X Close

Porn: the latest front in the masculinity wars

PornHub has removed two-thirds of its videos in a bid to restrict user uploads. Credit: Getty

February 8, 2024 - 7:00am

The online movement against pornography and masturbation gained further traction this week.

A recent NPR article suggested the movement was potentially harmful, based on unscientific claims, and tied to racism, sexism and extremism. It disputed common beliefs of anti-porn and anti-masturbation groups, including that one can become addicted to pornography and that frequent masturbation can cause sexual dysfunction. 

The average child sees online pornography by age 12, and many see it even younger. A tenth of men are concerned they may be addicted to porn. Psychological associations do not formally recognise porn addiction, as NPR notes, and the link between masturbation and erectile dysfunction hasn’t been empirically substantiated. 

Right-leaning commentators have since defended the anti-porn movement and portrayed the NPR article as part of an effort to weaken men by discouraging self-discipline and demonising male efforts at self-improvement. 

Whereas previous generations broadly viewed the anti-porn crusade as a feminist cause, many of today’s feminists view sex work and porn as empowering, while a significant number of Right-leaning men see porn as part of a broader threat to male physical and spiritual health. This inversion has its roots in the Left’s embrace of sex-positivity and its disinterest in the growing crisis of men’s mental and physical health. 

Conservatives view critiques of the anti-porn movement as a symptom of the Left’s supposed reflexive suspicion of masculinity, a trend which may have something to do with the increasing political polarisation of men and women. Generation Z women are nearly twice as likely to be liberal as their male counterparts, an AEI survey found last year; women of previous generations are only a few percentage points more liberal. 

Often referred to as “NoFap”, the push against porn use is male-dominated and loosely tied to the online Right and the “manosphere”. The Christian Right has long condemned porn and masturbation for moral reasons, but this newer, secular opposition views the practices as physically and mentally unhealthy, and a way for the elites to keep men docile and distracted. Masturbation is a symbol of futility and lack of self-discipline, both of which are anathema to the bodybuilding enthusiasts of the manosphere. 

As the Right-wing influencer known as Bronze Age Pervert famously quipped, “Chimp in state of nature never jerks off, but in captivity he does, wat does this mean?” To masturbate is to be ineffectual and weak, he argues: that is the undercurrent of the manosphere’s rejection of pornography. 

Popular posts on the NoFap Reddit page consistently reject the movement’s reputation for being aligned with the alt-Right and various hate groups, but the NoFap idea has nonetheless flourished in those circles. A Proud Boys rule book released in court last year included a rule limiting masturbation to once per month. 

Online pornography is replete with racist and sexist tropes as well as rape and child abuse content. The political Right has been campaigning against porn for decades, but a 2020 New York Times investigation into rape and child porn on PornHub finally pushed the issue into the mainstream. Visa and Mastercard suspended business with PornHub’s parent company MindGeek soon after, and PornHub purged two-thirds of its videos as part of a new policy restricting user uploads. 

Despite the social justice themes at play, anti-porn activism hasn’t taken hold on the Left in the same way it has on the Right. Instead, the fight over explicit content has taken on the same partisan contours as other fights over gender and masculinity. State Republicans are passing restrictions on minors accessing porn, while liberal critics have condemned the effort as a violation of constitutional rights. Sex positivity and its demands that the culture destigmatise and decriminalise sex work have become battlecries for the progressive Left, and this applies to pornography as well as prostitution. 

As Republicans advance legal restrictions on porn and Right-wing cultural influencers continue to discourage its usage in the coming years, the polarisation of the porn issue will only deepen. Given the massive scale of the industry, legislative and legal action are likely the only avenues through which Americans’ porn habit can be tamed. 


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

46 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Martin Bollis
MB
Martin Bollis
2 months ago

Would love to have finished this … but my sight’s going.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Kids these days have it far too easy!
They’ll never know the embarrassment of trying to look old enough to buy a dirty magazine from the old man in the corner shop, or having to hide a video in your school backpack and wait for an empty house before passing it on to your mate.
Good times!

Damon Hager
DH
Damon Hager
2 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I remember being in the newsagent as a very young man. A middle-aged lady was serving. Her husband quickly realised what I wanted to buy, and took over at the counter so I could complete my purchase without embarrassment. Excellent customer service.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
L
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 months ago

State Republicans are passing restrictions on minors accessing porn, while liberal critics have condemned the effort as a violation of constitutional rights.

So let me get this straight: “liberal critics” are in favour of freedom of speech when it’s about minors accessing p**n. Presumably the same “liberal critics” would be opposed to freedom of speech if for instance JK Rowling were to say that men should stay the hell out of women’s sports. This is head-spinning.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

Let me get this straight: the right wing are in favour of JK Rowling’s freedom from state interference to criticise gender stuff but want the state to have the right and power to demand to see ID?
btw those “liberal critics” that brought the case on free speech grounds were mostly porn companies and representatives of porn stars. It wasn’t the pink-haired pro-palestine people you imagine. … Careful with that free speech now…

Benedict Waterson
BW
Benedict Waterson
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

.

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The state already has the power to demand ID. It happens every day with purchases of alcohol, tobacco, or attempting to board an airplane.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Classic conservative logic then. No principle, they just refer to what they did in the past and assume it’s alright.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
L
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Nasty state. “Interfering” with the right of kids to drink alcohol by demanding IDs.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

I’m not sure who the “feminists” are who support porn and sex work are, but they should be kicked out of the club. Ninety eight percent of prostitutes want out, but they fear homelessness or their pimp, and many are addicted to drugs, so they need the money. A significant majority of them have been beaten by johns and have been threatened with guns or knives. Basically, these women are being raped. They see no way out. They are arrested, and the johns walk away. It makes me sick to think that women seem to romanticize (Julia Roberts!) prostitution and call it work, like these women are going to the office or something.

jane baker
JB
jane baker
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I’ve chosen never to see that film,or the musical. Several of my female relatives think it’s romantic. Sadly. A sort of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid.

Rosemary Throssell
RT
Rosemary Throssell
2 months ago
Reply to  jane baker

Love that poem.

Benedict Waterson
BW
Benedict Waterson
2 months ago

Yes, masturbation is now a left-wing cause

Jeff Stone
CS
Jeff Stone
2 months ago

Well, for 90% of us chickens, it always was.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 months ago

Not for me, I always used my right hand

Marshall Ballantine-Jones
MB
Marshall Ballantine-Jones
2 months ago

The significant shortcomings of the pro-porn lobby (or anti-anti-porn advocates) is that they never engage with the morality of pornography itself. That is, whether an activity that (statistically speaking and thoroughly demonstrably) exploits vulnerable people from major disadvantaged backgrounds and with extreme ongoing risks of mental health, physical, and sociodemographic harms – all for the sake of one person’s personal pleasure and another organisations profits, is ever ethical. Oh yes, they feminists love to sprout “but there’s ethical porn – look at OnlyFans”. But that’s demonstrably rubbish, with only the smallest samples appearing to fit their categories of ‘consent’, well paid, and ‘in control’. Most porn is produce in 3rd-World conditions, and it’s impossible for the consumer to ever know whether the circumstances of the performers were safe, consensual, and financially fair. Porn hurts countless people. And afterwards, the people who leave the ‘industry’ – often with regret and shame, can never truly leave, because they can’t control the ongoing distribution or consumption of their past activities. How can we, as a compassionate and reasonable society, ever condone it?

Cho Jinn
CJ
Cho Jinn
2 months ago

It’s poison.

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 months ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

So is beer….cheers.

jane baker
jane baker
2 months ago

Was this stuff actually considered of suitable merit simply as writing to be printed. So having any standards,morals,any virtue,any.sense of restraint or delicacy or refinement makes you a Right Wing Bigot. And why am I suddenly seeing the word “masturbation” written plain everywhere,no funny euphemisms. Is it part of a plan to “normalize” yet another unacceptable ‘ in your face-ism”. I don’t think masturbation,might as well use the word,is bad (except ha ha if you.do it so often you break.your cockerels neck,funny euphemism,and why should women have to wait for a man to “give er one like it’s a gift to be withheld). What I do not like is yet another sexual subject being made threatening,I mean you could be watching lunchtime or teatime tv with your innocent three year old grandchild ,well if you’re dumb enough to still pay the tv licence,and from out of nowhere that cuddly tv presenter who you totally trust will say the word “masturbation”. This actually happened the other day. I was visiting someone who had that sort of TV on,no child about,but the cuddly tv presenter did that. I was glad my friend was in the kitchen making tea!

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  jane baker

Having a shuffle is fairly normal behaviour though let’s be honest. 100% of teenage boys can’t be wrong!

Barry Dank
BD
Barry Dank
2 months ago
Reply to  jane baker

Would it be more appropriate for those of conservative bent to call it self-pollution instead of masturbation?

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  Barry Dank

Or a five knuckle shuffle

Brian Villanueva
BV
Brian Villanueva
2 months ago

The “porn is female empowerment” line has never made any sense to me even before I became a parent. With 3 teen daughters now, it’s appalling.
Western birthrates are cratering, our young people can barely speak to each other, 30 year old man-boys are living in the basement, our societies are failing culturally… but obviously all of that would be fixed if we just jerked off to more pornos.
What planet are these people on?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

How is any of that inconsistent with female empowerment?

Emmanuel MARTIN
EM
Emmanuel MARTIN
2 months ago

One where anything that pleases males is evil and every avantage to females, such as affirmative action, family courts or an endless stream of IRL free sex on Tinder is fantastic.

Jeff Cunningham
JC
Jeff Cunningham
2 months ago

The final sentence seems non-sequitur to me. And out of place.

Mike Downing
MD
Mike Downing
2 months ago

She only mentions the elephant in the room once, methinks……

Moneeeeeey.

I’m always amazed at people who think they can have a ‘philosophical debate’ about the rights and wrongs of porno (see drugs, Internet addiction, gang violence, problem gambling, trafficking of all sorts) without mentioning the main driver.

It’s all about the money, honey. And in a consumer society if it rings (kerching) then you need a strong, moral framework and well-policed barriers to entry to even stem the tide. That’s why those lovely people at the EU were very naive to imagine that opening borders and facilitating the flow of goods and services wouldn’t have some particularly unpleasant consequences.

I was amazed at Thatcher no less simultaneously extolling the virtues of the ‘market’ and a ‘consumer democracy’ while condemning the drugs trade where for the producers, the product is surely the ultimate golden goose. This is the same with pornography and now Internet use (which has supercharged access to all things unsavoury).

So I don’t agree with all the ‘far right ‘ ideas on offer about this, but I think they have a point in seeing it as part of a bigger problem and thinking that the solution can only be found in an overall ethical framework of some sort or other. Indeed a rejection of the ‘if it feels good do it’ laissez-faire ideas of (you guessed it) those fabulous 60’s and the consumerist mantra of ‘more and more, faster and faster ‘.

John Galt Was Correct
JG
John Galt Was Correct
2 months ago

Every day that cabin in the woods, far away from this kaleidoscope of modern madness looks more attractive.

Fran Martinez
FM
Fran Martinez
2 months ago

Yes, legislative and legal action worked wonders on the fight on drugs! So naive …

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

The original here repeats the post above.

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

A recent NPR article suggested the movement was potentially harmful, based on unscientific claims, and tied to racism, sexism and extremism.
Isn’t everything these days. Good grief; it’s impossible to have a discussion on anything without one side or other eventually reducing itself to accusations of isms and phobias on the part of the other side.

David Kingsworthy
DK
David Kingsworthy
2 months ago

NPR = exhibit A, submitted for review in case of “Investigating State-supported Left-Wing Media Bias”

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago

As a Libertarian and a strict believer in free speech, I often find myself flummoxed at the hypocrisy exhibited by both the left and the right. “Free speech” has regrettably become a default argument whenever one side wants to ban/regulate something and the other doesn’t. Conservatives regularly accuse progressives of ‘pie in the sky’ optimism regarding government attempts to influence society at a macro level, but here they fall into the same trap, and it isn’t exactly a new development. Calls to ban and limit pornography have always come from the right, and lo and behold they’re still coming from the right. The excuses they’re using now sound different, emphasizing men and men’s rights instead of the plight of women, but that’s not surprising given the right is majority male and trending even more so, which the author mentions. At bottom, it’s the same old moral decay arguments, not that different than emphasizing infidelity, the breakdown of the family, or the overall social problems. I didn’t buy this argument when it came from bible thumping old biddies in the 80s and I don’t buy it anymore now coming from impotent men. They’re still bemoaning the moral decay of America and proposing the government do something about it.

Well, I’m not falling for it. The best, and only, valid argument against pornography that I can see is that it leads to women being exploited. If women are being exploited, that’s a problem because individual rights are at stake. People have a right not to be exploited. Workers have a right to fair compensation and safe working conditions. Men getting ED from too much jerking off are not having their rights violated. They are not at risk of exploitation by powerful companies. At worst, porn is like smoking, a costly social behavior that we tolerate because it isn’t realistic to eliminate it. At least the consequences are somewhat less severe than cancer. The argument that porn is anti-men is an absurdity only possible in the farcical melodrama that passes for American politics these days.

Any intervention and regulation in pornography should be focused on protecting the rights of workers, who are mostly but not exclusively female, not trying to make the world a better place which is a silly fantasy and we should know better. Social engineering is a bad idea wherever it comes from. Governments have a poor record of solving social problems and a strong record of making things worse in the attempt, and it’s usually conservatives pointing that out. I guess this shows the left doesn’t have a monopoly on irrational optimism that government intervention can ‘fix’ societal ills.

R Wright
RW
R Wright
2 months ago

My enemies want me to fap. My friends don’t. I won’t bother complicating things more than that.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 months ago

Imagine being that insecure about your masculinity that you have to spend all day in the gym and get angry over young lads having a tug!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

A man with discipline and self control is very attractive.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

It’s a shame he’ll be completely devoid of a personality then

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Nah my husband has heaps of personality, and I get the pleasure of admiring him.

Kelly Madden
KM
Kelly Madden
2 months ago

NPR’s grip on other thingies has weakened its grasp of science, experience, and reason in its reporting on healthy sexuality.

Barry Dank
BD
Barry Dank
2 months ago
Reply to  Kelly Madden

I am far from sure what is healthy sexuality. Some people may argue there is no such thing. Or healthy sexuality may be what I was told when I was a kid that sex was for the purpose of procreation, I was also told that masturbation leads to insanity. If I was a believer, I guess the monastic life would have been a “healthy” option.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  Barry Dank

I’m glad it doesn’t send you mad, when I was a teenager it was closest thing I had to a hobby!

Fafa Fafa
FF
Fafa Fafa
2 months ago

I wanted to write s****g but I was discouraged by the f***n ***terisks everywhere. I thought we are a****s here but we are being t****d like some g***m m*****r w****s. Enough of this x***y u**********q w****w k***v!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

Tw@t

Damon Hager
DH
Damon Hager
2 months ago

“Masturbation is a symbol of futility and lack of self-discipline.”

Sure, and it makes you blind and causes your todger to fall off. What complete and utter, ridiculous bullshot.