Pornography: Love It Or Hate It?
by Jennifer Gunsaullus, PhD
A recent Canadian study measuring the impact of pornography on 20-something-year-old men was unexpectedly cancelled. The reason? Researchers were unable to find a control group of men in their 20s who had not consumed pornography. I think that many men would chuckle after hearing this. And I think that many women could be dismayed—especially the women who are dating those 20-something-year-old men. Pornography is a loaded topic, evoking both titillation and deep discomfort. However, the typical knee-jerk reactions do little to help us understand the complexity of this prevalent yet taboo topic.
Pornography touches on many people’s deepest fears and desires—namely sex, pleasure, power, gender relations, idealized beauty, trust, guilt, and self-worth. For this reason, a better understanding of its personal impact is advantageous. The term pornography in this article refers to visual depictions of sexual behavior intended to arouse the viewer through the Internet, DVDs, and cable shows. This article focuses on gender differences, and the potential harms and benefits of pornography consumption.
It is not surprising to learn that males are much more likely to enjoy and consume pornography than females. While there is “feminist” pornography, directed by women and featuring more plot, romance, and foreplay, mainstream pornography is primarily created by and for men. Men tend to enjoy visual stimulation more, and seek out sexual novelty.
I asked a 39-year-old single male to explain the appeal of daily viewing of porn online. “I find it titillating—I use it for masturbatory fodder,” he openly responded. “It’s lazier mentally because it’s easier; it’s right there. I don’t have to conjure up an image. Looking at porn moves the process along more rapidly.”
A 27-year-old man stated, “Women don’t understand that men can have a disconnect with porn—it’s physically stimulating with no emotional attachment.” He tends to choose visual stimuli of women who are different than his current girlfriend because the fantasy of what he does not have is more exciting. He explained that masturbating to online porn keeps him satisfied when his girlfriend has her period, plus offers ideas for positions and scenarios.
Men who enjoy pornography explain that it’s easy, an idealized fantasy, or skill building. On the flipside, one man I counseled was turned off by porn because he found it silly. For him, enjoyable sexual arousal required more of an emotional connection, so porn felt contrived and detached. This view resonates more with how many women perceive it.
Gender differences are a mix of socialized standards, such as a “boys will be boys” mentality versus “good girls don’t,” as well as innate distinctions that concern wiring of the brain and hormones. A revealing research study monitored male and female college students’ responses to porn, including genital wiring to measure arousal. When asked whether they were aroused by the mainstream videos, most male verbal responses were corroborated by the physical results. Although the female verbal reports indicated much less arousal and interest in the material than the males, their physical measures surprisingly told a different story. Many women were unaware that they were actually aroused.
I believe that the results are indicative of the complexity of female sexual response, particularly regarding a complicated topic like porn. Just because a woman has physical sensations of arousal does not mean that she is emotionally, mentally, and socially interested in sexual activity.
Women’s thoughts about pornography run the gamut from: it’s exciting and fun, silly and contrived, or offensive and/or threatening. Women who enjoy porn tend to find it exciting for the same reasons that men do: for personal stimulation and to add spice to their relationships. However, a majority of women feel offended or threatened by this media in some way.
“If it’s sensual and has a story line, I like it—but not if it’s so mechanical—pull down your pants and then boom, boom, boom,” a 49-year-old woman expressed. Another woman exclaimed, “I don’t like when he ejaculates all over; that just grosses me out.” Some women perceive pornography as dirty because of its graphic depiction of an otherwise loving act, and believe that it demeans women overall or degrades real intimacy. A 24-year-old married woman explained that pornography “is not about the sacred act. I think that sometimes people mistake sex with just a sexual act and a complete lack of respect for each other.”
Another way in which pornography can feel threatening is by aggravating a woman’s self-esteem and body image issues through the presentation of “perfect” bodies and sexually available women. Some women compare themselves to the bodies on the screen and end up feeling inadequate. Similarly, viewing pornography makes some women feel self-conscious about their own sexual abilities, or afraid that they will be expected to perform like the actors.
One common problem pornography brings into relationships is secrecy. Sometimes if a woman discovers that her partner has been viewing pornography, her buttons of disloyalty and cheating are pushed. She may feel hurt and believe that the action represents infidelity. “I have difficultly with my partner viewing porn,” states a 33-year-old woman. “There is the whole thing with feminism about those women, and why they are there [in the porn business]. But what I actually get upset about is…a sense of betrayal.” Masturbation and fantasy can feel threatening to the security of the relationship.
Pornography’s impact on relationships and society is not a black and white issue. Sexuality is a large component of healthy and happy living, and with pornography so readily available, erotic images are likely to have a role in relationships, whether adding to the intimate bond or decreasing trust. There are individuals and couples who turn to pornography and erotica to rekindle lagging libidos. They can create variety, excitement, and build greater comfort through an expanded sexual repertoire. In the opposite corner is a growing prevalence of compulsivity around porn use, particularly with men who prefer pornography to their partners, potentially interfering with family, work, health, or social obligations. Although this is not the norm, it is certainly a concern.
There are very legitimate reasons to like or dislike pornography. If this article pushes your buttons, or this topic is a concern in your relationship, consider the following questions, which are intended to explore more than automatic reactions.
Do you like pornography? Why or why not? How does it make you feel about yourself? How does it make you feel about the opposite gender (or same gender)? What are your biggest fears about pornography? What are your biggest desires? Are you aware of the various types of erotic material available? List three ways that pornography could be harmful for you, and three ways it could be beneficial.
These thought-provoking questions can help individuals and couples flourish in sexual communication and fulfillment. In any relationship, both partners need to be responsible for their actions and reactions. The more women and men understand the complexity of pornography’s impact through a holistic lens, the greater their ability to communicate and understand fears and desires, leading to deeper intimacy and healthier relationships.
Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus is a sociologist and a relationship and intimacy counselor who helps couples work through the complexity of pornography concerns. She facilitates meaningful communication between women and men and assists individuals and couples to create balanced and fulfilled intimate lives. Contact her at 858.880.5944 or visit couplescounselingsandiego.com.