Skin in the Game: The Feminist Case Against Pornography

Trigger Warning: The following article contains graphic sexual content and intense depictions of sexual abuse. Reader discretion is strongly advised. However, none of the hyperlinked text links out to pornographic websites.

In January 2017, PornHub – one of the largest online porn sites – released its annual Year In Review statistics.

In 2016, PornHub used 3,110 petabytes of data.
Or 3,110,400,000 gigabytes.
That’s enough data to fill 194 million USB sticks.

92 billion videos were viewed (12.5 videos for every person on Earth),
totaling 4.6 billion hours of videos watched (or 52,464 decades).

And that’s just one porn site.

That’s a lot of porn.

According to the most conservative of statistics, 70% of men and 30% women watch porn on a weekly basis (however, for millennials and Gen Z, the numbers are estimated to be 90% and 50%, respectively).

Pornography has infiltrated every aspect of our culture – to the point that our current U.S. president is the first president to have been featured in a softcore porn video.

And more pornography is consumed per capita in the Bible Belt than any other geographic subset in the United States.

I’ve read at least a dozen feminist think pieces arguing why porn isn’t dangerous to women and women shouldn’t feel threatened by it and should embrace it.

And then those same writers will write scathing articles criticizing violence against women in Game of Thrones, the sexual objectification of women by politicians, and our unjust criminal justice system that favors the rapists over the victim.

Is it possible that the fact that a staggering majority of men and a significant portion of women watched more than 5,246 centuries worth of pornographic video clips per year is a contributing factor to the world’s issues with women’s rights, body image, and rampant misogyny?

I mean, that’s not a crazy question, is it?

In our rush to defend, minimize or overlook the impact of pornography preventing us from an objective and honest examination of the facts?

The Pornification of the United States

There are more pornography viewers than the users of Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.

The porn industry rakes in about $14 billion per year – more than Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association combined.

The average length of a time a user spends on a pornographic website is nine minutes and thirty-six seconds. The “average” porn viewer visits a porn site 7.5 times per month.

The porn industry is currently in a state of flux. People don’t watch “pornographic films,” subscribe to softcore pornography magazines (like Playboy or Hustler), or rent X-rated films from video stores anymore – they watch clips of specific sex acts online.

Because of that most of the revenue generated by pornography comes from ad space sold on pornographic video aggregators and websites. In fact, pornographic aggregator sites (called “tubes”) are the new porn empires.

As a result of “tubes” and the dissemination of free porn on the internet, the number of major porn studios in the U.S. has dropped from 200 to 20 in the past three decades – and yet porn consumption is at an all-time high.

Breaking the Spell

Pornography is filled with content considered horrific and regressive in any other facet of culture – racial and gender stereotypes, slurs, casual misogyny and an overwhelming fixation on the developing sexuality and curiosity of young women. It is the fulfillment and epitome of the “male gaze.”

In her book Pornified, Pamela Paul writes,

The women in pornography exists in order to please men, and are therefore willing to do anything. They will accommodate whatever a man wants them to do, be it anal sex, double penetration, or multiple orgasms. She’s easily aroused, naturally and consistently orgasmic, and malleable, She is what he wants her to be. She’s a cheerleader, a nurse, a dominatrix, a nymphomaniac, a virgin, a teenager, your best friend’s mother. Each encounter begins anew, meeting as welcome strangers and parting with gratitude.”

Porn is a unique hybrid of voyeuristic and vicarious entertainment.

Most men in online porn are intentionally bland or non-threateningly attractive. This makes it easier for male users to transpose themselves into the role of the male participant. If the men in porn were as attractive as the women it wouldn’t be fair to the online viewer.

This is a form of vicarious porn. The viewer is supposed to input themselves into sexual act being performed by or to the female participant.

This is why so many porn films end with the man ejaculating outside of the women’s body in full view of the camera. It’s a dualistic experience meant to be shared between the male participant and the online viewer.

In voyeuristic porn, the viewer is the passive observer of the sex act – solo webcams, masturbation videos, and lesbian sex are mainstays of pornographic voyeurism. The allure is in the forbidden – the opportunity to see into a hidden world you’re not granted access to in the real world.

A meta-analysis of 20 years of sex research conducted by the Journal of Sex Research found that among adolescents

Pornography use was associated with more permissive sexual attitudes and tended to be linked with stronger gender-stereotypical sexual beliefs. It also seemed to be related to the occurrence of sexual intercourse, greater experience with casual sex behavior, and more sexual aggression, both in terms of perpetration and victimization.”

Where do you think “bro and rape culture” get their misogynistic views of women?

The hyper-specificity of porn categories, search engines and relevant keywords (ex. “hot+teen+blonde+small boobs+etc.”) allows the user to curate sexual experiences specifically tailored to the user’s sexual preferences.

Do I even have to explain why this is bad for women?

According to a 2008 Journal of Sex Research study that included 15,246 respondents, a symmetrical relationship was revealed between men and women as a result of viewing pornography that included

women reporting more negative consequences, including lowered body image, partner critical of their body, increased pressure to perform acts seen in pornographic films, and less actual sex, while men reported being more critical of their partners’ body and less interested in actual sex.”

A 2012 research report in Sex Roles found

women’s reports of their male partner’s frequency of pornography use were negatively associated with their relationship quality. More perceptions of problematic use of pornography was negatively correlated with self-esteem, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction.”

And for all of you married folks out there, research from a 2014 Journal of Family & Economic Issues found married adults that looked at pornography

were more likely to be divorced, more likely to have had an extramarital affair, and less likely to report being happy with their marriage or happy overall. The negative relationship between pornography use and marital well-being has, if anything, grown stronger over time, during a period in which pornography has become both more explicit and more easily available.”

For the record, multiple research studies have found a negative relationship between pornography consumption and marital satisfaction.

Canaries In The Coalmine

Frequent porn use (more than once a week) has been linked to sexual dysfunctions (including erectile dysfunction in young men), lower arousal, and overall lower sexual and relationship satisfaction.

Internet porn is considered a “supernormal stimulus” – meaning it’s an exaggerated version of normal (sexual) stimuli. While masturbating to online internet porn, one can switch videos and genres to increase sexual arousal and combat declining dopamine levels in the brain – a unique development in the history of sexual behavior that has occurred only within the past decade.

In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges writes,

“Pornography does not promote sex, if one defines sex as a shared act between two partners. It promotes masturbation. It promotes the solitary auto-arousal that precludes intimacy and love. Pornography is about getting yourself off at someone else’s expense.”

In a 2014 Cambridge University study, 60% of male participants (average age: 25) reported they had difficulty achieving arousal and erections with real partners, and yet had no issues achieving erections with porn.

The researchers summed up their findings:

The subjects also had greater impairments of sexual arousal and erectile difficulties in intimate relationships but not with sexually explicit materials highlighting that the enhanced desire scores were specific to the explicit cues and not generalized heightened sexual desire.”

In a 2015 article from the Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy, researchers concluded

Pornography offers a very simple alternative to obtain pleasure without implying other factors that were involved in human’s sexuality along the history of mankind. The brain develops an alternative path for sexuality which excludes “the other real person” from the equation. Furthermore, pornography consumption in a long term makes men more prone to difficulties in obtaining an erection in a presence of their partners.”

Pornography treats sex and arousal as a novelty,
and novelty wears off.

In a 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association article, the authors concluded

We assume that subjects with a high porn consumption need increasing stimulation to receive the same amount of reward. That could mean that regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system. That would fit perfectly the hypothesis that their reward systems need growing stimulation.”

In the 2016 Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy, researchers

found that frequency of pornography consumption was also directly related to a relative preference for pornographic rather than partnered sexual excitement.The more frequently pornography is used as an arousal tool for masturbation, the more an individual may become conditioned to pornographic as opposed to other sources of sexual arousal.”

Further peer-reviewed research highlighting the link between porn use, sexual dysfunction and desensitization can be found here, here, here, and here.

The Other Side of the Camera

Professional porn is a tightly regulated industry. Women are required to take STD and STI tests every fourteen days; all actors, actresses, and crew must sign consent forms; and anyone on set can yell “stop” at any point during the shoot.

But amateur porn – which makes up the bulk of the online porn industry – is a difficult industry to regulate. It’s often filmed within the confines of homes, apartment rooms, and warehouse sets.

The most powerful people in the porn industry are men. Ninety-five percent of porn directors are male – a gender disparity gap only slightly larger than Hollywood.

At least 36% of women in porn have previously been sexually abused or assaulted – a number that’s not too far off the national average (that’d be 29%). At least 50% of the porn actresses surveyed admitted to have used ecstasy, 40% cocaine, and 27% meth – percentages far outpacing the national average.

In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges writes,

“Porn is not about love or eroticism. It is about power and money. It is a transaction. It is based on the conversion of women into objects. They are assigned a monetary value and sexually exploited for profit.”

Women in porn video are referred to as “hoes,” “sluts,” “whores,” “horny,” “fresh meat,” “holes,” “dirty,” and “MILFs.” This is a psychological tactic similar to what is used in government propaganda to dehumanize an enemy during wartime.

The women are then “banged,” “nailed,” “f*cked,” “creamed,” “pounded,” “punished,” “choked,” “gagged,” “jackhammered,” “filled up,” “slammed,” and “dominated.”

These nouns and verbs don’t even come from hardcore or fetish porn sites – these are all from titles of trending videos on mainstream porn sites.

The average career span of a porn actress is between six and 12 months. Rather than being considered employees, most actresses are considered “independent contractors.” Porn actresses earn wages on a scene-by-basis based on their star power (online/industry reputation), years in the industry (newer sometimes pays more) and the sex act.

The more extreme or humiliating the sex act, the higher the wage.

In the early stages of their amateur porn careers, the women are eased into the industry. Pay is typically higher in the first few months (videos in which it’s the woman’s “first time” to perform specific sex acts generate more views).

However, a young women’s value in porn is not placed on her acting ability or physical beauty – it’s how far she willing to push the limits of her body and what she’s willing to do in front of the camera.

In an article for The New Yorker, writer Katrina Forrester said

most porn actresses don’t stick around long enough to start slow. The average career is between four and six months. Performers work long hours with no benefits and they have to cover significant out-of-pocket costs. Tests for S.T.D.s can be as much as two hundred dollars a month.”

The decentralization of the porn industry by the internet makes it incredibly difficult to track how much of the revenue generated by pornography actually makes it back to the performers themselves.

Addendum: A Personal Word

I don’t think porn is good for men.
Or women.

I don’t think porn creates serial rapists, spousal abusers, or murderers.

But I know it doesn’t create feminists.
I know it doesn’t help people value women.

I’ve watched porn. I know this.

Why does porn get a free pass? If I read you the titles of the top ten trending videos on any porn site at any given moment could you honestly tell me with a straight face that “porn is good for women and society at-large?”

Is it simply to antagonize social conservatives and the religious right (who, by the way, look at as much porn as everyone else)? Or is it more personal? Is it because we know that if we start asking honest questions about pornography we’re going to have to examine our own personal usage?

Or is it really about freedom of speech?

Listen, I don’t think porn should be banned.
I’m not pro-censorship.
I just think we need to be open to asking questions.

Because porn might very well be the largest and most unifying cultural artifact of the modern age. Bigger than Marvel. Bigger than Beyoncé. Bigger than Star Wars.

I believe global warming is real (and exacerbated by humans) and that vaccines don’t cause autism and the world is a globe because that’s where scientific research, common sense, and easily observable evidence takes me.

Can we not apply the same standards to pornography?

If you continue to view pornography and think it’s no big deal, I’m not going to stop you.
I wouldn’t yank a cigarette out of someone’s mouth just because I know it’s a dangerous habit.

And, to be honest, I understand the appeal of pornography.
Trust me, I didn’t watch it because I hated it.
Porn was easy, accessible, and it felt good.

But at a certain point, we’re going to have to ask ourselves, when it really comes down to it
What do we stand for?
Where will we draw the line?
And do we have a consistent ethic toward human flourishing and dignity of all people, genders, races, and sexual orientations?

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie breathtaking short book We Should All Be Feminist (and yes, you should read it or at least listen to her TED talk), she says

My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”

And think that’s exactly how I want to finish this piece.

We can do better.
We must do better.

Additional Resources

  • I highly recommend Pamela Paul’s book Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our families,  Gary Wilson’s Your Brain on Porn, and Gail Dines’ Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality and Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls.
  • The Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted (produced by Rashida Jones) is an emotionally intense watch, but essential viewing to get an on-the-fly look at the amateur porn industry.
  • For an encouraging, hopeful, and nonjudgemental take on “the endless connections between spirituality and sexuality,” I recommend Rob Bell’s Sex God.
  • If you’re going to continue to watch pornography (not recommended by this author), then at the very least pay for it from “ethically sourced” porn sites – independent studios with high safety standards, in-house production control and financial accountability that ensure a percentage of the profits make it to the performers.

2 thoughts on “Skin in the Game: The Feminist Case Against Pornography

  1. As a new follower of your blog, I’m coming along late to this post, but I think it’s outstanding. It captured really well my own thoughts about porn and its influence on our society. You’re invited to read “The Siren’s Song”, my post regarding this subject. I don’t think it compares to yours, but I think you’ll see we’re pretty much on the same page.


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