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(sex)uality: what is pornography teaching us about sex?

Image: Tom Morris

Image: Tom Morris


NB: Some sites linked to within this article refer to sexually explicit adult material that may not be suitable for work.

Earlier in the year I went to a live art installation project that featured some nude displays (both male and female). The event was quite an upmarket artistic event and there was nothing gratuitous or even inherently sexual about the nudity. They were just naked.

Yet this did not stop the 50-something year old man in the line in front of me gushing like a school boy to his friends about his sudden discovery of female pubic hair. Aside from being a really dumb thing to say in general, I suddenly felt very uncomfortable for two reasons.

First, his wife was there (also giggling) and so I was now very privy to her hair removal practices. Second, this guy was pretty much twice my age. If his incredulities were to be believed, he had never realised that females also have pubic hair. I took this to mean that (outside of his shaven wife) he may also watch a lot of pornography – either way, far too much information to suddenly acquire about complete strangers at an art opening.

Unfortunately this man reflects a growing percentage of the population whose ideas of sex and sexuality are coming from pornography.  According to a survey conducted by the University of East London of 16­-20 year olds, 97% of males and 80% of females stated that they had viewed pornography.

In an age where access to information around these previously censored topics is more accessible than ever, it appears that a large number of people are still only getting the limited perspective of sex and sexuality – as this is what mainstream pornography offers. This is where advertising executive Cindy Gallop and her groundbreaking new website come in.

Launching her website at a TEDex conference in 2009, Gallop stated that ‘there is an entire generation growing up that believes what you see in hardcore pornography is the way that you have sex’. In an attempt to combat this influence, Gallop launched a website makelovenotporn.com (NB: this site contains adult material). The website challenges the assumed universalities that mainstream pornography presents to viewers about sex and sexual encounters.  In doing so, Gallop hopes to help distinguish between what constitutes as pornography from “real sex’.

This isn’t to have us all wringing our hands is despair and gasping disapprovingly at pornography. The issue is multifaceted and much more complex. Pornography is not the issue, but its increasing and unchecked influence as a means of sexual education is.

If education systems are still bound by strict anatomical interpretations of sex and sexual health, and the taboo around sexuality prevents open and comfortable dialogue between children and their parents, then what little option does a curious young person have but to turn to the internet? ‘It is not surprising that hardcore pornography de facto has become sex education’, says Gallop.

Looking back over my own school-taught sex education, I remember very scientific based discussions of reproduction and anatomy, complete with sufficiently ambiguous cartoon documentaries to help illustrate the entire process.

But the more complex issues (both mental and physical) surrounding sex and sexuality were not discussed. As a result one was left with a similar amount of knowledge that one gets about conducting brain surgery by watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

Having this experience, I can understand the motivation for wanting to actually know more that would first lead young people to pornography. But as American porn star and sex educator Nina Hartley says, ‘Watching porn to learn to have sex is like watching Vin Diesel movies to learn how to drive.’

Not only is it the blurring of performance with reality, but it is also the presentation of a singular sexual worldview that is problematic. As Gallop states, the majority of mainstream pornography is driven by men and created ultimately for a male heteronormative viewer.

Therefore unsuspecting or inexperienced viewers are receiving a very limited and at times warped perception of what one may actually encounter during sex, or what it means to be “sexual”. ‘Porn says, “This is the way it is” and what I want to say is “Not necessarily”’, says Gallop.

Rather than judging pornography users or pretending that such issues do not exist, sites like makelovenotporn.com provide a much needed commentary and counterpoint to the mainstream sexual viewing. Ultimately I think that there needs to be a breaking down of the barriers surrounding open and safe discussion of sex and sexuality. In the meantime, having a website that opens the dialogue regarding sex is a step in the right direction.

7 thoughts on “(sex)uality: what is pornography teaching us about sex?

  1. Is there any non-anecdotal, statistical based evidence that people use porn to learn how to have sex, or is there just evidence that people use porn?

    I find it fascinating that Nina Hartley can readily see the absurdity of thx notion of people watching Vin Diesel movies to learn how to drive, but then flips her own logic on its head with her assumption that people *do* watch porn to learn how to sex.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your feedback. I found a lot of material in writing this article to support the notion that young people are watching pornography at an age when they are typically learning about sex, and that exposure is influencing how those ideas are developed.

    As well as the study conducted by University of East London (referenced in the article), that link will take you to another article which quotes psychiatrist Norman Doidge MD who has uncovered the physiological side effects on his male patients who have been exposed to pornography (more here http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/26/brain-scans-porn-addicts-sexual-tastes). Clearly this demonstrates the influence that pornography can have on any person’s sexual development (whether learning or not).

    This is in addition to statistics such as those released in a University of Canberra study which reveal that 90% of 13-16 boys and 60% of 13-16 girls surveyed had watched pornography (http://www.ianpotter.org.au/news-love-and-sex). This is a formative age when all young people are learning about personal development, sex and sexuality. I don’t think it is too long a bow to draw that having pornography as an introduction to sex is affecting the way inexperienced viewers learn about sex.

    Obviously without knowing the exact detail of these studies, I cannot draw conclusive evidence myself, however I do accept the conclusions drawn by these professionals that even if it is not the sole means of sexual education for young people (which indeed it can be in some cases), pornography is having a strong influence on ideas about sex and sexuality for the inexperienced viewer. That is why I think sites such as makelovenotporn.com are important to open up sexual discourse for any and all viewers.

  3. Thanks for the response! The first article you cite doesn’t support or have much relevance to Gallop’s assertion that “‘there is an entire generation growing up that believes what you see in hardcore pornography is the way that you have sex’”.

    It is generally acknowledged among psychologists that humans are capable of developing addictions in any kind of behaviour based on the repetitive stimulation of endorphins (cocaine, gambling, red bull). The issue at hand is whether an increasing number of young people are having their views on sex changed. In order to answer this, we’d need to have some sort of quantative data of what pre-internet porn generations of teenagers considered conventional sexual behaviour, and contrast that against quantative data of attitudes in the contemporary era. Otherwise what does it even mean to say people’s attitudes are changing unless we can agree on what they’re changing from?

    To see why citing the amount of people exposed to porn is not sufficient to draw conclusions, consider why the generation that has been exposed to the most violent media in the history of mankind (endless horror flicks, James Bonds, GTA, nerf guns, toy soldiers, etc) are also the generation with the lowest homicide rate and lowest propensity to commit violence in recorded history.

  4. I was thinking something along these lines – I’m doubtful that ideas about how bodies should look, and pubic hair specifically, are influenced solely, or even primarily, by viewing pornography.

    It all depends a bit how much porn young people view; and whether they view the pornography critically or uncritically: just saying that ‘of 16­-20 year olds, 97% of males and 80% of females stated that they had viewed pornography’ leaves a lot up to interpretation. And it depends on what sort of porn, too: women’s erotica and men’s erotica are very different.

    Sex scenes are also pretty common in A-grade movies, stuff from Hollywood or arthouse material from Europe (hell, the sex in arthouse movies has long been a cliche). There the emphasis on sex is very different from the emphasis on sex in porn. It’s often more romantic, for one thing, and often more coy – so, genitals are hidden and (especially in Hollywood) unwanted hair is probably removed from the bodies of actresses.

    And then even if the young folk are shy, classically-minded types who just want to grow up to be art historians and haven’t viewed porn in their life, there, too, images involving pubic hair can be far and few between. In fact it’s said when 19th century art critic John Ruskin saw his wife naked on their wedding night he was horrified and repelled by her pubic hair, which he had no idea about until then. (Poor Ruskins!)

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