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The Paradox of Porn

Guest Author: Mark Boyd

Released late 2018, “The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture”, aims to fill a significant gap in the resources available to gay men: a frank and honest discussion of the role of pornography in our lives. As the book states “Almost all gay men look at porn, hardly anyone talks about it” (apart from complaining about the death of Tumblr, of course, which happened after the book’s release).

Author Don Shewey is a New York-based writer, erotic mentor and psychotherapist whose practice specializes in sex and intimacy coaching. Over more than 20 years of conducting his private practice and running workshops at various gay men’s retreats, Shewey has collected hundreds of stories from men seeking to expand their sex lives and conducted surveys with gay men to collect even more insights. He took part in the Body Electric Schoool’s sacred intimacy training and has been publishing works on the role of porn in gay men’s sex lives since 1997.

But more than just the sum of his roles, Shewey has devoted his life to being a pleasure activist: “I’m committed to healing the split between sexuality and spirituality in our culture,” he writes on the opening page of the book. This attitude and focus is embedded throughout the book when he describes his work with clients, how he decorates his writing desk with porn and fetish drawings, and how he has bannered the expression “Desire is a horse that wants to take you on a journey to spirit” above his treatment room.

Author Don Shewey

The Paradox of Porn is a unique book, an essential reflection on porn and gay male sexuality that any kinkster or fetishist will gain from. While writers like Jack Rinella and John Preston have given the scene how-to guides on being an effective master or a willing sub, Shewey’s work evokes the writings of philosophers like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes who use a style of thinking out loud in fragments in order to get to the heart of the matter. And there is a definite need for this in understanding gay porn. “Pornography has played a special role in the sex lives of gay men,” Shewey states. “It has taught us what desire between two men looks like, it has helped us figure out what turns us on, it has supported us in not feeling so alone, it has gotten us through times of loneliness and isolation, disease and disconnection, and it has contributed to many pleasurable orgasms. At the same time, the images from porn that are now ubiquious in our lives have shaped and often distorted our ideas about what sex is, what normal bodies look like, how people make connections, and how we feel about ourselves. Porn has been hugely liberating and hugely oppressive. And that’s the paradox of porn.”

Shewey’s paradox evokes the approach taken by one of philosophy’s leading writers, a committed leatherman himself: Michel Foucault. Foucault’s work, too, often focused on paradoxes that equally enable and disable. But Shewey’s original work, lacing personal insights with media references and experiences from his psychological sexual healing clients tallies the score: 5 negative characteristics and 7 positive aspects; 16 negative impacts and 31 positive opportunities.

“Most gratifying to me has been the string of personal messages I’ve gotten from readers who appreciated the book on a couple of different fronts,” Shewey shared with AlphaTribe. “I write very personally about my own experience of pornography and sex, and as I had hoped that seems to have inspired many men to do their own life-review. Readers have shared with me detailed considerations of how the book made them think about their own sexual experiences and their own interactions with pornography in a way they never had before. And a number of people have commented that the scope of the book takes in a lot more than just pornography but gave them valuable guidance for navigating through many pockets of gay male social life.”

Indeed, some of the feedback he has received has been from leaders in the community who have shared their relief that these subjects are spoken about so honestly. Sex memoirist and queer black science fiction writer, Samuel R Delany, who has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, calls it “THE self-help classic for our time.” 

Delany’s reference to The Paradox of Porn as a self-help book may come from the fact that beyond an analysis and consideration of the role porn can play in shaping gay sexuality, Shewey proposes several techniques to help gay men navigate their use of porn towards enabling a fulfilling sexual life, and his guidance is particularly useful for gay men exploring their kink sexuality.

“From my observation, experienced kinksters have a substantial head start in the direction of understanding the overlap of sexuality and spirituality,” said Shewey. “A satisfying scene operates at a high level of trust that requires tuning in to the energy between the players – you can call it “head space” or “sub space” – but it means honoring something that goes beyond gear and the material world, something invisible but palpable, which is absolutely one of the key elements of any spiritual or mystical experience. What makes all the difference is having a clear intention. The important lesson I learned from Malidoma Somé, the West African teacher who I heard speak that line ‘Desire is a horse that wants to take you on a journey to spirit,’ is that you can decide where you want that journey to go. If a play session is just about pleasure, that’s fine – as a pleasure activist, obviously I’m all for that. But beyond skin pleasure or genital pleasure, there’s a deeper realm of connection that can happen if you stay on the journey longer, with your eye on the prize. That’s why experienced players are in high demand: they know something about taking their time to build trust and sensation and erotic trance. If you’re less experienced, it helps to start by letting your partners know you want to go deep.”

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