Jack Adam

Would it turn you off if the pizza delivery boy always wore a condom? If the plumber/cheerleader/MILF were to tell you the action that would follow is consensual, would that put you out of the mood? Is degrading language, that happens to be predominantly directed towards women — oopsie — essential for a good porn movie?

Watching porn is the societal equivalent of farting in public. Everyone does it (some more frequently than others), everyone derives some sort of perverted joy out of committing the “illicit act” and almost no one admits to doing it.

According to data released by Pornhub early in 2018, millenials make up over 30 percent of users on their website. As porn grows in popularity, however, it also gives rise to a number of pressing questions. In the absence of adequate, comprehensive, federally regulated policies for sexual education, porn has become one of the ways in which teenagers first become acquainted with sex and, as a result, a resource for how to have sex right.

Sexuality is too complicated to allow for a singular definition of what is correct and what is not. Unfortunately, our immature awkwardness to talk about actually relevant 21st-century sex ed leads to blind consumption of ideals of the right and best way to “do it.” Consequently, instead of serving as a tool of exploring sexuality, porn ends up playing a disproportionately large role in shaping sexual experiences, especially among people our age.

In recent years, a few brave souls have tested the waters by broaching discussions of ethical porn. Some challenge the narratives that porn perpetuates and claim that we need porn that is more respectful and empowering, keeping in pace with ongoing conversations about sexual consent and pleasure. For example, certain websites and directors are trying to create more female friendly forms of porn that tread the line between erotica and pornography and invite rather than alienate women. On the flip side, many are speaking out about the kind of behaviors that porn inculcates in young men — and are questioning the unrealistic, and often ridiculous, expectations that it places on them.

In addition to being too scripted and unrealistic, porn currently sets a bad precedent in normalizing unprotected sex. Not explicitly using condoms in porn sets a dangerous expectation for real-life sexual interactions. Recently, people in the porn industry have started rallying to challenge that perception, as they recognize the salient role that porn plays in teaching young people the “do’s and don’ts” of sexual interactions. Whether through interviews, blog posts or introductory remarks, actors and directors are setting the record straight about what goes into making ethical porn, touching on issues of consent, protection and preventative testing.

But, setting aside the ethical issues with porn itself, a more challenging — and interesting — question has to do with our relationship to porn, and to the ways in which we extrapolate it into our sex lives. Why is it that we all get so squeamish when it comes to talking about porn? And why is it that, even in the age of #MeToo and frequent classroom and dinner table discussions on consent, sexual intimacy and pleasure, we remain unable to comfortably have a conversation about this form of entertainment that we so enjoy?

While data about how much we love porn keeps pouring in, these conversations remain few and far between. Simultaneously, we are going through what The Atlantic has called “a sex recession,” with American young adults and teenagers having less sex than ever. Failing to have honest, open conversations about porn reflects our inability (and lingering puritanism?) to comfortably discuss what we do and do not enjoy sexually. Tragically, it is our off-screen sex lives that suffer as a result.

Maybe if we managed to normalize porn, if we somehow removed the stigma that surrounds it, we would be able to more comfortably explore our sexual preferences. If we watched porn with friends, for example, perhaps some cultural critique would be more present in public discourse. Granted, that would make our friendships a little awkward. But the liminality of porn as a medium to achieving sexual pleasure could possibly lie on this very guilt-bearing, line-crossing character that maintains its status as a taboo topic.

Pornography is for many a medium of experimentation with different ways of arousal — some more “prohibited” than others. However, society still stigmatizes sexual fetishes in a way that limits discourse and perpetuates actually problematic motifs in pornography, that end up conditioning our sexual experiences.

Degrading language, for example, seems to be pleasurable for many people. Of course, using such language outside the context of sex would be weird and disquieting, which justifiably makes talking about it quite difficult. But, as we shy away from these challenging conversations, the prevalence of such language in porn is consumed uncritically, in a way that makes it difficult to discern whether it is just another preference or something we have come to think about as “standard procedure.”

As we fail to have discussions about porn, while allowing it to occupy an ever increasing role in how we are becoming familiarized with sex, we are bringing this performative aspect into our bedrooms. Women often feel like they have to have loud, quick orgasms, be submissive and get instantly aroused by anything and everything that their counterparts are offering. Men, on the other hand, are forced into assertive, dirty-talking roles, with unreasonable stamina and never-resting libidos.

More often than not, these roles feel awkward and uncomfortable, but they are all we know how to do — so we keep on adopting them. Behavior in bed is not something that happens as thoughtlessly as before, partly because we have accepted, belatedly so, that there are ways in which it is relevant to society. As such, it’s quite awkward to have an intimate interaction with a person who is attempting (unsuccessfully) to imitate a porn actor.

Is it unnatural to have actors express their consent at the beginning of each film? Definitely not more so than having sex with the pizza delivery boy. We need to hold porn to higher standards. Instead of perpetuating unrealistic expectations, what porn needs to do is to become more realistic, and, dare we say, a little more woke. But as we set out to create more ethical porn, we should also be challenging ourselves to have a healthier relationship with the medium and to learn to see it for what it is: a form of entertainment, rather than a substitute for formalized, honest sexual education.

Sophia Catsambi | sophia.catsambi@yale.edu .

Viktor Dimas | viktor.dimas@yale.edu .

  • Mary Ann

    “Watching porn is the societal equivalent of farting in public. Everyone does it (some more frequently than others), everyone derives some sort of perverted joy out of committing the “illicit act” and almost no one admits to doing it.”

    If the authors of this article really believe that “everyone does it (some more frequently than others), everyone derives some sort of perverted joy out of committing the ‘illicit act’ and almost no one admits to doing it” they really need to submit to serious psychiatric care. It is not true. It isnot even close to being true. But there are studies that suggest strongly that watching porn does change the way one sees other humans … increasing tendencies to dehumanize and objectify them. This can greatly increase difficulties throughout life, including employment, personal relationships and, yes, sex.

    These authors appear not to be socially insightful, as they think themselves to be, but in need of some serious help.

  • Nancy Morris

    A 2014 study of college students across four countries found that only 76 percent had viewed online “sexual entertainment” at least once in their entire lifetimes, and showed “relatively infrequent experience” with the subject matter in the previous three months.

    “Pornography addiction” and its supposed negative effects may well be fictions. But pornography as entertainment, as distinguished from a topic of academic study, is highly questionable and may not be anodyne. Yale should not be in the business of distributing pornography to its students, or even providing a WiFi conduit. The University should install a filter on the campus WiFi that bars access to all websites that exist for the purpose of disseminating porn. Private companies like McDonalds, Panera, and Starbucks have all installed similar filters on their public WiFi networks. Such a filter no more constitutes “censorship” than does Sterling Library not putting pornographic magazines on its open shelves.