The Pleasure Principle: Fantasy and reality

Some studies looking at the impact of pornography have suggested it can be addictive, harmful to young people, or that it alters people’s sexual behaviour.

One concern is that pornography can distort expectations of what sex in real life should or could be like.

Sexual health professionals have reported more men and women dissatisfied with their bodies, particularly around genital size and a desire to have little or no pubic hair. A huge increase in labiaplasty (surgery to reduce the size of the labia, the folds of skin around the vulva) has also, in some cases, been linked to pornography and women thinking they should have genitalia which looks the same as the actors’.

Other problems include the lack of condom use in pornography – contributing to a false impression that condoms aren’t needed for safer sex or that they will hinder sexual pleasure. Consent and boundaries tend not to feature in storylines, and expressions of love and care are rarely depicted.

It's important to acknowledge that pornography can be a positive aspect of people’s sex lives and help get them in the mood and feel sexy. There is even an increasing trend of ‘feminist porn’, with more inclusive ideas around sexual orientation and gender identity, and where the typically exaggerated sexual prowess of men and submission of and dominance over women are eliminated.

But the ease of access that young people have to pornography means they need the opportunity to talk about and understand how to put what they see in context; to talk about what real sex is like and how important respect and consent are.

Young people don’t want to get their sex and relationships education (SRE) from pornography. Results from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, found that young people’s preferred sources of SRE are school and parents. But with the continuing absence of consistent, high-quality SRE, the gap in young people’s knowledge and understanding can often be filled by pornography.

Top tips for separating fantasy from reality

  • Sex should make you feel good and it should always be mutually consensual and based on respect. You can say no to sex at any time, including with someone you have had sex with before or who is a regular partner, as anyone can say no to you.
  • Sexual pleasure doesn’t have to include penetrative sex. There are lots of ways you can experience sexual enjoyment, either with a partner or alone, and with or without a sex toy.
  • There is no such thing as the ‘perfect body’ and images we see in the media are often enhanced. Don’t put pressure on yourself or others to meet an unrealistic ideal.
  • Condoms are the only method of contraception that can help prevent sexually transmitted infections, and they come in different shapes and sizes, so there’s no excuse that they can get in the way of good sex.
  • Feel free to express yourself – everyone’s sexual thoughts, desires and the way they express their sexuality are different – how boring would life be if we were all the same? Just ensure you keep consent and respect at the heart of your sexual activity.
  • Discuss what you like, don’t like or would like to try with your partner(s). The more you communicate with each other, the more pleasure you can get from sex and the more it will be based on realistic expectations.

How we can help

Our award-winning Speakeasy programme helps parents and carers to talk to young people about sex and relationships in a positive way, including providing a context for pornography and images or videos which may have upset or confused them.

Our help and advice pages cover various topics within sexual health, giving clear, evidence-based information.

Our FPA Pleasure blog presents sexual enjoyment and wellbeing information in a straightforward and supportive way.

Support for professionals

Separating fantasy from reality may be particularly important if you work with young people. Remember that young people are curious about how they can give and receive pleasure, and they sometimes watch pornography for this reason. Providing safe spaces for them to discuss intimacy and pleasure not arising from their own sexual situations is important too; don’t just dismiss pornography as something which is bad and shouldn’t be talked about.

It’s important to stay up to date on current legislation, for example with the increase in sexting and revenge porn cases, and more generally with the law around pornography. Our The Law on Sex factsheet is a helpful starting point.

Our Young People, Sexuality and the Digital World training course addresses professionals concerns about young people exploring their sexuality through pornography, as well as violent video games, gaming, sexting, and social media.

Our training team can also be commissioned to deliver courses tailored to meet your needs.