Loving Oneself by Watching Porn?

Watching porn might actually improve body self-image and acceptance.

Posted Apr 15, 2019

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Media clickbait headlines love to blame all kinds of wild things on pornography use, and the recent rise in social acceptance of pornography. A recent fad of women who have “bleaching” of the tissues around their anus is commonly blamed on porn, as is the rise in vaginoplasty, a form of plastic surgery involving alteration to the appearance of female genitalia. Similar claims are made about males, alleging that a rise in men seeking surgery on their penises is the result of porn-fueled bodily insecurity. In March 2019, a European billionaire died during a penis-enlargement surgery, leading many to speculate about why an incredibly wealthy man was unable to be satisfied with his genitalia. In 2017, a much younger, and one assumes, less wealthy, man aged 30 also died during a surgical procedure to enlarge his penis, the first man known to have died during such a procedure. 

The general assumption is that as people watch pornography with beautiful, young, naked people with perfect bodies and flawless genitalia, that they become insecure about their own bodies. That they then compare their own bodies, and their own genitalia, to those of the cavorting nubile stars on their computer screens. It’s an intuitive theory, which rings true with the many people and organizations who distrust pornography. Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence that watching porn has such an effect.

In both males and females, there’s inconsistent research, suggesting that, for instance, in gay males, porn use may increase a man’s dissatisfaction with the size of their penis, but that it doesn’t appear to increase female dissatisfaction with the size of their breasts. In women who reportedly use pornography in unhealthy ways, their porn use had no impact on the women’s body image. But, when these women had pre-existing negative emotional states and used porn to try to change the way they were feeling, the women were more likely to feel negatively about their bodies. 

An intriguing element in the research on porn’s effect involves examining whether the viewers see the depictions of sex in adult videos as realistic or not. When people view porn as more realistic, they are more likely to view porn as having positive effects. In men, this belief in porn’s positive effects correlates with higher sexual self-esteem. In women, higher levels of genital self-esteem correlate with higher levels of sexual self-esteem, and with higher levels of sexual satisfaction. Women who feel better about their genitalia enjoy sex more. A similar effect doesn’t appear to be present in men.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Is porn realistic? Well, no. Not really. Porn is a fantasy. It depicts sex outside the normal social rules and expectations that surround sex, in most human cultures. But, there may be gradations of realism in modern pornography, that aren't being fully considered in the rush to blame porn. Consider for instance - in superhero movies, one might suggest that Batman is somewhat more realistic than The Avengers – after all, Batman has no special powers (aside from a dark and tortured soul and lots of money), while Captain America has magically superhuman strength and endurance. Similar comparisons may actually be possible in the realm of sexually explicit material. Nowadays, many people, especially younger viewers, prefer, and seek out, more “amateur” erotic films. It may be that the fantasy of these being “real people like me” increases the viewer’s enjoyment. These types of films may show more normal depictions of human sexual pleasure, and include types of bodies that are more consistent with the average viewer.

In recently-published research, examining the relationship between this perception of porn as realistic, it was actually shown that when people who watch porn believe it to be more realistic, their porn use actually correlates with HIGHER body image, in both males and females. In other words, these porn viewers felt better about their bodies. Fascinating analyses showed that this effect played out differently in males and females. For male viewers, porn use correlated with higher self-esteem, and greater satisfaction with their own bodies. For female viewers, porn viewing correlated with greater comfort being nude, and higher self-esteem. (It’s intriguing to note that past research has suggested that during first intercourse with a new partner, women have tremendous anxiety around being nude for the first time with their partner. It is perhaps worth hypothesizing that viewing porn may decrease that anxiety, and increase a woman’s belief that her body will be acceptable to her partner.) To be sure, these data are correlational, and so it may be that it is people with higher self-esteem and greater acceptance of their own bodies, and more comfort being nude with others, who are watching more porn.

I admit, I am curious about the people who are watching porn, but don’t view it as realistic, and don’t demonstrate these potential positive correlations. I hypothesize that many of those who view porn as unrealistic may be judging it based upon moral and social characteristics, tied to love, relationship, monogamy and conservative sexual values. They may view porn as unrealistic, because it is contrary to their beliefs around what sex is. Other research has suggested that harmful effects of pornography use are largely driven by the conflict with a viewer’s religious values.  

Interestingly, the porn site xHamster (NSFW!!!!) has data on this very question. They ran analyses recently of their users, and found that highly religious users tended to be far more conflicted about their porn use, but at the same time, believed that porn was more realistic than non-religious viewers did! Fascinating! (Shoots my theory in the foot though!) 

However, despite the correlational design of these varied studies, none demonstrate that across populations, it is, in fact, watching porn that predicts higher rates of negative self-image and greater dissatisfaction with one’s body. Indeed, one might suggest, based on these various studies, that it is actually the people who are not watching porn who may be judged to be at most risk of negative sexual self-esteem and unhealthy feelings about their own bodies. In other words, instead of viewing porn as a risk factor, it might actually be a risk factor if someone reports they are not watching porn! This might reveal that they are at risk of having more negative feelings associated with sex and their sexual selves, as a result of their limited sexual experience, poor sexual education and the conservative sexual values, which feed their rejection of porn.  

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