My friend Hans Fiene, creator of Lutheran Satire, recently posted a list of tips to help single young men up their game. Ahead of “develop a hobby,” “groom yourself,” “go outside,” and “ask girls questions,” his number one suggestion was, “stop playing video games.”
Were it not something every thinking man ought to assume, he might have added “stop watching pornography,” especially since he mentions it in one of his best sketches. But video games and porn aren’t just things young men should give up if they care what women think of them. They’re things they might need to give up in order to care what women think of them.
Mark Regnerus recalls sitting around a campfire with a score of young adults, listening to the ladies list their relationship deal-breakers. When they mentioned pornography, the fellas “sat by sheepishly,” likely taking a great interest in their shoelaces. But while public-shaming may redden faces, Regnerus reports that just under half of American men still admit to having viewed porn in the last week. The true number is probably higher, for obvious reasons.
If there is a battle between porn and the desire to appeal to real women, porn is winning. So are video games, and both for the same reason. As Philip Zimbardo famously suggested, high-definition smut and high-definition simulation both have a tendency to “digitally rewire” the brain. In a study of 20 thousand young men, Zimbardo found that guys who gamed excessively in “social isolation” saw changes “in the reward center of the brain,” following a pattern well-established among substance addicts.
One young man confessed, “When I’m in class, I’ll wish I was playing ‘World of Warcraft.’ When I’m with a girl, I’ll wish I was watching pornography.” What young men hooked on both of these digital diversions have discovered is a shortcut to that sense of achievement their grandfathers could only enjoy through hard work and hard wooing. These boys and millions like them have found a magical button they can mash in private as often as they like to produce a simulacrum of the two things men throughout history have craved: social status and women’s favor.
What makes this a problem for society at large and not just for a subset of antisocial basement-dwellers is how these cravings have historically played a role in motivating men to get off their moms’ sofas and make something of themselves.
A new study finds that America is suffering a shortfall of what they term “economically attractive” men. Specifically, the pool of eligible bachelors is poorer, less educated, and less likely to be employed than the average American woman would like.
“Ideal” suitors earned almost 60 percent more, were 30 percent more likely to have a job, and were 19 percent more likely to have a college degree, on average, than the actual men available for marriage. And lest anyone accuse these respondents of gold-digging, their “ideal” candidate earned a modest $53 thousand—well under the median household income.
With numbers like these, math becomes the enemy. Barring a historic resurgence of male ambition, most women won’t even find Prince Acceptable. Those who shun hypergamous preferences and settle risk finding themselves in the shoes of Rashida Jones’ character from “Parks and Recreation”—working nine-to-five to support an indolent man-child who hasn’t the vaguest incentive to change.
Is it too much to blame all this on porn and video games? Maybe. But Regnerus’ campfire experience suggests that internet sex does drive a wedge between the sexes—a wedge few men are willing to dislodge. And when I shared Hans’ suggestion that guys ditch video games for dates, women overwhelmingly approved, while men took to the defense of their pastime.
The means are clear, and opportunity abounds for anyone with a smart phone. We don’t have to guess about the motive: “The bottom line,” writes Regnerus, “is that porn is cheap sex—meaning that it mimics real sex at no cost and no effort, and that many men will track in that direction unless prevented from doing so.”
Much the same holds true for video games, which light up the brain’s reward center like Christmas without the player having to accomplish anything. And for those who still have functioning dopamine receptors, porn and video games are joining forces! WIRED documents “the rise of VR porn,” a genre that allows users to experience “adult” films in the first-person, controlling what they see—and even what the actors do.
If half of young men living in a permanent refractory state of body and brain aren’t enough reason to reconsider America’s new favorite pastimes, there’s still the soul. In a sobering essay at First Things, Reinhard Hutter puts a name to the moral listlessness that envelops heavy porn users: acedia. Wikipedia defines this oft-neglected vice as a state of torpor that leaves the sufferer unconcerned with his position or condition in the world (or we might add, with his marriageability.)
But it’s more than that. Hutter describes acedia as “spiritual apathy,” an “unthematic despair posing as boredom,”which “covers—like a fungus—the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional life…” It’s an indifference that not only prevents young men from finding a wife, but from even wanting what a wife has to offer. The soul afflicted with acedia “despairs of and eventually comes to resent the very transcendence in which the dignity of the human person has its roots.”
Real women don’t just become boring to a man in the throes of spiritual apathy. They become enemies.
With respect to Hans, this picture is anything but satirical. It’s downright depressing (especially if you’re an unmarried woman). Aside from “stop short-circuiting your God-given drives, get off the couch, and get a real job and a real wife,” there are no easy answers. As any addict knows, knowing the solution does nothing when willpower itself is the first victim of every fix.
But as the research accumulates, at least we can dispense with this daft notion that digital escapism is a harmless hobby. For American women who stick to their standards, that hobby has become the divisor in a bleak, generational equation. For men, it’s become a reason seldom to look past a screen—and then only at their shoelaces.