The Dilution (and Misdirection) of Eros: Pornography as a Carrier of Individualism and Self-Fulfillment
On July 15th, 2015, the dating website Ashley Madison was thrust into the spotlight when their databases were hacked and all of their users’ accounts, including their names and addresses, were leaked. This hack was high-profile because the list of names included celebrities, pastors, and other notable Christian figures. The website was targeted towards married people with the tagline “Life is short. Have an affair.” It is difficult to think of a more concise phrase that exemplifies the theme of self-fulfillment in modern American culture. This paper will explore how the pornography industry fundamentally habituates and directs participants towards increased individualism and emphasizes self-fulfillment above all else. In doing so, this paper will examine the effects of pornography on relationship norms, the institution of marriage, and sexual scripting. This paper will also explore how, in the same way that recent fast-food restaurants promise “fresh” and “authentic” experiences, while arguably being just as methodically McDonaldized as other fast food chains, the pornography industry promises romance and intimacy despite being extremely McDonaldized.
Size of Industry:
Forbes’ article How Big is Porn? places the annual revenue for the American pornography industry at approximately 2.6 billion to 3.9 billion dollars. This is a conservative estimate for two reasons: first, it is fifteen years old, and the pornography industry has undoubtedly continued to flourish in the last decade. Second, a lot of statistics about revenue are extremely difficult to pinpoint. Some estimates go as high as $13 billion dollars per year. Revenue comes from advertising from streaming websites, purchase of physical media (CDs, DVDs, magazines, etc.), in addition to straight purchasing of content over the internet and pay-per-view in hotels, and so on. Hotels, however, either do not share statistics about their pay-per-view or do not keep track of them. Since the majority of pornographic content has moved to the digital realm, the revenue is difficult to track, as revenue from website advertisements is much more fluid than purchases from a brick-and-mortar store.
Measuring the pornography industry in terms of financial impact and revenue seems to be missing a huge point: in the last decade, most pornography has become free. At the turn of the century, according to an analysis of the ten leading search engines by Alexa (an internet rankings and analytics company now owned by Amazon) out of 9.1 million unique terms, “sex” was the most popular search term, with “porn/pornography” just barely trailing behind at fourth most popular. More recently, Alexa listed the most visited pornography website as #56 on the list of the 500 globally most-visited websites. For context, numbers #45, #46, and #48 are Microsoft, Apple, and Netflix’s websites, respectively.
Furthermore, even pornographic material not intended to be streamed for free holds a staggering presence on the internet. On The Pirate Bay, the most popular site for torrenting digital goods (ranked #92 on the aforementioned Alexa list), over a third of all files uploaded are pornographic in nature. In short, people are five times more likely to be illegally downloading pornography than music. Over a decade ago, the Broadway musical Avenue Q proclaimed that “the internet is for porn.” They might have been right.
Pornography is clearly entering more and more into mainstream culture. One study, Generation XXX, revealed that just over two thirds of young men and approximately one half of young women agree that “viewing pornographic material…is an acceptable way to express one’s sexuality.” Moreover, 73.8% of the men and women interviewed in this study identified as religious in some capacity. While the acceptance rates between gender remained close, 87% of the young men interviewed reported pornography usage at least once in the last month, while only 31% of women reported the same. As the founder of one pornography production company stated: “Porn doesn’t have a demographic – it goes across all demographics.” The fact that almost one third of women reporting pornography usage necessitates the adverb “only” ought to speak for itself as to how mainstream it has become. Worse yet, it starts young. The average first exposure to pornography among men was 12 years old. It is also a distinctly modern phenomenon. In a Public Religion Research Institute study, they found that 45% of millennials considered viewing pornography as “morally acceptable.” Only 9% of people 68 and older hold the same view.
In summation, pornography usage has reached epidemic proportions. The authors of the Generation XXX study claim that their findings suggest that “pornography [use] should be regarded as much as a value stance or a personal sexual ethic as it is a behavioral pattern.” In other words, this is not just trivia – we must pay attention to it. What, then, is the impact of this overwhelming intake of pornography in emerging adults? How does this new, predominant sexual ethic carry themes of individualism and self-fulfillment?
The most prominent factor changed for emerging adults is a shift in the sexual economy. This is not what was just explored i.e. the prices, profits, and businesses in the pornography industry. Instead, it is a social structure, rather than a financial one, in which “a heterosexual community can be analyzed as a marketplace in which men seek to acquire sex from women by offering other resources in exchange.” This refers not to prostitution, but to relationship norms within communities. Vocabulary regarding relationships in modern discussion tends to reveal this attitude, including phrases like “dating up/down”, “out of his/her league”, and determining who is the “reacher” and who is the “settler” in a relationship. Even in religious circles, language of “giving someone your virginity,” especially as a “gift,” possesses economic undertones. This ubiquitous hierarchical and economic language affirms what Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker explore in Premarital Sex in America, that “sexual markets are like economic markets: we all inhabit them, and they affect everyone.” This market, however, is not filled with identical participants. Due to the supply-demand ratios of male and female’s respective sexual activity, female sexual participation has a significantly larger “exchange ratio.” In other words, women call the shots by being what Regnerus and Uecker call “sexual gatekeepers” within their relationships. This phenomenon was affirmed by another study, which revealed that when women wanted to start having sex in a relationship and when it actually first occurred accurately lined up 88% of the time, while the same was true for men only 19% of the time. While this framework commodifies sex to an extent that some might reasonably be uncomfortable with, it is helpful for understanding how pornography has impacted both relationship norms and our modern understandings of how relationships ought to function.
The most obvious way pornography impacts the economics of sexual relations is through its increase of ‘supply’ of sexual satiation. With access to explicit material available in less than a minute on any device connected to the internet, many have been ‘liberated’ from the monopoly of sexual pleasure with real people. Naomi Wolf articulates the damage that the quality and ubiquity of pornographic content has in her article, entitled The Porn Myth:
For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn . . . For two decades, I have watched young women experience the continual “mission creep” of how pornography—and now Internet pornography—has lowered their sense of their own sexual value and their actual sexual value.
With such a dramatic increase in supply, demand can only go down. When pleasure becomes the purpose and goal of sexual relations, real relationships, with all their complications and obligations, simply cannot compete with the consistency and risk-free nature of pornography. Regnerus and Uecker provide an account of one interviewee who demonstrates the plummeting of the modern exchange ratio of real intercourse. He says: “I think I like my own ‘personal time’ as much as I like having intercourse. It’s just different . . . But if I have to choose between never getting to do one again, I don’t know, I probably couldn’t choose. I like them both.”
Pornography does not merely create alternatives and decrease demand for real intercourse; it also desensitizes its users, leaving the real thing lackluster. While avid pornography consumers are stereotyped as sex-crazed men and women, the effects of pornography seem to be the opposite: apathy and disinterest abound. In a New York Magazine article entitled How Porn Is Affecting the Libido of the American Male, the author recounts how he, a perfectly healthy young adult, had to fake climax for the first time. One interviewee states, “I’ve got to resort to playing scenes in my head that I’ve seen while viewing porn. Something is lost there. I’m no longer with my wife; I’m inside my own head.” The science and testimonials behind the Pavlovian and desensitizing effects of pornography are vast and beyond the scope of this paper, but it is clear that, as Wolf succinctly puts it, “the ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but dilutes it…the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time.” This means that, especially for these extreme users, the entire scope and realm of sexuality becomes something that is exclusively meted out and satisfied by the individual. What was once a necessarily dyadic act has become something that only an independent, isolated unit can complete ‘sufficiently’. This isolation is what Wolf calls “lonely together, even when conjoined.”
The ubiquity of pornography not only impacts the desire for sexuality, but also shapes the structure of it, by a process called ‘sexual scripting’. In Hooking Up, Kathleen Bogle explains that these scripts are socially taught, internalized by cultural norms, and used by people to determine the “when, where, why and how sexually intimate interaction can occur. Without these scripts, sexual behavior can lose context and meaning.” Customs like ‘you always kiss on the third date’, or a vocabulary of ‘bases’ that are to be achieved in ascending order, or all the phrases mentioned earlier about ‘dating up/down’ determine whom one ought to sexually interact with. Such customs show evidence of a cultural understanding of, for lack of a better phrase, “how all of this is supposed to happen.” In their study entitled Using TV as a Guide: Associations Between Television Viewing and Adolescents’ Sexual Attitudes and Behavior, Friedman and Ward explain that:
In acquiring a functional understanding of sexual relationships, adolescents draw information and examples from the world around them, turning frequently to their friends, parents, and the media for insight . . . Thus, each time students view comparable scenes and images, it is likely that relevant stereotypic schemas are primed. With each activation, that particular schema or way of viewing the world grows stronger, more accessible, and more valid.
It appears that institutions like marriage, religion, and family no longer hold the same influence as they once did in writing the script. Today, it appears that the strongest scriptwriter is pornography. Its ubiquity guarantees constant activation of specific sexual schema. Regnerus and Uecker elaborate on this point, detailing how “prolonged exposure to such uncommon erotica is known to lead . . . adults . . . [to] overestimate the popularity and pleasure of less common forms of sexual behavior.” In simpler terms, life imitates art, not vice versa. Though pornography can hardly be considered ‘art’, it undoubtedly is influencing people’s normative beliefs about how sex ought to occur. Many of Regnerus and Uecker’s interviewees confirm this, with statements like “I think a lot of women think that guys want [what they see in porn], so they try to [mimic it].” and “Guys . . . expect certain things, and they can only expect them if they have seen them somewhere.” Just because users can intellectually acknowledge the ‘fiction’ and absurdity of pornography does not mean that they are not habituating specific visions of how sex should or could be. Through the process of sexual scripting, pornography as an institution fundamentally carries and habituates an understanding of intercourse that is focused on the pleasure of the individual – and most importantly, that pornography is a primary carrier of this understanding.
Marriage and Infidelity:
The process of sexual scripting that pornography overwhelmingly commands does not merely affect the qualitative nature of sexual activity in a culture, but also impacts the institutions that once held the same power. Marriage and monogamy in general suffer as pornography continues to siphon away institutional power. One study concludes that greater pornography consumption is strongly correlated to “an increased acceptance and estimated frequency of extramarital sex relative to controls, and [users] are more likely to believe that promiscuity is natural and that marriage is less desirable.” Not only are millennials increasingly likely to see promiscuity as acceptable, they are seeing it as something to be desired. According to one YouGov survey, when presented with a scale of 0 as completely monogamous, and 6 as completely non-monogamous, 23% of Americans under 30 said their ideal relationship would be between 4 and 6. Only 51% said their ideal relationship was completely monogamous. Another study affirms this disintegration of the institution of marriage, stating that extensive pornography consumption leads users to “presume that sexual exclusivity is both unrealistic and uncommon in real life…[and] hold cynical attitudes about love, affection, and marriage/family.” Pornography seems to be teaching its users that relationships have become primarily about the self-fulfillment of the individual. With such a paradigm, sexual exclusivity and subsequently marriage becomes archaic or restrictive. One interviewee describes pornography as “kind of a way to like, have new girls but not actually cheat on your girlfriend, if that makes sense.” It appears that the slogan of Ashley Madison was not too far off from the pulse of millennials. If they all want multiple sexual partners, why should they commit to someone for life? Even millennials who do end up getting married are delaying the age at which they first get married. This statistic is at an all-time high – the average groom is over 29 and the average bride is over 27. Meanwhile, the average age for first intercourse is 17. Why have these two sets of numbers diverged so far away from each other? Perhaps the perceived purpose of marriage has changed, since no one is delaying intercourse until marriage anymore. When people are steeped in an institutional habituation of self-fulfillment through pornography, a practice like marriage which is fundamentally a creative attention to an ‘other’, a commitment to the needs and wants of someone separate from yourself, becomes a foreign concept. How has modernity made marriage so unappealing?
Let there be no misunderstanding: Sex is as old as humanity itself, and prostitution is commonly referred to as “the world’s oldest profession,” but pornography is a distinctly modern institution. In their article, The Business of Sex, Hausbeck and Brents explore the vast extent to which the sex industry, notably pornography, has been McDonaldized, promoting especially the values of efficiency, control, and predictability. It is quite clear how pornography promotes the value of efficiency. When sexual relations have become “compartmentalized into efficient units of consumption” and the purpose of intercourse changed to be merely pleasure, then pornography becomes the most rational, efficient means of achieving that goal. As for control, the prevalence – arguably a necessity for the desired response – of editing, photoshop, makeup, implants, surgeries and the like exhibit a “rigid control over the appearance of bodies.” Additionally, users control who and what they want to see to unsettling amounts of particularity. Most illuminating, however, is pornography’s commitment to predictability. In exposing pornography as a manipulative institution, Hausbeck and Brents discuss the embedded values present, saying:
In adult film, there is a language of pleasure and desire scripted into the plot line (however simplistic it may be), encoded in the camera angles, and reinforced by the soundtracks. Certain facial expressions, close-up shots, and noises are blended to give the viewing audience a sense of…what is “really” desirable, exciting, and clear evidence of pleasure. While this formula may reveal itself to savvy viewers as simplistic, even a caricature, the repetitious nature of American pornography attests to the application of a tested and marketable model of sexual intimacy that is produced with only slight variations for consumption by the mass viewing public.
All of the problems discussed in this paper occur when sexual intimacy is redesigned to become ‘marketable.’ Ironically, the more pornography claims to be ‘intimate,’ the more inauthentic it becomes. One producer betrays the mechanization of the industry, saying: “Amateurs come across better on screen…Especially by women you can see it. They still feel strong pain.” An institution that thrives on the pain of others simply cannot be conducive to meaningful personal relationships.
The thorough McDonaldization of pornography shows how modernized and value-embedded the institution has become. These values of individualism and self-fulfillment that the institution carries have real effects. Sex, as a result of pornography, is decreasingly an action of uniting two people, and is becoming more and more utilitarian inasmuch as it is seen solely as a source of providing pleasure for two disconnected individuals, in addition to its use as a bargaining chip for other resources via the sexual economy. Instead of shaping desires and passions around their partners, adults are increasingly shaping their partners to fit their standardized fantasies. The direction of sexual desire is increasingly steered by the choice and ‘curation’ of the individual, as pornography specializes and narrows to cater towards the individual’s specificities. Pornography has fundamentally changed the nature of the sexual economy, instilling the idea that pornography is an acceptable and effective supplement to sexual relations – without ‘actually cheating’ – and eventually, that it is an equal, if not better alternative. The subsequent desensitization to reality leads to later and later marriages, cynical attitudes (if not outright hostility) toward monogamy and celibacy, and increased rates of infidelity. The creation of standardized Pavlovian scripts for sexual relations utterly disenchants them. As Wolf describes one student saying, “sex has no mystery.” The commodification and manipulation of human sexuality exhibits the troubling reach of Weber’s iron cage, penetrating what some consider the deepest aspect of humanity’s private sphere. When sex has no mystery and no true value, when sex revolves around the fulfillment of the individual, why should Ashley Madison rebrand their slogan?