The prevalence of pornography in the twenty-first century is positively overwhelming. In 2017, Pornhub alone counted 28.5 billion visits, with 81 million daily average visits and more than 4 million porn videos uploaded. The porn industry, worth billions, may well be planet Earth’s most popular (and least discussed) pastime. Anti-porn activist groups like Fight the New Drug believe pornography to be as addictive as heroin, while public intellectuals including the likes of Salman Rushdie insist that pornography as elemental part of free speech and civilized society. With former porn star Stormy Daniels making headlines for political controversy, the topic of porn is more mainstream than ever before.
So, is pornography harmless entertainment or the bane of human sexuality?
It’s harmless entertainment.
Pornography can contribute to overall health.
Pornography lures its audiences with the promise of pleasure. But the vast array of health benefits that accompany regular orgasms is hardly cause for complaint. With regards to sexual health, masturbation has real benefits, from relieving stress to improving sleep, to boosting the immune system. One study showed than men who orgasm regularly have less chance of contracting a stroke or heart disease. Women who masturbate have the added benefit of strengthening their pelvic floors. No wonder masturbation has an entire month dedicated to its virtues.
Pornography is entertainment, nothing more.
Intimating the negative influence porn has on men’s sexual expectations of women, retired University of Texas professor Robert Jensen once asked: “Do heterosexual women want partners whose sexual imagination has been shaped by making women’s subordination a sexual turn-on?” This calls for the response: “Do heterosexual men want partners whose romantic imagination has been shaped by Hugh Grant movies?” Does she not expect all men to be unfailingly witty, sensitive, and considerate? Of course, women who view romantic comedies do not expect all men to be Hugh Grant, just as men who view pornography do not expect their partners to be Jenna Jameson. These are just movies. Porn viewers have the same cognitive mechanisms for differentiating imagination from reality as the rest of us. Let’s not insult them by pretending they can’t make the difference.
Science is having a hard time proving the ills of pornography.
Despite a vocal and growing anti-porn movement and a number of research efforts to prove pornography’s damage to individuals and society at large, for the most part, their efforts and studies are largely speculative. Studies that attempt to measure the effects of viewing pornography can, at best, point to correlations, but they cannot directly point to pornography as the cause of negative attitudes toward women or to increased sexual aggression. Similarly, “porn addiction” is a dicey diagnosis. While porn, for some, can indeed be a time-consuming hobby, cognitive scientists have shown that the brainwaves emitted by self-professed porn addicts bear no resemblance to the brainwaves of drug or gambling addicts.
Pornography normalizes aggressive attitudes and behaviors toward women.
Anyone who’s watched a porn film is well acquainted with the elastic snap of the ass-slap. According to an analysis of 304 pornographic scenes, nearly 90% of those slaps were exacted upon women, who are also frequently gagged and name-called during sexually explicit scenes. It also usually appears that the female recipients of these tousling acts are either indifferent or favorable to them. The prevalence of such aggressive acts and speech toward women normalizes such behavior. Arguably, the more porn one consumes, the more normal these attitudes appear. Even adult film star “Anthony Hardwood” lamented what he perceives to be a rise in aggressive activity directed against his female counterparts since he began acting in 1997: “It’s like we want to kill the girl on set.” Yikes.
Pornography increases sexual anxiety and dysfunction.
Research has shown that exposure to porn stokes anxiety, particularly in adolescents. Young people who view porn often believe, mistakenly, that they will be expected to perform sexually to the level of the performers they see on-screen, and they also expressed greater concern about how their bodies are perceived. These studies suggest that the signals youths receive from pornography contribute to anxiety around sexual acts. Additionally, some researchers have suggested that increasing sexual stimuli dims overall ability to become aroused, which can sometimes lead to fringe sexual tastes (the kind most partners are unlikely to be into, even if you ask nicely).
Pornography is antisocial.
Pornographic films all have one thing in common (No, not the cable guy.): they feature hookups but no relationships. In real life, sex cannot be removed from its social context. One cannot expect to entice or engage a partner without communication, but this is precisely the promise pornography offers – sex with zero social expectations. It’s little wonder that most pornography is consumed alone, and can be perceived as contributing to lower degrees of social integration. Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo has called easy access to internet porn a leading factor in men’s fears of intimacy and inability to manage real romantic relationships, which develop slowly over time. Millennials, the first generation raised in the wake of internet pornography, have less sex than GenX-ers. The continuation of humanity literally depends upon people’s ability to establish relationships that lead to sex. If pornography leads in the exact opposite direction, its place in society needs to be reevaluated.
Bottom Lines: Society is polarized by two extremes in how it treats pornography. One group considers it harmless fantasy play while the other sees it as the very unraveling of society. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. What’s your take on porn?