Why We Crave Porn

Although we treat porn as a commodity, it is actually a deeply desired human interaction.

Porn exists and it will continue to be used heavily in Western society.

Why? Like other cultural products that have become pervasive, porn satisfies a want felt by many men, women and children. Porn is neither good or bad per se; rather, consequences of porn use in certain contexts may lead to happier or less happy people. Discussion about porn use should honestly consider why porn is so appealing to many, and in what contexts porn can have good and bad effects.

Human animals desire sex; we crave it viscerally. But sex is somewhat complicated to acquire. In the broadest sense, grouping masturbation in with sex, humans have the option to have sex by themselves. Nevertheless, despite the comparatively simple option of solitary masturbation, most people prefer to engage in erotic experiences with others.

Scientifically it is no mystery why we crave sex with other people—we reproduce by sexual intercourse—though admittedly this is not usually in the forefront of one’s mind when one thinks about erotic experience (it is what scientists consider an evolutionary cause, rather than a proximal cause).

As soon as the “will” of other individuals becomes part of sex, having sex becomes something less trivial than simply deciding one wants to … right now.

The fact that the will of more than one individual is involved yields all the various agreements we have come to with respect to regulating sex; among the many forms are marriage customs, prostitution and internet pornography, but there is tremendous diversity, which I don’t wish to minimize by omitting here.

Point 1: The extent to which there is a real relationship between the performer and the porn viewer is under-appreciated . This is not just to say that the porn performer is a “real” person—such a point has been made many times. Slightly more subtly, I want to emphasize the fact that there is a relationship, ranging from a simple transaction to a possibly emotional connection, between the viewer and the performer.

In biological sciences, there is often an attempt made to learn about healthy people by studying diseased people. Without being too judgemental of those people (usually men) extremely interested in pornography, one might hope to do the same here. We can likely learn a great deal about “regular” porn users from the “extreme” users. I am not an expert on porn addiction, but one relevant feature of serious porn viewers is that they may have, what are to them, highly meaningful relationships with specific porn stars. While most porn viewers may not be able to immediately relate to this, regular porn viewers will still have preferences for appearances, behaviors and communication habits of the porn “characters” they watch.

[A]s a monogamous and capitalist culture, we prefer to think of porn not as an interaction between people, but as a purely commercial product to be consumed.

Point 2: For those couples who both find porn use acceptable within the context of their monogamous relationship, porn is likely beneficial to that relationship. However, whether the relationship remains truly monogamous becomes more suspect. Even while in a relationship, many men and women will continue to find other people attractive. Nevertheless, they may genuinely desire to suppress those feelings in “real life” in order to hold to certain commitments to themselves and or their partner with respect to their sexual freedom. This argument can be formulated in various flavors, but when used in defense of porn consumption boils down to the overly simplistic point that porn isn’t real and doesn’t affect the monogamous relationship.

I think that this is practically true for many porn users, but by way of reference to Point 1, I wish to complicate this point. Porn use involves a human interaction with another person, the performer. I think given the predominance of monogamy in contemporary western society, this fact about pornography has been actively played down. That is, as a monogamous and capitalist culture, we prefer to think of porn not as an interaction between people, but as a purely commercial product to be consumed.

With respect to monogamy, porn use can perhaps be lumped into a broader class of release-valve theories—individuals who might have struggled to be completely monogamous get a little bit of a release by interacting in a controlled and socially acceptable way with pornography. The salient point that distinguishes porn performers from prostitutes with respect to monogamy is the stronger asymmetry in the relationship.

In conventional pornography there is no interaction directed from the user to the performer, and for many people in relationships this probably feels less threatening. A husband might be as likely to be with a porn star as with a famous Hollywood actress, so the porn remains in the realm of fantasy. Increasingly interactive forms of pornography (one-on-one shows) might be considered similar to visiting a prostitute, as the nature of the relationship between performer and viewer becomes more bi-directional. Such interactive porn likely requires additional ethical negotiation, especially within the context of a monogamous relationship.

Point 3: There are almost certainly healthy ways of interacting with pornography, but any approach where the viewer is not fully honest with himself is likely unhealthy. It is easy to say that watching porn and masturbating is relaxing, but should such an answer suffice as justification? Most people face sexual tension at times, and perhaps porn is well-suited to certain such situations (perhaps even very regularly), but how many people use porn to escape non-sexual stressors?

Some of these rhetorical questions might be best answered systematically with statistics, but even before a survey would make sense, individuals might find such self-reflective questions difficult to answer honestly for themselves. When constraints are placed on the behavior we are allowed to publicly express, we will want to satisfy our cravings elsewhere.

Does porn help a user take a break, or does it act like a narcotic, inhibiting the user from addressing other fundamental issues related their relationships and their life? Each individual likely has their own answer.

Humans have wants, and satisfaction of many such wants depend on productive interactions with other individuals. If an adolescent boy is embarrassed to gawk at a scantily-clad woman, perhaps porn will help him to learn about his urges, or perhaps it will encourage him to objectify women. How the porn is presented and its content will likely affect which. If a man in a committed monogamous relationship consumes porn, perhaps porn will serve to de-stress him and release some sexual tension, or perhaps porn will encourage dissatisfaction with his relationship. Again, the context within his relationship in which he uses porn and and the kind of porn he consumes will play a role.

It is meaningless to simplify porn as bad or good, rather we should seek to understand this new component of our culture with an interest in personally reconciling our own behavior.

I have tried to analyze some of the complications related to porn use and the discussion surrounding porn use while trying to avoid inserting too many of my own personal values. Borrowing language from Freud, but using the terms somewhat figuratively, the desire for porn reminds us of the internal struggle between the id and the superego. Our individual wants with respect to sex, as well as other cravings, may inherently conflict with regulations encouraged by our society and our close companions.

How individuals deal with balancing their desires against what they know to be the desires of others with whom they interact is deeply personal. More than simple, sweeping solutions, a healthy interaction with others (including porn-performers) requires honesty, introspection, and communication about why we engage in certain activities and whether we personally find them acceptable in the context of our own relationships.

 

The Men and Pornography series is the product of the joint call from elephant journal Love and Relationships and The Good Life on The Good Men Project.

This was previously published on elephant journal Love and Relationships.

Read more on Men and Pornography on The Good Life.

Image credit: paulinaclemente/Flickr

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About Josh Merel

Josh Merel is a PhD candidate with research focus in computational neuroscience at Columbia University. Outside of neuroscience, he has broad ranging interests spanning robotics, literature, philosophy, society and most everything else.

Comments

  1. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Point 2: I doubt if any relationships are “truly monogamous.” And I don’t think that would be healthy. Because:

    Porn is a consequence of denuding social relationships in late modernity. An appropriate sense of diffuse eroticism is replaced by a sometimes-addictive use of pronography, with its fetishized distortions of sexuality (facials, anal, S&M, degrading talk, etc.) This appeals to men more because their field of relationships is even more starkly bare than that of women. It’s commodification with an addictive shell as packaging.

  2. Is being with one person really so awful for men? I keep seeing this argument over and over. Men, it seems, are destined to get bored and turned off by the women they purport to love; they can’t be faithful; they need porn, if nothing else, to relieve to terrible soul crushing boredom of being with their wife/girlfriend.

    I find this idea SO depressing, honestly. It makes me wonder if a relationship with a man is even worth it? I love my boyfriend, but can I trust that he’s not going to get sick of me eventually? Maybe he’s already sick of me. I don’t know, what’s the point?

    • Maybe women’s needs are met far more than mens are?

      Remember this is only some men talking about wanting other women, it’s possible there are more men who are poly than women so some will be dating monogymous women and having that issue. For those who are poly then yeah being with one person is probably awful, imagine having your sex n love life restricted to someone else? Let’s say you’re dating someone and they want half or less of the sex n love n cuddles etc that you want, would you feel partially empty? It’s important to discuss this stuff and I think society needs to be more accepting of poly lifestyles so it’s easier for poly’s to find other poly’s instead of sticking to mono lifestyles out of shame.

      I wouldn’t say that they are turned off to the women they love, it’s quite probable that they’re just not monogymous so the woman they love is still a 100/100 sexy, but they need another relationship, or sex with another person.

      “I find this idea SO depressing, honestly. It makes me wonder if a relationship with a man is even worth it? I love my boyfriend, but can I trust that he’s not going to get sick of me eventually? Maybe he’s already sick of me. I don’t know, what’s the point?”
      Not all men are built the same, nor all women. There are many poly women, are you going to get sick of your bf and want someone else? If the answer is no then you can see how it is for some men. I have no idea if your bf is poly or monogymous, you’ll have to ask him yourself but if you both love each other there is a good chance you’re the only one he wants as I don’t think poly outnumber mono.

      Is a relationship with a man worth it? Sure, why not? I could ask the same of women, is it worth me dating women? Can I trust she won’t get bored of me eventually? This is more about the individual and not the gender, I say keep trusting your bf if he hasn’t given you reason not to trust him. Love is a gamble, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but if you both love each other than don’t automatically think that he wants other women just because a few guys online have said so, there are plenty who will only want one woman but they may not be regular users of porn and thus may be less likely to read these types of thread.

      If it matters, I use porn because I am single. If I was dating I’d rather be with her than look at porn. Men aren’t destined to be anything, some are poly, some are mono just like some women are poly, some are mono. Some poly people, male n female, are fully satisfied in having a gf/bf but looking at porn to satisfy the poly needs and they can have successful relationships I’d say, others may cheat or have open relationships or do their best to suppress their desires. But even many monogymous people cheat, fall out of love, there’s good n bad in both groups.

      It’s impossible to know if your partner will cheat, or keep loving you, you just gotta have faith n work at the relationship to keep it going. None of us are perfectly the same afterall.

    • You might try talking to some married couples in their 70s and 80s (or widows or widowers) and ask them what happens over time, how interest waxes and wanes and broadens and narrows.

      I think that by using hyperbolic language like “to relieve the terrible soul-crushing boredom of being with their wife/girlfriend” creates a false sense of panic around this. Terrible soul-crushing boredom is probably not the state of mind that drives most men (people, really) to p0rn. I know for me, all it takes is a little boredom, a little free time, and a little friskiness for the idea of looking at some p0rn to jump into my mind.

      Of course, I admit I’m mostly interested in looking at the women, it’s been very hit-or-miss –mostly miss– finding male actors who appeal to me, even in non-mainstream material. Since I’m in a committed monogamous heterosexual relationship, this might be construed as me being “bored” with my male partner, but really, it’s not. It’s a bit naive to expect one person, one body & one persona, to fulfill every sexual want, need and whim you’ll ever have. Looking at p0rn satisfies a completely different desire than actually interacting with my husband.

      • So I am guessing you are bisexual with slight poly tendancies with the porn usage?
        From what I’ve seen in comments, etc, my guess is most people are slightly poly enough for porn usage but in monogymous relationships.

      • Totally agree. I have a similar desire for consumption of porn. I too find it to be a fairly mundance activity that is born usually out of boredom, free time and being alone. I have two young children and am married so I don’t usually have a lot of alone time, when I get some, I tend to gravitate towards watching porn to masturbate because its kind of fun, kind of naughty and it satisfies me much the same as fast food. It is definitely my preference to have good sex with my wife as opposed to masturbation of any kind, and I don’t particularly find most porn to be all that exciting because it is clearly fake. Still, there’s just something appealing about watching beautiful people who are good at performing sex with each other. I have had times where I’ve gone down the rabbit hole so to speak and been too involved with watching porn that it affects my sexual appetite, so I use it sparingly now in my 30’s. But when I was young, it was pretty regular and never had an ill effect on my desire or preference for sex with my partner.

      • I get what you are saying, and it’s a sensible point of view, but…. I’m not anti-porn and I know desire waxes and wanes In a relationship, but so many of the arguments I’ve been reading about why porn is okay seem to boil down to this idea that men need porn because monogamy sucks so bad.

        Reading all these articles about porn, when I had sex with my boyfriend last night, I couldn’t stop thinking about how bored he must be after 3 years of having sex with me. It kinda killed the mood (it didn’t help that he didn’t seem that into it to start with, so my mind ran off in paranoid directions). At the same time, if I know he’s watching porn, it turns me off completely from having sex with him. So I have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on porn. But, I would like to,think that I still have the power to attract him even though he is burdened with a commitment to me. Like I said, it’s depressing.

        • wellokaythen says:

          Surely there are women who get bored with being with the same man or who find monogamy stifling.

        • You do realize that making yourself worry about it which leads to you not being in the mood will eventually affect him and think there is something wrong, has the potential to jeopardize the relationship and if the sex wanes then he probably will get bored and withdraw right?

          Talk to him about it before you make it into something so great that it’s very difficult to fix, that paranoia will do so much destruction to the relationship. You’re effectively blaming him for something he may not do, and punishing him over it because you THINK he may be bored with you. How is that not a terrible terrrrrrrrible thing to do? I’d be pissed off bigtime if my partner did that, whilst also annoyed n hurt that she’s upset n try figure out how to help.

          How would you like him to withdraw intimacy from you because he think you might be bored with him? These insecurity’s destroy relationships, quite frankly they’re a major turn off of mine and if they never get resolved I’d be considering leaving because it’s no fun being punished for something you haven’t done, it’s a clear sign of a lack of trust so obviously marriage or buying a house together, having kids will most definitely have to be put on hold until the issue resolves. Is it worth putting yourself in such a worry over the possibility he may or may not be bored? Your actions have the potential of MAKING it happen if you make sex and the relationship boring because you aren’t putting 100% into it.

          If his penis gets hard, you have the power to attract him to some degree at least. It’s a simple look at it but if he’s wanting to have sex with you then you’re still attractive to him. Talk to him about it before any more damage is done…

        • A married guy says:

          “monogamy sucks so bad” when you’re stuck in a relationship with someone who’s got a low drive and is neither creative nor adventurous in bed.

          On the other hand, if you’ve personally got some interest in sex, and provide your boyfriend of three years with some novelty and stimulation… maybe he’s not so terribly bored.

    • @Sarah:
      Is being with one person really so awful for men? I keep seeing this argument over and over. Men, it seems, are destined to get bored and turned off by the women they purport to love; they can’t be faithful; they need porn, if nothing else, to relieve to terrible soul crushing boredom of being with their wife/girlfriend.

      I don’t know, but I think I see even more arguments that women are destined to get bored and be turned off by the men they purport to love. The main difference being, at least to “mainstream opinion”, that instead of turning to porn these women mainly just shut down their libido, more or less.

      And I as a man find this idea not the least bit less depressing.
      Especially not in the light of my own experiences.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    It’s kind of sweet and flattering to say that men want porn because deep down men want to connect with another person on a meaningful level. Or because it affords a kind of interpersonal intimacy that they may be lacking in the rest of their lives. No doubt that is true for some men, maybe many men.

    This seems to assume that porn is just a poor, artificial substitute for something that is normal, monogamous, emotionally intimate, and companionable. Perhaps men consume porn on its own merits, or on their own terms, not necessarily as a fill-in for an emotionally intimate partner. Surely for some men getting off is getting off. We watch “Butt Pirates 17” because what we really want is someone to cuddle with and to share our dreams with? Maybe, maybe not. Freud himself said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

    I’m afraid this approach just continues to romanticize sex and idealize one form of sexuality over all the others. There is more than one healthy form of sexuality. Very sweet, and I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s still more complicated than that.

    • I don’t think that the issue is there supposedly being only one form of healthy sexuality.
      It may be that if you can’t get any form of sexuality to share with your partner (or if you’re lacking a partner altogether), then porn may seem to be some kind of “path of least resistance” to get anything at all, if you get what I mean?

  4. Porn can be a problem for me at times, but that’s when I misuse it. Mostly I keep it in perspective and then it’s a positive or a neutral thing in my life, and it’s appealing because it’s so simple and direct. And by “perspective” I mean remembering that it augments my sex life, and it isn’t a substitute for sex with my partner if I have one.

    I appreciate people’s fears about what porn means, and I think I can relate to those fears. I too read what FlyingKal reads about women in relationships with thoughtful, gentle, and ultimately boring men and longing for less thought and consideration and more action. Even though I’m capable of spicing things up with my partner, I sort of resent and fear the need to do so. Am I not enough without the “performance”?

  5. Today, it seems like you can’t even talk about sex anymore without talking about porn. It’s almost like sex doesn’t exist anymore for people without porn being tired to it first. We are all so obsessed with porn. And that is what depresses me. While porn always existed, it was more of the occasional sundae. Now it’s so heavily incorporated into people’s sexuality, especially with men, it’s a largely dominating force.

    It’s not about sex and connection anymore. It’s about voyurism and visuals. People no longer have sex lives independent from porn. Sure, on some level being curious about how other people have sex and being stimulated by the visual of it is healthy. But I think we are way past a natural curiosity. It’s a compulsion now. An obsession. It’s not, “Oh okay, well I saw how other people do it, I’m good”. It’s more, “oh wow, okay I saw her breasts, now I want to see hers..and hers…and hers..and hers…..lesbans? Wow! Oh what’s that over there? Anal? Wow, lets see that…gang bang? Oh my….more…i want to see more…” We like to think we are defining our sexuality for ourselves when we are letting outside forces do that. And I am not just talking about porn itself but regular media, technology – how we share information..all those outside factors contribute in what influences us.

    People don’t spend eonough time on what they already have. We want more. So we seek more. And the end result is that are attention spans keep getting shorter and shorter. Broadban internet connection? Too slow. Actually watch a commercial when you can have TiVo? No way. More..more..faster..faster.. One day it’s all going to impode on all of us. And sadly, this runs off into our personal relationships.

    I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said something close to, “people love objects and use people”.

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