Sex 101

Sexually Explicit Media

What is sexually explicit media?

Also referred to as pornography, the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter can be traced back to the earliest of human history, preceding the written word. Today sexually explicit media includes a variety of types, including print media, photos, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video, video games, applications for smart devices and virtual reality. Sexually explicit content can be incorporated into other types of media (TV shows, books, etc.) but is sometimes portrayed alone as a vehicle to elicit sexual arousal. Pornography tends to replicate systemic oppression present within our society.

For example, as an industry, similar to other media production, it has been dominated by men and tends to cater to “the male gaze.” Research has shown that men are disproportionately aroused by visual stimuli, and therefore media producers create content they assume men will pay for. Unfortunately, these industries tend to reinforce culturally-based stereotypes about gender, race, age, ability and more. Pornographic media content has become increasingly prevalent and available, particularly as a result of the volume of pornographic content made accessible via the Internet.

Many adolescents turn to sexually explicit media on the internet for sex education purposes, and the biggest website in the US for pornographic content, Pornhub, reported in 2017 that over half of their visitors were under the age of 34.  In response, the website recently opened a free online tool, the Sexual Wellness Center for users to gain access to accurate sexuality information.  In recent years, similar to other industries, there has also been a movement within this industry to create socially conscious sexually explicit media.  For example, this article in GQ magazine on how to consume ethical porn, gives consumers some considerations around ethics.

Pornography use today is widespread. Whether you use pornography yourself or if it is something that you notice that friends or partners use, it can be important to consider the potential impacts.

How may pornography be affecting me?

People may use pornography to complement their sexual practices with partners or to provide a safe means of solitary sexual pleasure. However, just like other media, pornography has the power to influence our perceptions and attitudes. In this case, it can influence our attitudes toward sex, sensuality and relationships. The type of sex some pornography depicts may be worthy of aspiration; other pornography may normalize sex that is unrealistic or harmful.

Pornography, like all media, reflects the social dynamics present in society.  For example, aggression and violence are commonplace in mainstream pornography, and the targets of aggression are most often feminine. This aggression is typically associated with pleasure without depicting negotiations of consent that may happen “off camera.”  Racist, ableist, fatphobic and classist themes are frequently represented as well. Content analyses have found that, in the most popular videos, violent content has increased over the past few decades. (Source: Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2015). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205). Because of the themes described above, it's important to think about how viewing pornography may be affecting you. Below are a few potential harmful effects of certain types of pornography to consider.

Consider if and how your own pornography use has affected your expectations of bodies, both yours and your partners':

  • Does your pornography use create unrealistic expectations regarding breasts, vulva, pubic hair, or body type?

  • Does your pornography use create unrealistic expectations regarding penis size, capacity for multiple orgasm, stamina or body type?

  • Does your pornography use play into racialized, gender-based, body-based and other stereotypes?

Pornography may also change your expectations of sex by obscuring negotiations of consent and safer sex, normalizing non-consensual degrading or violent sexual practices.

  • Does the pornography you consume glorify non-consensual violence against sexual partners and/or depict physically painful sex?

  • Does the pornography you consume depict the degradation of those in the film or photographs?

  • Does the pornography you consume depict the safer sex preferences or otherwise demonstrate the personal autonomy of the actors?

One should also consider the nature of all pornography with respect to the models and actors in these films or photographs. Pornography is most often the depiction of real people. Consider the potential for the exploitation and harm of the people in the pornography you consume. Recently there has been more exploration into the impacts and ethics of producing pornographic content on the internet in the “amateur” genres, for example in the 2015 Netflix documentary “Hot Girls Wanted.”  

How could pornography affecting my relationships or my sense of intimacy?

Pornography can provide a private, STI and pregnancy risk-free way to explore sex and sexuality on one's own before seeking physical sexual contact with others. As discussed above, pornography can provide positive and negative influences on your perceptions and attitudes about sex, so be aware of what pornography is teaching you.

It is a good idea for partners to discuss their attitudes towards pornography and agree to the role that pornography will play. Communicating about this can be difficult, but these discussions can help set clear expectations about what each person finds acceptable. Using a tool like the Sexual Inventory Stocklist alone or with a partner can be a helpful conversation starter around determining shared values about consuming sexually explicit media.

Use of pornography in a relationship should always be consensual, with no one being forced or coerced into watching it. You can find more information on consent here.

What are some warning signs that pornography use could be a problem?

  • You decide that watching pornography is taking up too much time in your life and you try to cut back but you aren't able to.

  • You've made promises to your partner that you will change your pornography habits but have not been able to make those changes.

  • The time spent watching pornography is impacting your academic, work, social, and family responsibilities.

  • Your relationships are being negatively impacted as a result of your use.

  • Your pornography use replaces or becomes preferable to sexual intimacy with a partner.

The campus resources listed below can help Brown students better understand their use of pornography and its impact, and you can also contact Sex Addicts Anonymous for information and resources. 

On-Campus Resources

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476
Psychological Services provides free, confidential individual appointments, referrals, and groups for Brown students.

Health Promotion 401.863-2794
BWell Health Promotion is available for individual appointments and group education on a variety of health issues, including sexual health concerns and understanding pornography use. The BWell office also has safer sex supplies available. If you have questions or concerns about pornography use and sexual health, please contact Naomi Ninneman (naomi_ninneman@brown.edu). If you have concerns about pornography use in the context of non-consensual situations or in relation to sexual assault, please contact the SHARE Advocates. BWell is located on the 3rd floor of Health Services.

Related Links

Scarleteen: Making Sense of Sexual Media

Web MD: Is Pornography Addictive?

American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists
AASECT offers a directory of certified sex therapists as well as links to sexuality resources.

 

PHONE NUMBERS
  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
    EMS
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111
    DPS