The Real Don Jons: How online porn has affected a generation

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In the R-rated comedy Don Jon, opening Sept. 27, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a twentysomething New Jersey gym rat and self-styled ladies’ man whose ability to maintain normal relationships with women is hampered by his obsession with online porn. While his girlfriend, played by Scarlett Johansson, swoons for the fantasies on display in Hollywood romantic comedies, Jon (Gordon-Levitt) wonders how the flesh-and-blood women he meets can ever measure up to the virtual vixens on his computer screen. If this sounds like pretty racy subject matter for a mainstream movie—well, it is. But Gordon-Levitt, who wrote and directed Don Jon, says he was interested in exploring how the media shapes our perceptions and expectations. “Pornography is a huge, huge part of our media culture,” he tells EW in this week’s cover story. “The message Don Jon is trying to bring to light—and make fun of—is reducing people, especially women, to nothing but sex objects.”

Unless you happened to take a strict vow of celibacy around 1991, you know that the Internet is, to a large extent, one massive porn delivery system. By one recent measure, 30 percent of all data transferred across the web is some form of pornography, and porn sites attract more unique visitors each month than Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix combined. What no one is quite sure about, though, is what effect this is having on us—and, in particular, on the generation of people reared in the Internet age. What kind of influence has growing up in an era of instantly accessible online porn had on men—and, for that matter, women—who are now in their 20s? Just how many real-life Don Jons out there are wrestling with the impacts of their porn use?

Gen-Xers and older Millennials can hazily recall those pre-Internet days when porn was still a titillating taboo, secreted away in the backs of magazine racks and curtained-off areas of video stores. “When I was a kid, the only way to see a naked woman was in Playboy or on HBO after midnight, or you’d watch Weekend at Bernie’s 2 and freeze-frame the shot when they pulled the bikini off,” says one 29-year-old who works in the film business. “Now while I’m driving I could pull up a hardcore pornographic video of three guys having sex with one girl and watch it immediately. That level of access is unbelievable.”

And, for many men, that instant gratification and the promise of never-ending novelty is hard to resist, especially if it’s all they’ve ever known. “For men, porn is kind of like video games — it’s an escape,” says “Jake,” a 25-year-old man from upstate New York. “There’s a scene in the trailer for Don Jon where Scarlett Johansson catches [Gordon-Levitt’s character] watching porn and I think, ‘You’ve got Scarlett Johansson in your bed, and you’re looking at porn?’ But guys do that. Porn is a way to retreat into a world where you are in control. It creates the impression that you are more in control of your sexuality than you actually are. So when you’re faced with a real woman, with real sex, with a real relationship, it can be very jarring.”

For those twentysomethings whose sex education was shaped primarily by Internet porn, it can come as a rude shock to find that the images of sexuality imprinted on their young minds are often at odds with what actual sex is like. “When I first started having sex, I tried to have sex like the guys in porn, because that was all I knew,” Jake admits. “I had a girl stop me and say, ‘You’re hurting me. I don’t like this. We’re going to stop.’ That was crushing. I thought I had to dominate her. I thought that’s what sex was.”

Actor Justin Long explored some of these ideas when he co-wrote the upcoming romantic comedy A Case of You, which features a character who chooses online porn over his girlfriend. “I’m probably of a different generation,” says Long, 35. “My introduction to anything like that was when I found a stack of Playboys from the ’60s and ’70s. But it’s so rampant now. Even on a less sexual level, I think the advent of all this technology has brought up a difficulty in interpersonal communication. It’s only going to get worse with people developing problems.”

Perhaps, but good luck getting everyone to agree on the exact nature of those problems or how widespread they may be. Men’s porn-consuming habits vary greatly, and studies on the effects of pornography are notoriously unreliable and often freighted with a particular religious, political, or ethical point of view. “There’s a pretty big divide in the sex world about even using the term ‘porn addiction,’ ” says Rebecca Alvarez, a sex educator based in Philadelphia. “There are people who say it’s real, it’s changing people’s brain chemistries, and it must be addressed. Then there are other people—the sex-positive people—saying that it’s a cultural phenomenon, and it’s just another way to pathologize sex. The research is not necessarily keeping up quite yet.”

That said, it’s easy enough to find plenty of guys who struggle with having unlimited, on-demand access to any form of sexual content their heart (or nether region) desires. Just surf over to Reddit, where an entire anti-masturbation movement—dubbed “No Fap”—has sprung up among mostly late-teen and 20-something guys who are trying, often with a sense of tremendous guilt and shame, to curb their use of porn. Nearly 75,000 self-proclaimed “fapstronauts” have committed themselves to the challenge of giving up porn for 90 days, if not longer. Those who have managed to tame their urges trumpet increased self-confidence, greater energy and mental focus, and improved relationships with women. “Here is one of the best things,” reads one recent post from a guy who’d abstained from porn for 25 days. “I AM ATTRACTED TO NORMAL/REGULAR (with a bit of defects) LADIES more than to FAKE PORN/MODELS! I like the incomplete, the non-perfect better — it’s HUMAN! IT’S LOVELY!”

Some see the “No Fap” phenomenon and movies like Don Jon and the recently released sex-addiction comedy Thanks for Sharing as signs of bigger problems to come for many men. Gary Wilson, a physiology teacher who hosts the popular site Yourbrainonporn.com and has delivered a TED talk on online porn addiction that has attracted 1.5 million YouTube views, thinks porn-obsessed twentysomethings represent the tip of a looming iceberg. “We’re seeing something we didn’t see in older guys,” Wilson says. “Their sexual tastes have been completely altered. I think the real problems are just about to start to show up.”

Women, of course, are also impacted by the ubiquity of online porn, but there, too, the picture is complicated. There’s no doubt lots of young women are bothered by the porn use of their husbands or boyfriends. “It makes you feel inadequate,” says one 22-year-old woman who works in the health-care industry. “You feel like ‘Why does he need to do this? What is porn giving him that our relationship isn’t?’ Ideally, for me, you would want them to watch porn zero times a week.”

That sentiment is hardly universal, though, particularly given how many women themselves spend time surfing porn sites. “There’s this idea that women are out there shaking their fingers, like, ‘Porn is bad and it’s something my partner is doing that I have to put up with,’ ” says sex-educator Alvarez. “But the truth of the matter is, from the research I’ve read, anywhere from a third to a half of porn consumers are now thought to be women.”

Disentangling the issue of porn from the emotions and value judgments surrounding it can seem nearly impossible. But in the end, Alvarez argues that it’s up to each individual, whatever their age, gender, or sexual orientation, to decide if their use of online porn is healthy or not. “I think if you see it as a problem for yourself, then it’s a problem,” she says. Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to agree with that assessment. “I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with erotic films, or showing sexuality in videos or movies,” he says. “It depends on how you do it. Not only does it depend on what those movies are, but how you as a viewer choose to watch it. Are you watching these images and concluding this is how real life should be?”

Watching Hollywood film images can distort our ideas of reality, too. The fact is, assuming there is some untold number of real-life Don Jons out there, most of them aren’t like Gordon-Levitt’s cocky lothario in the film, according to Yourbrainonporn’s Wilson. “His character is out there getting all these women, but that’s not really a good representation,” Wilson says. “For most of these guys, [heavy porn use] is really inhibiting their drive to go out and chase real women. It’s reducing their motivation. They go out to the club and they’re like, ‘Oh man, I’m just going to go home and turn on all the babes.’ ” He laughs dryly. “But that would not make a very exciting movie.”

—Additional reporting by Lindsey Bahr, Anthony Breznican, Samantha Highfill and Sean Smith

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