Why Do We Call It “Using Porn”?

On one of the sex education email lists that I follow, someone posted a question about “porn use.” And while I’ve seen this phrase used more times than I can count, it suddenly seemed to me that the term implies a bias that runs so deeply that it’s effectively invisible.

I think it’s rather interesting that people often talk about “porn use” even though they don’t talk about “sitcom use,” “talk show use,” or “romantic comedy use.” Instead, we might ask someone how often they watch TV, or talk shows, or movies. We might say that we enjoy Law & Order, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say that they “use” Law & Order.

But when we get into the area of porn, we sometimes shift our language away from words that we use to talk about any other media and start using a phrase that sounds like we’re talking about drugs. People use Advil, or caffeine, or cocaine. And it seems to me that when we talk about using porn, we’re framing it in the same way.

Granted, many people do watch porn in order to create feelings or experiences, which in a way, is similar to why people use alcohol or other drugs. And yet, if I’m in a bad mood and decide to cheer myself up by watching a movie, isn’t that the same thing? If I watch horror movies because I like the thrill of fear, or I watch a fluffy romantic comedy because I’ve had a hard day and want something that will let me turn my brain off, how is that different from watching porn in order to get turned on? Or, for that matter, having a drink to relax?

It seems to me that when we talk about “using porn,” we’re doing a few things. We’re framing porn as something different from any other media experience, which demonizes it. Talking about porn in a way that makes it sound like drug use, with all of the confusion and ambivalence that we have as a culture around drugs, reinforces the idea that porn is inherently dangerous. And by linking sex and drugs, two almost-universal experiences that are especially prone to moral panics, we continue to reinforce the erotophobia that has kept us in the dark for so long.

I’m not trying to argue that all porn watching is benign. There are a lot of people who feel a lack of control around how much or what types of porn they watch for me to think that porn is all good. The secrecy that often accompanies porn viewing has strained plenty of relationships. And too many people forget how to turn the TV off and be present in the experience they’re having for me to think that porn is always problem-free.

It’s just that I think that talking about “porn use” brings a bias into the conversation that makes it a lot harder to ask some useful questions. And when it comes from a therapist, educator, or other professional, it shows that they’re carrying a judgment that is probably going to get in the way of building a helpful and safe relationship.

So rather than talking about porn use, I think we’d be better off if we talked about porn watching. And we can ask things like: what is your relationship with porn? How do you feel about it? How does your partner (if any) feel about it? How does it affect your sexuality and your sexual relationships?

These sorts of questions are a lot harder to ask when we use language that separates porn from other media, and puts it in the same category as drugs. It’s time to stop doing that.

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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