Despite Dire Warnings, Porn Does Not Necessarily Change the Way We Have Sex

What Women Really Think
Nov. 2 2012 9:47 AM

Despite Dire Warnings, Porn Does Not Necessarily Change the Way We Have Sex

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The sex we watch online does not always translate to the sex we have offline.

Photograph by Thinkstock.

Does watching porn change the way we have sex? One new study says that it does, but only if we want it to.

The study, published this month in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, concerns a niche group of porn viewers—79 mostly white, mostly young gay men who watch pornography on a regular basis. But their accounts (all collected anonymously, in online focus groups) shine a light on how viewing sexual material could practically translate into our real sex lives. For these guys, at least, it’s complicated—behaviors they see in porn only jump from screen to bed if they satisfy a host of visual, physical, emotional, and safety needs. 

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In order for a porn image to make its way into a viewer’s regular sexual repertoire, the viewer had to find the image arousing in the first place. So the participant who reported to be “sick to my stomach when I saw fisting” was unlikely to integrate that move into his regular rotation. This may seem obvious, but given the constant commentary about whether porn perverts our “natural” sexuality, it bears recording. And even if a viewer finds a porn move visually and physically arousing, it won’t necessarily become a regular fixture of his sex life unless he’s got a “trusted partner” to experiment with. 

So the men in this study model their sex lives after porn only if they like what they see, like what they feel, and like who they’re doing it with. If a sexual behavior doesn’t fulfill that checklist, many of these men continued to seek it out as a visual fantasy—“One of the reasons I watch porn is to see things I would never do in real life”—or else watched it out of necessity. Since the vast majority of these men didn’t want to pay for their porn, they were pretty flexible with the material they’d be willing to watch. Less so on what they’d want to do. The study’s subjects listed low (or nonexistent) cost as “the most important factor determining viewing choices.” The second most important factor was that the actors be hot. Other priorities—like whether or not the guys wore condoms—fell lower on the scale.

The community of porn viewers (and their sex partners) is vast, and these 79 men only represent a sliver of those who could be influenced by imagery in the porn industry. For one, though these men are young, they still have years and even decades of porn viewership underneath their belts thanks to the ubiquity of online porn. That means that many of them are so pornographically literate (and probably sexually experienced) that they rarely learn new sexual behaviors from porn. The new behaviors they did see—watersports, glory holes, anonymous bareback hook-ups—tended to be physically riskier and less likely to meet those above listed criteria for incorporation into offline life. This is, after all, a community where “trusting your partner” often includes “knowing his HIV status.” (Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the results of this study conflict with previous studies that have identified porn as a “major source of information” for young gay men, informing everything from the mechanics of anal sex to their acceptance of their own sexuality.)

Of course, the social dynamics of relationships work differently for gay men than they do for lesbians, bisexual people, straight men, and straight women. Each of these groups is grappling with different power differentials and a different relationship to society as a whole; each deals with different sexual concerns; and they all watch different porn. But this study does at least suggest that though porn can put ideas in our heads, interpersonal dynamics matter most. If we’re worried about our society’s relationship with porn, we may need to address our relationships with one another first.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer.