The Adonis Complex

By Jack Flanagan on September 16th, 2013

They say two things in this world are certain: death and taxes. To that I’d add a third: the ever-increasing popularity of pornography. We can tell more people want more porn all the time from how enthusiastically they have taken to the internet to find it – and how badly the legacy porn industry is suffering now that no one is buying its magazines and DVDs.

As with so many digital products and services distributed over the internet, porn is now practically limitless in quantity, available on demand and free – a terrifying state of affairs for the Californian money and bar moustache brigade, who have been reduced to earning tiny margins on their studio content.

What does this new explosion of online porn look like? Well, it’s characterised most obviously by the extremism: more violent sex, rape fantasies, unrealistic expectations of sexual performance and ever more perfect bodies. And it’s the bodies that could be doing the most harm, in fact, and to men – thanks to something called the Adonis Complex, or “muscle dysmorphia”.

Sufferers have a skewed perception of their own body: they see themselves as weedy, even though they might be extremely muscular – or, potentially, fat instead of lean. Their opinions of other men, and of what an idealised body could look like, are usually unrealistic, and can be neurotically expressed. The man who spends 7 days a week in the gym, understands his diet in calories and milligrams, and loves the “juice” (anabolic steroids), might well be muscle dysmorphic.

The disorder, which is a kind of body dysmorphia, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, disproportionately affects gay men over straight. Body image problems are leading many teenagers in the US and Europe to take dangerous, illegal drugs to achieve the look they want.

Since research began on the Adonis Complex 20 years ago, it has been on the rise. The ideal male body is not a constant: it changes over time, and we can observe those changes by looking at popular culture: music videos, catwalk fashion and television. The last few decades’ beefed-up models and actors suggest that, for most men, beauty these days is all about muscle.

Research in this area is scant, and little has been done to reassure men who struggle with this particular model of perfection. Until the 90s, no one would have imagined a man might be suffering from body dysmorphia. Perhaps that’s because men are notoriously loathe to complain that anything’s up. It might also be because getting bigger is not as obvious, nor worrying, as getting very thin. It is easy to spot someone who is grossly underweight, but would any of us have a concrete opinion about what constitutes “too big”? (We’re talking triceps, not muffin-tops, of course: most people have a pretty clear idea of when someone has been hitting the ice cream too hard.)

The cumulative damage bodybuilders are doing to themselves is poorly understood, but the short-term effects are by now recognisable. Just months of steroid abuse can lead to what’s known as “roid rage”, aggressiveness that is out of character for the individual. It has been linked to violent sociopathic behaviour. For example, one case study discusses a woman making a joke about charging a ‘roided man for using her mobile. He didn’t see the funny side: he kidnapped her and then, when she tried to escape, shot her in the back.

Steroids also increase cholesterol, hardening arteries, which can cause heart problems later down the line, as well as increasing the chances of a stroke.

Why are men are willing to take such extraordinary risks? The expectation, now, that a man should have a flat stomach and smoking virility, is everywhere, from television ads and billboards to the advertising served up next to email and on social networks. A pivotal 2002 book, The Adonis Complex, co-written by Roberto Olivardia, discussed the idea of challenged masculinity in the modern era: women aren’t housewives and handmaidens anymore, but fighter pilots and CEOs. Another reason it offered was the transformation of men in popular culture – from the burly Westerner, to the ripped and sultry Iberian male in nude silk speedos.

Which brings us back to porn. The business of on-screen love-making has blossomed in recent years, prompting mainstream commentators to tie themselves up in knots about its morality. Psychologists have been hard at work too, claiming, variously, that porn is fuelling a sex-addicted generation and that it is a heaven-sent panacea for childhood trauma.

Over the years, porn has either joined or spearheaded every technological innovation you can think of: from video and cinema, to DVD and pay-per-view. Now it has found its way online, flourishing in areas mainstream media businesses struggle in: adopting freemium models, cashing in on paywalls, drumming up ad revenue and so on.

Have no doubt: porn has won the internet. The industry has thrived and proliferated, even though the people behind the porn – directors, distributors and porn stars themselves – now get paid a pittance per outing. And as David Cameron and Claire Perry insist on reminding us: it’s everywhere. And that might be using a very loose definition of porn, as well: if I just meant naked bodies on the internet, well, Miley Cyrus?

What is the effect of all this porn? Practically, glistening naked bodies have got more abundant and easier to access. The standard of the male physique in porn is intimidating: bronzed, without deficiency, shaped as though by a Grecian sculptor (with perhaps one obvious deviation from the Hellenistic aesthetic). Male bodies now have to look good, under harsh lighting, and from especially unflattering angles – just like women’s have always had to.

The audience, largely, do not make the grade. Watching exceptional figurines tussle in bed, on a car backseat or upon a breeze block wall sets up unrealistic expectations of what sex often is: sticky and short. It says: sex occurs between handsome athletes, and for no other reason than they are so fabulously handsome. (One assumes so, as enjoyment seems to be a secondary concern in today’s porn.)

One of the most common testimonials from men – straight or gay – is that being buff expresses “the law of the jungle”. For these people, muscle is sexual appeal. Their confidence rests on their muscularity. In case studies, men revealed they had chased away woman after woman. They’d be questioned: “Don’t you think it has to do with your strenuous routine?”, and reply, “I hadn’t given it much thought.” The belief remains uncriticised that muscle will secure a mate.

Researchers, and lay intuition, will tell you: there’s no truth in this. Very few people are waiting for their porn-inspired Adonis to descend from on high. Most women in particular don’t hold men to the same physical standards they seem to demand of themselves, and whether they’re willing to admit it or not, rely more on personality to pick a partner than physical appeal.

So, how come men are getting it so wrong? It isn’t unusual for men to misunderstand the subtle desires of potential spouses, and instead pursue dating and sex in order to resolve egotistical anxieties. What they don’t understand is that their perfectionism and obsession alienates partners and family. They may also overestimate how reasonable their workout schedule can appear from the outside.

In such extreme situations, porn is less likely to be the key factor, although it certainly will stress the situation further. A man who is so deeply obsessed with getting bigger that it disrupts his entire being is likely to have has that obsession ingrained in him at a younger age. Porn cannot be entirely to blame.

But, nonetheless, porn is one of a number of influences that has inverted our typical idea of the image-apathetic man versus the severely body-conscious female. There is no signpost in each porn clip to inform men, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no expectation for you to look this way.’ And even if there were, how effective would it be?

The new accessibility of porn, fuelled by the internet, has compounded these problems. Videos (with some of the most heinous titles known to fiction) are accessible to the 60 year-old as much as to the 16-year-old. The most casual searches will yield thousands of hours of porn. We should be cynical of the idea that this new “era” in pornography breeds misogyny and sexual obsession in young people, for reasons outside the scope of this article. But there are boys whose conception of the sexualised male body – as a product of porn and popular media – will be unrealistic in the extreme.

What needs to happen is for boys to get a grip on how they see themselves: to appreciate anxieties as they materialise and confront them. Are they expecting to look like porn stars, and if so: is that feasible? If it isn’t, make priorities: your body, your job, your partner? If you’re concerned that you should match the men you see, then that’s your call. But if it starts to look more like an obsession and less like a hobby, know that obsessions are never satiated, women decided on brains over brawn a long time ago, and steroids are ridiculously expensive on the black market.