April 23, 2019 | 61° F

FOWLER: Pornography can desensitize society

Opinions Column: Sex and the City

Pornography is so ubiquitous in the internet age that we may take its presence for granted. What used to only be available in physical magazines or TV programming is now more easily accessed than ever — and with this, more people access it, and at younger ages. It is worth thinking about the effects of such widespread and early access. How does porn affect one’s sexual relationships, how does porn affect one’s relationship with themselves — are these relationships significant at all? Further, while we should think about the viewer and his/her relationship to porn, we should also consider people who work in porn themselves. Just as in any industry, there are ways in which people can be treated unfairly, be harassed or abused, and those who watch porn should have in mind not only the implications onto themselves, but similarly, how their viewing effects those on the screen.

There is a lot of conflicting research regarding whether porn is hurtful or harmful. One aspect of much contention is the age at which people begin to access porn. A study done by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation found that 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls had seen internet pornography during adolescence. Some studies cite that the young age at which people can now access porn could be harmful due to the elasticity of the brain and how malleable it is at such a young age. JAMA Psychiatry found that the hours and years of porn use were correlated with decreased gray matter in regions of the brain associated with reward sensitivity, as well as reduced responsiveness to erotic still photos. Another critique of porn comes from the fact that often it may be the only example of sexual scenarios that young people encounter. In this way, porn can set unrealistic expectations and an incorrect understanding of how sex actually works. The damage of this, of course, comes coupled with the fact that sex education in the United States is not what it needs to be, and information often is not as in-depth and varied as it might need to be in order for porn consumption and sexual health and expectations to live happily side-by-side for young people. The notion of people getting sex education from pornography is so widespread that Pornhub actually has an education component on its site called the Sexual Wellness Center. 

On the other hand, research in the Netherlands has shown that exposure to pornography explained less than 4 percent of the variance in adolescents' sexual behaviors. Lindsey Doe, a clinical sexologist, summarizes confounding research on the harms and benefits of porn by quoting sociologist/sexologist Ira Reiss: "Our reactions to sexually arousing films or books provide insight into our personal sexual attitudes. What we are really reacting to is not the objective material but rather a projection of our own innermost feelings concerning the type of sexuality presented." Doe explains that a person's positive or negative reaction to porn has more to do with the person than the porn they are watching. Doe takes a glass of water and drops a cork in it, then a key and battery. She explains that the water is the porn, and viewers are the objects. It is the object which floats or sinks, not the water.

The idea that people should attempt to quit porn seems to be rather contentious. It seems to make sense that viewing porn with already developed ideas about what consent looks like, what healthy encounters look like, etc., has the potential to lessen any sort of severe damage. It seems as though the potential to do damage is most great in young groups where these ideas are not formed.

But, as previously mentioned, there is another side of pornography, the one that has to do with the actors involved. Watching ethical porn should be a priority of any one who consumes it — the potential for actors to be manipulated or abused is there in the production of porn, and consumers should know about the effects of being in the porn industry. The Independent published a list of nine steps to be an ethical porn consumer, all of which point to the general idea that someone who views porn should go out of their way to care about what happens to actors off set. One way to being an ethical porn viewer is by paying for porn that goes out of its way to assure that actors are treated well, not coerced into scenes and are paid justly. 

Ashley Fowler is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in English. Her column, “Sex and the City,” runs on alternate Thursdays.


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Ashley Fowler

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