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How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding of Healthy Sex

Most young people are getting at least some of their education about sex from porn, whether they mean to or not. This is especially concerning, considering how wildly unrealistic and toxic porn can be.

By May 14, 2021June 10th, 2021No Comments
TRIGGER WARNING

 

Imagine what would happen if your school’s health class was taught by a cigarette salesman. Chances are, you wouldn’t hear much about lung cancer or how much shorter the typical smoker’s lifespan is. He might even try to tell you that smoking could boost your sprint time. Sounds ridiculous, right? But that’s the kind of education countless people are getting about sex every day.

Great “sexpectations”

While porn is often called “adult material,” many of its consumers are well under the legal age.Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). Adolescents and pornography: A review of 20 years of research.53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441COPY  Studies show that most young people are exposed to porn by age 13,British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCOPY  and according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens, 84.4% of 14 to 18-year-old males and 57% of 14 to 18-year-old females have viewed pornography.Wright, P. J., Paul, B., & Herbenick, D. (2021). Preliminary insights from a U.S. probability sample on adolescents’ pornography exposure, media psychology, and sexual aggression. J.Health Commun., 1-8. doi:10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980COPY  That means that most young people are getting at least some of their education about sex from porn, whether they mean to or not. In fact, one study shows that approximately 45% of teens who consumed porn did so in part to learn about sex.British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCOPY  Similarly, survey results also show one in four 18 to 24-year-olds (24.5%) listed pornography as the most helpful source to learn how to have sex.Rothman, E. F., Beckmeyer, J. J., Herbenick, D., Fu, T. C., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2021). The Prevalence of Using Pornography for Information About How to Have Sex: Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey of U.S. Adolescents and Young Adults. Archives of sexual behavior, 50(2), 629–646. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01877-7COPY 

It’s no secret that porn is wildly unrealistic and often incredibly toxic, yet survey results also showed that over half of 11 to 16-year-old boys (53%) and over a third of 11 to 16-year-old girls (39%) reported believing that pornography was a realistic depiction of sex.Martellozzo, E., Monaghan, A., Adler, J. R., Davidson, J., Leyva, R., & Horvath, M. A. H. (2016). 'I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it'. London: NSPCC. Retrieved from https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/research-resources/2016/i-wasn-t-sure-it-was-normal-to-watch-itCOPY 

In fact, 44% of boys who watched porn reported that online pornography gave them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.Martellozzo, E., Monaghan, A., Adler, J. R., Davidson, J., Leyva, R., & Horvath, M. A. H. (2016). 'I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it'. London: NSPCC. Retrieved from https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/research-resources/2016/i-wasn-t-sure-it-was-normal-to-watch-itCOPY  Just like cigarette commercials often show healthy people puffing away rather than showing the cancer-causing potential, porn is frequently offering a completely warped and unrealistic idea of what healthy sex and relationships are really like.

Toxic content

According to a 2021 study, 1 out of every 8 porn titles shown to first-time visitors to porn sites described acts of sexual violence.Vera-Gray, F., McGlynn, C., Kureshi, I., & Butterby, K. (2021). Sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online pornography. The British Journal of Criminology, doi:10.1093/bjc/azab035COPY  And according to studies analyzing the content of porn videos themselves, it’s estimated that as few as 1 in 3 porn videos (33.9%) and as many as 9 in 10 videos (88.2%) show acts of physical aggression or violence, while 48.7%—about half—contain verbal aggression.Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: a content analysis update. Violence against women, 16(10), 1065–1085. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210382866COPY Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0COPY  These studies also found that despite the levels of violence and aggression, the targets were almost always portrayed as responding with pleasure or neutrality. What type of message does that send to young people who turn to porn to learn about sex?

Related: How Porn Can Promote Sexual Violence

Porn is primarily produced for entertainment purposes, not education, but the ideas porn sells are not conducive to a healthy understanding of sex, sexuality, or mutual pleasure. In fact, research confirms that women are the targets of aggression or violence in porn about 97% of the time,Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0COPY  and that only 18.3% of women in popular porn videos (compared to 78% of men) were shown to reach climax.Séguin, L. J., Rodrigue, C., & Lavigne, J. (2018). Consuming Ecstasy: Representations of Male and Female Orgasm in Mainstream Pornography. Journal of sex research, 55(3), 348–356. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2017.1332152COPY  And of course, one of the most consistently popular porn themes is “teen,” which research shows is becoming increasingly popular, and includes the portrayal of underage characters.Walker, A., Makin, D. A., & Morczek, A. L. (2016). Finding Lolita: A comparative analysis of interest in youth-oriented pornography. Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, 20(3), 657–683. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-016-9355-0COPY 

In addition to the abusive behaviors consistently shown in porn, porn often promotes a number of other problematic sexual narratives. Porn sites are full of videos that not only portray but normalize and fetishize incest, unequal power dynamics, and a variety of situations where marginalized or vulnerable people are abused or taken advantage of.

For example, porn often presents sexual orientation or gender identity as a fetish, dehumanizing those who are not cisgender or heterosexual rather than normalizing them as people deserving of equal love and respect. Whether using degrading slurs to describe transgender people, or the common theme of “girl on girl” content that’s actually catered to the male gaze, porn regularly exploits those in the LGBTQ+ community and caricaturizes, mischaracterizes, and co-opts their experiences as entertaining fetishes rather than legitimate lived experiences.

Additionally, porn often depicts and profits from blatantly racist narratives. According to researchers who performed a content analysis of more than 1,700 scenes from two of the world’s most popular porn sites, videos featuring Black people disproportionately emphasize violence and aggression, perpetuate harmful racist stereotypes, and often depict Black people as “worse than objects.”Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2021). Worse than objects: The depiction of black women and men and their sexual relationship in pornography. Gender Issues, 38(1), 100-120. doi:10.1007/s12147-020-09255-2COPY  The porn industry often fetishizes race, reducing people of color to sexual categories that often focus on damaging stereotypes.xHamster. (2018). xHamster trend report 2018. Retrieved from https://xhamster.com/blog/posts/745297COPY  Dr. Carolyn West, an expert on domestic violence and cultural sensitivity, has taught courses on Human Sexuality for more than 20 years. Discussing the porn industry’s history of perpetuating racism against the Black community, she explains, “It doesn’t take long to stumble upon any number of racist titles that promote offensive and unwarranted racial stereotypes.” She continues, “The porn industry appears to get a free pass to promote horrifically racist and abusive content in the name of sexual entertainment to anyone with internet access, even children.”West, C. M. (2021). Why does the porn industry get away with racist portrayals of Black people? Fight the New Drug. Retrieved from https://fightthenewdrug.org/why-does-the-porn-industry-get-away-with-racist-portrayals-of-black-people/COPY 

Related: How the Porn Industry Capitalizes Off of Racism and Racist Stereotypes

How porn affects consumers

Some people argue, That’s not a big deal, it’s just fantasy. But research shows that porn’s influence can and does find its way into young people’s sexual expectations and behaviors.Koletić G. (2017). Longitudinal associations between the use of sexually explicit material and adolescents' attitudes and behaviors: A narrative review of studies. Journal of adolescence, 57, 119–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.04.006COPY Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). Adolescents and pornography: A review of 20 years of research.53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441COPY  For example, a recent poll found that the more porn a man consumes, the more likely he is to be dissatisfied with his penis size. And the same goes for women with male partners—the more porn they consume, the less satisfied they are with their partner’s penis size.International Andrology London. (2017). The porn hypothesis – findings prove porn consumption fuels the desire for penis enlargement surgery in the UK. Retrieved from https://london-andrology.co.uk/news/the-porn-hypothesis-findings-prove-porn-consumption-fuels-the-desire-for-penis-enlargement-surgery-in-the-uk/COPY  Research also consistently demonstrates that porn consumption is a significant predictor of sexual aggression.Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12201COPY Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). Adolescents and pornography: A review of 20 years of research.53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441COPY Wright, P. J., Paul, B., & Herbenick, D. (2021). Preliminary Insights from a U.S. Probability Sample on Adolescents' Pornography Exposure, Media Psychology, and Sexual Aggression. Journal of health communication, 1–8. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980COPY Goodson, A., Franklin, C. A., & Bouffard, L. A. (2021). Male peer support and sexual assault: The relation between high-profile, high school sports participation and sexually predatory behaviour. 27(1), 64-80. doi:10.1080/13552600.2020.1733111COPY  Studies also suggest that increased pornography consumption is associated with the enjoyment of degrading, uncommon, or aggressive sexual behaviors.Ezzell, M. B., Johnson, J. A., Bridges, A. J., & Sun, C. F. (2020). I (dis)like it like that: Gender, pornography, and liking sex. J.Sex Marital Ther., 46(5), 460-473. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2020.1758860COPY  Another study indicated that teens often reported trying to copy porn in their own sexual encounters, and that the pressure to imitate porn was often an aspect of unhealthy relationships.Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). 'Without Porn … I Wouldn't Know Half the Things I Know Now: A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of sex research, 52(7), 736–746. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2014.960908COPY  And according to a UK survey of over 22,000 adult women, 16% reported having been forced or coerced to perform sex acts the other person had seen in porn.Taylor, J., & Shrive, J. (2021). ‘I thought it was just a part of life’: Understanding the scale of violence committed against women in the UK since birth. VictimFocus. Retrieved from https://irp.cdn-website.com/f9ec73a4/files/uploaded/Key-Facts-Document-VAWG-VictimFocus-2021a.pdfCOPY 

Related: How Porn Can Normalize Sexual Objectification

But just as harmful as the things porn shows is what it doesn’t show. Pornography doesn’t give an accurate picture of what healthy sex is like; it cuts out important things like consent, communication, foreplay, and other ways partners are responsive to each other’s needs and preferences.

For example, a study of adolescents in Australia found that a significantly higher proportion of respondents reported frequently seeing violence than those who reported frequently seeing romance or affection when they watched pornography during the previous 12 months. Respondents also reported that they frequently saw behaviors that are demeaning to women, such as ejaculation onto the face of a woman, violence against women that appears consensual, slurs directed at women, and women gagging during oral sex. The researchers concluded that their findings “raise interesting questions for future studies with young people about the way that they perceive both violence and pleasure in pornography and how seeing these behaviors in pornography influences their own understanding of sex and sexuality.”Davis, A. C., Carrotte, E. R., Hellard, M. E., & Lim, M. S. C. (2018). What behaviors do young heterosexual Australians see in pornography? A cross-sectional study.55(3), 310-319. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1417350COPY 

Many young people’s expectations regarding sex have been affected by porn without even realizing it. As one young woman related to us when talking about being sexually intimate with her partner, “We were having sex when, out of nowhere, he spit on me. I didn’t know how to react. He was embarrassed when he saw that he wasn’t getting the reaction he was expecting…. What he’d seen [in porn] had created unrealistic expectations for what sex would be like. He saw people do things to each other and get certain reactions, and assumed they’d transfer into real life.”Fight the New Drug. (2019). True story: What porn taught my husband to do during sex . Retrieved from https://fightthenewdrug.org/what-porn-taught-my-husband-to-do-during-sex/COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Harm Consumers’ Sex Lives

When it comes to the consequences of sexual acts portrayed in pornography, there are often two extremes. Most porn falls into the first extreme, which ignores any potential negative consequences of violent behavior, a lack of consent, or not using sexual protection and contraceptives. However, at the other extreme are videos where the pain of those portrayed in videos is glamorized, even if people on screen are shown becoming upset. These videos eroticize and glorify sexual violence, and consequences such as skin tearing, bruising, prolapsed anuses, sexually transmitted infections, or unplanned pregnancies are portrayed as trophies or evidence of the violence and domination inflicted upon the performers.

As Dagbjört Ásbjörnsdóttir, a sexologist at the Reykjavik Department of Education and Youth, has stated, “I believe—and research backs it—that material that children see online affects their ideas on sex… We need to react before the damage is done and we need to prevent children [from] seeing something online that might harm them or give them delusions.”Euronews. (2018). Tackling the impact of porn on Iceland's youths. Retrieved from https://www.euronews.com/2018/01/31/tackling-the-impact-of-porn-on-iceland-s-youthsCOPY 

Related: How Porn Can Become An Escalating Behavior

Porn isn’t just entertainment. It isn’t just intended for arousal. Whether intentionally or not, it teaches toxic messages that can have real-world consequences.

The research is clear—porn can warp consumers’ ideas about sex and relationships. But the good news is that we can limit those negative effects by raising awareness on this issue, especially to young people. So let’s refocus on healthy relationships and reject the toxic narratives porn perpetuates. Let’s consider the facts before consuming.

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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