Perceptions and Popular Misconceptions about Porn

Dr. Krista Nabar Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Let me just come right out and state the premise of this blog post: Pornography is not sex education. For some, this may seem obvious. However, in my work as a sex therapist I see case after case of people struggling as they are not living up to “societal” expectations of themselves as sexual beings. These expectations are often reflected in and influenced by mainstream pornography, with few exceptions. Over time, these standards become internalized as normal for many people, regardless of how intellectually aware they are that they are not an accurate reflection of sex in real life. Even if we know porn is not sex education, it is difficult not to be affected by the consistent messaging we receive from the porn we consume. This influence is exacerbated by the absence of truly comprehensive and accurate sex education, which is rare in the world of abstinence-only or no sex education for many young people. For many, pornography fills this void, but not very well.

Pornography is created for the purpose of adult entertainment, not to teach people how to engage in healthy sexual relationships. More specifically, the vast majority of mainstream pornography was created by men for men, meaning it is often tailored, in many ways, to what men may find erotic. I also personally wonder if it also conditions viewers to find erotic what they are consuming, and normalizes things that have not always taken up as much space in typical partnered sexual encounters.

Furthermore, you are not a porn star, and nor is your partner(s). (Unless, of course, you and/or your partner(s) star in adult videos. Then, you are, in fact, a porn star, and you can disregard my initial comment.) The people in mainstream pornography videos are actors, and they are acting in ways that amp up the eroticism of the scenes. Any expectations that you or your partner should be living up to what is portrayed in pornography are destined for a lifetime of disappointment.

One caveat I need to make before diving into the heart of this blog post is that I do not intend this message to be a comment on whether pornography is a good or bad thing. This is a complicated question with many complicated answers that I think is best explored and understood on an individual basis. This blog post is specifically about making sure that if you have viewed or do view pornography (as 73% of women and 98% of men have in the last six months according to a recent survey of over 1000 respondents in relationships), that you are looking at it though the lens with which it was created. It is entertainment, not education.

A second important caveat is that this list focuses specifically on mainstream pornography. I contrast this with ethical porn or feminist porn, sort of like fair trade coffee only its porn. The actors are all paid well, all sex is likely to be consensual, you will see more body diversity and queer representation, and it is focused on the pleasure of all people involved. I am specifically excluding this type of porn from this discussion because many of the issues I am going to discuss are already being addressed in this type of porn. Much of the pornography I am talking about below is heteronormative, and therefore the discussion points below may be focused specifically on cisgender heterosexual scenes and relationships.

So without further adieu, below is a list of common occurrences in mainstream pornography scenes that stand in contrast to healthy sexuality between real people, not actors.

1) In pornography, cisgender men function with rock hard erections throughout the duration of a sexual encounter. Men, or people with penises, are not machines. Pornography makes it seem as though solid erections are a given when one is naked with a partner. What you don’t see behind the scenes is the “fluffer,” the person whose job it is to keep the actor aroused between takes, usually by performing fellatio. In real life, erections are not always as reliable as porn films make them seem. They are often affected by mood, fatigue, relationship satisfaction, physical well-being, anxiety, duration of relationship, self-esteem and confidence, etc. As one of my favorite supervisors used to say “There are only two things you need an erection for, and there are many other fun things you can do that don’t require one.”

2) In porn, all cisgender men have 10-inch penises or larger. In real life, the average length of a flaccid penis is 3.61 inches and erect 5.16 inches, while the average girth is 3.66 (flaccid) and 4.59 (erect). Cisgender male porn stars get work because they have abnormally large penises. Furthermore, the outer 1/3 of the vaginal canal has most of the nerve endings, so even penises that are below average in size are capable of providing vaginal stimulation. As the old saying goes, it’s not the size of the boat but the motion of the ocean!

3) In mainstream pornography, the vagina is hailed as the ultimate source of sexual pleasure for cisgender women. When mainstream pornography depicts penis-in-vagina intercourse (PIV), the women make it apparent that they are experiencing a great deal of pleasure and are orgasming constantly. Thankfully, over the last couple of decades word has gotten out that the clitoris exists and it is more central to women’s sexual pleasure than the vagina. There are over 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris, which is like an iceberg with a cute little button visible from the outside but it extends back into the body with multiple different parts making up this organ. The vast majority of women will not have orgasms through vaginal penetration alone. Most women need clitoral stimulation, with or without penetration, to have orgasms. It is rare to see anyone paying any attention to a clitoris in vaginal penetration scenes in mainstream pornography. The focus in mainstream pornography scenes tends to be on what brings most pleasure to men: penetration.

4) In mainstream pornography, vulvas are often represented in a specific way: minimal pubic hair, taut labia majora (outer lips), and small labia minora (inner lips). While some people certainly have vulvas that reflect this presentation, focusing only on one appearance has created the belief that this is what a “normal” vulva looks like. There is actually enormous diversity in female genitalia. (Check out www.labialibrary.org.au or any of Betty Dodson’s work for some examples of the amazing variety of women’s genitals.) Because pornography is one of the few, if not only, times women get to see other women’s genitals up close, they often develop insecurity since their genitals often do not fit the standard. Some women choose to go as far as labiaplasty, surgically altering the labia to make it appear what they perceive as “normal.” But there is no normal! Furthermore, the expectation has been established that women’s genitals should be hairless, or if there is hair it should be well-styled. And this has become an expectation that women place on themselves, and their partners often reinforce, when they go to their regular Brazilian waxing appointments. Pubic hair exists for a reason. It helps protect the genitals against dirt and bacteria. It makes the genitals less prone to infections and STIs. And it protects the genitals from friction that could cause injury. Women should be in charge of how they choose to groom or not groom their bodies based on what is best for them, not the ever-present unrealistic and often unsafe beauty standards that are set for them.

5) In mainstream pornography, when attention is actually paid to the clitoris it is often with hard and fast movements. And that works really well for some people. Many women, however, prefer a softer, slower, more sensual touch. Or the type of touch that brings pleasure changes as her level of arousal changes. It is always a good idea to verbally discuss outside of sexual encounters how each person enjoys to be touched, and communicate in-the-moment what feels good and how things could feel better.

6) In mainstream pornography, certain body types are normalized while everything else is fetishized. What I mean by that is that most mainstream pornography shows petite, trim, feminine women, with somewhat more variety regarding bust and butt size. Women who fall outside of these parameters are often searched for as certain fetishes, but not considered typically sexually attractive except. It is vital to remember that all people, who choose to be, are sexual beings and are deserving of sexual pleasure.

7) In mainstream pornography, there is no mention of lubrication. What you don’t see is the giant vat of KY Jelly next to the camera person that is slathered on/into all the nooks and crannies between takes. Lube is your friend. Your best friend. And you should use it every time you decide to stick something in something else in a sexual context. And please throw away any thought that lube makes you a failure because your body (or your partner’s body) should make its own lube if they were turned on enough. Lube just makes sex better. So use it. Period.

8) In mainstream pornography, sex just seems to happen in the most unlikely of circumstances with no negotiation. Having sex without explicitly understanding if and to what you and your partner are consenting is ill-advised. Partners need to be communicating their needs, wants, preferences, and especially boundaries. By saying yes to sexual intimacy, you are not giving your partner carte blanche to all kinds of sexual intimacy. Activities need to be negotiated and agreed upon. You can say no at any time and for any reason. You can offer suggestions. You can request variations. You can decide mid-coitus that you just can’t wait any longer to see the next episode of The Mandalorian and discontinue your activities. (If this happens, I recommend good communication specifically stating this is because of the quality of the programming, not the quality of the sex.)

9) In mainstream pornography, ejaculation is often visible and aimed at a particular body part on a partner (face, breasts, buttocks, mouth, etc.). The visual marker of the heightened pleasure an orgasm brings can be highly erotic and can make a good visual for the camera. Some partners may not feel comfortable with being covered in ejaculatory fluid or having it near their face or mouth. Or they may feel disrespected or degraded. It is important to keep in mind that this is one option among many for incorporating ejaculation into a sexual encounter, and both partners need to negotiate what their desires and boundaries are.

10) In mainstream pornography, anal sex is common, easy and mutually pleasurable. In real life these things can be the case as well. However, in order for anal play/intercourse to be pleasurable for the receptive partner, there is A LOT of preparation that needs to happen that is not shown in mainstream pornography. See #7 where I mention the importance of lubrication. Unlike the vagina, the anus is not a self-lubricating organ so the use of a good personal lubricant is essential to prevent pain and tissue damage. There should also be A LOT of gradual stretching of the anus using fingers, toys, and slightly bigger toys before the anus is stretched enough to safely and pleasurably accommodate a penis or dildo. And even BEFORE these steps, it can improve the experience for both partners if the receptive partner makes a bowel movement prior or uses an enema to clear out any extra fecal matter hanging out in the vicinity. If any of these steps are not followed, it can create pain or discomfort and injury for the receptive partner.

11) In most mainstream cisgender heterosexual pornography, men are often depicted as being in charge of the particular activities and setting the pace. Women, conversely, agreeably follow their lead and exist to provide pleasure for their male partners. Although this can be a fun dynamic to play out in a couples’ sex life, it also tends to reinforce the societal gender roles in which women exist to take care of others. I see this as particularly detrimental for women trying to take ownership of their own sexuality and sexual pleasure. Many times in my office I have heard female partners voice some version of “I want to have sex for my partner” or “I am just not a sexual person.” While I may be biased, I believe we are all sexual people to some degree, but often times societal expectations, our partners, or our internal messages stifle our awareness of ourselves as sexual beings. Women do not need to depend on their partners for their pleasure, and that is too much pressure on men to be mind readers regarding what would be pleasurable for their partners. I want women to get to a place where they can take the lead in sexual encounters, know what they want and prioritize their own pleasure.

12) In mainstream pornography, men are shown to be able to maintain erections without ejaculation for long periods of time during intercourse. In real life, the average time between penile insertion and ejaculation is 5-7 minutes. This does not take into account foreplay or afterplay. And in all actuality, many receptive partners do not want intercourse to last much longer since that is often not the primary mechanism for orgasm. Not that it is not enjoyable for some time, but that it isn’t the thing that is going to bring the most pleasure. Intercourse in one way among many to share sexual pleasure with a partner.

13) In mainstream pornography foreplay is often shown as a means to an end, something that if the actors engage in it at all it is for the sole purpose of getting the genitals ready for intercourse. This reinforces the notion that sex = intercourse, and anything else doesn’t count. I encourage folks to broaden their definition of sex to anything that brings pleasure and that you would only do with a sexual partner(s). Through that lens all forms of sexual intimacy can be considered sex, and therefore there are much less rigid expectations about how bodies are supposed to respond, what is supposed to feel good, and what people are supposed to do during a sexual encounter. Foreplay is sex and should be enjoyed and lavished with that understanding.

14)In mainstream heterosexual pornography, the “woman on top” position is often choreographed such that the woman bounces up and down on the man’s penis. This method of doing this position is visually appealing and provides more stimulation to the male partner. It is important to note, however, that the bouncing method is significantly more work for the woman (unless she has thighs of iron) with not much reward (no clitoral stimulation  = no orgasm for most women). The woman-on-top position is one of the only positions that can provide clitoral stimulation without the use of manual or vibrator stimulation when done in more woman-centered ways. This position is typically done with the woman doing a rocking motion with her pelvis, which forces the clitoris to make continued contact with the mons pubis (the area of fatty tissue that covers the pubis bone) of her partner. The rubbing of the clitoris on the mons pubis increases the chances of a woman having an orgasm during penetrative intercourse. Women can feel free to bounce away, especially if they did not make it to the gym that day, but women’s pleasure should be prioritized as much as men’s. Just know that there are other options that can be more mutually satisfying.

Although this list is far from exhaustive, it is a good starting point for folks to see the discrepancies between what we see on our screen and what we do with our partner(s). Ultimately, I want folks to be able to be less rigid with themselves and with each other when it comes to sexual standards. Have fun. Be in touch with your body and do/share what feels good. Accept and love your body for how marvelous it is and what it does for you and for your partners. And if you are going to watch porn, please enjoy it for what it is and don’t take notes. There will not be a final exam.

— Dr. Krista Nabar, PsyD, LP, HSPP

Dr. Nabar is the Executive Director of Carolina Sexual Wellness Center. She is a Licensed Psychologist and Health Services Provider in Psychology in North Carolina and a Certified Sex Therapist by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). To learn more about Carolina Sexual Wellness Center’s services, please call our office at 919-297-8322.

References:
Daspe M, Vaillancourt-Morel M, Lussier Y, Sabourin S & Ferron A (2017): When Pornography Use Feels Out of Control: The Moderation Effect of Relationship and Sexual Satisfaction, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1405301

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