Is porn perverting your sex life, or is it just harmless fun?
People love to point at pornography as the source of perversion in society. Anti-porn advocates are happy to lay blame on adult movies as the root of bad sex, unhealthy attitudes toward women, and assault. Some have gone so far as to push for legislation calling it a “public health crisis.” The reality is that for the majority of people, porn is just porn — and the porn we watch has very little to do with what we want in our sex lives.
“I love porn,” a friend confessed to me the other day. (It turns out that you often end up talking about sex when you work in adult films.) “But I don’t watch porn of things that I would actually do in real life.” He expounded in a way that struck me as interesting: “Gangbangs don’t actually seem fun, but they’re fun to watch. It’s extreme — like a caricature of sex.”
If adult movies were the root of our sexual realities, it would stand to reason that the porn we watch would reflect our fantasies. In his 2018 book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, the Kinsey Institute’s Justin Lehmiller interviewed 4,175 Americans of all ages (18–87), genders, and sexual orientations about their sex lives. The research he collected constitutes the largest and most comprehensive survey of sexual fantasies to date. Group sex, BDSM (particularly submission), and “novelty encounters” (such as outdoor sex) topped out the list of people’s fantasies. That same year, the statistics released by a major adult website showed that the most searched terms were “lesbian,” “hentai” and “milf” — none of which correspond with Lehmiller’s data.
So why the disconnect? If we’re fantasizing about threesomes and power exchange in our real lives, why are we masturbating to lesbians and anime tiddies? Probably because we know that adult entertainment is just that — entertainment. A recently released study by neuroscientist Nicole Prause shows us that our brains respond to porn and masturbation differently than they do to partnered sexual pleasure. As it turns out, the activities stimulate entirely different parts of the brain, which indicates that we inherently separate the two. In short, we know that porn is a fun thing to watch while getting off — and we don’t necessarily relate it to sex with other people, even if it seems like we do.
It is comforting to know that it’s unlikely that erotica is warping our desires. Sexual assault far predates the stag film, after all — but it’s nice to be closer to certain that our personal viewing choices don’t indicate what we choose to share with out partners. Undoubtedly, anti-porn crusaders will continue to call adult films a gateway to violent perversions and bad sex, but for those of us in the know, we can continue to close the blinds and enjoy our adult entertainment without fear.