Sex & Relationships

Why Porn Can Be Good For You (And Society)

Easy access to porn is blamed for everything from a decrease in male desire to poor body image in women. But are there social upsides?

2006 New York magazine story by Naomi Wolf warned that pornography is so seriously turning men off to real women that now, six years later, you’d think it’s a miracle there are any children in first grade. 

Porn has always had plenty of detractors, but since the web has brought it into our homes on demand, a multitude of 21st-century criticisms have been leveled at it. The breakup of relationships, violence, sexual pressure, body image problems for women and sexual addiction and dysfunction in men have all been blamed on the avid use of porn.

One could argue that all these things existed before search engines did; Henry VIII handily exemplified two or three. And is there no upside to having a world of human sexual wonders at your grown-up fingertips? Is the world in no way better for having a film called Bitanic? Let’s take a look past the implants and see if -- and when -- a little voyeurism is a good thing.

In The Sunny Side of SmutScientific American’s Melinda Wenner Mover says the research in several studies suggests that “…moderate pornography consumption does not make users more aggressive, promote sexism or harm relationships. If anything, some researchers suggest, exposure to pornography might make some people less likely to commit sexual crimes.” Mover does not see this as proof that porn decreases sex crime, but Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M told Mover that the trends “just don’t fit with the theory that rape and sexual assault are in part influenced by pornography.” 

Participants of both sexes in a 2007 study of more than 600 Danish men and women aged 18-30 found that self-reporting adults said that “hardcore” pornography had a positive effect on their lives. Researchers Martin Hald and Neil M. Malamuth asked the subjects to report the effects of hardcore porn consumption on “sexual knowledge, attitudes toward sex, attitudes toward and perception of the opposite sex, sex life and general quality of life.”

Along the quality-of-life lines, Dr. Donald Ardell, who was credited with helping found the wellness movement in the 1970s, writes in A Wellness Perspective on Pornography, that wellness is about quality of life, and that pornography, with its ancient lineage (he mentions the Kama Sutra, circa 300 AD) and huge number of users “seems to enhance life quality, unless of course they get caught looking at it.” He sites humor and stress release as two possibly life-enhancing qualities of porn. 

In a small study from the University of Montreal in 2009 -- also self-reporting -- the male participants claimed that watching porn didn’t change their views of women or impact their relationships. An oft-repeated punchline of the study was that the researchers tried, and failed, to find men who had never viewed porn.

Then there was a 2009 study by Michael Twohig (cited in Sunny Side) from the University of Utah, which asked students whether or not their porn consumption was problematic. Twohig found that porn itself didn’t affect the students’ mental state; it was only a problem when they tried to control their urge to watch it. 

So some studies indicate that adult entertainment could have its positive effects. Are there other benefits, ones that might be more difficult to quantify?

Breaking the taboo of porn could have its benefits

Except for a moment in the '70s when people went on dates to see Deep Throat, it’s always been less than desirable to be seen as a porn watcher. Jamye Waxman, a producer of erotic educational films, reminds me in a phone interview of the Pee Wee Herman debacle -- in which Paul Reubens’ brilliant career was derailed when he was caught in a porn theater in Florida. 

“I feel like there’s a little more forgiveness when there’s not pornography,” Waxman says, citing people like Hugh Grant and Eliot Spitzer, whose reputations seem to have been less damaged by involvement with actual women. “It doesn’t seem that we remember another physical body as much as 'Oh my gosh, he was in a theater watching porn?'"

In the '70s and '80s you had to go to a theater or a rental store. Now you can polish your halo with one hand while trawling for free porn on your phone with the other and no one ever has to know, not even a clerk. Because porn is seen by some as “bad and seedy and gross,” Waxman says, if you can get it in the privacy of your home, why wouldn’t you? But keeping porn secret “breeds secrecy in other parts of your relationship, which is what gets people back to 'porn is bad' or 'porn is evil,'" Waxman says. “If someone catches you watching something they don’t understand it creates an easy out to shut down.”

Perpetuating the taboo also makes conditions for working in the adult industry worse, says adult film legend Candida RoyalleIn 1984, Royalle founded Femme Productions, a couples' erotica company. At least two-thirds of porn, she says, isn’t role modeling very well, which is all the more reason to make it less taboo -- then, conditions and quality may improve. “You've got to take it out of the gutter if you want something that has integrity and dignity and any value to it at all.”

And you might learn something about your partner. Finding out that your partner is watching porn could open up communication instead of ending in a freak-out.

“Bringing up what we want in bed can be difficult for all of us, especially women” says Candida Royalle. We worry about being judged for our desires. Porn, she says, is like a non-personal reference in the room so you can say, "Look what they're doing. Did you ever think about doing that?" 

Catherine Salmon, associate professor of psychology at Redlands University, and co-author with Donald Symons of Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality, says porn might be a safe way to allow us to explore fantasies we never want to try. Some women love romance novels, and yet, she says, “There are scenarios in women’s romance novels that women would tell you they never want to experience.”

The bodice-ripper?

“Exactly," Salmon says. "The ones with these really forceful guys who have their way with them and then the women end up falling in love with them. Well, that’s not how real life works."

“I think that there are some things porn could do that would be beneficial that it doesn’t do as well as it could and one is the promotion of safe sex,” Salmon adds. “If condoms were used consistently, she says it could be beneficial because that’s an example of an educational opportunity the regular media doesn't take. When you watch mainstream romance films, she points out, “nobody’s whipping out a condom.” 

Porn could help you find your people

The vast array of porn available is a great way to let people know they’re not alone -- in their body types, their interests, their sexual identity. Catherine Salmon says that porn is valuable for people who aren’t into traditional, heterosexual, vanilla sexuality. “They’ll be able to interact with and see other people who share their same preferences or orientation. That has not only educational value but it has a community-building effect.”

Jamye Waxman points out the work of Morty Diamond, whose Trans Entities is a portrait of a real, polyamorous transgender couple, as well as “April Flores, who show big beautiful women who are confident in their bodies.” 

Hairy palms?

The notion that too much porn will get you addicted and wilt yer wiener is concisely made in Marnia Robinson's Psychology Today piece, "Porn-Indiced Sexual Dysfunction is a Growing Problem." The basic idea is that men who do serious, crazy porn-watching marathons end up desensitizing their brain to dopamine signals until they can’t get it up without the web. Many are hitting message boards looking for help, Robinson writes.

“I’m not convinced. The claim that they’re blunting the pleasure centers is nice and abstract and difficult to prove,” Catherine Salmon says. “I’m suspicious when people make claims about addiction and take responsibility from people for their own actions. Porn in moderation is the same as everything else -- no harm, no foul. If you spend your whole day whacking off, your sex drive the next day will be down.”

Women, Salmon claims, are much more demanding than they once were -- “Something people rarely take into account when we look at male performance anxiety.”

Lost interest?

In The Porn MythNaomi Wolf asserts that, “The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as 'porn-worthy,' leading young women to feel they can’t compete.” 

But certainly women asking for what they want, feeling pressured to look a certain way, and feeling conflicted is nothing new.

“Certainly if men are exposed to lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of images of beautiful women, then their images of what’s available changes, but it's not exclusive to pornography,” Catherine Salmon claims. Indeed, a Harvard study says that beautiful women set off the reward center of the male brain in the same way that chocolate, cocaine and money do…but the examples used in an accompanying video were Eva Longoria and Vanessa Williams, not porn stars. 

“It’s a media problem, but not a pornography problem, per se,” Salmon says.

“Pornography is a great punching bag for people,” Candida Royalle says. While she agrees that traditional porn isn’t full of great role models, “Let’s not forget Hollywood and TV where the actresses spend basically their entire lives in the gym and getting surgery.”

“I think men are quite happy having sex with their wives and porn makes them want to have more sex with their wives because it makes them more horny,” Salmon says.

“Some women who find out that their husbands watch a lot of porn will say that their view of their husband has changed and obviously that’s not going to be good for the relationship on either end but the thing is -- what were you expecting him to be?” Salmon says. "Sometimes people are expecting some sort of pristine ideal ... and reality is never perfect in that sense.” 

Besides, it’s not the women onscreen that are the real concern, says Salmon, it’s the women in your real life you’ve got to worry about, the ones he might actually be able to get with.

Is the backlash about something else? 

As Candida Royalle points out, the Reagan-era Meese Commission Report followed hot on the heels of another medium that brought porn into our homes: the VCR. But this time around, women are more a part of it than they were in the '80s.

“I think as long it was something that men did -- 'boys will be boys' -- we looked the other way," Royalle says, but “as soon as you make it something that your wives and your girlfriends, your [daughters] and your mothers might look at, it became unacceptable. Women have been counted on to be the arbiters of morality for a very long time and when even the women started watching porn, this is when society goes nuts.”

And not all women want to be a part of it. Not everyone is comfortable with pornography and deciding whether to accept a partner’s interest -- whether it’s her taste for You’ve Got Mail or his for On Golden Blonde -- could be an indicator about the relationship. “Part of it is accepting what the other member of your partnership is interested in,” Catherine Salmon says. 
“There are a couple of things that make [porn] negative from a woman’s standpoint," she adds. "One thing is that he’s wasting his money on it. The same reason women don’t really care for prostitution often.” It’s a waste of resources. 

But it can be a terrific diving board into discussion.

“I think porn is presenting us with a great opportunity to get all this stuff out of the closet and really talk about these issues and what they mean to us,” Candida Royalle says.

So porn does have its upsides -- as a tool for sexual exploration, for talking about relationship problems and desires, as one of the perks of living in a society where we have to put up with the fact that other people have different tastes and interests than our own. And for a little adult fun and fantasy. That, after all, is what it’s made for.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.