Monday, November 28

What have we learned from 50 years of studying porn? ‘Heterosexuality is essentially broken’ | pornography


Sneaking a copy of Dad’s Playboy was the first interaction many people of a certain age had with pornography.

It was for Anna Brownfield, who remembers friends bringing a copy of the magazine into a cubby house some time in the 70s.

Hugh Hefner published the first Playboy in 1953, with Marilyn Monroe as the centrefold. The nude picture had been taken years earlier, and Monroe was neither paid directly for the magazine appearance, nor asked permission.

As home entertainment systems evolved, so did pornography. Brownfield recalls the first time she saw porn on film. “I was about 16 and someone put on a VHS,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is exciting.’”

Patchen Barss, author of The Erotic Engine, posits that porn has always been an early adopter, driving communications technology from prehistoric cave paintings to the printing press and photography. But it really “came into its own” with VHS.

A copy of the first issue of Playboy Magazine, with Marilyn Monroe on the cover and signed by Hugh Hefner. Photograph: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

Then came the internet, and rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it”. The way pornography has driven technological advancement has its own portmanteau: pornovation.

With its rapid evolution, it is no surprise that the pornography industry has been a fertile fodder for academic research. So what do we know about porn on an intellectual level?

In the end, not very much, says pornography researcher Prof Alan McKee.

McKee, the head of the University of Sydney’s school of art, communication and English, teamed up with three other researchers to trawl through 50 years of academic papers on the subject, comprising thousands of papers in a range of disciplines.

The results of the analysis are described in a new book, What Do We Know About the Effects of Pornography after Fifty Years of Academic Research?

Pornography consumption has been linked with a wide range of harms: mental health issues, sexually risky behaviour, gender-based violence, gender stereotypes, unrealistic expectations, body image issues, poor relationships, bodily shame, sexual coercion, sexual aggression, sexism, and sexual objectification.

But in reviewing the huge body of work, McKee and his team’s main finding was that pornography research is contradictory, incomplete and often biased.

“The effect of porn is a really big issue for a lot of people, for our society, for politicians, for policymakers, journalists, parents,” McKee says.

“What bothered us is that, when you look at the academic research, it’s basically contradictory.”

Close up of male and female feet on a bed
‘The effect of porn is a really big issue for a lot of people, for our society, for politicians, for policymakers, journalists, parents.’ Photograph: Alessandro Biascioli/Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘Porn is so much more diverse’

To illustrate these contradictions, you can look at the example of violence against women. One study might find porn has adverse effects, McKee says, while another might point out its important role in women’s sexual liberation, or as a space for queer people, or those exploring their identity.

There is not even a universal agreement about the definition of pornography, let alone distinctions between “bad” porn and “ethical” porn.

It’s this heteronormative, Christian idea that sex is only for procreation

“The late 90s and early 2000s was the cowboy era of pornography,” Brownfield, a teaching scholar in film, television and animation at Deakin University, says.

“There was this extreme stuff that was violent… people were getting away with doing whatever they wanted.”

But as digital disruption hit the pornography industry, things changed. Firstly through mainstream pornography becoming widely available on the internet, then through the advent of websites such as OnlyFans, where anyone with a mobile phone can create sexually explicit material for paying subscribers. Brownfield, who is a feminist pornographer and film-maker herself, calls the latter a “democratization” of the industry.

While some academics have focused on the degradation of women, others have observed a broader move to “ethical” porn that doesn’t exploit actors and models healthy sexual interactions between consenting adults.

“A lot of things that started within feminist porn, like ethics, and giving people agency and respect… have now moved into the mainstream industry,” Brownfield says.

This new style of porn focuses on female – as well as male – pleasure. It shows different body types and abilities. Porn stars can work for themselves online, instead of being subject to studio demands.

“There’s feminist porn, queer porn, ethical porn, body diverse porn, amateur porn … It’s so much more diverse,” McKee says. “That was not the case in the past, [and] a lot of academic research does not take that into account.”

Close up of couple about to kiss
‘Young people look to porn for sex education but it’s not that. It’s entertainment.’ Photograph: Inti St Clair/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

‘Young people look to porn for sex education’

Much of the research about pornography – and the accompanying moral panic – is about its effects on children.

McKee found that research would often count anyone under the age of 18 as a child. This ignores the difference between a young child being unwittingly exposed to sexual content, and a teenager seeking it out.

“There’s a big difference between a three-year-old and an 18-year-old, and the turning point is puberty,” he says.

A 2020 Australian parliamentary inquiry heard evidence that many, if not most children, will access porn at some stage despite it being illegal.

“We hypothesise that young people, when they reach puberty, might go looking online because neither their parents or the schools are telling them what they want to know,” McKee says. “You don’t want pornography to be your child’s only source of information about sex.”

“Not because it’s harmful per se, but there are things it does well and things it doesn’t. And what it doesn’t do well is talk about consent.”

“If you leave the sexual education to a pornographer, that’s like letting them learn how to drive by watching the Fast and the Furious.”

Brownfield agrees. “Young people look to porn for sex education but it’s not [that]. It’s entertainment.”

She says that in Australia, sex education for most young people still focuses only on fears about pregnancy and STIs, even though most people, most of the time are having sex for pleasure.

“We’re still, in 2022, focused on a sex-negative education,” she says. “It’s this heteronormative, Christian idea that [sex is only] for procreation.”

What counts as healthy?

Closeup of a heterosexual couple preparing to kiss
Many pornography studies assume monogamous heterosexual couples having vanilla sex is the norm. Photograph: Uwe Krejci/Getty Images

One of the only certain findings across McKee’s literature review was that “people who consume pornography also tend to be more sexually adventurous”.

But these studies do not show that consuming porn leads to that behaviour, McKee says. He describes the link as more like a feedback loop, where certain people are more likely to do both.

Some studies describes casual sex as “promiscuous”. Many assume monogamous heterosexual couples having vanilla sex is the norm. But few studies tried to understand what effect porn has on understandings of consent or pleasure, McKee says.

So to find out the effects of porn, research needs to define “healthy sexuality” first, he says. In pornography – especially if it is ethical – “everybody loves everything that happens all the time”.

That is a far cry from sex in real life. McKee points to the “orgasm gap” to highlight just how gendered our current defaults for sexual pleasure are.

Research shows gay and straight men climax during about 85% of their sexual encounters. For women having sex with women, it’s about 75% of the time.

For women having sex with men, it is 63%.

“Heterosexuality is essentially broken,” McKee says. “The starting point for sex education should be, ‘What are [we] going to do to fix that?’”

To help young people navigate porn and stop using it for sex education, he says, we need to provide better sex education that focuses on consent, pleasure, respect and equality.

McKee does suggest one fix to solve the problems with both pornography research and sexual education simultaneously: “Smash the patriarchy.”


www.theguardian.com

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