Pornification: can you tell fantasy from reality?

Is pornography conditioning the way you behave in bed and how you relate to women? Here, That Guy looks at how porn consumption has exploded and some of the effects it might be having on the way men think and behave around women.

Warning: contains adult themes, suitable for 18+ only

Imagine your only source of information about adulthood was children’s fairy tales. You’d grow up on permanent look-out for sleeping princesses and fairy godmothers. You’d have a pathological fear of big bad wolves, trolls and dragons.

That’s where a generation of young Scottish men find themselves. What they expect of sex is based on the less-than-authentic world of pornography.

Most of society has moved on from thinking masturbation is taboo. Academic research shows the vast majority of men masturbate, some more frequently than others. One recent Harvard study suggested frequent orgasms reduces men’s risk of prostate cancer.

But now porn of every possible variety is on tap. It’s available 24 hours a day from your smartphone, mostly for free. What kind of changes are happening as a result?

  • In 2008 a study showed that 14.4 percent of boys had viewed porn by the age of 13.
  • By 2011 that exposure had jumped to 48.7 percent. An Australian study in 2017 found 69 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls had viewed porn by 13.
  • All males and 82 percent of females had seen porn at some point.
  • In the 2008 study, people viewing porn every single day was low, at 5.2 percent but, by 2011, 13 percent of adolescents were viewing porn daily.
  • In 2017, 39 percent of males and 4 percent of females aged 15 to 29 were viewing porn daily.

This exponential increase has seen many men develop compulsive use of pornography. In his book ‘Your Brain on Porn’, author and researcher, Gary Wilson, explains that “Deep in the primitive part of the brain, [porn sites] register as really valuable because of all the sexual novelty. The extra excitement strengthens the brain circuits that urge you to seek porn again and again. Your own sexual fantasies pale in comparison.”

The most common result, he argues, is erectile dysfunction during ‘real world’ sex and Wilson has gathered tens of thousands of testimonies via his website from men who have experienced this. Part of the issue is that easily accessible extreme porn makes real sex bland.

One contributor said:

“My lowest point was when I couldn’t get it up for my girlfriend… I was visiting doctors: buying books on penis exercises; trying to change habits by masturbating to POV porn (instead of the extreme porn I was addicted to). She was totally supportive of me the entire time… She even bought nice lingerie and made efforts to be the ‘slut in the bedroom’. BUT even with that, I wasn’t turned on because the porn I was into was much more extreme (rape, forced sex).”

The most serious issue about developing ‘porn reactions’ (as one character is described in the 2001 indie film Late Night Shopping) is the way we act during real world sex. It’s a natural impulse to see something arousing online and want to recreate that moment in real life, to revisit that arousal. In her book Rough: how violence has found its way into the bedroom, author, Rachel Thompson, recounts interviewee Abigail’s experience of being throttled during sex:

‘“When he was choking me I didn’t have the breath to tell him to stop and he seemed to be enjoying it so I didn’t want to make a fuss”. Next day she had bruises all over her body – on her neck and breasts – and she had marks on her bum where he had slapped her.’

Choking and bum slapping are standard tropes of porn, a porn director’s shorthand for uncontrolled desire with, perhaps, a nod towards auto-asphyxiation fetish. Erika Lust, one of the few female porn directors, said: “Face slapping, choking, gagging and spitting has become the alpha and omega of any porn scene and not within a BDSM context. These are presented as standard ways to have sex when, in fact, they are niches.”

Viewers are never shown, as part of the porn narrative, the participants agreeing beforehand that these types of actions will be acceptable. In porn there are no safety words. But in the real world, if rough sex (or, let’s face it, violence, to give its proper name) is being added to the mix, explicit consent is essential. Not having enthusiastic consent means these acts constitute sexual assault.

But Rachel Thompson points out that there’s no evidence that porn is the direct cause of sexual violence, rather that it gives permission to attitudes and behaviours that already exist in individuals and wider society. ‘We should take care not to promote false narratives about porn,” she writes, “but at the same time we should be able to dissect mainstream porn’s stereotypes and misinformation…’.

Orly Koppel, a Glasgow psychotherapist, says: “I remember when as a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, the common belief where I lived was that when a boy had an erection, he needed to have sex right away, that it was really important to do it quickly and that putting on a condom might cause him to lose the erection and that would be a very bad thing.

“The implication was simply having an erection entitled him to sex,” Koppel continues. “I shudder to think that my friends and I believed this to be true. What did we think would happen if we refused sex? This was long before teenage boys had access to porn so where did this belief come from? Social and cultural norms of male entitlement?”

Part of the dissection Thompson refers to involves looking at other tropes at the heart of pornography that involve men dominating and demeaning women. Large amounts of porn are made involving women dominating men, but even a casual observer knows the most common motifs fetishize male power. In the world of male fantasy, clearly this is a turn-on for some (but not all) men. However, it’s vital that young men understand that this is no more than a fantasy. Acting in this way with a woman has the potential to be, at best, selfish and, at worst, criminal.

Thompson’s quotes Chyng Sun, professor of media studies at NYU, and co-author of the film The Price of Pleasure. Sun interviewed around 50 men and women on the subject of sexually aggressive acts like facial ejaculation. ‘The vast majority of the female subjects found the acts humiliating but had been requested to do it by male sexual partners or hook-ups. Some refused and those who relented did so out of a sense of obligation.’

She continues, ‘Some men really want to engage in this act and, instead of asking and getting rejected, they just do it, and usually there are no serious consequences.’

Orly Koppel, sees evidence of pornification in the young people she works with: “I’ve heard from many young people and their parents that it is apparently common for 13-14 year old boys to demand blow jobs from girls in their class, just any girl, in other words, not even their girlfriends, which is in itself alarming. What I find even more concerning is that many of the girls do not even realise they are being exploited as this behaviour has become normalised in their peer group. Apparently, if a girl refuses, she is ostracised and deemed to be “frigid” or gay. It seems as though male entitlement starts at a terrifyingly early age.”

And this is the key takeaway – porn encourages a fantasy that anything goes and sexual whims of one partner (the viewer) can always be explored. But real sex, good sex, hot sex, involves two people both getting pleasure, not just one.

Koppel adds: “Porn is not intimacy. In fact, you could say porn is sex without sexual and emotional intimacy. Intimacy requires connection to another human being and this is not possible when watching porn or trying to re-enact porn with someone you would like to be intimate with. There has to be a balance of power and if there is male entitlement driving the relationship or the sexual encounter, that becomes impossible to achieve.”

Fairy tales have their place in our culture. They entertain. They help us face some of our fears. We root for the heroes and heroines. They allow us to explore a little of the dark side. But understanding the difference between fantasy and reality, and the importance of sex being based on communication and mutual pleasure, is the only way to guarantee happily ever after.