Imagine, for a moment, a world in which basic science education is considered controversial. Schools are loath to include physics and biology in the curriculum lest they anger parents, and young people who want to learn more about the topic wind up turning to the internet, secretly downloading episodes of Star Trek and movies like Hackers to get any information they can.
Chances are pretty good that scientific progress would grind to a halt, with young people unable to grasp physics, and would-be programmers shocked that working with computers is nothing like Tron.
But even though none of us would recommend learning about the principles of science from movies intended as entertainment, we rarely criticize sci-fi for presenting an unrealistic view of scientific theory — in fact, popular, if wildly inaccurate, sci-fi franchises like Star Trek are more often celebrated for encouraging kids to get excited about STEM fields.
So why does porn continue to take the blame for our sexual woes? Because while that above scenario doesn’t reflect the way our country treats science, and science education, it is a pretty good description of how we handle sex. In many parts of the country, sex education is completely absent; where it does exist, it’s often abstinence-only or abstinence-plus — giving some time to condoms and contraceptives but relying heavily on shame-based messaging.
Even in the best-case scenario, American sex education focuses almost exclusively on what can go wrong during sex, rather than on how to make it go right: Thanks to taboos around adolescent sexuality, pleasure is a dirty word in sex education targeting those under 18. Given this environment, it’s not shocking that young (and not so young) people might turn to porn for some lessons in sexual pleasure; yet somehow it is porn alone that manages to take the blame for imbuing us all with an unhealthy attitude toward sex.
The arguments against porn are inescapable: Porn is a threat to virility. It’s making young men assault their partners. It’s just plain ruining sex. In Utah, the medium’s officially been declared a public health hazard. And it’s easy to understand the appeal of these statements. Porn doesn’t have the greatest reputation, routinely decried as dirty, debased and the purview of pervs. It just makes sense as a scapegoat for society’s sexual ills. But scratch beneath the surface of this bit of common wisdom, and it quickly becomes clear that there’s not much truth to it.
The arguments against porn are inescapable: Porn is a threat to virility. It’s making young men assault their partners. It’s just plain ruining sex.
For one thing, there was plenty of bad sex long before porn was easily and freely accessible from every internet-connected device. “I think when people say that porn is ruining sex, they have a really romanticized view of what sex was for decades, if not centuries,” says Charlie Glickman, a sex and relationships coach. It’s not like previous eras were filled with sex where communication — and an emphasis on female pleasure — was de rigeur.
“We have had this model where sex is all about get it up, get it in, get it off, and who gives a damn if the woman has an orgasm — that’s been the predominant cultural pattern, [even] before there was such ready access to porn,” Glickman says.
Take a look at the way that sex is portrayed in pop culture — and I don’t just mean Game of Thrones. “When was the last time you saw any remotely realistic depiction of sexuality in a Hollywood film?” asks Tristan Taormino, a sex educator and pornographer.
As formulaic as porn sex may be, Hollywood sex can be even worse: It’s dimly lit, with the action predominantly initiated by men, and communication magically happening through wordless glances and some sort of telepathic exchange. There’s no talking, no discussion of likes or dislikes, and definitely no emphasis on establishing consent. In contrast, “At least people in porn are having sex with the lights on,” Taormino notes. “And a lot of times they actually are talking. They might be talking dirty, but guess what? Dirty talk can also be a way to affirm ongoing consent.”
Which brings up another important point: Porn is not one monolithic offering. Despite the omnipresent idea that porn’s just bottle blondes with fake tits taking it rough and raw, even the most cursory scroll through PornHub reveals that’s more myth than reality — and in fact there’s a good deal of porn that’s more likely to help, rather than hurt, everyday affairs in the bedroom.
There’s a good deal of porn that’s more likely to help, rather than hurt, everyday affairs in the bedroom.
Like, for instance, the entire genre of porn that’s devoted to sex education. Taormino — who developed an educational porn line for Vivid Entertainment — notes that whenever porn’s negative influence is discussed in the media, “there’s never even a sentence or two that says, ‘Oh and by the way, there is actually is sex ed porn and it’s made by the Sinclair Institute, and Nina Hartley, and Tristan Taormino, and jessica drake,’… they won’t even acknowledge that it’s there.”
There’s no question that much of the sex in porn is of the “don’t try this at home” variety — but in many ways, that’s the whole point. Pornographers recruit talented performers and employ aggressive editing to offer up a fantasy version of sex where everything’s effortless and easy; where awkwardness is eliminated and everything flows smoothly. It’s true that — as critics often note — anal sex requires far more prep and warm-up than a porn scene might indicate. But would we actually be better off if porn scenes were required to show the hours of preparation (and numerous enemas) that preceded that flawless 20-minute butt-fuck?
What we need, more than a backlash against porn, is more open and honest discussion around sex, pleasure and consent. We need to fight against taboos around sex and pleasure and create a culture where it’s okay to talk openly about questions and concerns, where sexuality is celebrated as an experience that’s unique to every individual — not something that’s mastered by mimicking moves we seen on TV (or, in the case of a lot of porn, on a smartphone screen).
But that might actually require us to do some very real, and potentially uncomfortable, work, like getting over our collective discomfort around sexuality and actually (gasp!) having real, honest conversations about sex. And that, well… it’s a heck of a lot harder than just blaming all our problems on porn.