X-rated Mind-Control: Why do we think watching porn is risky?

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I’m currently working in a Learning Disability team (supporting adults who have low intellectual ability that causes significant functional and social impairment) and I came across the ‘Three Rs’ guide, which provides guidance on providing sex education, including several more controversial and problematic topics. One of these topics is pornography. The authors state that they do not recommend aiding a person with LD to access porn, as it gives unrealistic messages about sex and women. When I first read this I thought this view was quite narrow-minded. Adults without an LD can access porn without anyone else’s permission. There’s no one questioning how ‘realistic’ the porn they watch is, so shouldn’t adults with LD be able t to enjoy their sexuality in this way? Also is this a narrow-minded view of porn that carries with it assumptions of how porn influences behaviour?

I’m not an expert on the literature on how porn influences thought and behaviour (and if anyone knows any good papers I’d be interested in reading them), here I’m more interested in considering why it is we assume porn does influence us, even in the absence of evidence. Wikipedia has a bit of a summary on the mostly inconclusive and conflicting findings here

I’ve been considering the authors’ point of view. It’s made me wonder how much porn influences actual sexual behaviour, and also how much people think porn influences sexual behaviour (which may be quite different things!). Anti-porn campaigners feel strongly that porn distorts our views of bodies, women and sex/intimacy. Porn is said to be anti-women and exploitative and has been linked to increased pressure on women to engage in sex acts, and change their bodies to resemble those of porn-stars. I’m not sure what the actual evidence is that this happens. The allegations remind me of claims that violent films and computer games make people more violent, which has often been debated but very lacking in concrete evidence. What I do know is that porn as a topic tends to upset people and bring up strong emotions. Porn is frequently depicted as something unhealthy, deviant and a a threat to ‘normal’ relationships and sex. We don’t like to talk about it, but a very large proportion of adults (both male and female) enjoy porn as part of their sex life, without any obvious negative consequences.

Porn is essentially fantasy. In order to enjoy watching porn, and feeling turned on, there perhaps needs to be certain suspension of critical thinking. On some level you need to believe it’s real so you can enjoy it without thoughts like “Is she really enjoying that? Was that a fake orgasm? Would a plumber really be that easily seduced on the job?” Admittedly this might be easier with some porn that others! But it isn’t real, and part of the appeal is just that, it’s the sex you wish you were having, perhaps removed from inhibitions and other barriers, the women you wish you were having sex with, it’s the enactment of fantasies. Porn also provides gratification without any of the effortful interaction with another person. So people know it isn’t real yet they still enjoy it.

But how is it that you understand that porn isn’t real? I’d guess this is mostly a process of comparison, having enough experience of real-life men and women and sex to be able to identify which aspects of porn are less than realistic. And some people might be in a better position to engage in this kind of critique than others. If you have limited experience of sex (e.g. young people who may not yet be sexually active or people who are quite socially isolated) you might not have much of a basis to discriminate. Certain complex cognitive skills might also be necessary in order to discriminate between porn and reality and consider that what porn shows to be ‘true’ may not be so for others. If someone has cognitive abilities that are impaired or not fully developed (such as a child), this process might be a lot more difficult. Ideally good quality sex education would help someone to learn the discrepancies between porn and real-life sex, but this may not always be available in a timely and detailed manner. For some people, porn may be the only way they learn about sex. If this is the case, family and school have really let them down, and it makes sense that they might develop some more distorted views about sex and women.

More on ‘rape-porn’ and links to risk under cut…

I was interested to read Obscenity Lawyer’s recent post about campaigns to ban ‘rape porn’. This refers to porn that involves acted violent sex (i.e. the sex is consensual, but is presented to look as if it were not, such as a kidnap scene). Campaigners argue that violent porn encourages sexual assault. OL goes on to describe the very limited evidence that this kind of porn (which involves acts that are legal for consenting adults to perform) has any real impact on sexual behaviour, and that it involves fantasies and behaviour that are actually very common in the general public (think Fifty Shades of Grey and the growing interest in BDSM). In several recent cases of sexual assault and murder (including that of children), the perpetrators were found to have collections of illegal porn. Illegal porn involves non-consensual acts, often involving children. It’s interesting that the porn-tastes of criminals are only reported in the media when they have a certain concordance with the crimes committed. It may be of no interest to the public if a criminal enjoyed large women wrestling in custard, but this kind of reporting does seem to draw a link between watching porn and criminality based on these anecdotes.

The topic of violent porn often comes up when I speak to colleagues who work in forensic settings, where there is discussion of whether convicted sex offenders should be allowed access to porn, especially (legal) violent porn. This topic makes staff very uncomfortable and that’s understandable, no one would want to feel like that might somehow be enabling someone to act in a criminal way, or encouraging distorted views of sex. But is this feeling based on an un-evidenced belief that watching porn can have a direct impact on sexual thoughts and behaviour? And what of evidence that porn might actually be a safe way for someone to express sexual urges, reducing their risk of offending? Is porn really that powerful an influence? And does focusing on porn enable us to ignore other more subtle contributors to offending behaviour?

Obviously there’s a big difference between porn that involves abuse and illegal activity to make (such as child porn) and porn that involves consensual adults acting out a faux-violent scene (such as legal rape porn). Few people would suggest that it was a good idea to help someone to access illegal porn (though there has been some argument that use of computer-generated child porn might help satisfy urges of people attracted to children, and thus prevent them actually committing offences) . But do we really understand how illegal porn might influence someone to commit an assault? And can we then make the leap to claim that legal porn might also have this effect?

Though I don’t doubt that porn has some impact on how we think and behave about sex, the link is far from clear-cut. Much like copious exposure to Game of Thrones and Skyrim hasn’t lead to mass sword-fighting, media is one influence and it’s far from the only one. Sexual fantasies are very diverse and can involve some very strange things we might not like to talk about, but the reality is that the majority of people who watch porn (violent or not) do not go on to commit sexual offences  Porn isn’t reality, but in order to understand that, you need to have a good grounding on what ‘reality’ actually is, when it comes to sex. This is the role of sex education. But sometimes it might be easier to reduce someone’s access to porn, rather than engage in the more difficult conversations around enabling them to discriminate between porn and real life for themselves.

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