"Harder, Daddy!" a barely legal blonde screams into the typical high school sophomore's earbuds. He's tuning out his health teacher's anatomy PowerPoint in favor of a more dynamic form of sex-ed—his favorite porn star's latest gangbang on his iPhone. Double penetration, check. Facial cum shot, check. Teary eyes as she chokes on one of the penises in play, check. "Oh my God, fuck me," the porn star screams. The video is interrupted, pausing on her gaping mouth, as a text message comes in from a girl across the room, a fellow fully clothed student. "Hey :)" she writes.
He's known this girl since preschool, but he's been masturbating to the porn star since he was 11. He finishes the video, excuses himself to the bathroom and returns to class to scroll the porn star's social media for any behind-the-scenes footage. Hardcore porn trumps flirty peers every time.
This is the state of the emerging millennial male: searching and scrolling to find the women of their dreams; ignoring the real women around them. As a 22-year-old female, I'm part of the "digital native" generation. Aliens to analog, the majority of our life experiences are framed by, and remembered within, a context of total digital immersion. Above all, we're digitally native to sex and dating. As tweens and teens, we texted our crushes more than we spoke to them, announced our early sexual or romantic interests on Xanga and Myspace and posed our anonymous sex questions to search engines.
Today—whether I'm crushing on or sleeping with a guy who learned everything he knows about sex online—it shows. On digital devices, they're experts at finding what gets them off, but in the physical world, their ability to engage, seduce and please women is vanishing before our screens. For many millennial men, sex has become a solitary pleasure, requiring only a strong Wi-Fi connection and about 90 seconds to achieve sexual satisfaction. As reported in the Japan Times, studies conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare indicate a near doubling in the percentage of men who report a total lack of interest in having sex with another person (from 11.8 percent in 2008 to 21.5 percent in 2010). The typical millennial male might live in public (on social media and under surveillance), but he orgasms alone.
Shaking him from his porn-addled isolation is necessary not just for his own well-being, but for the well-being of millennial women like myself who are left with three less-than-ideal choices: no sex, bad sex or sex with older men. At the risk of sounding dramatic, the situation is dire. So dire, in fact, that I think we need an equally dramatic solution: Millennial men need to head straight to the strip club. Seriously. I strongly believe strippers are the only people who can help these men comfortably transition from sexual solitude to an actual physical relationship with another human being.
Hear me out. Like porn, strip clubs provide men with a realm of sexual fantasy they feel accepted in. But unlike porn, within the spatial confines of a strip club, men enter into a world where women are paid to provide them with something they badly need—tangible femininity. Even while nude women are performing lap dances nearby, I've watched countless men sit at strip clubs just talking with the performers. For some, this means sharing fantasies they might not feel so inclined to reveal elsewhere. For others, it means telling the women about their day, their problems at work and their children. The women listen, respond and nurture—a far-from-new form of physical therapy, but one that lets men practice the work of relating to women face-to-face in real-time.
These stripper-client relationships can counter the effect of technology on digitally reared males, who "don't know the language of face-to-face contact," as Stanford psychologist Phillip G. Zimbardo says in his popular "Demise of Guys" TED Talk. "More and more they're living in other worlds that exclude girls—or any direct social interaction," Zimbardo explains, a state of isolation he and his research partner Nikita Duncan call "technology enchantment".
For the relationship illiterate, nurturing an actual partner is too daunting and porn too effortless. Why face social rejection when a million cam girls, porn stars and erotic chatters are waiting for them on their phones and computers? "There's a certain convenience to online sex culture that's inescapable," says Mac, a 22-year-old guy living in San Francisco. "I consider myself decently well-socialized. And frankly, I've been desperate for female companionship since I can remember. But when faced with the real-life implications of seeking out in-the-flesh females who might share an interest in me, the temptation to put it off in favor of a computer screen is overwhelming."
Other porn-brained young men might be more proactive in their attempts to have sex with another person, but they suffer the consequences of their digital enchantment when actually given the chance. Sex author Ian Kerner calls the phenomenon Sexual Attention Deficit Disorder, or SADD. "Just as people with ADD are easily distracted, guys with SADD have become so accustomed to the high levels of visual novelty and stimulation that comes from internet porn that they're unable to focus on real sex with a real woman," Kerner writes. Some men with SADD can't come at all; others can only come by recalling porn clips during sex, disengaging with the females they're literally inside.
As I spoke to other college-aged women about the downsides of men their age watching so much porn, they repeatedly raised the same issue: The main problem with porn isn't the fantasy of girls, gagging and gangbangs; it's the lack of conversation about how this influential content alters the reality of interpersonal relationships. "Porn is ubiquitous, and yet, there's no mainstream public discourse around how to healthily, respectfully and positively interact with it," says Mackenzie, a 23-year-old woman who is "100 percent behind the concept of porn."
While some men and women are, in fact, concerned with the way bodies, sex and pleasure are depicted in porn, the plight of anti-porn advocates beckons a popular sentiment from millennial pop star JoJo—"It's just too little, too late." Porn is a booming industry and a social fact. Ordering men to give up porn seems about as effective as abstinence-only sex-ed.
As such, new opportunities for arousal seem to be the only way to lure men away from their computer screens—i.e., strippers are the e-cigarettes to porn's Parliaments. While some women might be concerned with the artificial quality of some strippers' appearance (breast implants, glowing spray tans, etc.), this aesthetic allows them to be the middle ground between fantasy and reality for the digitally enchanted.
Nor are all strippers artificial. Plenty of the bodies lap-dancing across the country include un-airbrushed scars, stretch marks and/or cellulite. "They're real people," says Michael, a 22-year-old topless-bar regular. He considers his favorite topless bar (Sam's Hofbrau in downtown L.A.) a viable space for practicing communicating with women, free from the scrutiny applied to the digital record. "If you text [a girl], she can read it over and over again," he explains. "You get nervous and don't want to get screen-shotted, so it affects your thinking. Strippers break down the wall. You can't edit in conversation." And while that conversation has a price, the experience is authentic.
Scholar and dancer Sarah Lynne Bowman would probably agree. While working as a stripper to research her master's thesis, strip-club goers confided in her that they're more comfortable behind computer screens than they are talking to people. Some utilized their relationships with dancers as real-world practice in life and love. Bowman is forthright in her critique of certain aspects of the industry—e.g., its capitalistic and misogynistic roots—but she still advocates for strip clubs as spheres where men might receive the healing they need to reconcile decades of solitary sexuality.
"The table dance itself is a ritual that allows for playing on the edges of socially acceptable behavior and occupying a liminal moment with another human being," Bowman told me. "The dancer has a responsibility to guide in a respectable fashion, as a shaman would guide a rite of passage, and the recipient of the dance has a responsibility not to cross boundaries or behave inappropriately. If both individuals can reach such an accord, a moment of transcendence from everyday life can occur."
Such moments can satisfy and transform the men and women involved. I've seen the changes firsthand. I've known Michael, the Sam's Hofbrau regular, for close to a decade. He was once the boy in health class watching porn and missing signals from his female classmates. But his trips to Sam's have taught him the thrill of in-the-flesh intimacy, making him more apt to flirt now, empowered by the practice he paid for. "Porn overload creates personal dreamlands, but they become too individualistic and lack intimacy," he says. "It's much more exciting to be around real women. These days, I spend more time with them than I do with digital clips."
It's not exactly a classic love story. But it's a modern one. And it's progress.
Read one millennial man's response to Tierney's argument.
Tierney Finster is a writer and actress based in Los Angeles.
Photo by i love images/Alamy