In the past, I have had a bunch of pretty positive things to say about porn.
To be clear, I have pretty positive things to say about some porn. I have nothing but positive feelings about AO3, pictures of hot naked people, the Best Women’s Erotica series, the Erogamer, porn comics, caption porn Tumblrs (RIP), the work produced by many independent camgirls, and the noble person who put every sex scene from Call Me By Your Name on Pornhub. But man, guys, mainstream video porn– the thing you get if you open up the tube sites and start scrolling– that stuff is actually pretty bad!
Now, in my defense, everyone else is entirely wrong about why it is bad. Criticism of mainstream video porn usually involves listing a bunch of sex acts I’ve done and then explaining that no real human being would ever do them. It is then explained that these acts are inherently degrading and objectifying and it is impossible to do them in a way that is respectful of other people’s personhood. The statistic that 88% of porn films include violence against women is thrown around, along with the fact that the women typically respond with pleasure. Finally, the explanation is wrapped up by explaining that all of this will lead to an epidemic of violence against women and porn-induced erectile dysfunction.
Taking it from last to first: It is difficult to know how common erectile dysfunction is. One review suggests a prevalence of somewhere between 3% and 76.5%. Therefore, it is very difficult to know whether erectile dysfunction is increasing beyond the expected rate of increase due to aging. More young men may be going to their doctors complaining of erectile dysfunction, but this might simply be because the treatment for ED now is a pill instead of months of therapy. Of course, there have been some positive anecdotes of people who stopped using pornography and their erectile dysfunction went away; if you struggle with ED and want to try it, there doesn’t seem to be any harm. But it is very far from certain that there is any link between erectile dysfunction and porn use in the general population.
If porn causes an epidemic of sexual violence, it is difficult to explain why rates of sexual violence continue to fall during the largest expansion of porn use in history. Of course, it is possible that some other cause, such as a decline in the acceptability of rape, is making rape rates fall, and they would have fallen even faster without porn. More careful work should be done. (It’s a pity no one convinced PornHub to roll out to a random selection of US counties for a few years first.) But I think this does put a hard cap on how large the problem could possibly be, and suggests that we should not come to overly firm conclusions from short-term laboratory studies of exactly the sort that have been falling victim to the replication crisis.
If the woman enjoys and consents to the violence against her, that is not violence, it is BDSM. Most porn videos depicting BDSM is an interesting fact but not in and of itself a sign that anything has gone wrong.
Sex acts are not inherently degrading or objectifying. Degradation and objectification are attitudes that people have to other people, and you cannot ward them off by sticking exclusively to PIV and oral. If you can’t understand how someone could facefuck someone they like, the problem is your failure of imagination, not the pornography.
I assure you that people who are not porn stars have deepthroated dick, taken it up the ass, had various body parts come on, been double-penetrated, been fisted, and nearly everything else you think real people don’t do. (I must admit, however, that as far as I can tell you are right about double anal. I too am suspicious that this sex act has only ever been performed with a camera in the room.)
So I feel I had a very reasonable conclusion here that mainstream video porn was probably fine, because all the arguments against it are terrible.
But I think, having watched more of it, actually I was quite wrong, and there are legitimate concerns I have about it.
Contrast mainstream video porn with, say, fanfiction. We make fun of Horrifying Fanfiction Lube, but the average fanfiction sex scene, in an ordinary ship, where everyone involved is human beings and not space aliens or elves or omegas, is a reasonably accurate depiction of 95th percentile sexy sex. The sex is somewhat kinkier than most sex is; communication is more seamless; no one ever farts or loses their erection at an inopportune time; people instinctively know the best ways to touch each other and no one has to figure out how to gently redirect someone else away from slobbering on their neck. And of course the sex usually has far more of a role in the narrative arc than sex in real life ever does. But overall, the acts people perform, the kinds of feelings they have, the relationships they have with other people, all seem like things real people would do.
Most of the time, to the extent that it is inaccurate, it’s inaccurate in a direction where, all things considered, you’d prefer it to be inaccurate. For example, fanfiction has an unrealistically high percentage of married gay couples who use condoms and typically depicts significantly more prep for anal sex than people usually do. But normalizing condom use is a good thing. And it’s good for people who are trying anal for the first time to be very cautious and go very slow; they can switch to a more reasonable amount of prep once they have more experience.
(One thing fanfiction is definitely inaccurate about, much to my eternal disappointment, is the percentage of men who are gay.)
And the things that are inaccurate are more clearly marked as inaccurate. No one is surprised when it turns out that human males do not typically go into heat or have self-lubricating asses. And it’s very rare to look in the Spike/Buffy ship tag for a depiction of loving, consensual sex in a healthy relationship. I know people who have gotten themselves in trouble because they’ve been misled by fanfiction, but you do have to work at it.
Mainstream video porn, on the other hand…
Most obviously, sex acts are often depicted in a way that is actively unsafe. The most obvious example is not using condoms, obviously, and I don’t need to belabor that. But think about the way mainstream porn depicts anal. Horrifying Fanfiction Lube is one thing, but at least they’re aware that you need lube. In mainstream video porn, you get guys with enormous dicks just banging away immediately without any sort of preparation or working up to it or even starting off slowly so she can relax. In real life, this is a recipe not just for painful, unpleasant sex but for anal fissures.
But even that criticism– as well as the criticisms I discussed above– miss the most important problem with mainstream video porn, which is that all of the films are apparently shot, directed, and starred in by bizarre sex aliens.
As far as I can tell, there’s very little foreplay, particularly if you require that your foreplay involve touching and caressing and exclude oral sex. There’s strikingly little kissing, and very little talking. Surprisingly often, sex begins by a woman stripping naked without a man touching her, dropping to her knees, and giving him a blowjob, without any sort of preliminaries. No one uses condoms or discusses birth control or testing. Strange and acrobatic sexual positions are depicted. At the end, he either pulls out and comes on her face, or comes inside her and then she squeezes the come out in a very unusual fashion. No one cuddles.
Now, I don’t mean to say that people don’t do those things. Obviously, people have unprotected sex without talking or kissing or touching, or where they strip naked instead of taking each other’s clothes off, engage in almost no non-genital sexual activities, use uncomfortable sex positions, and then end with a facial or the squeezy come thing and no cuddles. Some people even do all of those things. But I think the combination of all of those things is actually very very rare, while in porn it is a plurality of the videos available. It is not that any individual thing depicted is that strange, but collectively they give the impression that no one involved in creating porn has ever actually had sex with a human being.
What is worse, I think, is the absence of feelings or relationships. As far as I can tell, in video porn, sex typically consists solely of genitals being combined in various ways with orifices. It is quite difficult to work out what anyone’s opinion of the situation is, although you can extrapolate that presumably people think orgasms are nice. No one is unhappy and being comforted, or ecstatic about getting to have sex with someone so hot, or hopelessly in love, or trusting that their partner won’t hurt them when they try something new, or any of the other things that people sometimes feel about sex. In particular, it is quite hard to figure out what the people involved seem to think of each other. Rarely do the people involved seem to like each other, or dislike each other, or really have any sort of opinion of each other at all. In Bizarre Sex Alien Land, people typically have sex with people they’re completely neutral about.
This is even more appalling, in my opinion, than the first thing. Uncomfortable sex positions are a thing some people like, but it is actually extraordinarily rare to have sex where you have no emotions about the sex or the person whatsoever. Mainstream video porn leaves out a lot of what makes sex different from– and better than– masturbation. It’s a systematically inaccurate depiction of what sex is like.
Now, you might say that porn is intended as a masturbatory aid, not sex education, and sex education should be in schools. This is true as far as it goes. But I think proponents of this idea have failed to consider the sheer awkwardness of having education in middle-school health class about how most people typically kiss and touch each other extensively before they begin oral sex. This is really not the sort of lesson you want to have from your gym teacher. And while perhaps many people should read a good sex advice book before they begin having sex, most people won’t.
And, even setting that aside, I do think that watching a lot of mainstream video pornography is going to have an effect on your sexual script. How could it not? You have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours watching people do a thing. You may have few other sources of information of how it is done; you may never have done it yourself. Even if you know porn is inaccurate, where are you going to learn what sex is really like?
Of course, many people are sophisticated consumers of media, capable of separating reality from fiction. But mainstream video porn does not present itself as a ludicrous fantasy. It presents itself as a documentary of normal people having sex. And while viewers may be able to recognize that penises are not normally that large and women have pubic hair and you should use condoms, are they going to be able to recognize literally every way that porn is inaccurate?
I do not have hard data that suggests problems related to this. The generation that grew up with unlimited streaming video porn is still quite young. But I do not think it is at all unreasonable for sex-positive feminists to be concerned, and I wish that porn-critical discussions would move away from inaccurate statistics and slut-shaming and towards a more real discussion of the problems with pornography.