Porn Problems

A look at erotic content through a critical lens

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Porn.

What a word, right? There is intense stigma and debate around it at the moment, with some anti-porn proponents calling it “the new drug” and saying that it is as addictive as cocaine or heroin and will destroy the life of anyone who watches it, while others see it as a harmless pastime and use the age-old “everyone’s doing it *insert shrug emoji*” argument.

My goal in this article is not to weigh-in on the meta argument of whether porn is good or bad but instead to talk openly about the actual content of mainstream pornography with a critical lens. In doing so, I’m going to be discussing intense topics involving human sexuality, and I will not always be using purely academic or scientific language in doing so. Readers beware, there be words like “blowjob” and “cum shot” ahead. On a more serious note, there will be some discussion of sexual assault and human trafficking. If these topics are difficult for you and you are in the U.S., please reach out to the national sexual assault hotline 1–800–656–4673, which is available 24/7. They can assist you in finding a local sexual assault recovery agency.

Now back to porn.

The first issue in talking about porn is understanding what exactly is meant when the word is used. Some individuals have broad definitions for pornography that include a wide range of media including romance novels, videos of explicit sexual acts, classical nude artwork, and underwear ads from Target. In this article, I’m going to use the following definition of pornography: Videos of individuals engaged in explicit sexual acts with a partner or partners or by themselves. When I say explicit, I mean that the nitty gritty interactions involving genitalia are clearly visible. Off-camera sex or implied or partial nudity from movies and television do not meet this qualification, and sorry, Chad and Karen, Shakira and J-Lo’s halftime show was not pornographic. Given this definition for porn, I can now discuss some reasons why these videos are problematic, and what you can do to avoid falling into believing some of the problematic messages found in them.

Consent isn’t modeled

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I’ve written on the subject of consent briefly before. Consent is a hot topic right now, especially in the sexual assault prevention community, but even still, consent is often misunderstood and is often not being sought in the correct way. Consent is a verbal agreement to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, and it is required for every sexual interaction between two or more people. Over time, in long-term, committed, intimate relationships it can start to change slightly, but usually it looks like a question, “Can I touch your boobs?”, followed by an affirmative, and enthusiastic, verbal response, “Yes! I thought you’d never ask!”, which should be followed up with check-ins, like, “Do you like this? Are you okay? Would you like me to do this differently?”.

This practice of consent is almost never displayed in pornography, and in other mainstream media, and it’s because the two or more people in the video are being paid to pretend that everything is great and fine and perfect the whole time. The closest thing to consent that is displayed is a sly “come hither” smile, or a poorly written line of dirty talk such as, “Take me you big, studly stud!” As a result, when watching porn, one might wrongly assume that verbal consent and check-ins aren’t necessary, or that they even “ruin the mood”, but in fact, well-practiced consent works to create a greater sense of safety and increases pleasure by giving space for one participant to request something a little different to ramp up their arousal.

Another piece of consent that isn’t portrayed well in pornography is the avoidance of coercion and unhealthy power dynamics. Monica Lewinsky wrote an article for Vanity Fair Magazine in 2018 in which she said,

“Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances — and the ability to abuse them — do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)”

The power differential present in Ms. Lewinsky’s experience with President Clinton is about as big as it can get, and consent became murky. Consent can become murky and may be “rendered moot” in a myriad of situations in which one participant has even slightly more power. It therefore becomes the responsibility of the person with more power to reduce the effect of that power dynamic and make the experience more equitable or to simply shut down the interaction before it starts. Remembering the age-old adage, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” can’t hurt in such situations.

Porn almost never addresses these power dynamics or coercion. While there are some porn videos and sexual communities who have found safe and consensual ways to play with power dynamics in sex, the majority of porn depictions do not display these healthy outlets for power play. Instead, videos portray vulnerable and often far younger, as young as legally allowed, cishet women engaging in sexual activity with older, more experienced, and more powerful cishet men. This dynamic is a staple in daddy/stepdaughter porn, the paying for sex genre, and a host of other common situational porn videos, which brings me to my next critique.

Context doesn’t matter

A porn video might begin with two adult stepsiblings, one cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) man and one cishet woman, sitting on the couch with their parents on the love seat nearby. Everyone is transfixed on the movie playing on their tv screen, when suddenly, one of the stepsiblings is in the mood for sex. He slowly and out of view of his parents reaches across and touches his stepsister. Startled, she gives him a confused and somewhat reproachful look and gestures with her head toward their parents. Then whatever he’s doing apparently feels good, and suddenly the inappropriateness of the situation dissolves. She communicates this with the sly “come hither” smile from before, and pretty soon they will go on to have intercourse under a blanket while their parents obliviously enjoy the movie.

The problem with scenarios like this, beside the lack of consent conversations, is that they send the message that if you’re horny, any situation can lead to sex. Other videos might show a wealthy woman seducing the pool boy, a pizza delivery guy having sex with a customer, or a personal trainer having sex with their client at the gym. All of the situations are simply not the time or place for sex to be taking place, and even in the rarest of situations where a full, in-depth consent conversation does take place, there are still issues of power dynamics and the threat of coercion is high. Importantly, it is also highly likely that the sex is simply not going to be good, good meaning mutually pleasurable, in any of these situations.

Overall, there is a need for viewers to be critical of situational porn’s message that any space can be sexual because there are some spaces that should NEVER be sexual in order to make sure that space is safe for everyone, such as a workplace, learning environment, government offices, or public areas. Other situations portrayed in porn should rarely be sexual, and certainly shouldn’t be sexual without an exhaustive consent conversation.

Gender equity isn’t prioritized

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There is a huge gendered orgasm and pleasure gap in our society. Nowhere is this more evident than in pornography. Dr. Laurie Mintz, citing several recent studies of female orgasm in her book “Becoming Cliterate”, writes,

“only about 15 percent of women have orgasms from thrusting alone. And the numbers decrease further when I ask my female students about their most reliable way to orgasm.”

Despite this reality most pornography places an emphasis on intercourse as the main event of sex, and actresses often pretend to be in the throes of ecstasy from simply being “pounded” by a penis. This trope is present even in the “lesbian” genre of mainstream porn where thrusting motions with fingers replace clitoral stimulation and strap-on intercourse is highlighted despite it likely being the least pleasurable activity available without simultaneous clit play. Some women do enjoy thrusting motions and strap-on play, but it doesn’t deserve a prime spot as the most important activity.

The orgasm gap is further highlighted by the way that almost all porn videos involving male-bodied individuals end with ejaculation or the “cum shot”. It’s as though the video is saying, “Well, the man has orgasmed. What more is there to want?” Whether the woman orgasms or not is irrelevant to the situation. This sends the clear message that male pleasure is more important than female pleasure. While it’s true that male-bodied individuals can orgasm relatively unfrequently, and so an ejaculation is pretty much a sign that they have little pleasure left to gain from the experience at the moment, it doesn’t mean that they have to stop giving pleasure to their partner.

You wouldn’t know that from watching porn. In general, most mainstream porn ends too quickly. Citing “Becoming Cliterate” again, on average it takes somewhere between two to ten minutes for a male-bodied individual to orgasm, the range is much wider and longer for female-bodied people at somewhere between fifteen and forty-five minutes on average. When porn videos end after five or ten minutes, they are setting an unhelpful precedent for how long mutually pleasurable sexual activity lasts.

Everybody is different and not all schedules accommodate hours of sexual activity in a day, but in general, it’s a good idea to take the time necessary to make sure that sex is mutually pleasurable. Remember, all sex doesn’t have to lead up to and end with intercourse, and it doesn’t have to end after someone with a penis, if they are involved, ejaculates.

Healthy sex isn’t modeled

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In order for sex to be mutually pleasurable and safe, sexual health and safety need to be a priority. This means, that during a consent conversation, sexual partners should talk about contraception, STI histories, or any other concerns they have about their sexual health. These conversations are absent from mainstream pornography. The majority of porn videos don’t include a discussion of contraception, and the majority of male-bodied actors don’t wear condoms for filming.

Porn sends unhealthy messages regarding sexual health and what constitutes safe sex through the editing process as well. An example would be a video in which one actor gives another actor a blowjob seemingly immediately after being penetrated anally. Anal sex requires preparation and careful communication in order to prevent the spread of infection, and it is likely that in a scene where individuals went from anal penetration to a blowjob, that the director actually called cut, and then they cleaned up and reset for the blowjob portion of the video. The editor doesn’t want to show the viewer that part of the encounter, but they really should show it since many young people who don’t have access to evidence-based sexual health education through their schools often turn to online porn as their instructor.

It’s important to educate ourselves and others about sexual health and “reveal the magician’s secrets” behind the sex we see in porn.

Sexual violence is in the production and the content

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It’s important to be critical of violence in pornography. Again, while there are consensual and safe ways to explore rough sex or different power dynamics through BDSM or other kinks, the vast majority of sexually violent videos are unethical. Porn directors, and other individuals who make sexually explicit content for the internet have a long history of coercing or forcing actors and non-actors alike into being filmed while being slapped, beaten, hit, bound, gagged, or otherwise subjected to violence. An unknown percentage of porn videos on tube sites, such as PornHub, are filmed without the full consent of those in the video. To be clear, watching these videos makes you complicit in sexual assault. Survivors of sex trafficking, after escaping their traffickers, often testify that they were repeatedly filmed during sex acts so that the trafficker could make a few extra dollars off of them on these tube sites. This is the reality of some “free porn”.

In order to avoid contributing to this demand, it’s important to do a little research into how the sausage gets made. Who makes these videos? Are they licensed? What are their hiring practices? How do they treat their actors? What do they do to reduce the risk of coercion and exploitation? Once the research has been done people can make more equitable choices about their erotic entertainment.

Equitable pornography almost always requires payment. This is a barrier for some who have become entitled to free stuff on the internet, but this isn’t the wild-west internet of the nineties, and part of being an adult in 2020 is sucking it up and paying for porn. Obviously, not everyone can afford this. If you are not financially stable enough, being conscious of how you use “free porn” sites will still go a long way.

I’m using harsh language intentionally here. It is the responsibility of everyone to put an end to sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence. Being conscientious of what you’re watching, researching who makes it, and paying them for what you get, are simple ways to start.

Moving Forward

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Viewing pornography with a critical lens will help us make better decisions regarding our sexual practices and sexual health. Some who read this may think that I am “anti-porn”, and others may think that I am “pro-porn”. The truth is that pornography, as a topic, is far too nuanced for such dichotomous labels. I simply hope to start more nuanced conversations about pornography because being honest and open about our porn use and being critical of the messages that we might be getting from it are great first steps in moving toward greater sexual health and sexual equity, and they will assist us in moving further away from sexual ignorance and sexual shame.

If you’re in positions to do so, and you have consent from those around you, consider starting some of these conversations in your own circles. Hopefully, it will foster more openness and healthy communication and help you have better, safer sex.

Originally published at feministmasculinity.com

Intersectional feminist social worker. Creator of feministmasculinity.com. Advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence.

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