Porn Is Not Coming for Our Sex Lives

by 

from Pacific Standard

A favorite activity of mine in college was suggesting that we watch the high-budget porn film Pirates to friends and new acquaintances when they came to my apartment. Pirates was a delightful pornographic romp on the high seas complete with a world domination plot, plenty of maritime innuendo, and the occasional use of candles during coitus. Pirates, you see, was also a period piece. Once during a party we were throwing, my roommate and I put it on in his bedroom so that a handful of our guests could see what we were gushing about.

While most people were as entertained as I had hoped, one guy left as soon as the first sex scene began. When I followed him out to make sure we hadn’t made him uncomfortable, he assured me that it had not been offensive. When I asked if he was sure, he revealed that his new girlfriend insisted that he never watch porn because she considered it a form of infidelity. Ever the lady, I asked, “Then what do you masturbate to?” He revealed that masturbation too was forbidden because his girlfriend considered acting on sexual desire outside of their relationship to be cheating. In a moment of uncharacteristic restraint, I didn’t launch into a tirade about how her rules were repressive and unrealistic. I instead went back to make sure I caught my favorite candle penetration scene and mentally congratulated myself for not being nearly as prudish as I imagined.

Ever the lady, I asked, “Then what do you masturbate to?”

Though this was an extreme case, porn often plays the villain in conversations about what constitutes healthy sexual desires and relationships. Lest anyone think the anti-porn crusades ended decades ago, an article headlined “Has Porn Ruined Our Sex Lives Forever?”—which described six uniquely ruinous aspects of porn—was published just last year.

Porn is condemned regularly for a rise in labiaplasty procedures, a cosmetic surgery that anti-porn activists would have audiences believe is sweeping the globe. The organization Fight the New Drug is entirely devoted “to raising awareness on [porn’s] harmful effects using science, facts, and personal accounts” and almost-charming attempts at youth lingo. They even tell readers that they’re going to “drop some truth bombs” in a listicle called “Ten Porn Stats That Will Blow Your Mind.” Because if there is one thing the young folks can’t get enough of (besides porn) it is a mind-blowing listicle using ancient studies that weren’t peer reviewed. But recent studies looking at porn consumption and depictions of sex in porn actually reveal that it is hardly the life-ruining, woman-hating, healthy-sex-murdering specter we’ve been warned about for so long.

One widely held belief is that porn adversely affects women whose partners have turned into ghoulish fiends with dysfunctional and disgusting sexual desires because of their exposure to the graphic images. But the belief that men cannot become aroused by their partners because of the unrealistic portrayals in porn is credibly challenged by a recent study in Sexual Medicine that reveals that regular viewing of sexual stimuli actually enhanced desire for the participants’ sexual partners.

The authors found that much of the literature up until that point had only studied men seeking treatment for sexual dysfunction relating to excessive porn consumption, not casual and healthy viewers. Indeed, the idea that porn adversely affects sexual relationships seemed to be a foregone conclusion of many of the past studies that is only now being corrected.

Another porn study in the Journal of Sex Research, which involved content analysis of 400 popular online porn videos aimed at heterosexuals, challenged many of the generalizations that women in porn are consistently dehumanized and portrayed as the subordinates of men. The analysis, which measured things like the power dynamics between sexual partners in the films, the amount of violence, and against whom that violence was directed, made a distinct note of when people were objectified as being “instrumental” to another’s pleasure or being “dehumanized” as having no thoughts or feelings.

The findings revealed that men and women were shown to be equally likely to be the initiators of sex and that they were generally depicted as equally likely to hold positions of power in the workplace. And while women’s bodies were more often objectified through instrumentality with close-up body shots, men were more likely to be objectified by dehumanization by having their faces shown infrequently. Though there is an argument to be made that this would be the case for porn made with heterosexual men as the intended audience, a PornHub studyof search terms on their site reveals that women are looking for similarly graphic things as men (“big dick” and “lesbian scissoring,” to name just a couple). Variations on “handsome man” didn’t even crack the top 25. So take that “inherently degrading to women” truthers!

Some common beliefs about porn’s gender dynamics were upheld in the study, like the tendency to portray women in submissive roles and, in the few instances where violence was depicted in the 400 videos, the propensity to inflict it upon women. But combined with the findings of other studies about female sexual desire, this should not be surprising. A study in the Journal of Sexual Medicinefound that 30 to 60 percent of women had fantasies with themes of submission, like being spanked or tied up and forced to have sex. This was corroborated by thePornHub study of male and female viewing patterns that found women were 80 to 100 percent more likely than men to browse sections like “Rough Sex,” “Double Penetration,” and “Gangbang.” My sincerest apologies to porn detractors that can no longer exclusively blame sadistic men for the existence of submissive women in porn.

It is tempting to paint these issues as ones of sexual liberation vs. sexual repression, but the real culprit is actually something more insidious. At the heart of so many of the supposedly pro-women arguments against porn is a brand of misogyny that only a small subset of especially privileged women can enjoy.

Gloria Steinem blamed porn for labiaplasty and called it “horrifying” and “reprehensible.” Harsh words for a procedure that was performed only 6,072 timesin 2013 as compared to say, eyelid surgery, which accounted for 124,000 procedures that year and is one that Steinem herself has undergone. The reality is that a study could not find a causal relationship between porn and the procedure. But to flagrantly assume that women have no agency in their own decision-making about their bodies if they’re faced with powerful porn demons is par for the course in this group.

There are more radical feminists who mourn the very existence of sexually submissive women because they believe that such women are simply not trying hard enough to overcome the powerful messages sent to them by the porn-loving patriarchy. “Lean in … to vanilla sex!” they cry from their academic perches, wondering why women do not do their bidding in addition to a long list of other tasks.

The word “ironic” doesn’t even begin to cover the idea of asking women to perform the emotionally laborious and unpaid task of overcoming their sexual desires in an effort to combat one of the only industries that routinely pays its female performers more than its male ones. The brutally condescending andagency-diminishing ways that these same feminists essentially claim that women in porn are lying about their job satisfaction is another one of their weapons against women they see as traitors to their inaccessible cause. The economic and social realities of huge numbers of women make it disadvantageous to choose to have sex exclusively for the purpose of pleasure. Shaming the performance of intimate labor for money is both classist and out of touch.

The anti-porn movement is built on an inherent distrust of men to behave decently and a distrust of women to have any kind of meaningful agency in their sexual lives. This approach is far more degrading to women than the lived realities of women in the industry and the huge number of women who watch porn of their own volition. It should go without saying that these findings are not an open invitation for men to suggest labiaplasty as a fun little feminist move or for them to shame female partners into submissive sex because it is a fairly common fantasy. Thirty to 60 percent is not 100 percent, and the things we fantasize about and the things we actually want to do with our partners vary tremendously for both men and women. People know that.

But this kind of information should make people feel less alone in their desires and habits and empower people to communicate those desires openly, a vital component in a healthy relationship. A study in Sex and Marital Therapy found that partners who watch porn together experienced less distress, and partners who were honest about the porn they consumed produced both lower levels of relationship distress and higher levels of satisfaction. And if there are any couples looking to explore mutual porn consumption as part of a healthy sex life, I still have a copy of a certain maritime adventure they can use to test the waters.

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