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Why People Use Porn by Erick Janssen, Ph.D.
"Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it's one of the best." --Woody Allen

Before we can answer the question of why people use porn, we need to ask what porn is, and who its users are. Although lawyers, feminists, priests, and scientists all have tried to describe it, a satisfactory definition of porn does not exist. Some distinguish between erotica and porn, with porn being more violent, portraying unequal power in sexual relations, or showing activities that are judged to be immoral. The Webster dictionary defines pornography more instrumentally, through one of its presumed functions, as "the depiction of erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement."

Porn or not, representations of sexual behavior have existed through the centuries and across cultures. It has been said that pornography documents man's archetypical concern with sexuality. But does this mean that the reasons for its existence, or the functions of porn, have remained the same over time? The answer is no.


Erick Janssen, Ph.D., is Associate Scientist at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University.

The famous Kama Sutra, with its sexual illustrations, is known as erotic literature, but it was mainly used as an educational device, an instruction manual. In the brothels of Pompeii, explicit paintings of sexual positions on the walls served as a menu, so a shy customer could point to an image to indicate what he wanted (etymologically, the word pornography comes from "writings about prostitutes"). In Greece, representations of sexual intercourse could be found on the bottoms of children's plates, so they could have something amusing to look at when they finished their meal. And in Athens, you could find phallic statues of Priapus on street corners, at which women would kneel and pray for fertility.

The modern Western world has removed explicit sexual depictions from everyday life (although allusions to sex are omnipresent), and nowadays the term "porn" is reserved for a more restricted category of sexual representations, one with a narrower function, consistent with Webster's definition -- namely, to cause sexual excitement.

Who Uses Porn?

Porn as we know it is used predominantly by men. That is not to say that women do not use it, but simply that men are the main consumers of this "pleasure technology." Why men? It may not come as a surprise, but research suggests that most men are more interested in sex than most women are. More men than women masturbate, and they do so more frequently. More men experience orgasms, and do so more consistently.

More research has been done on the possible negative consequences of porn than on what determines its use in the first place. Some scientists believe that these differences have a biological basis. Evolutionary psychologists argue that ancestral men, to spread their genes, had much to gain from having sex with as many women as possible. In contrast, given the biological limitations on the number of children women could have and raise, they would benefit from being selective -- choosing mates with the best genes. Thus, men evolved a sexual psychology that makes sex with new women exciting both to imagine and to engage in, and this made men especially responsive to visual signals of sex. Porn, a largely visual medium, parades many youthful and attractive partners, and provides physical gratification without commitment or encumbering relationships. There are other social-historical explanations for the gender discrepancy, however, including the fact that, until recently, porn has not been created with the intention of appealing to women.

Does this mean that women are unresponsive to porn? Not exactly. Or, better, it depends. In his landmark interview studies in the 1940s and '50s, conducted with nearly 17,000 men and women, Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues found that 54 percent of men and only 12 percent of women reported being erotically aroused by seeing photographs, drawings, or paintings of nude people. Kinsey also found that during masturbation, men tend to fantasize visually while women generally don't do so. This does not mean, however, that porn does not elicit sexual arousal in women. Laboratory studies have shown that women almost invariantly show physical signs of sexual excitement to porn movies, as indicated by increased vaginal blood flow. Interestingly, this can happen even when women don't like the movies or when they experience negative emotions such as disgust or anger. And studies have also shown that women show stronger physical sexual responses to porn than to more romantic erotic stimuli.

But in the end it seems that it is not one's bodily reactions but one's emotional liking or disliking of porn that will determine whether or not one wants to use it. Although it is possible that emotional responses to porn are influenced by biology, too, social and cultural factors clearly also play a role. After all, society poses greater restrictions on women's sexuality and doesn't encourage women, to the same degree as men, to explore their sexuality.

But the Picture is Complex

Generalizations about gender differences -- whether they are biologically determined, the result of how we are socialized, or both -- are interesting only to a certain degree. There is enormous individual variability in sexual excitability and sexual desire among men, and among women. According to Kinsey, "there may be a third of the females in the population who are as frequently affected by psychologic stimuli as the average of the males." In other words, some women will like porn at least as much as the average man.

And not all men are "typical," either. In a recent study at the Kinsey Institute we found, rather surprisingly, that a group of highly sexually active men did not respond to porn clips that had proven successful in eliciting sexual responses in earlier studies. It was not until we provided them with a wide variety of porn clips to choose from, depicting anything from group sex to sadomasochism (S&M), that we started to obtain clear signs of arousal. We know little about why something may turn on one person, but not another. We know little about how people develop preferences for specific kinds of sexual stimuli. Or why it is that the same fantasies or images can arouse some over and over again, while other people need something new every time. Or why some like, or develop a liking for, more extreme forms of porn.

We do know, however, that porn, even the more aggressive sort, does not invariably turn people into villains. It can be a substitute or proxy for "real" sex. But it also is a world of fantasy sex, a place where people can safely dream about things they would not want to have happen or do in real life (just as we may like movies that present us with worlds we would not want to live in). Research has shown that many men report having sexual fantasies that incorporate some element of coercion. And so do women. But in one's fantasy world, one is in control.

When Do People Use It?

Assuming that the majority of porn users do not get carried away in the search for porn's rewards or incentives (sexual excitement, sexual gratification), what determines exactly when they use it? Most people who use porn use it only every so often. Sometimes people seek out porn simply because it feels good to be in a state of sexual excitement. Sometimes they use it to be entertained, or to be distracted from work or other activities. More often than perhaps assumed, people don't use it because it feels good, but because it makes them feel better; a subtle distinction.

At the Kinsey Institute we currently are exploring the effects of negative mood (stress, anxiety, depression) on sexual desire and arousal. While many people are likely to lose their sexual interest as well as their ability to become sexually aroused when they feel bad, others are still able to function sexually, and may use sex to regulate their mood, to feel better, even if it is only for a brief period of time. We believe that this paradoxical increase in sexual interest and activity in some people when they feel bad may not only be important to explaining why (or when) people use porn, it may also increase our understanding of the causes of compulsive, or "addictive," patterns of sexuality.

There is much more that can be said about porn. And much more that could be studied. More research has been done on the possible negative consequences of porn than on what determines its use in the first place. And yet, it is this type of research that eventually may elucidate why some people are attracted to porn while others are not, and why some people seem to lose control over their desires for it. Empirical research cannot provide answers to the question of whether porn, imagined or on tape, in a book or on the Internet, in itself is bad or wrong. But history teaches us not only that it is not likely to vanish, but also that we can learn more about ourselves from giving porn and its uses a closer look.


For more about the various perspectives on pornography -- including the views of pornography's critics -- see the Readings and Links section of this website.

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