep, 2014 @12:39 PM

Article image
Young people are using porn to learn about sex

A Channel 4 programme reveals that teenagers feel pressure and suffer sexual hang-ups due to the pervasive influence of pornography

Denis Campbell

30, Mar, 2009 @12:49 PM

Article image
How we educate children about sex is vital. Don’t let it be part of Britain's toxic culture war | Gaby Hinsliff
Of course schools don’t always get the details right, but if the issue is politically weaponised, pupils will suffer the most, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

10, Mar, 2023 @3:09 PM

Article image
Teaching pupils to make sense of pornography | Letters
Letters: A school working with parents to promote healthy relationships and internet safety should certainly support its pupils to make sense of porn


24, Oct, 2016 @4:30 PM

Article image
'Any boy who tells you that he hasn't seen porn is lying. Porn changes what you expect from girls'

In the age of relentless online pornography, sexting and smartphones, the way teenage boys learn about relationships has changed dramatically, writes Akin Ojumu

Akin Ojumu

28, Sep, 2014 @7:00 AM

Article image
By ignoring sex education, ministers are risking children’s safety | Joan Smith
Lessons at school can protect children from online threats, but politicians would rather bury their heads in the sand

Joan Smith

27, Jan, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
How porn is damaging our children’s future sex lives
Any boy with a smartphone can watch online pornography – and it’s harming their ability to relate to real-life girls and women

Joanna Moorhead

10, Sep, 2016 @5:14 AM