Porn: A Pandemic Story

Porn: A Pandemic Story

[Words by Gail Warner (she/her)]

[Art by Amara Coelho]

CW: discussion of rape and sexual assault

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a lot in perspective. Over half of 2020 spent in lockdown, our need for social interaction has never felt so acute. From video-call parties to ‘digital dates’, there are many creative ways that people have tried to rekindle human connection. The market is mirroring these new trends — LoveHoney took a humorous spin on isolation with “Light Relief in Lockdown”, while Badoo’s “Flick for Victory” celebrated all the isolated masturbators who are saving lives by staying home. 

More than raising a smile, these sex-positive campaigns encourage trends that raise our spirits. Psychosexual therapist Kate Moyle explains the importance of masturbation and self-exploration right now, as “[s]cientific research shows that masturbation can enhance sexual health and relieve stress and anxiety.” 

Taking time for pleasure might be a positive byproduct of this health pandemic, especially as we seem to be going through a global sex pandemic too. According to a 2018 survey by Public Health England, nearly half of women are unsatisfied with their sex lives. Perhaps isolation will give us the chance to re-connect with ourselves, adding some sex re-education to our routine along with morning yoga and sourdough. 

On our journey of sexual exploration accompanied by mindful sex apps and toys, what role does pornography play? This summer has seen an increase in pornography consumption (and even some Covid-themed erotic films, believe it or not). Apparently, pornography helps us cope with anxiety, presumably because of its ties to masturbation as opposed to enthralling viewers in a great film plot. Pornhub, one of the world’s most popular porn sites, took advantage of this by offering countries hardest hit by Covid-19 free memberships during lockdown and free advertising space to struggling small businesses. Is this a selfless act of solidarity? Pornhub does, after all, have its own philanthropy division and is recognised for its CSR (corporate social responsibility) publicity stunts. 

Pornhub’s campaign “End the Orgasm Gap” states “40% of straight women don’t orgasm during sex with their partners.” As we saw from PHE, this is a relevant issue, with one study finding that “95% of straight men reported an orgasm every time they had sex during the last month, just 65% of straight women said the same.” However, according to an analysis of Pornhub’s 50 most viewed videos by the Journal of Sex Research, this gap also “persists in the world of online porn.” What’s more, “the gap may be even larger in porn than it is in reality […] this lack of orgasm equality on screen may be contributing to the persistent orgasm gap off screen.” Why does Pornhub pride itself in tackling the pleasure gap when its own content promotes the opposite? Could it be a business tactic — creating a pleasure deficit and then coming to aid as an allegedly forward-thinking and liberal hero, capitalising off of the orgasm gap? Creating and supplying the demand? 

Pornhub claims it is “all about pleasure”, so how positive an impact does its pornography have on our lives? From in-depth interviews with young women, psychologists, academics and experts, Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein explores how pornography affects us. Orenstein explains that the unrealistic and sexist content found on most main porn sites creates distorted expectations of sex, and even of our genitals (in pornography female genitals are often digitally altered to appear more “tucked in”, leading to a rise in cosmetic vulva surgery). The “incessant sexualization of women in the media hurts girls. Even a brief exposure […] has been found to undermine body image, erode self-esteem, and trigger self-objectification.” It has also been proven to negatively affect male self-esteem, body image and increase romantic/relationship attachment anxiety and avoidance. 

The focus on male gratification, female hypersexualisation and objectification (as opposed to female sexuality) also changes boys’ attitudes towards women in real life. A 2000 study “edited together scenes of the R-rated movies Showgirls and 9 1/2 Weeks that were judged as degrading to women [and] emphasised male dominance as well as female submission and availability.” Like Pornhub’s content, the films portrayed “male, but not female, sexual satisfaction.” Two groups were then shown a case where a woman was raped. Those that watched the R-rated videos “were more than twice as likely as the control group to agree with the statement that the victim enjoyed the acquaintance rape [ — rape by a person known to the victim — ] and secretly “got what she wanted”” (Orenstein, Boys & Sex). 

Pornhub strategically positions itself as a CSR advocate, but its content endorses issues it claims to address. The depiction of women as objects to be used for male gratification in sexist and degrading videos, abundant on most pornography sites, reinforces female objectification and hypersexualisation. Sexist pornography has been proven to significantly affect both men and women — in their sex lives and self image — and influences how women are viewed in real life, often encouraging a mindset more opposed to gender equality. This could be getting worse: according to research, “the prevalence of porn means that men are becoming desensitised to it, and are therefore seeking out ever harsher, more violent and degrading images.” It is not just adults who are exposed to this content — on average boys first see porn age 11. With over 23 billions visits last year alone, Pornhub and similar sites must take responsibility for its effect on society. 

The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, but it has put a lot in perspective. From increased demand for climate action to the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a rise in social consciousness. When we demand more from so many areas of society, why are we unwilling to do the same with pornography? It is clear the industry has some serious flaws and needs to evolve. Though, maybe true and lasting change will have to come from a deeper cultural shift — better educating young people about real sex, pleasure, consent and the dangers of unrealistic, sexist and degrading pornography. 

But considering many of us adults are apparently having unsatisfying sex lives, it might be wise to reeducate ourselves first. It sounds like a big task, but things are already changing: downloads of mindful sex app Ferly increased by 65% in the summer, and big brands are rallying together to support this shifting culture around sex — Libresse’s ad “Viva La Vulva” challenges pressures to “look and be perfect” and Durex’s campaign “Challenge the Norms” makes a stand against repressive sexual conventions. It is up to us as consumers to encourage brands to challenge taboos and stereotypes. We must demand a more positive sex culture in our society . 

In more ways than one, this pandemic has broken our world. And so now we must decide what kind of future we want to rebuild.

Leave a Reply