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What Could Stop Men from Buying Sex and Watching Porn?

By September 14, 2020No Comments
This guest piece was written by Eli Zucker, Director of Men’s Accountability at an anti-trafficking nonprofit. 5-minute read.

Buying Sex & Using Pornography: Coping with Broken Masculinity

By Eli Zucker

I regularly ask rooms full of convicted sex buyers, “Do you remember specific pornography from your childhood?”

For so many, the answer is “yes.”

As the Director of Men’s Accountability with the anti-trafficking organization, Seattle Against Slavery, I facilitate the Stopping Sexual Exploitation Program, a 10-week-long intervention designed to stop men from buying sex and help them build healthier, more fulfilling relationships in their lives. For many of the men in the program, there is a deep relationship between buying sex and consuming pornography.

During the program, participants often share a series of reasons why they buy sex, and I tend to hear different versions of the same answer: I had another fight with my wife and I didn’t know how to handle it, so I bought sex. I got fired from my job and couldn’t face it, so I bought sex. I was depressed, so I bought sex.

These may be different responses, but they all read the same: my masculinity broke and I couldn’t fix it.

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Unsurprisingly, the same series of responses materialize when I ask participants about the role pornography has played in their life. In each cohort, I always ask a most memorable question: do you use pornography when you are feeling down, tense, lonely, bored, restless, and withdrawn, or do you use pornography when you are feeling happy, proud, well-liked, confident, and outgoing? Almost exclusively, the men identify with the first set of conditions.

The common denominator in this troubling relationship starts with masculinity itself.

For so many, masculinity is defined by something called the “man box,” which emphasizes traditional gender roles, heterosexuality, a limited range of emotional expression, and a culture of men’s violence against women. From the “man box,” there are countless unhealthy myths about masculinity that harm both men and other folks.

One of the most defined expectations of masculinity is that men must be overly sexual and dominant. Men learn that they must always be ready for sex. Real men, as the myth goes, have a lot of sex with a lot of different women. Men learn that the size of their penis is important; “manhood” literally refers to one’s penis. Men also learn that they must be aggressive during sex, sex shouldn’t be emotional, and that sex is a game because the goal is always to “score.”

Contrary to this enthusiastic mythology, these sentiments don’t do men any favors. Collectively, they are a series of impossible and unhealthy contradictions. As nobody can be or do all of these things, all men confront the reality of not being man enough at some point in their life.

Upon this realization, a healthy response from men would be to ask for help. Alas, men are also expected to be fixers and leaders, yet never be vulnerable. Coded as pride, many men do not seek help even when they need it the most. Without trusting anyone for support, men learn to struggle alone and bear it as a sign of ultimate strength. Many men wake up ready to fight because we never learned to wake up and cry. Real men get up, walk it off, and get back in the ring. Men don’t cry.

In this brand of masculinity, failure is inevitable. It is here, in this impossible but inevitable corner, that men often develop violent and unhealthy behaviors, like sex buying or using pornography, to meet the unachievable standards of this specific version of masculinity.

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For many of the men in the Stopping Sexual Exploitation Program, buying sex and using pornography are failed attempts to fix their masculinity. When this harmful version of masculinity inevitably proves unhealthy, men are left with failure, which quickly turns into the conditions mentioned previously: feeling down, tense, lonely, bored, restless, and withdrawn.

Outwardly, many men can blame others for these feelings and failure; this looks like domestic violence, rape, exploitation, and a collective culture of men’s violence. Inwardly, many men are unable to confront the brokenness of their masculinity and, instead, find ways to cope.

Buying sex and using pornography are often methods of coping. Both are born out of brokenness, and neither serve men’s health, growth, or healing.

To that end, there is growing awareness that pornography influences the way men think about sex, can change brain chemistry, and often causes further emotional withdrawal that men were already avoiding. Buying sex has the same set of circumstances, and men seem to realize that buying sex isn’t benefiting their health or well-being. According to a recent nationwide survey of anonymous self-identified sex buyers, 76% of men agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I would like to stop buying sex.”

These truths are important because, in them, we can recognize the struggle for healthier masculinity. Buying sex or using pornography does not fix the brokenness of this unhealthy masculinity, nor does it fix the men who feel let down by its grand promises.

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For the benefit of themselves and everyone who feels the collateral violence that this unhealthy masculinity inevitably brings with it, men deserve more than this and men can do more to create a healthier brand of masculinity.

Men can stop buying sex and using pornography. These are choices many men can make every day. For many men, divesting from buying sex or using pornography may not be easy. That struggle, however, is an entry point to their own growth.

Men can practice being emotional. Men can reflect on what feelings are familiar to them and which feelings are unfamiliar to them. When was the last time you let yourself feel sad? When was the last time you let yourself feel happy? Identify the unfamiliar feelings and seek out experiences to revel in them. For many men, a therapist or mental health professional can be a great partner for this work.

Men can be wrong and embrace it. Failure teaches us about ourselves, but this unhealthy masculinity doesn’t afford men the space to fail. When men reframe failure as growth, they can learn to embrace the journey toward their truest, best self.

Men are more than what this version of masculinity asks them to be, and it’s far past time that men did something to build healthier versions of themselves. Rejecting commercial sexual exploitation in all of its forms is a step toward healthier communities where men can become the best, healthiest version of themselves. Our communities deserve healthier men, and men deserve that, too.

About the Author

Eli Zucker is the Director of Men’s Accountability at Seattle Against Slavery, a non-profit mobilizing community against sex and labor trafficking. Through the Stopping Sexual Exploitation Program, Eli works with local, national, and international leaders to amplify restorative justice interventions within their communities. Eli holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan and can be reached at [email protected]

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