Cover image credit to Google Earth. 6-minute read.
Imagine this: It’s a Friday afternoon, and you walk in with your kid to the local dollar store to buy a few things. You’re browsing around, maybe picking up those last few things for a night of Netflix binging, when a young man suddenly approaches you and exposes his genitals.
Sound like the beginning of an average porn movie?
In this case, it really happened. A few months ago, 23-year-old Nicholas Sheehy did just that. He “whipped it out” at an Iowa Dollar General because he saw “someone do it on a porn film” and thought that the woman would “respond to it sexually.”
However, unlike the porn movie he saw, this story doesn’t end with a spontaneous sexual encounter, but rather a phone call to the police and a conviction of a major misdemeanor.
While indecent exposure may be an acceptable or common start to sexual encounters found in the videos on porn sites, it’s a crime in real life. This isn’t the only type of unhealthy or illegal act porn conveys as an interesting sexual proposal: nonconsensual sex and incest are other areas the porn world seems to glorify though they are not safe or healthy (or legal) in the real world.
At this point, we know what you might be thinking—lots of unsafe, unhealthy, or unacceptable activities are often shown in movies. Excessive drugs or alcohol, violence, or the guy getting the girl by basically stalking her. It’s all packaged as entertainment, and that doesn’t mean viewers of such content are guaranteed to mimic that behavior themselves. Yet, there’s a catch with porn, and it’s something Nicholas’ story reveals.
No, not even close to a small percentage of porn consumers will try to go outside and expose their genitals to the nearest passerby. Still, his story shows something worth acknowledging:
Porn has the ability to influence consumers’ ideas about sex and their expectations of sexual encounters in reality.
What does the research say about porn and imitation?
Again—we cannot emphasize this enough—not every person who sees porn will try to imitate what they see. Still, some do, and that’s what we’re going to focus on because there’s research to demonstrate this fact.
A study done on 418 men found that participants’ ability to determine a woman’s willingness to engage in various sexual practices was causally linked to their past exposure of certain porn categories. Those who saw taxi or boss-themed porn pornography in the last six months were more likely to think women would like to engage in unprotected sex with a stranger or manager.
Lecturer and researcher at James Cook University, as well as co-author of the study Daniel Miller suggests that, “If you are a porn user—and according to surveys, very large segments of the population are—it might be worth considering if porn has had an influence over your thinking, even at a very basic level.”
Being an experimental investigation, this study isn’t the final word on the matter, though other research on the issue seems to confirm the conclusions of the findings.
For example, a study conducted by Columbia in 2016 found an association between pornography consumption in which the performers used condoms, and the real-life usage of condoms by consumers in their own sexual encounters. Consumers of porn in which condoms were used were more likely to use them themselves, while consumers of porn in which no condoms were used were more likely to take part in unprotected sex.
See how what consumers watch in fantasy can influence their real-life encounters, even on very basic levels?
Another study found that almost 25% of adult women felt scared during sex due to things like: rape/sexual assault risk, incest, lack of consent and asking to stop, aggressive anal sex, STI/pregnancy risk, choking, sex toys and BDSM, being held down, threats, aggression, uncomfortable positions, and novelty/learning. The study discusses the association between consumption of pornography and fear because of themes like anal sex and choking, but it is unsurprising that several of the categories that cause fear are what one of the few female porn directors Erika Lust says, “are presented [in porn] as standard ways to have sex when, in fact, they are niches.”
Porn is more influential than many people realize
The singular, isolated example of Nicholas and these studies help us understand a few things.
First, that mainstream porn, not even necessarily fringe fetish content, influences consumers’ ideas about sex, and our society’s collective expectations about sexual encounters. Especially for young people, research has shown that the influence is greater.
The second thing indicates a major reason why this influence is greater: porn often becomes the main resource for learning about sex, especially among young people. Why? A possible explanation is the general lack of conversation about porn and quality sex education that leads young people to go to porn to fill in the gaps.
Here’s what we’re talking about: In a national survey conducted in the UK, 75% of youth said their school sex ed was impractical and valued it as ranging from fair to terrible. And while that same percent admitted that porn created unrealistic expectations about sex, over 60% of young people still turned to it to fill in gaps of, or as a form of sex education. Because, unlike when you learn to drive which requires tests and is based on regulations that build expectations of safe driving, sex does not have such clearly marked boundaries or expectations for safety.
Think again back to the movies vs. porn comparison. When viewers watch Fast and Furious or consume porn, the impact is not the same because the starting point is not the same. When considering driving versus sex, there is a much greater education gap in terms of knowledge and expectations when it comes to healthy sex, especially in young people who often turn to porn never having had a sexual experience themselves with which to compare with what they see.
Not only that, but porn’s intent is not as clear as a movie’s. Even movies showing illegal activity are clearly understood as containing entertaining, unrealistic content. Meanwhile, porn crosses the line of claiming to present harmless fantasy meant for entertainment yet also offering sexual inspiration for consumers to try. (Ever heard someone suggest watching porn to “get new ideas” if you’re feeling stuck in a sexual rut?)
The real consequences of porn fantasies in reality
Porn may sell unrealistic content, but its consequences are very real. Its powerful ability to influence coupled with limited alternatives for other perspectives on sex mean its unrealistic, and often unhealthy ideas seep into the expectations and encounters of consumers’ sex lives, as research and personal experiences are showing.
So while the news of Nicholas’ Sheehy’s indecent exposure may seem like a laughable incident of someone who should’ve known better, what research increasingly tells us—and a lack of education confirms—is that porn may have a greater influence in understanding sex and in sexual encounters than we think.