Viewer Discretion Advised
It’s a familiar scene. An unlit room, brightened only by the incandescent light of the laptop’s LED screen. Greedy eyes fixed on intertwined limbs. Breathy panting mixed with deep grunting, while dramatic moans punctuated with shouts for “more, baby, more” resonate from the laptop’s speakers. It’s a cacophony of sights and sounds immediately identifiable as only one thing—porn. With more than 450 million searches for porn since the start of 2014, one quarter of users downloading porn at work, 69 percent of the pay-perview Internet content market composed of porn, and the invention of the porn browser—formally known as an incognito browser—it's official. Porn is an integral part of everyday life.
Every year, the porn industry generates roughly $13 billion in revenue. iTunes rakes in only around $8 billion a year, while bottled water nets a paltry $11 million. If money talks, then porn is clearly screaming at the top of its lungs. Yet no industry is harder to get a handle on. Though 85 percent of young adult men and nearly half of young adult women watch porn monthly, the industry is shamed into corners and shunned out of common conversations.
Recently, the zeitgeist has been saturated with conversations about the world’s most personal pastime. From movies like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon to the Duke University porn star Belle Knox, our cultural sphere has been flooded with dirty talk. Even though this conversation elicits blushes and stammers, porn is considered normal, even healthy, and may underlie everything we as individuals know about sex.
According to Joseph Fanelli, Ph.D., a professor at Syracuse University who teaches classes centered on sexuality, on average we are first exposed to Internet pornography at 14 or 15 years old, which elicits not only early interest in sex, but technical and hypothetical questions as well. “We begin wondering, ‘Do girls really do this? Am I expected to do this too? Do all women look like that? Am I supposed to look like that? Do all women like that?’” he says.
This questioning turns us toward the primary sex educator of this age: the Internet. Porn is widely accessible online and the absence of restrictions on age and availability and which has resulted in an inevitable increase in consumption. A recent University of Sydney study found 47 percent of study participants watch porn from 30 minutes to three hours every day—even if they have a committed partner. Those hours were logged not only on laptops, but also on phones and tablets, putting modern porn on more platforms than ever before.
And when porn depicts absurd realities—the average size of a male porn star’s erect penis is eight inches long, and 85 percent of female porn stars have breast implants— the end results are preconceived ideas, misinformation, and misconceptions about men, women, sexuality, gender, and relationships. “I would assume that if I have in my mind that ‘real men have three foot penises,’ and ‘real men go all night,’ or ‘real women love all of this,’ or only like violent sex, I think that certainly would effect young adult relationships,” Fanelli says. A study published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2012 found that men who watched porn once a week expressed greater desire for partners who talked dirty, dominated them, used toys, had shaved pubic areas, and participated in threesomes.
Study after study confirms—porn leads to altered expectations in the bedroom, both in terms of actions and physical appearance. William Jankowiak, an anthropology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, specializes in urban anthropology, charismatic movements, human sexuality, family systems, and complex societies in China and Inner
Mongolia. He often sees the result of these skewed perceptions. “What porn does have a—sometimes negative—effect on, is that when boys see pornography, or a film of a pretty woman having sex, they tend to evaluate the relationship with their current girlfriend as less desirable,” he says. “But it's not just porn. When they see pictures of a pretty woman, they actively make a comparison.”
And when watching porn, men and women mentally approach the presented situation differently. A 2007 Emory University study shows that men tend to imagine acting on the female star, completely removing the male actor from the scene. Contrastingly, women imagine themselves as the female actor.
Whether the unintended side effects of porn be sexual dissatisfaction, emotional dysfunction, or porn addiction, the numbers in studies demonize porn, pegging it as the destroyer of emotional relationships and downfall of sexual intimacy. But personal experience would dictates otherwise. “I’ve never felt pressured or influenced by porn,” Adam* says, a freshman in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “If people have, however, the problem is thinking the ‘stories’ are real and the sex is realistic. It’s not. People need to realize that porn is not real—the people are truly actors.”
Monica*, a senior in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, concurs. “Have I ever been influenced by porn? Not at all,” she says. “My sex life is nothing like the experiences I’ve had with porn. I watch weird porn, but keep it pretty vanilla in real life.” Despite the perception that porn warps what is expected when the clothes come off, the reality of the situation is not as simple to understand. The competing approaches to porn muddy the water.
It’s been suggested that rather than narrowing the perception of sex, porn actually widens it. Jankowiak explains that the portrayals seen in porn open up new, unexplored avenues of sexual experimentation, forcing viewers to consider things they never would have otherwise—he cites anal sex as an example. Rachel*, a senior in the School of Visual and Performing Arts, understands the pull to experiment with sex. “We see sex everywhere in movies, hear about it in music, and read about it in magazines,” she says. “I think it’s only natural that we are going to explore it.” Rachel expresses an interest in trying out some of the things she’s seen depicted in porn.
Jankowiak confirms this trend. “It’s not that people are having more sex,” he says, “but the type of sexual behavior they engage in is no doubt influenced by the examples they see on the screen.” A 2008 study in the journal NeuroImage illustrates men who watch erotic videos experience mirror neuron activation, and report a desire to replicate the sex acts they see. The men in the study experience what they watch vicariously, but it alone isn’t enough to experience an orgasm; hence why they seek an actual partner.
Even more to the point, Monica explains how she has used porn in the past for inspiration. “I was bored with the sex my ex and I were having, and needed to change it up,” she says. “So I looked up porn videos of girl-on-top. I wanted to learn!” In fact, according to a study done by the University of Arkansas, women’s primary reason for using porn or other sexual media is to enhance partnered sex. Fanelli, agrees, saying that for some couples, porn canboost their sexuality, adding excitement and variety to spice up what may normally be bland intimacy.
This desire to explore coupled with the freedom a college campus allows, creates a space where experimentation is accepted, even welcomed. “In college, you’re less worried about someone looking over your shoulder,” Fanelli says. “There is a lot more conversation, and a lot more interest.” But it remains just that: interest. “I think it’s important to realize that porn is done by actors, no different than major films that are in theaters,” Adam says. “I don’t expect to have sex with one of my teachers any more than I expect Liam Neeson to save my airplane.”
The concrete distinction established between the worlds of porn and reality also dictates how Monica approaches sex. She doesn’t have higher expectations for the men she sleeps with, nor does she feel they expect anything extraordinary from her. “It’s like, ‘No, sorry, there’s no way my leg will go like that,’” she says. This pragmatic approach to sex helps keep the absurdities of porn in check, while allowing her to still have the sex life she wants.
“I think in our reality, pornography actually isn’t good or bad, right or wrong, yes or no,” Fanelli says. “It’s not as simple as that.” In fact, a study conducted by the American Sociological Association found no evidence to support the perception that college students change their sexual behavior because of the kinky narratives they see in porn. And while this notion is unclear, it allows for personal, sexual desires that are often expected, yet not often granted. Though in reality, that freedom doesn’t equate to the rampant hookup culture that has come to be associated with a college campus.
*Editor's note: Names have been changed.