Sex & Relationships

Conservatives Love Porn -- Surprised? You Shouldn't Be

Lots of porn dovetails nicely with the conservative view on sex: that good girls dislike sex and bad girls who get down don't deserve respect.

A recent study that finds that states hospitable to disapproving anti-sex scolds are the same states in which more online porn is consumed is the sort of link bait that editors stay up nights dreaming about.  People guffawing about conservative hypocrites, people defending conservative hypocrites, and dudes who want to make it clear that every other dude looks at as much porn as they do are all sure to weigh in on something like that.  Echidne of the Snakes had my favorite response, wondering why the study didn't break down by gender when every other variable came into play.  The enormous gender gap in who gives money over to the porn industry (which is not the same as who watches porn) is the sort of thing that's sure to embarrass the men of America, and so I see why it slid off the radar as a relevant data point.  

One aspect of this study that’s getting obscured in much of the coverage is that they didn’t actually measure who consumes online porn at all.  If they did, they’d find a much higher average than some measly 5.42 out of 1,000, which is the proportion of people in the conservative, religious state of Utah who subscribe to porn sites (the highest proportion of all states).  The study merely measured these subscribers, a much different and more dedicated group of porn users than the rest of Americans, who tend to pay to play on occasion or, most likely, just use the myriad of free porn sites to get a quick fix before moving onto other things.  

Presumably, the small percentage of the population that gives over money to have a steady, uninterrupted flow of mountains of pornographic videos are people that aren't getting their needs and desires met elsewhere on a regular enough basis to compete with what porn offers.  Having seen, like pretty much all Americans, plenty of porn in my time and, unlike many Americans, having tried to analyze what it means in our culture for quite a long time, I've concluded that porn basically appeals to a presumably male audience (women watch porn, but most porn is not made with a female audience in mind) for two reasons. There's the plain old sexual fantasy that appeals to 100% of porn users, and for a smaller but probably more devoted group, there's the appeal of seeing women degraded by sex in order to make up for the indignity of having to treat women with respect in real life.   

It's human nature to respond strongly to sexual fantasy, at least portrayals of our sexual fantasies, and so that explains the appeal of porn to men, whether they're misogynists or not.  Silly but relatively harmless fantasies like insatiable women and consensual voyeurism proliferate through porn in response to this.  Unfortunately, there's also a large and possibly growing market of porn that's main selling point is its vicious misogyny.  Websites like the infamous Bang Bus make all their money by showing men insulting, spitting upon, and having coerced sex with women, all with a tone of revenge fantasy for some imagined slight delivered by women in real life.  By no means do I think that this kind of stuff appeals to all men, but there's a misogynist audience out there who happily will pay to see this sort of thing. 

Everyone giggles over the "hypocrisy" of conservative porn use, but I fail to see how it's really that hypocritical.  The allergy towards sex that defines cultural conservatism is more about judging women's morality on what we do with our genitals than any other factor, and a quick perusal of the horrific gender stereotyping in abstinence-only materials will prove that in a minute.  Men, in this world view, are the ones who truly want sex, and women are just softies who use sex to get to the romance.  Women who aggressively seek out sexual pleasure for its own sake -- a behavior designated as male-only -- are sluts who deserve to be used and tossed away by men for violating gender codes.  In other words, the much-vaunted conservative morality is better known as the "virgin/whore" dichotomy, where good girls you want to marry don't really like sex and bad girls you want to have sex with get down and dirty and don't deserve respect. 

This world view permeates both purity balls and porn videos, especially the more misogynist ones that I described.  If you're a man who buys into the right wing world view on gender, odds are you married a good girl and you know she's a good girl because she's a little hostile towards sex, and really hostile towards sexual experimentation.  But you're a man, and you're supposed to want those experimental behaviors.  You can't do it with your good girl wife, and you don't really want to, either, because you know that women who do that don't deserve respect.  So there's porn, mediating the conflict for you.  You get your fun and freaky sex acts, like a man wants, and you have porn actresses to disrespect so that you don't have to put that on your wife.  It's the classic virgin/whore dichotomy, except done with a credit card on the internet instead of down at the brothel with cash, like in the past. 

Is it possible that a more sexually liberated, feminist culture has less need for huge amounts of porn, particularly of the sort that promotes objectionable views about women's humanity?  Seems like it.  Maybe there's an inverse relationship between the number of feminist sex shops in an area and the number of subscriptions to porn websites.  It makes sense. The more sexually liberated a culture is, the more the people in it are able to access sexual fantasies in diverse ways than people in more repressed parts of the country.  And perhaps when straight men aren't crippled by virgin/whore complexes that cause them to seek out some of the more hostile porn, they get to have more sexual adventures for real, because they don't give off the vibe to partners that they're going to call you names for experimenting with them. 

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.