Porn: beyond the 'exposure and effects' model

For FPA's national Sexual Health Week, we're supporting parents, teachers and health professionals to have more open conversations about sex and porn. 

Professor Clarissa Smith, Professor of Sexual Cultures at the University of Sunderland and founding co-editor of the Porn Studies journal, told us why she feels the 'exposure and effects' model of porn isn't working - drawing on research done with Professor Feona Attwood and Professor Martin Barker.

Consider these responses which come from a small research project, in which we asked young people to describe who was in the first sexual image they ever saw and what was happening.  

  • “Images of human anatomy”
  • “A naked woman on a magazine in a shop”
  • “Scantily clad women in advertisements”
  • “It was a scene in the film Stripes”
  • “It was a drawing of a hand job”
  • “A hentai 'parody' of a popular cartoon, depicting rape”
  • “It was a fanfic that I had found, during a trip”
  • “It was the nude drawing scene from Titanic”

These stand in stark contrast to the way in which young people’s encounters with sexual media are generally presented, almost always in ‘pornography’, occurring on the internet and taking a predictable format. Broader public and political discussions present porn encounters as matters of health - an approach concerned with ‘exposure and effects’ but offering very little in the way of understanding the significance of pornography in people’s lives. 

Porn: the 'exposure and effects' model

Pornography has been a particular area of anxiety, with claims that young people are becoming addicted to porn; especially young men whose porn consumption leads them to “neglect their school work, spend huge amounts of money they don’t have, become isolated from others, and often suffer depression. Some (...) have become so desensitised that they have started using harder porn and end up masturbating to images that had previously disgusted them” (Dines, 2011).

The addiction recovery website, Your Brain on Porn describes a necessary process of ‘rebooting’ as a way of recovering from porn addiction, by abstaining from consumption. This means ‘No artificial sexual stimulation’; no ‘pixels, audio and literature. If it's not real life, just say 'no'.’ 

Porn consumption is often represented as a ‘slippery slope’ from the sacred to the debased, whereby people become desensitized and ‘end up masturbating to images that had previously disgusted them’ (Dines, 2011). Casual sex, kinky sex, rough sex – or practices like anal and oral sex – are presented as both naturally disgusting and politically dubious activities that fall outside of a ‘charmed circle’ of healthy sex.

In the 2013 ‘Rapid Evidence Assessment’ initiated by the UK Government in advance of legislative changes to the classification of some pornography as ‘extreme’, the claim that children are ‘exposed’ to pornography is made no less than 66 times. Yet according to comprehensive European research on young people’s online encounters, although 93% of 9-16 year olds go online weekly and 60% go online every day or almost every day, only 14% have encountered sexual content online; and the vast majority of these are at the upper end of the age group. Yet young people’s ‘exposure’ to pornography is a recurring refrain.  

That focus on ‘exposure’ is almost always associated with a concern with ‘effects’, usually presented as ‘negative’. The Rapid Evidence Assessment (Horvath et al., 2013) is typical in this respect, concluding that porn affects children and young people’s sexual beliefs and that it is linked to their engagement in risky behaviours; claims that are not convincingly borne out by the studies they review.

And like the contemporary ‘porn as a public health issue’ focus, this kind of approach is frequently underpinned by a moralistic view of sex that presents sexual permissiveness, sexual experimentation (particularly anal sex), and sometimes even an interest in sex as a ‘negative’ effect.

The pornresearch.org project 

Our research project differs from porn research focused on exposure and effects. It emphasizes the context of porn consumption in relation to a number of factors, such as participants’ age, gender and sexual orientation and their feelings about sex, eliciting more detailed accounts of porn consumption than have been pursued elsewhere. 

Our questions about early motivations in encounters with porn yielded the following kinds of response:

  • “Because - hey, tits!” 
  • “I was a young girl and was curious about my body and all those new feelings”
  • “To see what sex was all about”
  • “To learn to please women”
  • “To try to convince myself that I wasn't gay”

In our data we can see the importance of individual participants’ relationships with their bodies, with other people and with their knowledge about sex. Some engagements with porn seem to relate directly to the body, as a way of making space for its demands, taking care of it, and intensifying its pleasures. Others relate more broadly to seeking sensation or satisfaction, to relieving stress, or exploring feelings and orientations.

There are also particular kinds of curiosity and intrigue; about sexual practices, bodies and feelings, about orientation, desire and identity, about looking and listening, about the forbidden and the filthy.

Sometimes porn engagement is a response to existing and emerging fantasies and interests, or to anxieties about the body which may or may not be primarily sexual. It is also a source of material that can be educational, both in terms of learning particular skills, of thinking through issues of sexual identification, or of measuring desire in terms of a relationship with social and cultural norms.

There was a significant association between frequency of looking at porn and age. Those in the oldest age category (the 65+ age group) stated that they view porn ‘as often as they can’ (22.6%) - significantly more than all other age groups. This was followed by 10.3% of the under 18s. The most frequently cited response category across all ages was for viewing porn ‘most days’.

The 18-25 age group cited looking at porn ‘maybe once a week’ (24%) more than any other age group. Younger age groups (under 18s and 18-25 year olds) cited the following main reasons for viewing porn: ‘When I feel horny’, ‘Sometimes I’ve nothing better to do’, ‘When I’m bored, can’t relax, can’t sleep’, and ‘for a laugh’, more than older age groups.

In contrast, older age groups cited ‘I want to feel involved in a world of sex out there’, ‘for reconnection with my body’, ‘for recognition of my sexual interests’, ‘to find stories that dramatize what sex is all about’, and ‘to see things I can’t do’ as their main reasons for viewing porn more than younger age groups.

The middle age groups (26-35, 36-45, 46-55 year olds) cited ‘to get into the mood with my partner’, as a main reason for viewing porn more than the younger and older age groups. 

Porn as an ‘outlet’

Some young participants used the questionnaire to comment ironically on their presentation as ‘subjects of concern’ –- often at some length. Far from being unthinking, uncritical and unreflexive ‘victims’ of pornography, their responses demonstrate awareness of their engagement with porn, and of the broader set of public and policy debates about porn.  Often, their accounts emphasized its relative lack of importance in their lives;

  • "It’s a getaway, as crazy as that sounds, from everyday life. Like all entertainment, really."

Staving off boredom, an intensification of bodily pleasure, or a way of winding down from stresses and frustration – porn is just like other entertainments. Older and younger participants were similar in terms of patterns of use around frequency but they accord pornography different levels of importance which seem to be connected to the way that age and the state of the body are related.

For older respondents, looking at porn provided a means to connect with a ‘world of sex out there’ and ‘for recognition of my sexual desires’. Here there is a strong sense of sex being something that they feel cut off from that porn may be able to provide a means of recovering. For younger participants, the emphasis was instead on porn as a ‘safe outlet’, or discovering potentialities and possibilities in the absence of other opportunities:

  • "The process: Horny - No girl = porn ;)"
  • "I’m a virgin, so I’d have no outlet for sexual desires without porn."

For many young people encounters with pornography are part of their reflections upon their readiness for sex, what they might like to engage in, with whom, how, and what might be the ethical considerations for themselves and prospective partners. 

For some, porn has a role in developing tastes, becoming aware of likes and dislikes, of seeing where particular desires might lead, and of making decisions about following these.

  • "I first came to porn when I was young, mostly out of curiosity and being a little bemused at why some people found it arousing. Later I began to use it for sexual satisfaction; over time, I browsed a wide variety of porn and found the kinds that I enjoyed the most."

This may involve broadening or narrowing the set of sources they use, moving between more and less explicit forms of pornography. As well as physical arousal and its satisfaction, it may focus on seeking out scenarios that play imaginatively with power or offer spaces for emotional or romantic scenarios and feelings.

  • "Ah, it gives me ideas, feeds my imagination, and I can always use it for a quick fix.  If I couldn't look at it anymore, I think I'd miss the ideas it gives. The fantasies and stories I'd miss out on, and how good masturbating feels when those stories are new and nice."
  • "I do think that porn use has helped me understand the particulars of my own sexuality, so there's that!"

Here porn is part of young people’s emerging sex lives; as a source of ideas, a means of keeping sex and masturbation exciting and pleasurable, a space of and marker for exploration, food for the imagination. For some it is also part of considering and understanding sexuality in a broader sense; for yet others it is about imagination. 

  • "I think that *now* if I had no opportunity to look at it any more I would be disappointed, as there are some kinks and interests that I can explore through porn that I would never participate in or want to participate in beyond fantasy."

  • "…porn is art. An art that everyone can enjoy, and I enjoy a lot."

In these responses, participants note the ways in which porn may open up an imaginative realm which is not simply about real life masturbation or sex with a partner, not an aid to something else but interesting in its own right, a way of crossing boundaries, engaging with the ‘infinite variety of … sex’ and the ‘diversity and potential of humankind’. Porn, like other forms of art, offers a means of discovering things about the self and the world, like ‘art’.

Moving beyond the 'exposure and effects' model

Moving away from an exposure and effects model, research on pornography can open up more productive forms of investigation exploring the connections between porn and sexuality. This is not about presenting a ‘pro-porn’ case. Instead, we are proposing going beyond simplistic notions of media engagement supporting the idea of a genre being wholly ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ or ‘bad’ and ‘unhealthy’, or as working as an entirely positive or negative force in a person’s life.

Our research shows a number of broad themes emerging in people’s accounts of the significance of porn in their lives:

  • porn consumption as a response to boredom, in which one’s body asserts itself and demands attention 
  • porn consumption to aid an intensification of bodily pleasures 
  • porn consumption as a way to intensify masturbation as a wind-down from forms of stress
  • porn consumption as a site for voyeurism, and the attraction of the sight—and sound—of bodies sexually engaged 
  • porn consumption as part of the attraction of the kinky, the naughty and the dirty and the desire to explore a forbidden domain
  • porn consumption as a compensation for inadequate sexual opportunities, including those related to respondents’ age
  • porn consumption within an ongoing relationship
  • porn consumption as a means of exploring one’s sexual self/identity 
  • porn consumption as part of a wider recognition of the force of sex
  • porn consumption as a leisure choice in its own right
  • porn consumption as an aesthetic/erotic experience

Some recent studies have helped to amplify our understanding of the ways that porn signifies socially and publicly for young people. For example, Marco Scarcelli (2016) has shown how porn can occupy a symbolic role in interactions between girls and boys, enabling ‘border games’ as ways of managing peer group membership.

Monique Mulholland’s work (2013) shows how young people negotiate pornography in complex ways, demonstrating an ability to parody it while watching for a range of purposes including sexual satisfaction. What is particularly compelling in this project is her sketching out of the way that public and private are redrawn in these kinds of negotiations, creating a ‘new normal’ in which some kinds of engagement around porn become acceptable while others are excluded. 

In these kinds of approaches pornography is understood as a site for developing identities, relationships, peer groups and communities. Another way of developing our understanding of porn consumption is in relation to research on sex, leisure and play. Both play and leisure are meaningful, and presenting porn consumption in this way is to underplay the extent to which it also part of a shift in which sex has become widely understood and experienced as ‘important to the wellbeing of the individual and society’, a feature associated with ‘serious leisure’ (Rojek, 2000: 18).

Sex may be experienced as restorative, resourceful, and enhancing the quality of life (Newmahr, 2010). It may constitute a sphere in which individuals can achieve a sense of identity and membership, particularly for example in LGBTI and kink groups.

Or it may also be experienced like an ‘extreme sport’, a way of testing the body’s limits, creating exciting forms of intimacy, and developing the skill and knowledge needed for successful thrill seeking and risk-taking. Young people’s responses about their porn consumption certainly suggest that porn can function in these kinds of ways.

Pornography is also a site ‘meaning’ and ‘mattering’, ‘making sense’ and ‘sensing’. This idea –goes well beyond the simple learning and copying suggested in the exposure and effects model, and further than concerns with porn’s social and political ‘messages’– is extremely useful in opening up questions about the ‘carnal resonance’ of pornography (Paasonen, 2011; 2014) and its intimate connections with the body, imagination, and the realm of sexuality.

As our participants’ responses suggest, forms of porn experience and exploration may be mundane or special, simple and straightforward or complex and highly significant, but a broad notion of these as play is a useful way of conceptualizing its place in the relations of the body, sexuality and imagination.

Again, this is not about making an argument that porn engagement is ‘just’ play, ‘simply’ fun, or inevitably benign. As Paasonen notes ‘play can be asymmetrical, risky, hurtful, violent and damaging in its reverberations’, or it may take challenging forms that revolve around transgression and danger (see also Weiss 2006: 240). And may be related to political and social issues; indeed as Weiss notes (2006) sexual play derives some of its intensity from the way it draws on personal experiences, attitudes and social power dynamics. 

Almost half of our participants mentioned the issue of ‘fantasy’, and mainly in their responses to the question ‘How do you feel pornography contributes to the place of sex in your life? What would you miss if you had no opportunity to look at it any more?’ 2,308 participants referred to ‘fantasy’ or ‘imagination’, and greater numbers of younger than older respondents did this.

As our participants suggest, fantasy is ‘related to the way we become aware of sex and of our own bodies, our own bodies’ responses to sex, our imagining and understanding of those responses and of the way that sex works. Fantasies are ‘the means through which adults try out versions of self-in-sexual-society, reimagining themselves through others’ reimaginings’ (Barker 2014: 146) 

Research needs to depart from an exposure and effects model and from the kind of public health thinking that adopts a medical model of media with very narrow ideas about sexual health. Human sexualities are not narrow sets of behaviours which can be understood as simply good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.

Sex may be a site of bodily knowledge, self-exploration and transformation, and sexual practices – physical or imaginative – a place for human learning, sociability, performance and play. Engaging with pornography may be part of these processes. It can be a means of bonding in peer groups, sexual communities or intimate relationships. It can be a source of arousal, of laughter, or disgust. It is a means of feeling the body in relation to particular moments. It operates within the context of the relationships a person is currently engaged in or which they hope to be in the future.

Porn consumption is intimately tied to people’s sense of their sexual circumstances; filling out inadequate ones, creating spaces for pleasure, opening up a world of sexuality when a person is not in a relationship, offering ideas about future relationships.

In addition to the particular types of information it may offer about the way that bodies look or what particular sexual practices and techniques involve, it presents a broader set of imaginative possibilities about what other people might be doing, something which, despite widespread claims that sex is inescapably visible in contemporary society, is still largely hidden away, part of a forbidden domain.