Porn Expectations

There’s a lot of discussion about the influence of porn on society. And there’s a lot of discussion about the unrealistic expectations that many people (especially younger people) have because of the messages that porn offers. While I think that many of these points make a lot of sense, I also think that there are some pieces of the bigger picture that often get left out.

Unrealistic Images

One of the critiques that I hear about porn is that it doesn’t provide realistic models for sex or relationships. And that’s absolutely true. You almost never see people in porn using lube, warming up before having sex (especially anal sex), or asking for something different. Porn sex is pretty formulaic, with activities and positions chosen more for the convenience of the camera than for the pleasure of the participants. People in porn jump right to the chase, usually without any romance, and you rarely see any affection.

At the same time, nothing on TV or movies is ever realistic. Ask a doctor sometime if medical dramas portray medicine accurately. Ask a lawyer if their job looks like what you see on Law & Order. And I don’t think that anyone thinks that Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom even remotely resembles what archeologists actually do. So why don’t people complain about unrealistic images in these other genres?

I think that the main reason is that, in real life, we have lots of personal experience that shows us that TV isn’t ever realistic. After all, we all know that real life rarely poses challenges that can be solved in an hour. Real life doesn’t come with a killer soundtrack and a montage to get us through the hard work. But in real life, most of us haven’t ever watched people have sex, which means that we don’t have more accurate images of what sex looks like to provide a contrast to what we see in porn.

Learning to have sex from watching porn is about as effective as learning to drive from watching car chase movies. And unfortunately, that’s what our sex education system forces people to do. Rather than helping people learn how to make authentic sexual choices, communicate with a partner, set boundaries or identify their needs, desires, and goals, we withhold information and then shame them for making mistakes. Is it any wonder that people are trying to learn how to have sex from porn?

Porn isn’t any more of a fantasy than a romantic comedy or an action movie is. But until we give people more accurate ideas about sex, there’s no way to balance it out. And to critique porn for doing something that every other genre of entertainment does seems a bit silly to me. After all, there’s no reason to have higher expectations for porn than we do for action movies.

I know that there are plenty of other ways in which some porn is really problematic. There’s a lot of porn that features humiliation of the women involved. (I’ve seen a lot less humiliation in gay porn.) And that really disturbs me. And there’s an increasing amount of humiliation in the media generally. Unscripted TV (formerly called “reality shows” until they realized that it’s not realistic) often includes the humiliation of the participants, especially if it’s a contest show and people’s work is being judged. The issue of sex & shame is a big one and there isn’t much clarity around it. I’m going to write about that another time, but I wanted to make sure that it didn’t get left out.

Unrealistic Bodies

People in porn tend to look pretty similar. Pubic hair, blemishes on the body, and cellulite are mostly absent. Men in porn have large penises that get instantly erect and ejaculate only after having “enough sex, and the guys are muscular and (if they’re white) tanned. Women in porn are generally young & skinny, they’re always ready for pounding sex and they’re flexible enough to get into those unlikely positions. (This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of the ways that porn presents unrealistic images of bodies.)

I’d love to see a wider range of bodies in porn. I’d love to see people of more races, ages, sizes, and such. I think it’d be a great thing to have positive representations of the diversity of bodies. And I’ll expect to see that about a week after I see it on the cover of the magazines at the checkout stand. Please note- I am not at all apologizing for the general homogeneity of bodies in porn. I’m simply pointing out that the porn industry is influenced by society’s general trend of unrealistic body expectations.

Of course, porn influences that trend too. I don’t have an answer for this one and I don’t think anyone else does. However, I will point out that there’s some porn that shows (for example) larger women. In some ways, there’s actually more body diversity in porn than at the checkout stand. I still think it sucks that the porn industry is almost entirely clueless when it comes to body image, and all of the other ways that people are shamed for their bodies. But if enough people are willing to spend their cash on people of size, there’s someone willing to make a porn movie with them. It’s a minuscule thing, but it’s worth noting. (Click on the image to see a few movies that feature larger women.)

It Comes Down to Money

Porn is one of the few industries that’s totally unregulated. Other than the requirements around keeping minors out of it and away from it, the primary (and generally only) influence on the producers of porn is customer demand. Makers who try something new or innovative decide whether they can continue creating it based on whether people buy it. Even though the internet and improving technology have made it possible for more people to try making porn, it still costs a fair amount of money to produce and unless there’s an immediate payoff, few people can keep going

There are a few people who are trying to make something different. Tony Comstock is making some really great movies, as are the folks at Erocktavision and Pink’n’White. If you like what they’re making, tell your friends. Help support them and they’ll be able to keep doing it.

Porn Has Lots of Other Problems

I’m not apologizing for porn. I think that there are a lot of ways that the industry and the products it produces are problematic. And I also think that one step towards addressing them is to get some clarity around what’s going on.

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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