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Comes Naturally #16

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Porn Studies at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, or Who's Idea Was It to Let Porn Teach the Children About Sex?

The Annual Meeting of SSSS

Once again I get to report on the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (SSSS), the largest association of sex educators, researchers, and therapists in the country. The four-day November conference in Chicago offered, as usual, a wide variety of presentations and workshops on sex-related topics of the day. Something for everyone interested in sex, you might say.

Take these, as examples: "Eroticizing Safer Sex: Non-Penetrative Alternatives," "A History of Sexual Behavior Surveys," "AIDS Related Sexual Behaviors of Sadomasochistic Sex Practitioners," "Sexologists on TV: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?" "Risky and Non-Risky Sexual Transactions with Clients in a Non-Probability Sample of Los Angeles Escorts and Call-Girls," "'How Do I Make a Woman Have An Orgasm?' and 499 Other Questions College Students Ask About Sex," "Masturbatory Fantasy in Childhood and Adolescence," "Preliminary Results of a New Treatment for Premature Ejaculation," and "Exploring Erotic Role-Play." For the more eclectic, there were such arcane topics as "Sexual Behavior Changes in Finland During the Last 20 Years," "Traditional Beliefs about Causation and Treatment of Sexually Related Diseases in Uganda," and "The Use of Anatomically Detailed Dolls in Validation Interviews: Critical Standardization, Norms and Validity Issues."

The Stock Report

Among the workshops I attended were two very different presentations on pornography. The first, a research report offered by Dr. Wendy Stock of the Pacific Graduate School in Palo Alto, was called "The Effects of Pornography on Women." It came from a survey Stock conducted among undergraduate women. "This study," Stock summarizes, "examines how women feel about pornography in their living environments, when used by themselves or their partners, and their feelings about the material itself.... This study provides a context in which to understand previous laboratory research on women's reactions to pornography, as well as a context in which to understand the variables that determine how pornography may have a negative impact on women's lives." She adds, somewhat parenthetically, that "it is hoped that this study will also shed light on the circumstances in which sexually explicit material is associated with positive experiences in women's lives."

Stock is a vocal pornography critic who takes great pain to emphasize that she is not opposed to erotic imagery in general. In fact she once almost bought a photographic print I had on display in a show of photos from my book, Erotic by Nature. Her overriding concern is her belief (suspicion; hypothesis) that porn has a negative general effect on women's lives, an effect that goes far beyond the familiar debate about whether porn is a cause of violence against women.

Through her survey, Stock attempts to shed light on how porn affects women's relationships with their partners, how it affects their sexual experiences in particular, and how it affects the ways the women feel about themselves as sexual people, and about their bodies.

Stock had found in previous surveys that some 20% of undergraduate women "reported upsetting experiences inspired by [their] partner's use of pornography, including attempted and completed sexual acts." Her latest work is an attempt to make sense of this.

The vision is this: Boyfriend sees some bizarre act in a porn film that turns him on, goes to his girlfriend, says that he's found out that some girls do this, pushes her to do the act whether she wants to or not, possibly gets upset with her if she doesn't want to do it. The "pornographic act" foisted on the woman by the male porn user.

This is a variation of a long-standing objection to porn voiced by antiporn activists who work with battered women. As John Stoltenberg once related to me at great length, men beat up their girlfriends and wives all the time because their partners refuse to have sex with them "like the girls in the porn movies do it." He had dozens of anecdotal examples to back up this belief. In Stock's research, the incidents are less violent, but the color is the same: women being caused sexual upset by "certain acts depicted in porn."

Stock's presentation was in fact peppered with references to these "acts depicted in porn." Her survey did indeed show that men often see certain sexual acts for the first time in porn, and sometimes then suggest these acts to their partners. In more than a few cases, it seems, these suggestions were upsetting to the women concerned.

But when Stock breaks down these newly discovered sexual practices, they turn out not to be much less bizarre than her upset seems to suggest. The most common upsetting suggestions were engaging in oral and anal sex, and sex involving penetration with a "foreign object" (like a dildo), bondage, and s/m of one sort or another. Other porn-discovered suggestions that were significantly less common statistically, were bondage, s/m of one sort or another, "deep throat," talking dirty, and (that old time act that seems to offend some anti-porn people so strongly) ejaculating on a partner's (face or) body.

A young man watches a porn video showing oral or anal sex and asks his partner if she will do that with him. She reports this as an upsetting experience. Is the lesson of this story that no one should have put such an idea in the boy's head in the first place? As one member of the audience asked afterwards, couldn't the same be said about any form of sex education? Stock acknowledged that indeed it could.

97% of the women Stock surveyed had seen pornography of one form or another, almost identical to 97.5% of the men. On the other hand, 75% of the men acknowledged using porn regularly, compared to only 7% of the women. 32% of the men and 11% of the women said that they "enjoyed using porn with a partner."

When Stock asked her female respondents how they felt about porn, meaning how they felt when they watched it, there were the usual range of responses, from delighted to disgusted. I found it interesting that 66% of the women said that they came away "curious" about pornography, 46% said they were amused by it, and 33% said they were intrigued.

In terms of the effects of porn on their relationships, 23% of the women said that watching porn turned them on. 19% said they learned new sexual behaviors from porn, while 12% said that watching porn generally improved the quality of their sex lives. Among the negative effects reported by women, 42% were afraid their partners were comparing their bodies unfavorably to other women, 33% said watching porn made them feel bad about their bodies, 23% said watching porn made them worried about their performance as sexual partners. (While only 13% of the men actually viewed their partners as sexually inadequate, 50% of the men said that porn sometimes left them feeling disappointed with their partners' bodies.) I thought it was interesting that, with regard to negative feelings about porn, there no significant differences, category by category, between men and women. In other words, women were no more likely than men to feel bad about watching porn or to feel that watching porn affected them in negative ways.

Sex Education by Default

Aside from being offended by Stock's loaded use of the phrase "acts depicted in porn" when she meant oral sex (or even vaginal intercourse), I came away with a new respect for the powerful role pornography seems to have inadvertently taken in the unofficial sex education of young men (and to some extent, apparently, of young women as well), at least in terms of expanding these people's sexual imaginations. Now that almost all young people look at porn, alone and together, porn has become the place for people to find out about the multitude of sexual practices potentially available to them, far beyond "the man puts his penis in the woman's vagina and nine months later a baby is born."

This is, of course, a role that pornography has always played -- spreading the word about sexual practices that the dominant culture wants to ignore, or to marginalize as perverted and deviant. Thus, in the early 1960's, Eros magazine publisher Ralph Ginzburg was sent to jail for five years, not because the photos in Eros were sexually obscene, but because Eros included writing that looked favorably upon women who have extramarital affairs when they are sexually dissatisfied with their husbands. To the Catholic judge who sent Ginzburg away, his obscenity was encouraging infidelity, a sexual practice this judge considered dangerously outside the norm. We can't have people reading about women enjoying extramarital affairs; it might put ideas in their susceptible little heads. (Of course, literature that speaks of the delights of men who have affairs is another thing altogether.)

Up to and through the 1950s and 60s, gay pornography performed the same socially dangerous role: depicting to gay or gay-inclined men -- at that time almost universally closeted and isolated -- that men (at least in these hot pieces of fiction) really did have sex with other men. Not only did these stories announce that men had sex with other men, but it showed how men had sex with other men, and (as the reader could tell from his own aroused response) how hot that sex could be.

In his thoughtful essay, "How Dare You Even Think These Things?" John Preston writes about the early gay pornographer, Samuel Steward, who wrote under the pseudonym Phil Andros. It was Andros's writing that helped Preston understand and respect his own homosexual feelings early in his life, something for which Preston felt so deeply indebted to Steward that he sought the man out to thank him.

"The kind of exciting and often hard sexuality Andros wrote about was what I wanted to experience, or, often, it reflected what I had actually gone through," Preston writes. Steward, on the other hand, felt undermined because "he had written his pornography too soon. No one would publish it but the smallest and, often, the trashiest companies." What Steward didn't realize, says Preston, was that "his pornography was changing the landscape in which it was happening. Many young men like myself were reading his adventures and were finding a mentor," a beacon through the dark territory of self-doubt and self-hatred.

Over the course of his life, Preston has become a sexual mentor in his own right, writing porn novels such as Mr. Benson and the Master series that would help countless other gay men clarify and affirm their desires. Later in his life, it became Preston's turn to hear words of thanks coming "from the mouths of men who had used my books to explore the territory of their masturbatory fantasies with the help of the characters from my books."

Robert Mapplethorpe's documentation of the world of gay male s/m took on the same explicit purpose of documenting a sexual world that mainstream culture wanted to keep safely invisible. Mapplethorpe's work was deemed obscene for exactly the same reason as Ginzburg's, Steward's, or Preston's: because it let people know about new sexual possibilities, which would inevitably mean that people would feel better about wanting what they wanted, getting turned on to whatever made them hot, even being so bold as to act in sexual ways deemed improper or "abnormal."

As Wendy Stock's study reveals, this is what is now happening with respect to more conventional, contemporary porn. People do indeed watch porn videos depicting enthusiastic oral and anal sex. Inevitably some will want to experience this themselves, and will bring this up with their sexual partners, some of whom will inevitably be upset at the suggestion. People do watch videos that show women (and men) getting off by putting vibrators and dildoes in or on various parts of their bodies. Yes, Johnny, lot of people really do play with all intriguing sex toys you never would have dreamed up on your own. People do watch videos that show bondage, spanking, or people talking dirty to each other. They even watch videos that show women who enjoy when a man ejaculates on their body, in their mouth, or on their face, women who enjoy spreading the creamy cum onto their skin rather than recoiling from it in disgusted horror. And the more adventurous, curious, or driven viewer will find his or her way to videos that broaden the range of sexual possibility even farther, showing sexual activities and fetishes two or ten steps farther still from the sexual straight and narrow -- showing that, and showing how people do the most remarkable things.

In the absence of other forms of sexual enlightenment, renegade porn takes on the role of being the major source for expanded sexual expression and imagination. To my mind, this is wonderful (thank goodness someone is spreading the sexual word) and problematic. It is problematic because porn inherits the mantel of sexual initiation unintentionally and wears it thoughtlessly. Sexual initiation of succeeding generations is, after all, a rather heavy social responsibility. As I see it, along with all the important sexual information that porn disseminates, there is also a great deal of rather serious misinformation. No, women don't usually get turned on physically from having their pussies licked carelessly once or twice, and don't often have orgasms from being fucked hard in the missionary position, or from being fucked at all for that matter. No, men don't always or usually pull fully hard erections from their jeans after being kissed twice and fondled once. For most people, the best sex really does not come from putting 88% of the energy into pleasing the man. By and large, hot sex happens when people feel safe, comfortable, and intimate, stranger fantasies notwithstanding. And so on and so on.

But to jump all over porn for not providing realistic and subtle sex education is like criticizing Jurassic Park for its poor character development. Porn is not intended to be educational, it's intended to be a turn on. And hyperbolic fantasies are frequently more effective turn-ons than realistic sexual depiction. When people criticize porn for giving people wrong ideas, porn producers have every right to shrug and answer with amusement, "Whoever said we were trying to give people any ideas at all?"

There have been some notable exceptions to this, by the way, times when, for one reason or another, porn producers have consciously tried to be educational. The best example I can think of is the Mitchell Brothers' film, The Grafenberg Spot, a definite attempt to teach men and women about both the g-spot and about female ejaculation. In The Grafenberg Spot, a woman gets into a fight with her boyfriend because when she orgasms she ejaculates all over him. He thinks she's peeing on him, is disgusted, and leaves in a huff. She also thinks her fount is pee, and feels thoroughly humiliated. She goes to a doctor (Annette Haven -- we should all have such doctors at these moments in our lives) who tells her about female ejaculation and about her g-spot, and then teaches the boyfriend how to rub her g-spot just right and how to enjoy the hot liquid experience of being flooded. If the sex ed films shown in high schools had 10% of the heat of this flick, every teenage boy and girl would know the basics about sex -- no arm twisting, no jokes about sex ed being for sissies.

If porn's social role of sex educator by default is problematic, the answer should not be to eliminate porn, but to augment it with sexual learning that puts sexual fantasy in perspective. Of course, our society can't do that because we're so afraid of sex that we don't really want people to know about it, no matter how many people get pregnant at 15, die of AIDS, or live their entire sexual lives in ignorant misery.

As for Those Women Pornographers...

A second SSSS workshop on porn, "New Views on Porn: Does Director's Gender Influence the Content and Approach of Commercial Sex Films and Videos?" led by Patti Britton, approached the porn phenomenon from an entirely different perspective. Surveying 22 porn films made between 1980 and 1990 by women directors, and comparing them to an equal number of films directed by men, Britton wondered if there would be any overriding differences between the two groups. She painstakingly analyzed each of the films for 61 variables, including elements of plot, roles and images of women, and 49 specific sexual behaviors.

What she found was that the films were very much alike, whether they were directed by women or by men. There were no significant differences in the themes of the films, no significant differences in the time it took to get to the first sexual act, no significant differences in the time taken by the sex act itself. (Only Candida Royalle's films were exceptions to these findings.) What Britton did find was that films by women directors placed more emphasis on women holding men's cocks, women being on top of men while facing them, and on women's heavy breathing. Among the male-directed films, Britton found a greater emphasis on women's erect nipples, and more frequency of men ejaculating on women's faces. As for what she calls "pseudoviolent or coercive" sexual acts (including, by the way, scenes involving consensual s/m), there was, again, almost no difference, since these acts were rare in porn films no matter who was directing them. When it comes to violence in porn films, on the average there is less than one such incident per complete film, even counting consensual s/m as violent.

Spectator, January 7, 1994

Copyright © 1994 David Steinberg

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