Porn Culture

This post is part of CTC’s Reflections from our Clinicians series. These series consists of blogs written in the first person narrative, meant to reflect our values of independence while ensuring a broader diversity of topics, styles and opinions.

 

New York, May 2, 2016

As a feminist I have heard arguments for and against pornography.  Throughout the years, my position on pornography has changed. Initially I believed that porn can be liberating to women, claiming our sexuality any way we want to. However, having counseled many women, including sex workers and survivors of human trafficking, my idea about pornography changed. I truly believe it is damaging to women, men, mental health, relationships and society.

Recently, TIME magazine published an article about the negative effects of porn, on men, as the first generation of men who grew up with unlimited access to it (online mostly) report how detrimental and harming it has been to their sex life. As the article points out consuming porn, especially at a young age, leads to many sexual problems, including what is now know as PIED (porn induced erectile dysfunction), the term describing lack of sexual response in relationships, or the inability to perform sex outside of watching porn.  It is also damaging to girls.

Learning about sex from porn can deeply damage one’s expectation and understanding of sex and love. The Kinsey Institute survey found 9% of porn viewers said they had tried unsuccessfully to stop. Studies also show that porn changes the brain, and can become highly addictive. Similar to drugs, the more one watches it, the less s/he enjoys it and the search for that first high keeps coming up, unfortunately never to be found again. Further, when one connects and understands sex to be only a mechanical and physical act, one tends to lose the ability to connect with one’s partner(s) and worse begins to objectify the other. Young men who watch porn report loosing the ability to truly connect with their partners – and through the objectification of their partners, seeing them as merely body parts for pleasure, they also lose the humanity of sex.

For young girls growing up with porn, and porn culture, also influences their view of sexuality, as Peggy Orenstein’s new book Girls & Sex reveals. While researching her new book, Orenstein spoke with more than 70 young women between the ages of 15 and 20 about their attitudes and early experiences with the full range of physical intimacy. She documents how girls today are receiving mixed messages, mainly they hear how they should be in order to be sexy and perform sexuality, but their own sexual pleasure is hardly addressed. They start seeing themselves as objects and learn that sexual intimacy is about performance and satisfying the other. This is further complicated with issues around gender norms, race and class.

Further research on the effects of porn are equally troublesome, as Destin Stewart, PhD, and Dawn Szymanski, PhD, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, found that for female college students those who perceived their boyfriends’ porn use to be problematic experienced lower self-esteem, poorer relationship quality and lower sexual satisfaction.

The sex industry hurts both men and women. Worse, it has permeated into our view of sexuality and the erotic, as more and more music videos and movies personify sexuality in general, and women in particular. Yet the commodification of sex does not just stop with porn, it is seen in our culture through our music and movies (to name but a few). As consumers in a capitalist society, sex is but another commodity to be exchanged and sold for profit. TV shows such as The Girlfriend Experience, or music videos such as Ne-Yo She Knows, clearly display how sexuality is a commodity and in heterosexual relationships, women are the exchange currency.  It also shows the pornification of our culture.

Yet, not all hope is lost. And to be clear, I am not against men and women exploring sexuality, or the erotic within or outside a relationship. Yet, the question dwelling on my mind is how can women enjoy sex and not objectify themselves? According to a study cited by Orenstein comparing American and Dutch women at two similar colleges,

“[The] Americans, much like the ones I met, described interactions that were ‘driven by hormones,’ in which boys determined relationships, male pleasure was prioritized, and reciprocity was rare. As for the Dutch girls? Their early sexual activity took place in loving, respectful relationships in which they communicated openly with their partners (whom they said they knew ‘very well’) about what felt good and what didn’t, about how ‘far’ they wanted to go, and about what kind of protection they would need along the way. They reported more comfort with their bodies and their desires than the Americans and were more in touch with their own pleasure.”

As Orenstein points out, the difference in the perception of sex between the Dutch and American girls is that Dutch girls spoke with teaches, doctors and parents truthfully about sex and pleasure and also about the “the joys and responsibilities of intimacy.”

Teaching young men and women about sex and pleasure is essential to ensuring that they will have healthy satisfying sexual relationships. Even further than that, it requires that both men and women reclaim their subjectivity as subjects and refuse to give into unrealistic expectations of masculinity, femininity, sexuality and pleasure.

Whether we talk with kids about sex, or we openly protest the porn industry, and criticize the overall porn culture, we all need to reclaim our sexuality based on pleasure rather than performance. And although as I mentioned, there is sexism in (to give an example) music videos (metal, rap, country, etc.), as Jacqueline Pereda shows us, young women can reclaim that space, laugh at sexism while empowering young girls.

 

Silvia