Easy Access: The psychological impact of contemporary pornography

By Lily Rosenzweig

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The lights are low, the door is closed. A laptop sits open, flickers of flesh, mouths and other inscrutable body parts on the screen. Tamalpais High School junior Kirk reclines with his headphones pulled taut, barely keeping the sound of moans in ear, unaware that he will soon be interrupted by the last person he’d want walking in.

“Being caught by my mom while I was watching porn was the most awkward experience I have ever had. There were tissues everywhere and I was out of breath. But, when I thought about it, I started to wonder why it was so awkward,” said Kirk. “After all, we are all human beings; shouldn’t being horny be [acceptable]?”

Today, given the ubiquitous nature of technology, Tam students can have large concentrations of pornography in the palms of their hands, whenever and wherever they want, raising questions about the impact of porn on student well-being.

“Media literacy is extremely important. Do you just consume [pornography] and say ‘Oh, that’s just how sex is?’ Or, do you look at it with some level of critical eye and question the actuality of the video?” said Dr. Carol Queen, Executive Director of the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. “People in the United States aren’t taught this level of media literacy, which can have a possible detrimental effect on those who don’t look at it with a critical and curious eye.”

Queen’s philosophy about sexuality is that it does not get the attention and the education in our culture that many people need to live happy and healthy sexual lives.   “The sexual education one receives in high school doesn’t necessarily prepare you for pleasure-based sexual functioning with a partner,” said Queen.

The pornography industry in the United States has been a lucrative industry ever since it started gaining prominence in the 1960s. With the breakthrough of the Internet, pornography has become increasingly more accessible, now generating more than $10 billion a year in the United States alone according to U.S. Pornography Industry Revenue statistics. Pornography has evolved with the innovations technology, appearing first as sexual art, to more explicit photography, then maturing to the classic printed erotica magazines and finally manifesting in pornographic videography.

“The Internet has made porn easier to access. It’s not like the ‘70s where you had to come up with some complicated scheme to steal your dad’s Playboy magazines,” said sophomore Ben.

In fact, 70 percent of teenagers in the United States have accidentally stumbled upon pornography while using the Internet, according to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“[Internet pornography] is a very, very easily accessible sexual stimulant,” said junior Josh.

According to research from Family Safe Media, the largest demographic of Internet porn viewers is between ages 12 and 17. A survey conducted by the Washington Post showed that more than 11 million teenagers in the United States view Internet pornography on a consistent or regular basis.

The Tam News conducted its own survey, which showed similar trends. Of 389 Tam students surveyed 69 percent had accessed pornographic material on the Internet and 58 percent had seen at least one pornographic video on the Internet. Of females surveyed, 32 percent reported viewing pornography compared to 82 percent of male students.

“I would say that I watch porn on the Internet a couple of times a week,” said junior Mary. “Why? Because it turns me on.”

Mary explained that she sees pornography simply as an aid for healthy sexual release. “I think that for the majority of people [the fantasy aspect of pornography] has nothing to do with [the draw and interest in pornography]. I think people just watch porn for the masturbation and orgasm,” said Mary.

“People only watch porn to have an orgasm, having sexual fantasies and other emotional connections have nothing to do with it,” said Josh.

Ben stated, “People watch porn because they want to have sex without having sex. People want the erotic thrill without the emotional connection.” With this, Ben points the prevalence of double standards, societal rejection, peer pressure and a lack of sexual partners during adolescence that leads to the default of watching porn as a substitute for sexual intercourse which some say, involves higher risks physically and psychologically.

A cumulative result of 90.9 percent of Tam students seemed to echo this viewpoint, stating that watching pornographic material has never gotten in the way of sexual and social interactions with others.

But some experts would say this is naïve. Masturbation without moderation can amount to a kind of addiction, and with every addiction the danger is that it can impact daily life. For Tam students, that could mean interference with the education and learning environment and even basic relationships with other students. “While lingerie ads and R-rated movies can be initially very exciting, that excitement doesn’t continue for the sex addict. The need for more and more stimulation leads into more explicit, hard-core pornography, adult movies and websites, and eventually into acting out the fantasies that are formed in the mind,” according to an article written on AllAboutLifeChanges.org.

“Curiosity is the main element that draws the teenage viewer to watch pornography, of course, as well as the sexual engagement and the potential fantasy aspect involved in the video,” commented Queen.

“Watching porn for me did begin with being curious about sex, I never knew much about what really went on,” said Ben.

Others students think that the fantasy aspect of pornographic videos is the most captivating part about pornography. “In real life, it’s not the milkman and the cheerleader. Porn pushes the boundaries of what’s real. People are drawn to watch [porn] because people always want something more than what reality has to offer. That’s part of human nature,” said Ben.

“I enjoy watching porn videos with weird situations because it’s something that would never happen in real life, and it turns into a sort of entertainment,” said senior Ralph.

Other students expressed concern that, the depiction of sex in pornographic videos can sometimes be seen as unrealistic, that it creates a “false image of what sex really is, and because of that, people get false expectations, which could eventually completely ruin sex for them,” according to junior Lauren.

Males are generally perceived to watch more pornographic material than females. “I would say at least 30 percent of teenage females watch porn, and about 85 percent of teenage boys watch porn. I don’t know why, but I just think boys are hornier,” said junior Tom. “I watch porn all the time, at least every other day,” he added.  Of the surveyed males, 19 percent stated that they never watch pornography, leaving the other 81 percent stating that they watch pornography on a regular basis. For the surveyed females, 85 percent said that they never watch pornography. “I have never felt comfortable watching porn because it has always made me look at my body in low ways. The women that are in the porn videos don’t look realistic, and I know that, but it still gets to you somehow,” said junior Lauren.

Independent of pornography’s attraction, 54 percent of female students surveyed said that they think viewing pornography is morally acceptable. Of the males, 80 percent felt the same way. Together, 68 percent of students surveyed stated that watching pornography was morally acceptable.

“Watching any type of pornography is immoral. It is wrong to exploit people like that,” said freshman Duncan. Senior Sarah disagrees saying, “I think watching porn is a completely natural and normal thing to do. Everyone is curious about sex, especially at this age. I don’t think anyone should be shielded from sex; ever.”

Some experts have made the argument that the female image portrayed in pornography is unrealistic, demanding women in pornography to look like the “natural” woman. Modern pornography mainly operates for the male viewer.

In “Politics, Feminism, and the Constitution: The Anti-Pornography Movement in Minneapolis,” an essay by Paul Brest, Professor at Stanford Law School, and Ann Vandenberg, Oberlin College alumna, they detailed the story of Ruth M. and her husband, who used pornography to get Ruth to engage in sexual acts that she found degrading and abusive. The ideas for these acts, which included group sex, wife swapping, anal intercourse, and bondage, had come from pornographic magazines and videos. Ruth M. is quoted saying, “When he asked me to be bound, when he finally convinced me to do it, he read in the magazine how to tie the knots and how to bind me in a way that I couldn’t get out… I could see how I was being seasoned to the use of pornography and I could see what was coming next… I knew at that point that I was either going to die from it, I was going to kill myself or I was going to leave. Pornography is not a fantasy; it was my life, reality.”

Pornography does not only harm the vision of a female body for some, but it can potentially make males feel self-conscious. “I decided to stop watching porn because it made me feel weird about my body. All of the guys in the porn videos’ penises are humungous, and the girls are always talking about how they love big [ones]…and that started to make me feel like I was never going to be able to please a girl during sex the way the men in the porn video does,” said sophomore boy Rey.

Regardless of the multiple views and opinions about the perceived affects of pornography and the accessibility of pornographic images on the Internet, one thing is certain: love it or hate it, pornography is an immense part of the United States economy, one that is perennial and will seemingly continues for years to come.

Written by Lily Rosenzweig. This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.

All students quoted in the article have requested anonymity and pseudonyms have been used in order to preserve their privacy.