03/23/2013 12:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Mainstreaming of Porn: Is It Ruining Sex for Our Younger Generations?

Porn has gone officially mainstream.

No one whispers about it anymore. There's no need for dark theaters where furtive men skulk with guilt and damp handkerchiefs. Women need not giggle about Victorian novels with "dirty parts." Kids don't have to wait for Sex Ed, mom and dad, or that kid down the street who'll show them a penis. No, the Internet has democratized the visual narrative of anatomical sex and every kid with a computer and a door on their room is online and gettin' it on; women have made the remarkably unremarkable book Fifty Shades of Gray a bestseller, and men likely know more about the minutia of labial folds than they ever imagined they would.

Welcome to Porn 2.0. Or are we already at 3?

Given its ubiquity and availability, there's no surprise in conversations I've had with younger adults who admit that porn comprises the bulk of their sexual mentoring and messaging, where they pick up their standards and practices, and how they learn to view the opposite (or same) sex in terms of visual composition and body parts (and really, that's pretty much the focus of porn, isn't it?). I've talked to and observed young women anxious that their breasts aren't big enough, butts small enough, or fashion sense "hot" enough. I've talked to young men who say they imbibe porn on a regular basis and have grown to expect partners free of pubic hair "because that's just what we're used to" based on what they're watching (and teen and 20/30-something women appear to be complying, as corroborated by a gynecologist friend of mine). When, both, infantilizing a woman's body and demanding a Pamela Anderson rack are the expected ideals for women today, I get bone-weary for my younger sisters.

Now before you get all snitty about how I'm this or that, I'm well aware of how protective, defensive, and proprietary many feel about their porn. As a news and opinion writer for a number of years, I've become well-versed on the heat that gets incited when discussing things like the Second Amendment, religion in politics, or Chick-fil-A, but I learned by surprise, after writing a piece called It's Not HBO, It's Porn, just how passionate people get about their pornography. I was so pummeled for making critical statements about the gratuitous use of porn-level sex in mainstream TV, I approach this discussion with the same caution I might approach gun control or gay marriage.

None at all.

Because it's been mainstreamed; it's come out from behind the curtain into the bright light of public analysis, much like the penises and waxed vaginas we now see everywhere, and that makes it fair game. We've got The Daily Beast running a sympathy piece by porn star Aurora Snow about how damn hard porn is on a girl's body (Blood, Sweat and Sex: My Hard Life in Porn); we've got the Mr. Skin website, described as "the world's foremost authority on celebrity nudity... the web's #1 go-to destination for the complete skinny on Hollywood starlets at their hottest"; we've got TV shows casting porn stars like Sasha Grey for the sheer PR buzz of casting a porn star (see, amongst other things, the late, great Entourage). We've got a culture that not only aggrandizes, utilizes and idealizes porn in every nook and cranny of life, but one that, oddly, can turn it around to bully and berate anyone who might find the hyper-saturation a tad hyperbolic.


I was on a panel recently on the topic of whether or not men's body parts are being as amply represented as women's in TV and film (they're not), and as we discussed these matters of earth-shattering importance, Mr. Skin himself (aka Jim McBride) asked me what I had against porn. As I told Jim: nothing. Have at it, as people have for the last many centuries. Use it, enjoy it, be inspired by it, get off to it, but do we really need penises and vaginas on the kitchen table, literally and figuratively? Isn't there some room for discretion and selectiveness about sex, or has the notion of connecting those body parts to something real and personal become as outdated as pubic hair?

I suspect it's like the old adage about Catholic girls who morph into insatiable party animals once out of bondage (to borrow a porn image). While that hardly applies to every Catholic girl, it does seem to apply to porn. Now that it's been mainstreamed, taken out of the back room, pulled out from those seedy theaters, it's on every menu on every table. One TV show after another has entered the race to feature the most naked women putting body parts to work in service of... well, if not the plot (rarely required), at least the viewing pleasure of porn-savvy audiences. A few penises show up in the bolder shows and movies. We've got premiere cable sharing "Real Sex" with us, every kind of online viewing option available at the click of a key, and little (none?) of it supplies emotional context or purpose outside of physical gratification... because we're in the "Age of Porn" and anything goes: discretion, selectivity, aesthetics, plot narrative, or oversaturation be damned.

But beyond the gladiator-like viewing of pumping participants, what is all this doing to the young people coming up in the world and just learning about sex; just grasping what to do with those oft-photographed and widely used body parts? It used to be that parents, schools, and mentors translated the mysteries, magic, and confusions of sex to up-and-comers; now, even if parents and schools do get to them first, it's porn that does the heavy lifting. And I question whether Aurora Snow, Sasha Grey or the bevy of bouncing babes and boys who saturate every screen, story, reality show and website help our developing young adults translate the many mixed and sometimes soul-killing messages much of porn conveys. They may be amazingly gymnastic and libido tickling, but they leave out the antiquated notions of tenderness, connection, fidelity and, dare I say it, love.

When teens and young women feel generalized pressure to "look like porn stars"; when boys don't seem to grasp that photographing and "fingering" a drunk, unconscious teen constitutes rape, and when anyone reticent about dragging sex from its private quarters to the well-lit mainstream is considered pathetic and prudish, there are some serious things to consider.

Enjoy your porn responsibly, call me names if you like, but I want to assure young girls that they don't have to crawl across the floor if they don't want to; don't have to get boob jobs to please porn-prompted boyfriends, and don't have to regress their vaginas to pre-puberty status in order to enjoy oral sex. They can rise above peer and cultural pressure, love their bodies as they are, and assert their sexuality without being obligated to kiss a girl for a boy or drop to their knees for acceptance. I also hope we can imbue our young men with a more expansive view of women, sex, and the visual expectations the world they live in seems to encourage.

Because we are all more than our body parts, gynecological or otherwise. Tell that to porn.

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by Lorraine Devon Wilke