With Sex and Gender Wellness Week on top of us, we should re-examine ourselves as sexual beings. If you are single or if your partner has a case of the flu that has been going around, don’t rule yourself out as a participant of sex week. Sexuality should not be restricted to copulation between two or more people. Masturbation and its seedy cousin, pornographic consumption, still count.
Why do we think of pornography as seedy, besides the pun? When conjuring a mental image of how sex should appear, we likely picture an attractive couple entwined, devouring a bounty of oysters, dark chocolate and Barry White records. We probably do not imagine a naked man hunched over his laptop next to a bottle of Mountain Dew and a mound of krusty Kleenex, jerking off to Sorority Secrets. Going solo in this fashion bears an element of unwarranted shame, partly because our culture views getting laid as a form of social validation.
There are problems with pornography, although these problems have been magnified by moral panic. As most porn is tailored for men, many women report feeling unattractive when their partners ignore them in favour of the fast-food pleasure pornography offers. In conventional porn, the girls are clean-shaven, thin and submissive. The men behave barbarically, thrusting away at their squirming partners for stretches that would exhaust anyone not cooked up on amphetamines and then marking the girls with their semen the way a wolf would mark a tree. Both sexes are often held up to physically heteronormative standards, which can create expectations that many of us are unable or unwilling to meet.
A certain line of mainstream thought describes pornography as unrealistic. This is partially true. After all, porn is manufactured entertainment. But I take issue with the notion that pornography, both depicted and consumed for pleasure, defies some natural, as-intended, realistic form of sex. This is the same train of logic that was used to condemn homosexuality and unconventional sexual positions for centuries. Pornography has shaped this generation’s sexual reality. For college-age adults, an overwhelming majority of men plus a third of women view it regularly. Porn taught many of us how to comfortably position our bodies during sex, unlike the vague lectures on STIs and unwanted pregnancy in high school.
Watching porn to excess has the power to hurt relationships and people. But I suspect much of this pain is due to the expectation that everyone participate in monogamous romantic relationships. We pursue what is pleasurable to us. Porn would not be so rampant if it didn’t offer advantages over conventional relationships — we can be as selfish as we want and detach ourselves emotionally. Convenience, variety and attraction are other factors, as few of us are desirable enough to sleep with whoever we please, whenever we please. Porn will never palliate spiritual loneliness the same way a loving partner can, but it is undeniably gratifying in the physical sense.
Puritans view porn as a threat to the traditional relationship between two people that the nuclear familial unit is founded on. Neuroscience has pointed towards addictive properties, yes, but the same goes for regular sex. What people find so terrifying about the production of and the addiction to pornography is the possibility that people don’t need interpersonal relationships to find sexual fulfilment, or that we are capable of separating sexual acts from emotion. Some research argues that heterosexual women find this particularly threatening, as they tend to attach more importance to intimacy during sex. However, without delving too far into the can of worms of shifting gender roles, I would suggest that men’s increasing use of pornography comes from a sense of confusion over the current status of masculinity in the face of social changes. Pornographic consumption is as much a symptom as a cause of why straight men and women seem to be drifting apart.
Porn use is portrayed as slimy or unseemly. We demean those who rely on pornography as pathetic. “Why don’t you just get a girlfriend?” I absentmindedly asked my friend the other day. While some people should get off their asses and look for the relationships they want, others have no desire to do so or are incapable. Some people have aspirations that take up all their time. Some people dislike everyone and are only looking for physical release. Some people are physically or socially disfigured to the point that the opposite sex consistently finds them unattractive, truisms about inner beauty aside. While we should encourage our friends and family to pursue relationships when they want them, we should not humiliate those who choose otherwise or due to circumstances that have caused them to seek an alternative form of sexuality.