Throughout the history of humankind, people have been obsessed with sex. Whether it be for love, for pleasure, or for procreation, people are deeply fascinated with sex. It is no surprise then, that humanity has sought to portray sex through various forms of art and media. From the naked statuette of Venus of Willendorf found during the ice ages, to the sexual depictions of Grecian and Roman art, and since the conception of literature on sexuality through the Kama Sutra, the pornographic representation of sex has been prevalent, persistent, and constantly evolving since the dawn of time.
Today, due to advancements in technology, pornography has evolved in modern society alongside with the advent of the Internet. As more and more people gradually become integrated with technology and connected to the Internet, there is no doubt that the influence of pornography has reached them in one form or another. With this ease of access, the portrayal of sex through pornography has left the dark and seedy smutty underground world and has made its way into the digital daylight of public view, stirring up numerous controversies within the realms of morality, religion, politics, sociology, psychology, as well as personal intimate relationships. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the full effects of pornography, positive and negative, that Internet pornography has on a society which intertwines sex and technology.
Throughout human evolution, a man’s reproductive success depended on the number of women he inseminated; the more women he spread his seed to, the greater the chance is for the survival of the human species. According to Paul Wright, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Indiana University researching the social aspects of sex, a woman’s physical appearance revealed clues to her reproductive health; therefore, men have evolved to pursue women who are young, have busty breasts, curvy hips, plump butts, and have an inclination towards casual sex. Now, although there have been drastic changes to the modern environment, men’s primeval reproductive instincts have remained the same while adapting with the evolution of pornography. Hence, pornography solves a primal problem for modern men: the simulation of sex with multiple partners without any risk of commitment, pregnancy, or disease.
William Struthers, Ph.D., a biopsychologist and the author of Wired for Intimacy, reveals that when sexual stimuli or pornographic images is viewed by men, their mesolimbic (reward) system activates, producing a surge of dopamine, a feel-good chemical neurotransmitter, that is released in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for reinforcing certain behaviors due to its association with the pleasant feelings it creates. For this reason, dopamine is also associated with drug abuse, addiction, and for the argument against the use of porn.
Another powerful motivator that is a part of the brain is called “the mirror neuron system,” which compels men to simulate the action they see others perform. According to a study conducted in 2008 by the neuroscience journal NeuroImage, men reported having a desire to replicate the sexual acts they saw after watching porn due to their mirror neuron system being activated. Furthermore, the study found that the stronger their mirror neuron response was to pornography, the harder their erections tended to be. Struthers states, “When you’re viewing something sexual, the mirror neuron system enables you to vicariously experience it.” Marital therapist Jill Manning, Ph.D., author of What’s the Big Deal about Pornography?, adds, “Internet pornography is especially stimulating to the brain because you have the feeling of being engaged directly.”
For most Internet porn, the camera usually focuses solely on shots of the penis, vaginal penetration, and the bodies of the women. The purpose of these camera angles is to make men feel like they’re actually having sex and not just watching it. There is even a specific genre of pornography that is shot solely through this perspective called POV (Point-of-View). In a 2007 Emory University study, the findings revealed that when men watched porn, they imagined acting on the female porn star rather than saw it as a male actor performing with a female actress on screen, removing the male actor from their minds completely. Similarly, when men were asked to combine verbs with sexually implicit images of provocative women in a 2011 Princeton University study, they would pair the verbs into first-person statements, such as “I grab” or “I control.” The study author’s Susan Fiske, Ph.D., director of Princeton University’s intergroup relations and social neurosciences lab, states that “when looking at the bikini-clad women, these men were thinking, ‘I am acting on this person,’ rather than, ‘She is acting,’” because men normally focus on actively performing sexual acts rather than passively receiving them.
Once again, the reason why men have such a strong neurological response to porn compared to women is because the erotic depictions align with men’s sexual interests more. The sexual stimuli imitates casual sex which men desire without the threat of commitment, unwanted pregnancy, or disease.
Contrary to popular belief, the desire that men have for porn may stem from a craving for closeness, connection and intimacy. “In our culture, we have a narrow understanding of intimacy as sexual intercourse,” Struthers says. “But it’s bigger than that. It’s really about people connecting with one another.” In 2011, a British study revealed that men who view porn crave intimacy and closeness more than nonusers, suggesting that porn isn’t devoid or an escape from connection, but rather possibly, quite the opposite. In addition, Struthers says, “people think porn is about sex. It’s not; it’s about intimacy. The guy who can’t find a girlfriend and starts looking at porn is searching for intimacy. He hasn’t found it. He’s found the erotic payoff of orgasm. It’s a counterfeit form of intimacy.” Understandably, that although arousal is essential for sexual intimacy, it needs to be coupled with interpersonal connection as well. To clarify, Struthers says, “Sexual intimacy has two components: One is sensual; the other is contextual.” Since intimacy for men begins with sexual attraction, desire, and arousal, he pursues that first. Conversely, intimacy for women is contextual. In order to them to be intimate with a partner, they need to know who the guy is and what are the grounds of their relationship. As a couple becomes more involved, their definition of intimacy begins to align: the man values the context of his partner and values her as his girlfriend, whereas the woman allows herself to become more open sexually and erotically. Ultimately, “it’s when the two are enmeshed that you have a deep, sexually intimate relationship,” says Struthers.
Unlike men, the reason why and the way women use porn is entirely different. Women tend to use porn as a way to express and explore their sexuality. They use it to connect mentally with their sexual identity and their partners. Women’s use of porn is more focused on the relational aspect rather than solely being about sexual stimulation. According to Ana Bridges, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Arkanasas, “when women use explicit materials, they choose erotica. When men and women look at materials together, they tend to look at erotica. But when men look at materials alone, they look at pornography.” Erotica, similar to porn, is sexual stimuli, but the difference between the two is that erotica depends on the interpersonal connection whereas pornography downplays the relational aspect. Before erotica and pornography were distinguished by erotica being separated from smutty, nonviolent, non-degrading, and consensual sex. But now, according to Australian sex researchers, the primary distinguishing characteristic between the two is intimacy. The reason why Fifty Shades of Grey has been dubbed “mommy porn” is because although it features elements of S&M (sadomasochism), it is still about a relationship—the core of what turns women on. Erotica appeals to women’s evolved sexual drive of acquiring a committed partner or child rearing whereas porn depicts casual sex with multiple partners; hence, being more appealing to men.
Dr. Bridges states that hard-core pornography allows a person to become “aroused more quickly and intensely” because “when there is more action, more intensity of emotion—it doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive emotion; it can just be intensity—then arousal increases.” In relation, recent research suggests that the surge of Internet pornography has amplified men’s evolved drive for casual sex. Case in point: in a recent study conducted by Dr. Wright reveals that men who watch porn are more likely to have multiple sex partners and participate in extramarital sex. In a follow-up study, Dr. Wright states that “viewing pornography was associated with increases in casual sex, but the reverse wasn’t true—casual sex didn’t predict pornography use.” These studies correlate with what psychologists call “sexual script theory,” which is the theory that the pornographic media consumed by people define and shape their views and expectations of what sex should be like. Since the vast majority of sexual education focuses solely on risk preventative measures for sexual health, such as disease and unplanned pregnancy preventions, the general population of people are not educated about how to have sex or how to make sex more pleasurable. So in order to experience the pleasurable sex that they seek, “people look at other people as behavioral models, gaining an idea of how a specific sexual encounter is supposed to go,” says Elizabeth Morgan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Boise State University.
Although a recent University of Arkansas study reveals that the two most common sexual acts depicted in top-selling pornographic videos are slapping women and ejaculating on them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all men fantasize about performing these sexual behaviors. Personal preference and sexual experience plays a role in what influences the sexual desires and expectations of men. “If you’re seeing this but have a long history of relationships and have other role models for sexuality, it’s probably not going to have the same impact as if this were your first glimpse into the world of sex,” says Bridges. It is when men are more neutral or curious about a specific sex act that porn can shape their sexual predilections.
This is when porn can be problematic for younger viewers and users. In a 1985 study, 92 percent of men had looked at Playboy and in a 2008 study, 74 percent had seen Internet porn by age 15. Since between the ages of 12 and 20, the human brain undergoes a period of neuroplasticity, a malleable phase during which billions of new synaptic connections are made from the influences of stimuli and the surrounding environment, the younger a guy is when he starts surfing porn sites, Dr. Bridges notes, the greater the potential influence is on his sexual expectations. In conjunction with these statistics, a recent study of college students in the Journal of Sex Research revealed that men who watched porn once a week expressed a greater desire for partners who talked dirty, dominated them, used sex toys, had shaved pubic areas, and participated in threesomes than men who watched it less frequently. Because porn oftentimes paints an unrealistic picture of sexuality, body image, and relationships, it can be intimidating by creating sexual expectations for real-life experiences that may not be fulfilled. According to Men’s Health, March 2004 issue, the average size of a man’s erect penis is 5.8 inches long, while the average male porn star’s erect penis size is 8 inches long. Also, 85% of female porn stars have breast implants and 100% of porn picture centerfolds are enhanced. Since pornography presents a reality where relationships are meaningless and emphasizes immediate sexual gratification, adolescent viewers may have unrealistic expectations when it comes to their sexuality, sexual behaviors, and body image.
Pornography isn’t inherently bad though. Nearly a quarter of men and women say pornography has helped them experiment more in bed, and just over 20 percent say porn has made them more comfortable voicing their desires, according to recent research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. “If you’re looking at pornography for sexual learning—to give your significant other a more pleasurable oral sex experience, for example—you may be less likely to become compulsive than someone who views it because he is depressed and lonely,” says Wright. In fact, in a study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, men who used Internet porn for sexual education experienced an increase in real-life sexual activity with a partner.
Although pornography can be educational and exploratory when it comes to sex and relationships, problems can arise from watching porn. It is when users use pornography as a coping mechanism for stress or other issues that pornography becomes problematic. A recent University of Arkansas study found that a third of men use porn to ease boredom or stress and a fifth turn to it when they’re lonely. The same study linked sexual media use to depression in men but not women. Dr. Bridges explains that, “women with even mild levels of depression start to lose interest in sex quickly. But for men, depression has to reach severe levels before their sexual drive goes down.” Furthermore, when a person is struggling with addiction, not only does that person have a normal sex drive but also have other powerful motivators. “This person has two really strong motivations going—a pretty potent sexual cocktail—and a whole lot more reason to use the porn,” says Ray Bergner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Illinois State University. “So the potential for becoming hooked is greater.” For example, a person may use pornography to create a fantasy in order to overcome and recover from a traumatic event that may have left them feeling degraded. When there are secondary motives, such as loneliness or stress, as opposed to the primary motive of sexual pleasure, these at-risk users “tend to be associated with problematic use,” states Dr. Bridges.
A Norwegian study revealed that when only one partner used porn, couples reported sexual dysfunction and low arousal within the relationship. But couples who used porn together, reported fewer sexual problems. In the 2011 Archives of Sexual Behavior study, 36 percent of women said they equate porn use with cheating, whereas only 7 percent of men felt the same way. Over 40 percent of women admitted to worrying that their partner’s porn use is a sign of sexual dissatisfaction while only 10 percent of men said the same.
“Women are often distressed by men’s porn use because they feel it’s personal, that he must not think she’s good enough,” Dr. Bridges says. “But it’s almost never personal.”
Although it may not be personal, it may still have a personal impact. Sexual media use is consistently linked to lower relationship satisfaction in men. Again, this may coincide with the sexual-script theory, where porn can create unrealistic sexual expectations in men causing mounting frustration with their real-world sex life and personal relationships.
Ultimately, while studies and research continue to emerge, the results have been inconsistent, methodologically flawed, or approached biasedly regarding the negative effects of pornography. It is important to understand that pornography contains positive elements as well as negative aspects regarding its consumption. Society should understand that the prevalence of pornography, alongside the evolution of technology, is and will always remain a facet of our existence. Therefore, it is our duty and responsibility to remain vigilant with ongoing research about pornography’s psychological, sociological, and interpersonal effects. Rather than condemning the use of pornography and shunning certain sexual behaviors, society as a whole needs to speak frankly about pornography in order to educate, enrich, and promote the public about healthy sex practices, behaviors, and expectations.