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How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families
By Pamela Paul
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2005 Pamela Paul
All rights reserved.
A Guy Thing: Why Men Look at Porn
If dominant wisdom holds true, then all men look at pornography. In an essay in Glamour magazine entitled, "Why Nice Guys Like Online Porn," the anonymous author "Jake" claims, "The world is made up of two different kinds of guys: those who are turned on by porn and those who are really, really turned on by porn. If a guy tells you he's impervious to smut, the truth is: for reasons moral, religious or masochistic he has chosen never to look at it; he is afraid of his own sexuality; or he's lying." Like Jake, most men who look at pornography believe that every man — liberal, conservative, uptight, married, or religious — looks at pornography. And nearly every man in America probably has at some point.
But is it true that all men look at pornography, at least occasionally, throughout their lives? Ethan, a twenty-seven-year-old music executive, is a typical porn consumer. When asked his opinion on pornography, he immediately says with a laugh, "I love porn. I think it's fantastic." He started looking at it in seventh grade, when he stumbled across a stack of magazines belonging to a friend's divorced father. After that, he turned to pornography regularly, beginning with print, upgrading to video and then DVD, and ultimately going dot-com, especially after getting broadband at home. These days, Ethan logs on every day for about twenty minutes, when he's bored at work, or feels like goofing around. He and a group of about ten guys — "a bunch of lecherous friends in the industry" — will e-mail one another good porn gathered during their Internet forays. Funny Web sites, really hot girls, celebrity porn, sick stuff. The strangest things can be found when you're surfing. Working in the music business — not a traditional corporate environment, he emphasizes — it's no big deal to have porn playing on your computer. Once, a female colleague walked into Ethan's office and noticed explicit pornography beaming out from his screen. "I said, 'Check it out!' and she laughed," he recalls. "She thought it was pretty amusing." At home, he pops in a pornographic DVD about three times a week. Every morning, he listens to Howard Stern; he particularly enjoys when porn stars are on the show. For Ethan, pornography is a natural part of life. Men, he explains, are visual beasts and overtly sexual people. They're built for porn.
Reliable figures are hard to come by, as many people are reluctant to admit to their usage even with the anonymity of a phone or online survey. But some statistics give an inkling. Discretion notwithstanding, pornography is demonstrably a popular pastime. In an online survey of 10,543 Americans by the Kinsey Institute, only 3 percent of respondents said they had never looked at pornography. Only 20 percent of respondents said they had looked at pornography before but hadn't looked at least once in the past month. That leaves 77 percent of respondents looking at pornography at least once in any given thirty-day period. Of these, 58 percent said they looked at least once a week and 19 percent looked at least once every day. When they do look, they frequently spend a lot of time. One quarter of those who looked in the past month had spent at least six hours doing so. A number of polls have looked specifically at Internet pornography. A nationally representative Zogby poll in 2000 reported that 32 percent of men and 11 percent of women said they hadvisited a sexually oriented Web site. Younger Americans were more likely to visit such sites: 37 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds compared with 22 percent of thirty-five- to fifty-four-year-olds. Of those who visited such sexually oriented Web sites, nearly half were in committed relationships.
Women frequently ask, What is it men like so much about porn? I know lots of guys are into porn, some men say, but I don't understand the appeal. Only those who look at pornography understand their reasons for doing so, and at first, many of them have a hard time giving an answer. But when offered an opportunity to think it over, nearly all open up and divulge the appeal — how and why they started looking, the ways they respond to different kinds of pornography, the physical and emotional benefits they derive from it, and how it makes them feel. Most have never had the chance to freely discuss what lies behind their pornography preferences, and it's only while talking about it that many begin to learn the answers themselves.
For Ethan, pornography is all about seeing what he would like to do in real life — not about abstract fantasy. Because he's "in touch" with his sexuality, Ethan knows what he likes. Mostly, it's young women, between the ages of eighteen and twenty, blondes. "I'm a big fan of the schoolgirl look and the thigh-high stockings, which I guess go hand in hand," he says. He likes his women to be athletic — not too skinny. He's an "ass man" when it comes right down to it. "Oh and Jenna," he says. "Love Jenna." He pauses and adds, "Jenna Jameson, obviously."
Woman-on-woman porn, one of Jameson's specialties, is something he'd love to experience live. He also seeks out depictions of oral sex, especially "cum shots." The charm of pornography is its depiction of women who are over-the-top enthusiastic about sex. "Women in porn tend to act like sex is earth-shattering, even though in reality, sex isn't like that all the time. Unfortunately ..." he adds, with a chuckle. Like other men who enjoy pornography, Ethan not only seeks enjoyment from pornography, he allows pornography to open up new worlds to him, teaching him about sex and his response to it, providing him with the means for sexual release, a way to fantasize about sexual opportunities he cannot enjoy in real life, and a safe and friendly arena for self-validation. Mostly, however, Ethan discusses pornography the way most men do: it's fun.
And more men seem to be having a good time of it. There has been an explosion in online sexual activity. A 2004 poll of 15,246 men and women conducted by MSNBC.com and Elle magazine documented that three-fourths of men said they had viewed or downloaded erotic films and videos from the Internet. (Forty-one percent of women did as well.) One in five men had watched or sexually interacted with someone on a live webcam. Three in ten admitted they go online with the intention of "cheating on their girlfriends or wives," be it via pornography, online dating, or sex chat rooms. But not everyone said they looked at porn. In the same poll, the one in five men who said they abstain from Internet pornography expressed the following reasons for their disinterest: one-third said they had no need to seek out women on the Web — they already had a fulfilling sex life; one in four felt that using Internet pornography would make them feel disloyal to their partner; an additional one in four said Internet pornography violated their moral beliefs; and pragmatism ruled the remaining 27 percent who said that Internet pornography clogged their computer with too many pop-ups and cookies. It wasn't worth the hassle.
Several companies track pornography usage online, avoiding the potential for underreporting characteristic of self-reported polls. Each month, Nielsen Net//Ratings tracks usage; for example, in October 2003, one in four Internet users accessed an adult Web site, spending an average of seventy-four minutes per month — and that doesn't include time spent on amateur sites. (Nielsen admits they are capturing only a fraction of actual pornography consumption.) According to comScore, an Internet traffic measuring service, 70 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old men visit a pornographic site in a typical month — about 39 percent more than the average user. These young men comprise about one-fourth of all visitors to pornography online. The numbers for those in their twenties and thirties run nearly as high: 66 percent of all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four look at Internet pornography every month.
Learning to Like Pornography
Most men clearly remember the first time they saw pornography. For boys on the cusp of puberty, porn is a rite of passage, an entree into adulthood, and a peep into the world of women. In the pre-Internet days, at least, boys often passed around pornography at summer camp and circulated it in the locker room during junior high. It was handed down from uncle to nephew, older brother to younger, father to son, usually around the time a boy hit the age of eleven or twelve. Whether that first glimpse delights or disgusts, most men are quickly socialized to look at pornography as teenagers.
For men now in their thirties, the initiation came through the pages of a magazine. "Whoa, cool, boobies!" recalls one thirty-three-year-old man of finding his first stack of Penthouse in a friend's attic when he was twelve. "We immediately split them up. I hung on to my precious copy for quite a while." Another man, now thirty-five, reminisces, "I used to go to my older cousin's house when I was nine. He had these very explicit magazines, the hardest core you can imagine. I thought, 'Eww, nasty!' But soon I got into some pretty rough, wild bondage stuff myself." For those in their twenties, the earliest experience increasingly occurs online. One twenty-year-old undergraduate student, a physics major at a large university in upstate New York, remembers first encountering pornography when he was fifteen. "It was online, on the family computer. I discovered some great stuff right away — group sex, bondage, voyeurism, exhibitionism. And so many women — white, Asian, Hispanic. I was able to learn what 'my type' is by looking around online — thin women with C- or D-sized breasts and long dark hair. Porn gave me a sense of what's out there and exposed me to the kind of stuff I enjoy in real life. It was eye-opening, a real education."
Pornography is frequently the first place boys learn about sex and gain an understanding of their own sexuality, whims, preferences, and predilections — their desires filtered and informed by whatever the pornography they watch has to offer. As adolescents, many boys learn throughpornography to direct their sexual feelings toward the opposite sex, to explain the source of their desires and the means to satisfy them — lessons traditionally supplemented by sex education, parental guidance, peer conversation, and real-life experience. Whether mediated by outside sources or not, the pornography lesson is nothing if not straightforward; most is geared toward the adolescent mind: simple, primal, hormone-driven, results-oriented, a winnable game. Pornography depicts sex as an easy process that provides a welcome refuge from the tangle of sexual politics teenagers encounter in the real world.
Growing up in Alabama, Sandeep got turned on to porn in the most all-American of ways: in the Boy Scouts. He was twelve years old when one camping trip turned out to be a lot more interesting than prior outings. He quickly learned there were other ways to track down porn — at summer camp, from other boys in junior high. It wasn't difficult when you knew what you were looking for. Then Sandeep went to college, enrolling at an Ivy League university. Suddenly, pornography wasn't so cool anymore. Even owning the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition was considered a sign of Neanderthal man in the early nineties. "Pornography seemed really gauche at the time," Sandeep recalls. "I think I even began to see it that way myself." He laughs. "What a ridiculous Ivory Tower way of looking at things!"
After his porn-free interlude in the Ivy League, Sandeep returned to the South to attend a large state university medical school and snapped back to his old habits. The med school was quite conservative, and as a consequence, professors made an effort to get students to understand that there were many sexual proclivities beyond "married missionary sex." Sandeep was shocked by how little some of his classmates knew. During sexual behavior class, the professors showed the students a wide range of sex videos. "For doctors," Sandeep explains, "it's important to know what people can do." Sandeep, of course, had picked up his lessons already.
During his post-medical school residency, Sandeep worked one-hundred-plus hours a week. For those three years, he masturbated all the time. "It must have been the stress." He didn't get out much. The nurses weren't interested in the young residents and he didn't have much of a sex life, let alone a romantic life, with the exception of an intermittent long-distance girlfriend. Instead, he was looking at porn movies almost every day. His tastes veered from "vanilla porn" — good old-fashioned naked girls — to more fetishistic bondage and leather fare. For a while, he had a cable descrambler and watched the Spice channel every night; later, when his cable luck ran out, he rented videos from a store down the block. Nervous about maintaining his privacy, he scoped out the store first, renting only mainstream movies before getting up the nerve to visit the back room. "I just felt kind of weird," he says. "I don't want some stranger knowing about me and my sexual proclivities." On the safer side, Sandeep kept a stash of pornographic magazines on hand, usually Penthouse, but magazines no longer always satisfied him, especially compared with film.
Today, Sandeep works as a surgeon at a hospital in Texas. He usually rents porn videos when he has a day off and not a lot to do. He's also found new options for seeing women stripped down. Among surgeons at the hospital, it's common to gather after work at one of the local strip clubs. In Texas, Sandeep says, a lot of business gets done this way. In order not to discriminate, his group at the hospital is always careful to invite female surgeons along. "As a young surgeon, you're not going to pass up the opportunity to hang out with the older guys after work," Sandeep explains. "You have to play this game for people to remember who you are." So far, nobody has objected to the strip club meetings, not even the surgeons' spouses. "They understand who they're married to," Sandeep explains. "They know this is what goes on." Most of the surgeons who attend are married; most have been married more than once.
Pornography can provide quite an education. In the Kinsey Institute poll, 86 percent of respondents believed pornography can educate people and 68 percent believed it can lead to more open attitudes about (one's own) sexuality. Many men, particularly those younger and less experienced, use pornography to figure out what women want and expect from sex. In fact, studies show that men learn from and emulate what they see in pornography; experts refer to this as exemplification theory: "Each and every sexual act portrayed in pornography is treated as an exemplar of sexuality. ... Thus, to the extent that pornography shows almost all women screaming ecstatically when anally penetrated, for instance, exemplification theory projects the generalization that almost all women outside of pornography will do likewise." In other words, men learn that what goes in porn, goes in the real world.
While some of those lessons might be basic and informative insights into the mechanics of sex, that learning extends as well to ideas such as: all women really want sex all the time, multiple women are better than one woman, women usually want what men want. Men who watch pornography collect other nuggets of wisdom, too: what to say; how to say it. As the anonymous writer Jake explained in Glamour magazine, "The most acceptable and most common word for [a man's penis], which rhymes with rock, is what they use in porno movies, so most men have been brainwashed into thinking it's sexy." For many, pornography almost becomes equated with sex.
Learning to Dislike Pornography
Of course, some men dislike pornography or simply don't find it interesting enough to bother. For Pete, a thirty-one-year-old writer in New York, pornography never caught on. It's not as if he hasn't been exposed to pornography. When he was thirteen, he caught late-night glimpses of sexploitation B films on cable outlets such as Showtime showcasing naked breasts and the occasional zip-by full-frontal nudity, but steered clear of actual sex acts. He would see the passing magazine, though nothing more graphic than Penthouse. A couple of times when he was traveling, he watched a porn movie in his hotel. None of it did anything for him.
Pete is neither in favor of pornography nor opposed to it — he simply doesn't pursue it. He has never even looked at pornography online, though he uses the Internet on a daily basis. "I wouldn't know where to start," he claims; the truth is, he has never bothered. Strip clubs make him uneasy. "I once went to one for a bachelor party and I left after ten minutes," he says. "It seemed kind of pathetic from both ends of the spectrum — for both the men and the women. There's this whole charade where the guys are trying to pretend to themselves that the women are really interested in them and that they're not just paid to act that way, and the women are trying to pretend that the men don't disgust them. There's something incredibly lonely and sad about it."
Excerpted from Pornified by Pamela Paul. Copyright © 2005 Pamela Paul. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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