Test article

Sleazy or sexy? Demeaning or empowering? Porn is more mainstream than ever—and more women are tuning in

High Heels

Photo by iStockphoto

Within hours of moving in with her boyfriend, Rebecca* made a surprising discovery: three filing boxes full of porn magazines, neatly stacked in a closet that was about to become hers. “They had everything from small-breasted girls to old ladies with huge boobs to women who weighed 400 pounds,” recalls the Toronto-based editor, now 39. She asked him what to do with this wide-ranging oeuvre; when he told her to throw it out, she breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But long after his stash had been trashed, porn continued to play a role in their relationship. “When Rich* and I had sex, he wouldn’t be able to finish,” she says. “Eventually, he would go off into another room, and I could hear him watching porn. It set up a really competitive dynamic between me and the women he was watching.”

Determined not to be outdone, she began pulling out all the sexual stops—from risqué lingerie to handcuffs. “I wasn’t doing this in a healthy, fun, sexy way,” she says. ?“I was freaking out in bed, trying to turn him on.” The couple eventually split (for reasons unrelated to sex), but Rebecca feared her attitude toward porn was permanently warped.

Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Eight years later, she watches online smut regularly and thinks more women should do the same. “It’s only been in the past year that I’ve understood why people watch it. It’s not about emotional connection; it’s just the pure physicalness that turns me on,” says Rebecca, who typically watches alone but forwards favourite clips to men she’s dating. “And I try to encourage a lot of my friends to watch it, because one of the best ways to improve your sex drive is to expose yourself to sexy things.”

With the ubiquity of steamy on-demand videos and websites catering to every kink conceivable, porn is more mainstream and more easily (and anonymously) accessible than ever—and guys aren’t the only ones tuning in. A study published in 2008 found that nearly one in three women aged 18 to 26 reported using porn (compared to nearly nine in 10 guys in the same age group). Its popularity might be even higher among slightly older women, suggests Debby Herbenick, a research scientist and associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University in Bloomington. “I do think, like a lot of things about sex, porn use becomes more common in the mid-20s and 30s—related in part to being in a long-term relationship and wanting to keep things fresh,” she says. Anecdotally, when I emailed a group of friends and colleagues in their late 20s and 30s to ask whether they used porn—and were willing to talk for this feature—I received five near-instantaneous replies, all overwhelmingly positive about its benefits in the bedroom.

“The biggest misconception about porn is that it’s always degrading and shameful,” says Teesha Morgan, a sex therapist in Vancouver. “However, it can also empower women to take control of their sexuality.” This isn’t to say porn can’t cause relationship problems. And this really isn’t to say that everyone should watch it, especially if you’d rather not. But if you’re so inclined, finding porn you enjoy watching can really heat up your sex life.

First of all, let’s get the negatives out of the way—and as Rebecca can attest, porn definitely has its downsides. Last year, New York–based sex therapist Ian Kerner coined the term “sexual attention deficit disorder” to describe a problem reported by an increasing number of his male clients and which he believes is the result of rampant porn use.

“For many men, they become accustomed to high levels of visual stimulation and novelty, so they have a hard time focusing during real sex,” he explains. “In many cases, they also pleasure themselves with a force and pressure and friction that are not really approximated during real sex, which can lead to erection issues.”

A partner’s proclivity for smut—and all the fake boobs and feigned orgasms that come with it—can also take a toll on our self-esteem and sense of security in the bedroom, though Herbenick says this is likely most common in women who are already feeling vulnerable in these areas. But perhaps the most negative aspect of widespread porn use is the fact that it’s upped the ante, so to speak, in terms of what’s perceived as de rigueur in the sack.

“I know that many of the college students I teach have a sense from watching porn that anal sex is something everyone does,” says Herbenick, though she’s hesitant to directly pin its dramatic rise in popularity among women on the proliferation of porn use. (A 2010 U.S. national sex survey that she helped conduct found that 40 percent of American women aged 20 to 24 have had anal sex, whereas in 1992 only 16 percent of American women 18 to 24 reported trying it.)

The rising popularity of “facials”—another porn convention, in which the man ejaculates in his partner’s face—led Cindy Gallop to develop the website Make Love Not Porn in the hopes of debunking the many sexual myths perpetuated by the genre. “I started noticing in my sex life a number of recurring sexual themes, and I thought, Whoa, I know where that is coming from,” says the New York–based brand consultant. “However, the issue here is not porn. The issue is a complete lack of open and healthy dialogue around sex in our society.”

Herbenick agrees, noting that while there’s plenty to be learned from pornography, it’s imperative to speak up if you’re not interested in what’s on offer. “Just like anything,” she says, “if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”

The same goes for making a sex tape, another act that seems increasingly commonplace in today’s sexual repertoire. “I’m not saying this is a negative thing, but the problem lies more in the trust that we have with our partner not to misuse it,” says Morgan. “Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian didn’t seem to have a lot of negative repercussions [from their leaked sex tapes], but we don’t know how it affected them personally, or how it affected their family lives.”

All its negatives notwithstanding, porn also has one huge benefit for many women: the ability to turn us on, which is—let’s admit it, ladies—not always an easy feat. “If I’m not in the mood I want to be in, I tell my husband to put the porn on,” says Jessica*, a 38-year-old Toronto-based writer. “It’s a tool for me, and I do really enjoy it.”

Her husband, on the other hand, not so much: “I’m genuinely surprised by how little he’s into porn,” she says, admitting that it’s occasionally caused some friction in their relationship. “Like every couple, we go through insecure moments, and he might wonder whether I’m really into sex with him, or just the porn,” she says. “But I think he’s finally recognizing that it’s okay if that’s what gets me excited initially, as long as it’s being with him that finishes things off.”

Even with the occasional bout of insecurity, Jessica credits porn—both in terms of a turn-on, and also as a subtle source of instruction—with improving the overall quality of her sex life. “I’m getting more of the type of sex I want, and I think it’s liberated him a bit more in the bedroom,” she says. “He doesn’t feel like he has to be completely sensitive about offending me.”

Trisha*, 28, speaks of a similar sense of abandon that has come from sharing porn with her long-term boyfriend. “The biggest benefit that it’s had on my relationship is the fact that I feel I can say anything to my partner and not be judged, and he feels as though he can say anything he wants about his desires without me judging him,” says the Toronto-based personal trainer. At the same time, she notes that her appetite for porn is far from “anything goes.” “Porn is such a broad genre, and there are definitely some types I would never watch,” says Trisha, who didn’t realize that all porn wasn’t degrading until she started renting DVDs from a woman-friendly sex shop. “If you had asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have known that non-disgusting [porn] existed.”

While there’s no denying that most porn is created for men, there are a small number of “made for women, by women” production companies who challenge the misogynistic plot lines, not to mention the downright implausible ones—when was the last time you hooked up with your pizza delivery guy?—found in much of mainstream porn. (For our experts’ suggestions, see our “Porn for Beginners” sidebar, top.) At the same time, it’s important to remember that you’re free to get your kicks wherever you please. “Porn can be instructive and provocative, but like anything to do with sex, it’s terrifically individual,” says Claudia Dey, the Toronto-based author of How ?to Be a Bush Pilot: A Field Guide to Getting Luckier, a cheeky sex manual for guys. “Everyone courts their ?kink differently.”

Also, know that getting turned on by something you’d never dream of doing in real life says nothing about your sexual preferences. “I think the biggest misconception a lot of people have about porn is that what you’re interested in watching has a one-to-one correlation with the type of sex you like having,” says Lux Alptraum, the New York–based editor of Fleshbot, a porn and culture blog. “I know women who identify as straight who enjoy watching women-only porn, and that doesn’t mean they secretly want to have sex with women.” If anything, our porn preferences are all over the map, as evidenced when Alptraum posted an open call for topics for the “Porn for Straight Girls” column she writes for Fleshbot’s sister site, Jezebel. “There was a tremendous diversity in interests,” she says.

Research conducted by the Canadian sexologist Meredith Chivers confirms the idea that we can be turned on by watching a surprising array of sexual scenarios, regardless of the genders of those we’re watching. “Women can be constantly surprised in terms of what arouses them,” says Dey. “My best advice is to not deny yourself the experience of something. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to watch it again.”

*Names have been changed