Debates about the influence of pornography on people’s sexual attitudes and behavior have raged for a long time. A recent German study found that women who watched pornography more often engaged in submissive sexual behavior more often. The authors argued that watching pornography influence the viewer’s sexual scripts, which in turn influences their behavior. In other words, pornography teaches women to behave in a sexually submissive way, and they then go out and copy this behavior. However, this theory does not explain why depictions of women as sexually submissive are so popular in the first place. An alternative view is that women actively choose to watch pornographic material that matches their pre-existing tastes. Such material might be popular because it satisfies deep-seated psychological preferences.

Wikimedia Commons
Submissiveness can be an elaborate art form for some.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although much research on pornography use seems to have focused on men, there is also considerable interest in pornography use by women. One of the big questions motivating such research, is what influence, if any, does viewing pornography have on users’ attitudes and sexual behavior? Social learning type theories propose that media use in general influences people through a process of modelling, that is, viewers think that the media depicts normal or desirable behavior, which they then try to imitate. In this view, pornography in particular is supposed to have an influence by shaping people’s “sexual scripts,” that is, their beliefs about how they are supposed to behave sexually. Hence, after watching pornography, people are supposed to be motivated to try and imitate what they have seen in their own lives. More specifically, a very common theme in pornography involves depictions of male dominance combined with female submissiveness. Therefore, the more that women watch depictions of this type, the more they will want to engage in sexually submissive behavior.

A recent study of German women, mostly in their twenties, took this theory as its starting point and investigated whether women’s pornography consumption was associated with specific sexual behaviors frequently depicted in pornography, including a range of dominant and submissive behaviors, but especially those involving specific forms of male dominance combined with female submissiveness (Sun, Wright, & Steffen, 2017). Women in the study were asked if they had ever tried or would like to try such behaviors, as well as how often they used pornography for masturbation. Nearly all women in the study (over 98%) had at least some exposure to pornography, and on average used pornography for masturbation about once a month. Regardless of pornography use, women were generally more likely to have tried or be interested in trying submissive than dominant behavior, such as being the recipient rather than the doer of spanking, slapping, choking, bondage, forced sex, and so on. Additionally, women in this study had rather high rates of certain behaviors specific to male dominance and female submission, such as anal penetration (65%), facial ejaculation (76%), and penis worship (76%), although much lower rates of other behaviors in this category, such as name calling (25%), penile gagging (30%), gang bangs (8%), among others. As expected, women’s pornography use was positively correlated with how much they engaged in or were interested in submissive behavior, but, interestingly, was not correlated with their interest/engagement in dominant behavior. Furthermore, women’s pornography use was positively correlated with their interest/engagement in behaviors specific to male dominance and female submission.

The authors argue that their results support sexual script theory rather than the view that pornography use simply reflects a high sex drive or sexual adventurousness. This is because pornography use in their study was associated with greater interest/engagement in submissive behavior, but was unrelated to dominant behavior. Hence, they argued that women who watch more porn are more likely to accept sexual scripts that are frequently portrayed in pornographic media.

Wikimedia Commons
An even more artistic looks at bondage...
Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, the authors conclusions leave several questions unanswered and are open to challenge. Firstly, social learning type theories treat consumers as if they are basically passive. That is, they simply imitate whatever is shown to them, as if they have no agency. Hence, these have been criticized as “hypodermic needle models” (Ferguson, 2014). Furthermore, these theories do not explain why people choose to watch what they do in the first place. With the advent of the internet, people who are interested in viewing pornography have more choices than ever before, and can select from almost any genre they wish, to satisfy virtually any kind of desire. Social learning type theories seem to assume that people internalize sexual scripts based on male dominance/female submissiveness because this is what is most commonly depicted. Yet this does not explain why such scripts are so popular in the first place, when consumers can select from any kind of script they wish. For example, if someone wishes to view scenes involving female dominance and male submissiveness, this wish can easily be satisfied with a quick Google search. The porn industry is as much subject to the demands of consumers as anything else. The prevalence of classic sexual scripts involving male dominance/female submissiveness therefore surely reflects consumer demand.

As evidence of this, consider women’s erotic fiction. These are works written by women, for women. The most popular novels in this genre have predictable themes involving male dominance and female submissiveness. As I noted in a previous post, this genre has enduring popularity and is currently a billion-dollar industry (Hawley & Hensley, 2009). Even though Western society has become increasingly gender equal in recent decades, this genre of erotic fiction remains immensely popular with women, as the extraordinary success of the internationally bestselling Fifty Shades trilogy illustrates. Is it really credible that women who enjoy this type of thing do so simply because they have been exposed to it? If social learning is so powerful, why haven’t alternative forms of pornography, depicting non-traditional sexual scripts become more popular as Western society has become more gender equal?

An alternative to social learning type theories is that consumers actively select media that appeals to their tastes, a view known as uses and gratifications theory (Ferguson, 2014). From this perspective, the type and amount of pornography that women consume is whatever appeals to their pre-existing tastes. Hence, the correlation between women’s pornography use and their interest/engagement in submissive behavior could be because using pornography gratifies a need that is already present. More specifically, many women might find depictions of women submitting to dominant men highly gratifying, some more so than others, perhaps because they see this as a display of masculine power and feminine allure. (I discussed this idea in more detail in a previous post.) Many people might find this intuitively obvious, but to those who are ideologically committed to the idea that all gendered behavior is socially learned, this may seem like heresy.

Although I disagree with their conclusions, I do commend the authors of this study for shining a light on such a fascinating area of people’s intimate behavior. I think it would be interesting to see more studies on this topic in a wider variety of cultures. As the study by Sun, Wright, and Steffen was conducted in Germany, the results might reflect something specific about modern German culture, so it would be fascinating to see if comparable results are found in other countries.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Image credits

Model in stringent hogtie via Wikimedia Commons

Soul in Bondage, 1891-92, Elihu Vedder

Related posts

Does Watching TV Encourage Narcissism? - compares social learning theories of media use with uses and gratification theory.

Fifty Shades: Glamorizing Abuse or Harmless Escapism?

Monster Porn and the Science of Sexuality - discusses an unusual genre of women's erotica from an evolutionary psychology perspective

The Personalities of Porn Stars

Porn Stars and Evolutionary Psychology

References

Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Is Reading "Banned" Books Associated With Behavior Problems in Young Readers? The Influence of Controversial Young Adult Books on the Psychological Well-Being of Adolescents. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, & the Arts, 8(3), 354-362.

Hawley, P. H., & Hensley, W. A. (2009). Social Dominance and Forceful Submission Fantasies: Feminine Pathology or Power? The Journal of Sex Research, 46(6), 568-585. doi:10.1080/00224490902878985

Sun, C. F., Wright, P., & Steffen, N. (2017). German Heterosexual Women’s Pornography Consumption and Sexual Behavior. Sexualization, Media, & Society, 3(1), 2374623817698113. doi:10.1177/2374623817698113

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