What Americans Get Wrong About Porn
For six years, I immersed myself in the workings of the adult industry. As editor of the porn blog Fleshbot, I spent hours combing the XXX side of the internet, acquainting myself with all manner of perversions and obscure sex acts. At this point in my career, it’s fairly safe to say that there is almost no pornographic image that would be capable of shocking me. What does shock me, on the other hand, is how ill-informed our public discourse around porn continues to be.
In the 10 years since I wrote my first Fleshbot post, internet porn has skyrocketed in popularity. But even as porn consumption has become a commonplace habit, we continue to treat it as something exotic and inherently perilous to our health and happiness.
The arguments that show up in national publications today — and are often repeated by readers — are not so different from anti-porn screeds written decades before. A recent New York Magazine feature dubbed Pornhub, a top porn site, “the Kinsey Report of our time,” arguing that the breadth of perversity found on the site encourages increasingly exotic sexual exploration among its presumably vanilla viewers; other commentators, including Cindy Gallop, founder of the website MakeLoveNotPorn, have also expounded upon the power pornography holds over our sexual tastes and behaviors. Journalists still seem convinced that, first, if an extreme form of porn exists, it’s common and anyone who watches porn will eventually stumble on it; second, that viewing porn rewires our sexual preferences, often in damaging and terrifying ways; and, of course, that pornography gives children unhealthy ideas about sex.
In a culture where open discussion of sex is taboo and the adult industry is heavily stigmatized, it’s perhaps not surprising that many people think of porn as a highly addictive, transformative substance. But the evidence doesn’t back that assumption up.
It makes sense that journalists, whose jobs require research, might find themselves drawn down the rabbit hole of adult entertainment, fascinated by the increasingly perverse products they happen to uncover. But most porn consumers aren’t journalists or researchers, and usage data suggests their porn habits are vastly more utilitarian. PornHub, the most popular porn site online, reports that the average time spent on the site is just under 10 minutes — less than half the length of a standard porn scene. Ten minutes isn’t enough time to begin to plumb the depths of depravity contained in the videos of PornHub, or to do even the most cursory exploration of unfamiliar genres and sexual acts. It is, on the other hand, just enough time to arrive at a site, find a video that’s in line with your long established sexual preferences, enjoy the best bits and move on to other pursuits.
In my time at Fleshbot, it became abundantly clear to me that people tend to come to porn with their sexual preferences already intact — and that, with some exceptions, those preferences remain fixed. Like PornHub, Fleshbot offers visitors a vast array of content, profiling porn that appeals to consumers with a wide variety of sexual orientations and preferences. Yet when I worked there, being exposed to the wonderfully diverse world of human sexuality didn’t seem to make readers more excited by unfamiliar kinks and sexual interests — if anything, it made my readers more interested in the various tags and filters that would allow them to quickly zoom in on the specific content that met their needs. Straight men who were accidentally exposed to gay porn didn’t suddenly turn gay; vanilla viewers who happened upon photo sets of extreme kink would complain that they should have been better shielded from, say, the sight of extreme bondage. Tellingly, despite the vast diversity of content found on Pornhub, consumers are more likely to turn to tamer content: For the past three years, lesbian porn — a category generally considered to be less hardcore than its heterosexual counterpart — has been viewed more frequently than any other genre.
Long before we’re exposed to pornography, we consume pop culture and have formative experiences that help us understand what kind of people we’re attracted to and what sorts of erotic scenarios intrigue us — and we tend to bring that to porn, and not the other way around. Some people may find their palates expanding with increased exposure to pornography, but that’s often because of an existing curiosity or openness: If you come to porn completely uninterested, or outright turned off by, a specific genre, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself converted merely through repeated exposure. (I, for example, have always been made uncomfortable by porn that depicts the beloved characters from my favorite childhood cartoons in flagrante delicto — and no matter how many times I was exposed to those scenes in the course of my work, I was never won over by their eroticism.)
None of which is to say that porn is entirely benign, or that its impact on our sex lives is only positive. There is some truth to the anti-porn claim that it negatively impacts the sexual imaginations and awareness of young people. But that’s largely due to the fact that pornography — which, though sometimes educational, is more frequently a wildly inaccurate fantasy — is consumed in a culture where sex education is minimal, fear-based and often inaccurate; where parents treat the sex talk as a shameful task to be gotten over with as quickly as possible; and where pop culture promotes a confusing virgin/whore dichotomy that encourages sexual exploration while demonizing “promiscuity.” Given all this, it’s unsurprising that porn might leave young viewers confused or even scarred, and that it might negatively impact their ability to relate to future partners. But that says less about the nature of pornography than about the dangers of a culture that delegates something as important and essential as sex education to an industry dedicated to crafting fantasy and entertainment.
It’s easy to criticize porn, and it’s fun to giggle over the exotic and unfamiliar sex acts the adult industry is all too happy to explore. But positioning the porn industry as an all-powerful force that’s here to wreak havoc on our sex lives is a distraction from the actual problem at hand. If we want an alternative to the vision of sex presented in pornography, we need to start by having open, honest and unashamed talks about sex. We need to stop treating sex as a taboo topic, and start treating it as an ordinary aspect of life, one that young people should be educated about in all its weird, wonderful, risky and rewarding complexity. If we create a culture where sexuality is accepted as a healthy, positive part of life, then we’ll be able to appreciate porn for the wild, unrealistic fantasy that it was always intended to be.