Men, Woman, and Watching Porn

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

Hey, remember your first encounter with porn? Of course you do. It’s a weird, pervy rite of passage, a first tenuous step into adulthood. For me, it was when I was 11 years old at a sleepover with two close friends. The friend whose house it was, had an older brother and had seen him hiding things under his bed. He was out, so naturally we decided to play detective and went snooping around his room. This was also my first experience of a 17 year old boy’s bedroom and I can tell you now it was repulsive; I felt like Clarice Starling during the autopsy in Silence of the Lambs, if only someone had had some vapour rub for me to smear under my nose. We waded through the quagmire of dirty, sweaty clothes adorning the floor, the plates of leftover food that were growing cultures the likes of which should only exist in a laboratory, and at last we found what we were looking for. A single, tattered (dare I say, well loved?) nudie magazine. It was cover to cover leggy Amazonian women with far more hair than would ever be acceptable in the industry today. They were posed lewdly with vacant, disinterested expressions and my friends and I all shared the same thought. Why is this sexy? Granted, we were young, we hadn’t yet reached any kind of sexual maturity, none of us were attracted to women. However, we all knew about sex and masturbation, and understood the beauty of the female form but we still couldn’t - for the life of us - work out why anyone would find the blatancy of that magazine sexy.

Could it simply have been because we were girls? We all know the stereotypes surrounding male and female views on pornography but how much truth lies behind them? Are we really that different?

Men Watch More Pornography than Women

this is something we’ve all heard. Usually accompanied by some tosh about how much stronger the male sex drive is and how men are constantly thinking about sex. I can’t stand hearing men talked about in this way. As if they’re rutting animals with no self control. It perpetuates blame culture in rape because we can’t expect men to actually keep it in their pants and it’s damn insulting to men everywhere. It’s dehumanising and patronising and it strengthens this peculiar notion we hold as a society that enjoying sex somehow makes you a deviant.

However, there is truth to the statement that men watch more porn than women. According to Michael Castleman of Psychology Today a whopping 71% of x-rated pornographic online videos are viewed by solo men, 19% by heterosexual couples and 2% by solo women and lesbian couples. So, why is this?

It has been suggested that men are more aroused by visual stimuli than women, though there is little empirical evidence to support this. In fact most evidence would indicate men and women have an equally strong reaction (measured by increased blood flow to the genitalia - can you imagine being in that study?). But what’s more, men tended to only become aroused watching pornography that mimicked their sexual interests whereas women reacted regardless of whether they were watching heterosexual, homosexual or lesbian pornography.

Lykins et al expanded on this, stating that men and women could be equally aroused by visual stimuli but varied in what details they chose to look at. In this study they found men spent more time looking at the people in erotic photographs; they looked more at their bodies as well as their faces. Whereas, the women in the study spent more time looking at the contextual features of the photographs, such as the scenario, the roles the people appeared to be playing, the clothing they wore, etc. So it doesn’t seem to be that men are more aroused by visual stimuli. It would appear far more likely that there are a whole host of cognitive differences in arousal.

“What? Our minds matter when it comes to sex? No way!” I hear you cry sarcastically. As obvious as this might seem, it took psychologists a frighteningly long time to draw this conclusion.  Rupp and Wallen in their 2008 study highlighted just how many factors come in to play when we’re discussing arousal whilst viewing pornography. Aside from the obvious physical differences in how men and women respond, we also have to consider a whole host of psychological facets; experiential factors, subjective awareness of arousal and contextual or cultural norms, to name a few.

If we look purely at the neurology, FMRI scans have shown that men and women show increased activation in the same regions of the brain (predominantly the amygdala, the cingulate cortex and striatum) while viewing erotic images with one exception: only men showed increased activation in the hypothalamus. Now the hypothalamus is very tiny but very complex. It does an awful lot of very cool stuff but its key function is regulating hormones. It’s unclear at the moment what exactly this activity means but there is a clear neurological difference in how men and women react.

 

When Women do Watch Porn, We like Other Women

Intriguing right? Maybe to you guys. I can guarantee not many female readers will be surprised by this. A naked woman is a beautiful thing. She’s all curves and soft skin and all her “plumbing” is nicely concealed in a neat little Georgia O’Keeffe style “flower”. A naked man… How do I say this? Men are beautiful - please don’t feel self conscious about yourselves, fellas, but sometimes, being confronted with the kind of well endowed man the porn industry favours is just not a sexy experience. It’s eye watering, a little un-settling (I mean honestly how is that poor girl going to walk tomorrow?) and sometimes kind of intimidating. So it certainly feels understandable that women tend to download more lesbian pornography than men. In fact, a recent survey by Youporn showed that the terms “lesbian scissor”, “lesbian orgy” and “lesbian threesome” were searched by women overwhelmingly more often than men (as much as 500% more often).

So now we know that both men and women watch porn and are perfectly capable of being aroused by visual stimuli, let’s see what Freud had to say on the matter.

 

The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy

Of course I have to mention Freud. You can’t discuss sex and not talk about Freud. Believe me, I’ve tried, but the two topics go together better than the whole cast of Grease singing that awful “We go together” song. Say what you want about Freud (actually don’t, I love his work and I don’t want to have fight any of you) but the man never underestimated how important sex is.

In a nutshell - and this really is just the basics - Freud believed that when it comes to sex, men cast women in one of two roles; the Madonna, a woman he admires and respects; or the whore, a woman he is sexually attracted to and disrespects. The theory draws a clear distinction between love and sex. Love is pure, virginal, maternal and to be kept that way. Sex is shameful and dirty and to have sex with a woman is to debase her. Now, I feel I have to point out, that this isn’t a conscious distinction that is being made. It is the subconscious acting on years of socially reinforced stereotypes and “scripts”.

Men, therefore, are faced with a very difficult problem when they fall in love with a woman. Dare they consummate that love and degrade and sully the woman they adore? Obviously they have the desire to have sex and yet they also feel compelled to settle down, have a long term relationship and perhaps to father children. How do they cope with these two opposing desires? Well, according to Freud, any number of neurotic disorders or anxiety disorders can arise from this but the most pressing issue is the loss of sexual desire for their significant other. It has been suggested then that the pornography gives the perfect outlet for men faced with this dichotomy.

Now, obviously Freud has been criticised for many reasons, his research was based purely on case studies and his theories are contextually dependent, however some psychologists believe this complex is a very real issue in relationships to this day and could account for why men account for so much of the downloading of pornography.

I’ll be honest with you guys. There is so much to explore on this topic. So much more than I could ever explore here, more than I could even explore if I was writing a small book on the matter. You need to consider different cultural views towards pornography, generational differences, societal influences, sexual disorders, literary pornography the list is endless. Because, guess what? People are complicated. We’re messy and unique and it’s downright dangerous to draw sweeping generalisations based off nothing but age old stereotypes. Men like watching porn and women don’t. Men are aroused visually whereas women need an emotional connection. Women don’t like watching other women. Statements like this are part of what make people worry that they can’t talk openly with their partners. They make people think they’re abnormal. Well, here’s the dirty little secret; we all like sex and that’s okay.