In Ben Hozie’s 2020 film PVT Chat we meet Jack, a twentysomething layabout who spends his days playing online blackjack and nights paying a BDSM-themed cam girl, Scarlet, to blow smoke at the screen while he masturbates. Jack’s life is depicted as a melancholy routine, where brief sessions of pornographic fantasy provide a brief glimmer of hope in his cramped, messy New York apartment.
In the online cesspools of failed masculinity, 4Chan and Reddit, Jack would be labeled a “Coomer”—a meme depicting a scraggly modern male plagued by porn addiction and excessive masturbation. The Coomer is classic Internet doublespeak, something played off as a joke by young men who secretly harbor anxieties about their social failures. The meme has significant currency on the subreddit “NoFap”—where men seek help for their obsessive porn habits.
When I was working as an advisor to the adult industry, one of the most frequent criticisms levelled at pornography was that it was a “new drug” which stripped men and boys of their capacity to love and was implicated in an epidemic of erectile dysfunction and mental illness. There isn’t a lot of evidence that pornography—in itself—is causing sexual problems, nor does the concept of “pornography addiction” hold much water.
But I think it’d be incorrect to dismiss the concerns of young men about their porno use as simply moralistic self-flagellation. The Coomer is a real phenomenon, reflecting real misery. We’re seeing an increase in young men seeking treatment for sexual matters globally, and they’re are having much less real-life sex than previous generations. This decline in male virility is notable enough that we’re seeing academic attempts to reframe The Coomer as some new “futuristic” frontier in the “queering” of sexuality.
A “technosexual” is the fancy neologism for an individual whose sexual gratification requires mediation via technology. The concept overlaps with increasingly common forms of “asexuality”—where individuals, usually young, choose to avoid physical intimacy despite having normal sexual desires. The existence of a subculture of individuals retreating from sensuality is bleak, and appears to reflect a broader cultural trend away from physical interactions towards online life (which the recent pandemic has only accelerated).
Porn can be many things, erotic or disgusting, tacky or refined, loving or degrading. But it’s always ultimately fake. The retreat into fantasy life by young men, whether it’s online porn or online gaming, is not something to be celebrated as a new feature of diversity. The Coomer, like many dismal features of modern society, likely has an age-old cause: capitalism.
When you drill into the surveys of decreasing intimacy, a trend quickly becomes evident. Men with lower incomes or with part-time/no employment are the least likely to be sexually active and most likely to develop compulsive Internet use. The proliferation of NEET populations (not in education, employment, or training) among “porn addiction” subcultures reflects this nexus between economic status and sexual retreat.
The decline of blue-collar jobs and an increasingly insecure economic environment have created a “drop-out” generation of young men with nothing but their computer screens and fantasy life to providing meaning in their lives. The Coomer shouldn’t be seen as an individual failing, a pathetic figure just to be mocked, but a direct result of political decisions to preference growth over economic security. This distinctly 21st-century form of alienation requires a culture and economic shift away from make-believe, whether it’s pornographic simulation or the false promises of economic mobility.
It requires cultivating an offline world worth living in.