Why does anyone look at porn?
For tens of millions of American men and women, there’s only one answer: To get more sexually excited. The goal of getting excited, of course, is to enhance the process by which people eventually get not-excited—also called satisfaction.
Lather, rinse, repeat three times per week for 75 years.
How someone feels about that—deliberately doing something to get more aroused—is an excellent predictor of how they will feel about pornography. For those suspicious of sexual arousal, porn is bad. For those who think that tinkering with our own arousal is selfish or creepy, porn is bad.
And for those who think arousal is OK, as long as it’s directly connected to one’s partner’s body, personality or sexual behavior, porn is also bad.
When people want to talk about their disapproval of porn’s mission of increasing excitement, they generally resort to one of the standard criticisms of porn:
* Watching porn is a form of infidelity
* It’s immoral
* It exploits actresses
* It gives consumers wrong/bad ideas about sex
* Consuming porn makes people withdraw from their partners
* It’s secretive, which hurts a relationship
* Consuming porn leads to violence against women
* It suggests novel, even “kinky” sexual activities
* It leads men to demand sexual behaviors from women that women don’t want to do.
As standard as these criticisms are, each has a straightforward response:
* It depends on how you define infidelity; what about lusting after women in the airport, or fantasizing about them while masturbating without porn?
* Some people prefer to measure morality by reference to ethics or how we treat others, rather than by a private erotic choice hurting no one.
* Watching porn exploits actresses to the same extent that watching pro football exploits athletes, who risk their physical safety for our entertainment. “The money they earn isn’t comparable”? So if porn actresses make a fortune (some do), watching porn is OK?
* Most adults watching porn know it depicts fantasy, not a documentary. In every society, in every age, people have held inaccurate or harmful ideas about sex. A lack of real sex education doesn’t help in this regard.
* No one withdraws from a sexual relationship that’s physically and emotionally satisfying, certainly not for the chance to masturbate to a video.
* People only keep their porn watching a secret when their mate demands it—via ultimatums, demands, or other rigidity. And yes, porn watchers could be braver about confronting this—but porn watching doesn’t have to inherently involve secrecy.
* Everyone knows porn watching has gone up, and every law enforcement agency says that the rate of sexual violence has gone down. If anything, there’s a strong argument that porn acts as a safety valve to reduce sexual violence.
* If learning new ways to do things is bad, the most dangerous person in town is Martha Stewart, the queen of reimagining what we can do and how we can do it.
* People have been pressuring each other for various sexual behaviors since the beginning of time. Thirty years ago it was oral sex; before that it was intercourse before marriage; before that it was kisses and embraces during courtship. We should be concerned that there are still people who can’t say “no” firmly enough within a relationship to prevent future invitations.
The deeper issue here is over ownership of our eroticism. Do we still own it when we’re in a relationship, or does the relationship now own it? If we agree to limit our sexual behavior within a relationship (as most people do), does “behavior” include sexual fantasy?
And is it a bad thing to nourish our relationship with our own eroticism?
Anyone who thinks so must also indict industries promoting fashion, perfume, plastic surgery, hairdressing, cars and other large consumer items. Not only are these designed to make us more attractive to others, they are also promoted to make us feel sexier, more glamorous, and more youthful—to affect how we feel about ourselves, not only how others feel about us.
In a world where we’re all encouraged to increase our self-esteem and sense of empowerment, doesn’t that include our sense of our own sexuality? This is not an abstract thing; increasing our self-esteem and empowerment means, if we wish, increasing our experience of our own eroticism.
Particularly in monogamous relationships, viewing pornography—with or without masturbation—seems a particularly benign and effective way to do that.