Has Porn Affected Your Sex Life?

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Have you ever experienced negative effects from porn in your own sex life and relationships? Clarisse Thorn discusses the effect porn has had on her and on the sexuality of others.

I was recently discussing the cultural Porn Wars with a middle-aged friend. The Porn Wars feature many allegations: that porn has “hijacked” our sexuality and changed the way we have sex; that making porn should be illegal or highly regulated; that the Internet, with its proliferation of porn, is a particular villain in the whole saga. My friend asked me, “Growing up in the Internet Generation, have you observed negative effects from porn in your own sex life and relationships? What about your friends’?”

I thought for a moment. “It’s hard to say,” I said finally.

Conventional wisdom has it that porn is ruining the sexual standards of our young people, particularly young men, and to the detriment of young women. This argument is made in hysterical pro-censorship terms by cultural conservatives, and I don’t have time for those people. But sometimes it’s made more moderately, by sex-positive feminists I respect. For example, Ozy Frantz and Noah Brand recently published an article in AlterNet titled “The Absurd Myths Porn Teaches Us About Sex.” Snip:

“I had a boyfriend who didn’t realize that women had pubic hair,” [one young woman said]. “Because he had only watched porn, he had never seen a naked woman outside of porn, so he just sort of failed to realize they had pubic hair.”

… Talking to various young people about porn and sexuality, we quickly discovered a treasure trove of sadly mistaken beliefs about sex. A teenage boy who believed that all women, no matter how much they protested otherwise, really wanted to be called sluts when they had sex. Guys who think that foreplay is just jamming a few fingers up someone’s vagina before sex. People who didn’t know you need lube to have anal sex.

I definitely support Brand and Frantz’s ultimate argument—that as a culture, we need more comprehensive sex education. As they note, “truly comprehensive sex education can point out the diversity of sex: People have different bodies, different desires, and different abilities; it’s not that the sex presented in mainstream porn is the best and other people’s sex is less good, but that there are thousands of possible and enjoyable sex lives.” (I’ve made the same argument when writing about the porn wars, in fact.)

Even so, in all the conversations about porn and sexuality, I often wonder if mainstream porn is unfairly taking the fall for the fact that cultural sexual norms exist, and certain fantasies are prevalent. It’s the age-old question of media: Which came first, the social issue or the corroborating myth? Wouldn’t there be people who didn’t know you need lube for anal sex, even without watching porn? To refocus the question on something slightly less inflammatory than porn: skinny, white cisgendered (“cisgender” refers to people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) women dominate the general media too, and those images contribute to the insecurities of women who aren’t skinny, white, cisgendered, etc. But how much can this be pinned on the media, and how much does it happen because our culture already saw skinny white cis women as most beautiful?

When my middle-aged friend asked about the impact of porn on my own life, my thoughts jumped to a gentleman friend and recent fling who I’ll call Ben. Ben is a gentle and reflective guy; he knows how to touch a lady lightly, and is fun in bed. At one point during the frolics, Ben wanted to enjoy a certain (somewhat stereotypical) position, which sounded fine to me. I had a good time, because he’s a good person to have sex with, but it was less exciting for Ben than he thought it would be.

He brought this up next time we saw each other; apparently it had been troubling him. “I’ve been watching a lot of porn lately,” he said thoughtfully. “I feel like after being so exposed to porn, I ended up with an image of the sex I wanted to try, but that image didn’t have much to do with what I want in practice.” He then suggested a new direction for our frolics, which was also fun, and I continue to have zero complaints.

I can certainly relate to feeling trapped in an inauthentic sexuality, to feeling like I’m performing my sexuality. When I’ve written about that, I’ve called it the “sexy dreamgirl shell.” But I’ve never been sure how much of that came from porn, and how much of it came from romantic comedies and playground whispers and all the other cultural forces that shape how we think about sex. I wonder this about Ben, too: Would he really never have had a disappointing fantasy without the influence of porn? Really? I mean, I almost never watch porn, yet I come up with hot fantasies that aren’t much fun in practice, too. (Your mom can tell you all about it.)

Plus, when I look at what happened with Ben, it simply doesn’t strike me as particularly sinister. It seems to me that he had a fantasy, we tried it, it didn’t work out, and we did something else. No one was harmed—certainly not me, notwithstanding the fact that I was the girl.

I’ve had some bad experiences with men and porn, especially when I was younger. But when I look back at those experiences, they strike me as being born more from secrecy and insecurity, not the porn in itself; and secrecy and insecurity can harm a relationship in many other forms, too. In fact, another standard sex-positive feminist argument is that we can Reclaim Porn and use many different flavors of porn to demonstrate the variety of sexuality, and thus help people feel more open and less anxious about how sexually “weird” they are. Hey, my favorite partners have often been guys who’ve watched all different kinds of porn. So maybe if we want dudes who are fun in bed, we should be selecting a sampler of many porns and flinging them about to all the young men.

There are definitely problems in the porn industry. One of my favorite films in the world is the nuanced documentary Graphic Sexual Horror, which describes the rise and fall of a now-defunct extreme S&M porn site. There are harrowing moments in the film that made me feel terrible for some performers. The film does a matchless job of highlighting the problems and complexities of sexual consent, once money gets involved. But Graphic Sexual Horror is also the source of my favorite positive porn anecdote.

Said anecdote features a young lady who came upon this extreme S&M porn and was first horrified, then fascinated. She soon realized that she desperately wanted to try it. So she got in touch with the porn site’s founder, and asked if she could come in for a shoot. He agreed, she came in, and afterwards he wrote her a check. She was like, “Wait, why are you writing me a check?” … and that was when she learned that the S&M-on-camera performance she had given was considered work. This porn site, which harmed some sex workers and showed some of the most extreme porn on the Internet, gave this woman an incredible route to explore her own sexuality.

So, dear middle-aged friend, have I observed negative effects on sex and romance from porn? In my life, in others’ lives?

Well … maybe.

But maybe I haven’t.

Clarisse Thorn is Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships Editor.

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