Don Jon: Pornography, Hollywood, and a Wake-Up Call to Young Men

Editor’s Note: This article analyzes a film that uses highly mature language and images. Reader discretion is advised.

Jon’s favorite sound in the world is the startup sound of his computer, the sound that brings him instant arousal. And it’s a sound the viewers of the new movie Don Jon are pushed to recognize as the sound of his failure–his inability to find satisfaction in real women, his blatant lies to his girlfriend about his porn use, and his increased awareness that his media consumption is coloring all of his interactions with women.

That, of course, is the crux of Don Jon, the writing and directing debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) lives life in a happy vacuum: he cusses out the other drivers before stumbling into the confession booth. He has dinner with his media-saturated family. He says his prescribed Hail Marys while working out. He picks up chicks. He watches porn. Gleefully unrepentant, he returns to the confessional. And the cycle continues…until Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) enters the scene. And, slowly, Jon is made to realize that maybe, just maybe, porn isn’t quite the harmless fun he once thought it was.

Anyone who struggles with porn should avoid this movie, and most of our readers will find this film highly inappropriate. It is liberally sprinkled with F-bombs and pornographic clips. (It’s rated R, but an NC-17 rating would not have been a surprise.) There’s no taking away the rough edges from this movie; a TV-edited version would be nonsensical at best and incoherent at worst. I will say that it was a well-told story, that even the porn clips were used purposefully, and that (spoiler alert) Jon realizes, in the end, a fulfilling relationship involves being selfless…and that porn use interferes.

No; the question is not whether you should see the movie, but how you might talk about the movie. With porn use on the rise among the college crowd especially, Don Jon makes a great starting point for a discussion about pornography’s very real effects on relationships.

3 Things Don Jon Got Right

Don Jon is, of course, a Hollywood flick. Its goal is to tell an entertaining story, not to present a scientifically accurate portrayal of pornography’s impacts on the brain…or the difficulty of breaking the habit. Fortunately, the film does a reasonable job of accurately portraying the problem of pornography use.

1. It’s not just about porn.

The film opens with a montage of images: women in bikinis, women in tight dresses, women with ample cleavage showing. Talk show hosts hugging hyper-sexualized women. Jon stares at the Cosmo on the magazine rack at a store. At one point Jon and his father (Tony Danza) both openly drool over a bikini-clad woman…who is seductively biting into a sandwich in a real ad for a fast food chain. Sex is virtually everywhere.

And you know what? Sex is everywhere. There’s a well-known marketing mantra that “sex sells,” and marketers increasingly push the boundaries of just how much sex they can show, whether in a TV show or in an ad. But oftentimes, because it’s so prevalent, we fail to register it on a conscious level.

That’s one of the first brilliant elements of Don Jon: it calls our attention to just how much sexualized media even a non-porn-consumer will see in a single day, just in the process of going to the gym or the store or channel surfing. Porn isn’t the only thing that indoctrinates people into believing that women are only as valuable as their looks.

2. Real women can’t measure up to porn.

Of course, all of these unrealistic expectations result in dissatisfaction. Jon is the guy who can (and does) land almost any girl at the bar; he buys her a drink, dances with her, makes out with her, and leads her back to his apartment. And then, while she’s asleep, he gets up and turns on the computer.

This is where the porn clips come into play. Jon’s sex scenes are about as tastefully done as any of today’s cinematic sex (any nudity is highly shadowed), but Gordon-Levitt intercuts these scenes with garish, brightly lit pornographic images, showing no direct intercourse but often showing groped breasts and nipples. In contrast to porn, he complains, sex with a woman requires him to give and not just receive. Real women, he says, don’t experiment with sex positions. And real sex requires condoms for safety. In the end, Jon says, the only way he can lose himself is by retreating to porn.

Even Barbara, with her porn-star looks, doesn’t meet his expectations. When she catches him watching porn for the first time (right after they have sex for the first time), he lies and claims it was a one-time thing from a friend; he tries to stop using porn, but instead finds himself mentally compromising and only watching it when she’s not around (which sometimes means watching it on his cell phone in his night-school class, or even while he’s driving). At one point, while Barbara drones on about some romantic notion or other, Jon finds his mind wandering…to porn. They’re not having sex, or even making out, Jon’s usual triggers. They’re just talking, and there’s a sudden, split-second cut to porn.

Are these contrasts garish and intentionally tacky? Yes. But they’re effective, and they’re scientifically accurate: porn rewires the brain to require more variety for sexual satisfaction. And even those who have not immersed themselves in the science of porn find this to be true; Reddit’s “No-Fap” group, for example, is dedicated to improving sexual performance through the simple act of giving up pornography. (The link to the group is here, but many would consider it inappropriate.) There are other problems in the relationship, of course, but with Barbara, Jon finds out what many wives have discovered to their heartbreak: porn is infinitely varying, and one woman alone can’t compete.

3. To stop watching porn, you need to look at your reasons for using it in the first place.

The first time Barbara catches Jon watching porn, he tries to quit. He opens his laptop; his finger hovers over the power button for a moment. Then, in a moment of resolution, he shuts it again and walks to the door…only to turn back around and turn it on after all. No matter that he’s knowingly lying to her when she said at the onset of the relationship that her one rule was that he not lie, Jon is all too willing and eager to keep up his little habit.

It’s Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman in his class, who finally helps him quit. Esther is well aware of his dirty little habit; she catches him watching porn in their class. Eventually, she asks him why he still needs porn. When Jon explains it’s the only way he can lose himself, she laughs. “If you want to lose yourself,” she says, “you have to lose yourself in another person. It’s a two-way thing.” In short, it’s not about replacing digital sex for physical sex; it’s about replacing sex (digital or physical) with intimacy and sacrificial love.

While the way this plays out in the movie has its problems, at Covenant Eyes, we’ve found the general sentiment to be true. For example, when men assume that marriage and the steady access to sex will remove their need for porn, they will almost invariably return to pornography when they find that real relationships are messy–a principle beautifully illustrated through Jon’s relationship with Barbara. On the other hand, men trying to quit pornography have greater success when they look at their motivations and replace it with something greater; they replace false intimacy with true intimacy, or they replace the lies of sin with the truth of the gospel. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we at Covenant Eyes offer Internet Accountability software, not spyware: we don’t want to give people a slap on the wrist for visiting porn; we want people to talk to their Accountability Partners about why they visited those sites in order to look at the heart motivations. Only then can true change take place.

2 Problematic Porn Portrayals

When you’re working within a 90-minute timeframe, certain things require a tighter resolution than reality usually provides. In romantic comedies, for example, there’s a discernible pattern of boy-and-girl-meet-then-have-conflict-then-get-married; real life is never quite that simple. (In fact, Don Jon draws a parallel between Jon’s dehumanization of women via porn use and Barbara’s attempts to control him as a result of her own obsession with love stories; the entire movie plays off the romantic comedy formula rather brilliantly.)

That being said, there were a few fairly major red flags to how porn use was portrayed.

1. Porn isn’t portrayed as a problem by definition.

For a film in which the protagonist’s main problem is pornography, it’s remarkable just how flippantly porn use is treated in other ways. After Esther has caught Jon looking at porn in their class, she hands him a gift of vintage porn, implying that it’s not dehumanizing like the stuff he watches. After Jon and Barbara break up, Jon confesses to a friend that she caught him watching porn; his friend is shocked that anyone would see it as a big deal, since everyone watches porn. Later, Esther makes Jon realize that Barbara’s problem is less about his porn use and more about the fact that he lied to her.

The problem is, even comparatively low exposure to porn has been proven to warp a person’s thought process. A lot of porn exposure literally changes your neurochemistry (fortunately, it can be changed back). Is it possible that a person could use porn sparingly and be unaffected by it? There are some people who see it rarely enough and for a short enough time that their brains avoid becoming obsessed with porn, sure, but in general these people do not seek it out intentionally.

On his college tours, Michael Leahy (author of Porn Nation) was often asked how much porn was safe. Was it okay to use it once a week? Once a month? “How often is it okay for me to go home and beat my wife?” he responded. “Once a week? Once a month?”

2. It’s easy to quit using porn.

What’s truly sad is, Don Jon comes very close to getting the full danger of porn right. At one point, Jon stares down at his closed laptop. “I know guys who are addicted to heroin,” he muses. “Porn’s not like that, right? I can quit any time I want, right?”

In the movie, Jon does quit porn cold-turkey. This is Hollywood, so of course the resolution is tidy; of course he succeeds when he replaces it with something better. And his life and relationships with women immediately improve.

Unfortunately, the movie misses the fact that he was spot-on when he compared it to drugs. Dr. Mary Anne Layden, for example, has called pornography the new crack-cocaine. For Jon, who admits to Esther that he has been masturbating to porn daily since childhood, quitting cold-turkey with so little support should be impossible.

A Wake-Up Call to the Porn Generation

I was fortunate enough to watch Don Jon among a crowd of college students–a rather different experience than my typical movie viewing. The entire movie was peppered with collective roars from the crowd—laughter, empathetic groans (especially from the guys as Barbara calls him out at third base), and even an “Aww” when his perpetually-silent, perpetually texting sister (Brie Larson) spoke her one line.

But they were surprisingly quiet as the credits rolled and they got up to leave. “Wow,” one girl said to another in hushed tones. “That…that was really good.”

And it was; and I think most of them felt it, because Don Jon spoke directly to them; to their generation. Basic statistics means that almost all of the young men and many of the young women in that room have been exposed to pornography. For many of the young men, Jon was an empathetic everyman; his experiences and reasons for watching porn may well have mirrored their own. For the young women, it provided glimpses of why their boyfriends still watch porn–why they can’t live up to his expectations.

And, for many of them, this may very well have been the first time they heard this message. And for that, as flawed as it is, Don Jon can be a tool in talking to this generation about what their porn use is really doing.

Don Jon comes to theaters September 27.

Pure Minds Online | Issue 36 | More in this issue: iPorn: Coming to a School Near You | Internet Responsibility Away at College