All About Sex

The best sex ever

The Main Difference Between Porn Actresses and Other Women

Hint: It has nothing to do with a history of sexual abuse.

Forget the widely held belief that pornography actresses are survivors of child sexual abuse and/or adolescent rape who grow up so traumatized that they’re easy prey for evil pornographers. On the contrary, the first credible survey of the women in porn shows that they are remarkably similar to other women—with one main difference. They enjoy sex more.

The survey, published recently in the Journal of Sex Research, was conducted by psychologists at Texas Women’s University in Denton at the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIMHF) in Los Angeles, a pioneering clinic for porn actors. The researchers surveyed 177 actresses, average age 26, who visited for sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and other health services.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Child Sexual Abuse? Rape?

Many porn critics consider the X-rated media so abhorrent that they can’t imagine “normal” women participating. They assume the actresses must have histories of sexual trauma. A few former porn actresses lend credence to this view:

• Jenna Jameson, author of How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: “As a young woman, I was gang raped.”

• Shelley Lubben, author of The Truth Behind the Fantasy of Porn: “Most girls in porn have been sexually abused.”

• Traci Lords: “When I was 10, I was raped by a boy of 16. After that, my mother’s boyfriend molested me. My entire childhood was shaped by traumatic sexual experiences that led me to porn.”

These stories are chilling—but anecdotal. Meanwhile, during my four decades as a sexuality journalist, I’ve interviewed several porn actresses who swore they’d never suffered sexual trauma.

Do porn actresses have disproportionate histories of sex abuse? That question has been been impossible to answer because as a group, porn actors are elusive. Porn producers rarely welcome researchers onto their sets, and off-camera, professional porn actresses are difficult to survey. They’re typically young and transient with brief, part-time careers that place them largely under the radar and out of researchers’ reach.

Which is why the recent survey is so valuable. Los Angeles County requires porn performers to be tested monthly for STIs, and requires producers to employ only those whose most recent test was negative. As a result, a cross section of porn participants visited the AIMHF clinic regularly, and its staff, which included former porn actresses, persuaded 177 working actresses to participate, the only such study to date.

I hasten to add that this study used a “convenience sample,” actors who happened to show up at the clinic. As a result, it’s less persuasive than surveys of carefully vetted nationally representative populations. On the other hand, many psychology studies use convenience samples, notably college undergraduates. The psych journals would be mighty thin without them. So this study’s sample is not ideal, but it’s well within the bounds of credible psychology research.

The survey probed the women’s experience of sexual trauma. Estimates vary, but sources including the National Center for Victims of Crime suggest that around one-third of women have experienced some form of it, from a single incident of unwelcome fondling to years of vicious sex slavery. In the survey of porn actresses, 36 percent reported child sex abuse. The researchers concluded: “The incidence of child sexual abuse among porn actresses was within the range experienced by the general population.”

The Sexual Fringe

If porn actresses haven’t suffered disproportionate sexual trauma, why do they appear in X-rated media? According to the survey, because they like the money, the flexible hours, and the perceived glamor of movie work—and because they enjoy sex more than other women.

Every generation comes of age in a burst of sexual exuberance. Later in life, many people sheepishly recall youthful erotic escapades and wonder, What was I thinking? Some people are more sexually exuberant than others, notably those on the sexual fringe. An estimated 1 to 2 percent of American adults frequent sex or swing clubs, or attend group sex parties at least occasionally. One to 2 percent of adults comes to 2 to 4 million people. Compared with women, men are more likely to be hyper-sexual. If women account for only 10 percent of the sexual fringe, then 200,000 to 400,000 women are hyper-sexual, with around one-third—70,000 to 130,000—in the 18-to-29 age group, the prime demographic of professional porn actresses. That’s more than enough women to populate porn.

The survey suggests that porn actresses are unusually sexually exuberant. Compared with matched controls, they reported:

• Earlier first intercourse. Controls lost their virginity around age 17. Porn actresses, around 16.

• More lovers in the past year (excluding porn sex). Controls 1.5. Porn actresses 9.6.

• More lifetime lovers. Controls 5.2. Porn actresses 74.8.

Talk about sexual exuberance—the actresses averaged almost 75 lifetime non-work lovers. Society labels that “slutty,” and many believe that such hyper-sexuality is clear proof of psychological pathology.

However, not long ago, society expected non-divorced, non-widowed women to have just one lifetime lover, and many Americans still believe that women should remain virgins until marriage and then limit sex to their husbands. The control women averaged five lifetime partners. Some might call them sluts.

Most women enjoy dancing occasionally. Many take dance classes for exercise, and a small proportion dance professionally for hours daily. Are they damaged? No, they just love to dance. The same goes for porn actresses and sex. Compared with controls, they reported substantially more pleasure from sex (p < .001). The researchers concluded, “Porn actresses enjoy their work.”

More Recreational Drug Use

Another element of youthful exuberance involves recreational drugs. I’m 64. These days, I occasionally drink alcohol and use cannabis (medicinally and recreationally). But in my twenties, I drank considerably more and experimented with more substances than I care to recall. What was I thinking?

Compared with controls, the porn actresses were significantly more likely to have tried many drugs. In addition, they were twice as likely to report histories of alcohol problems. But their alcohol abuse appeared to be in the past. During the six months prior to the survey, the actresses used only one drug significantly more than controls, marijuana, which is comparatively benign.

Psychologically Typical—Maybe Healthier

Even if porn actresses suffer no more sexual trauma than other women, combine 75 lifetime lovers with considerable drug experimentation, and you have to wonder about their mental health.

The survey assessed this—and found that compared with controls, the porn actresses actually enjoyed greater mental health. They reported higher self-esteem and more positive feelings about their lives (p < .01), more social support (p < .05), and greater sexual satisfaction (p < .05). The researchers concluded that porn actresses “are not psychologically impaired and appear more similar to other women than previously thought.”

If you consider porn abhorrent, you’ll probably dismiss this survey as nonsense. Surveys, especially those using convenience samples, do, indeed have limitations. But this survey represents the best information to date—and it shows that porn actresses are pretty much like other women. They just enjoy sex more.

Reference:

Griffith, JD. et al. “Pornography Actresses: As Assessment of the ‘Damaged Goods’ Hypothesis,” Journal of Sex Research (2013) 50:621.

 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

Subscribe to All About Sex

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.