Many women watch porn thinking it’s normal sex. It’s not
How did you learn to have sex?
Not the biology of sex, or learning to put a condom over a banana, but how to actually do it.
Maybe you worked it out bit by bit with a partner. Maybe you talked about it with friends and got tips and tricks from them. Or maybe you watched porn.
If you’re under 35, it’s almost certain you’ve watched porn at least once, with surveys such as triple j’s annual check-in with young people finding 93 per cent of men and 58 per cent of women do.
“Adolescents are really wanting to seek out some information about: What’s normal? What should I do? How does this work?” says Sarah Ashton, associate researcher at Monash University.
The conversations around porn usage usually focus on men. But according to Dr Ashton, the founder and director of Sexual Health and Intimacy Psychological Services, young women are increasingly watching porn, either searching for it themselves online or being shown it by friends and boyfriends.
And a lot of young women are watching porn to find out information about sex that they can’t get any other way because talking about it is so taboo.
But with concerns that porn is becoming increasingly violent and debates about whether it’s addictive or not, is there a problem if women are getting off to pornography now and then?
What porn is doing for the women who watch it
Dr Ashton says for some women she’s spoken to in her research, porn was useful, helping them feel better about their own bodies and helping them explore their own sexuality more.
“It kind of normalised body diversity, it’s normalised different types of sexual acts, and sexual behaviour,” she says.
And she says some women told her they did learn about positions and got ideas of things to try in their own sex lives they might not have otherwise been exposed to.
But even when women reported they enjoyed porn, there were still worrying trends.
“When it came to pleasure, most women didn’t prioritise their own pleasure. And within the dynamics of their relationships, that was not something that wasn’t spoken about or prioritised with their partner,” Dr Ashton says.
“I think the biggest thing that stood out for me is that women didn’t know how to ask for what they wanted [with sex].”
Senior lecturer at RMIT Meagan Tyler says porn is increasingly seen as a “textbook” for sex and that’s creating problems.
“Porn’s the thing that everyone’s looking at like it’s normal, but it’s not normal, we know it’s not normal, it’s completely manufactured,” she says.
“[Porn] contains a lot of violence against women. It’s terribly racist. If you look at mainstream porn, it’s terribly misogynist.
“[Yet] pornography equals sex has become just such a cultural staple.”
Dr Ashton says in her research the women who enjoyed porn said they were put off if they thought anyone involved in the production wasn’t giving full consent.
Some said they tried to source “ethical porn“, but few were prepared to pay, preferring accessing porn for free online.
It’s not easy to verify how the porn you’re watching was made, especially if you’re not paying anyone for it. And Dr Ashton says some people “turn off” their ethics and moral thoughts when they’re engaged with porn.
“It may not be something that people are aware that the content that you’re actually consuming when you masturbate, and when you’re experiencing sexual pleasure, that’s actually pairing with a reward in your brain that will reinforce what you’re aroused to, and the sort of things that you associate with your sexuality, it actually has quite a profound impact,” she says.
Dr Tyler says while there is a lot of variation in porn, with producers catering to all sorts of kinks and subgenres, the vast majority is made with a straight male audience in mind.
This skews the content so that even when it’s ostensibly lesbian sex being shown, it’s being shown for a male viewer.
She says porn has been so normalised in our society that some people find it more embarrassing to say they don’t use it than admitting to accessing it, and the demand for “ethical” porn is part of that normalisation.
“Why is [there a] desperation for there to be an ethical porn, rather than the question of what would sexuality look like without pornography now?” she says.
“It’s not food, it’s not water, it’s not air, it’s not exercise.
“In a post-Me Too era, if we’re really talking about sharing equal sexual relations between men and women, I cannot see the pornography industry is part of that.
“You can’t say you’re pro-Me Too, and you’re pro women’s consent, and then still go and masturbate to material that fundamentally subordinates women.”
More open talk about sex could help
Both Dr Tyler and Dr Ashton believe more open conversations and better sexual education is needed so young people don’t feel they have to turn to porn to learn how to have and enjoy sex.
“We just need to equip people with knowledge and with access to information and support services, so that they can figure out how to be embracing their sexuality in a way that works with them, and having pleasurable, happy, consensual relationship,” Dr Ashton says.