Hard Core

The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women.
Sølve Sundsbø/Art+Commerce

As recently as 15 years ago, if somebody wanted vivid depictions of, say, two men simultaneously performing anal penetration on the same woman, securing such a delicacy would require substantial effort because the pornographic repertoire was still limited by the costs and imprecision of distribution. Leaving aside matters of taste and propriety, just how big an audience of horny derelicts or hurried businessmen would wriggle into a Pussycat Theater, with its sticky floors, and, in the company of others, watch a double-anal double feature? Most likely, the producers were more comfortable knowing they could aggregate a much larger audience with an hour of good old-fashioned blow jobs and randy nurses. Even as porn migrated from film reels to videocassettes, there lingered some thorny logistical problems to overcome. The clunky videotape still had to be smuggled into the family residence, had to be viewed in a secured environment from which nosy children and spouses were barred, and then had to be stored in a crawl space, safe, or dedicated dungeon—or reluctantly tossed in the trash.

The difficulty of acquiring this material may have hinted at a great, and therefore pent-up, demand. Then, technology produced the Second Coming: the Inter­net. And then the Rapture itself: broadband. Pornography is now, indisputably, omnipresent: in 2007, a quarter of all Internet searches were related to pornography. Nielsen ratings showed that in January 2010, more than a quarter of Internet users in the United States, almost 60 million people, visited a pornographic Web site. That number represents nearly a fifth of all the men, women, and children in this country—and it doesn’t even take into account the incomprehensible amount of porn distributed through peer-to-peer downloading networks, shared hard drives, Internet chat rooms, and message boards.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that, for those who crave the more drastic masturbatory aid, the Internet offers easy access to a Grand Guignol of the outright bizarre (Midget Porn, Clown Porn, Girl-Fight Gang-Bang Porn). What is surprising is what now constitutes widely available, routine stuff in the major porn portals: episodes of men—or groups of men—having sex with women who are seven months pregnant; the ho-hum of husbands filming their scrawny white wives having sex with paunchy black men in budget motels; simulations of father-daughter (or mother-daughter) incest; and of course, a fixture on any well-trafficked site: double anal.

When a 13-year-old girl can sit in math class, hide her Hello Kitty smart phone behind her textbook, and pull up such an extreme video in less time than it would take her to text a vote for her favorite American Idol contestant, we’ve certainly reached some kind of new societal landmark. It’s important, however, to distinguish between what has changed and what hasn’t.

Porn’s new pervasiveness and influence on the culture at large haven’t necessarily introduced anything new into our sexual repertoire: humans, after all, have been having sex—weird, debased, and otherwise—for quite a while. But pervasive hard-core porn has allowed many people to flirt openly with practices that may have always been desired, but had been deeply buried under social restraint. Take anal sex: in a 1992 study that surveyed sexual behaviors, published by the University of Chicago, 20 percent of women ages 25 to 29 reported having anal sex. In a study published in October 2010 by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, the instances of anal sex reported by women in the same age cohort had more than doubled, to 46 percent. The practice has even made its way into the younger female demographic: the Indiana study shows 20 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds have had anal sex at least once.

One of the Indiana study’s co- authors, Debby Herbenick, believes that Internet porn now “plays a role in how many Americans perceive and become educated about sex.” How this influence actually works is speculative— no one can ever really know what other people do in their bedrooms or why. Some experts postulate a sort of monkey-see, monkey-do explanation, whereby both men and women are conforming to behaviors they witness on their browser media players. But in many ways this explanation doesn’t account for the subtle relationship between now-ubiquitous pornography and sexuality. To take anal sex again, porn doesn’t plant that idea in men’s minds; instead, porn puts the power of a mass medium behind ancient male desires. Anal sex as a run-of-the-mill practice, de rigueur pubic waxing for girls—and their mothers—and first-date doggy-style encounters (this is but a small sampling of rapidly shifting sexual mores) have been popularized and legitimized by porn. Which means that men now have a far easier time broaching subjects once considered off- putting—for instance, suburban dads can offhandedly suggest anal sex to their bethonged, waxed wives.

Men, so the conventional wisdom goes, tend to desire more than women are willing to give them sexually. The granting of sex is the most powerful weapon women possess in their struggle with men. Yet in each new sexual negotiation a woman has with a man, she not only spends down that capital, she begins at a disadvantage, because the potential losses are always greater for her. A failed or even successful single encounter can be life-altering. Whatever “social construct” you might impose upon the whole matter, nature imposes much more rigorous consequences on women than on men.

Over the years, different strategies have been offered so that women could avoid the more subjugating consequences of sex. Though methods of reversing the biological power dynamics between sexes date back to ancient Sparta, the premise had always been confined to the fringes of society until the sexual revolution of the 1960s, a period in which many feminists considered marriage the primary mechanism for women’s sexual conscription. The liberation on offer was sexual freedom for women—and their partners—through open marriages and sex communes. It’s worth noting that these polyamorous arrangements usually had at the center a male patriarch who reaped the perks of women’s newfound freedom. This experiment was short-lived, as sexual jealousy seemed an impossible force to rationalize, and children conceived on the grounds of a canyon commune needed more stability than a group of wayward adults could provide.

But the reactionary political correctness of the 1990s put forth a proposition even more disastrous to women than free love: sexual equality. With the rise of PC culture, the notion of men and women as sexual equals has found a home in the mainstream. Two generations of women, my own included, soared into the game with the justifiable expectations of not only earning the same wage as a guy, but also inhabiting the sexual arena the way a man does.

Armed with a “Take Back the Night” pamphlet, we were led to believe that, as long as we avoided the hordes of date rapists, sex was an egalitarian endeavor. The key to sexual harmony, so the thinking went, was social conditioning. Men who sexually took advantage of women were considered the storm troopers of patriarchy, but women could teach men to adopt a different ideology, through explicit communication of boundaries —“you can touch there” or “please don’t do that.” Thus was the dark drama of sex replaced with a verbal contract. Once the drunken frat boys and brutes were weeded out, if we gravitated toward a kind of enlightened guy, an emotionally rewarding sex life was ours for the taking. Sex wasn’t a bestial pursuit, but something elevating.

This is an intellectual swindle that leads women to misjudge male sexuality, which they do at their own emotional and physical peril. Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Sexuality is not neutral. A warring dynamic based on power and subjugation has always existed between men and women, and the egalitarian view of sex, with its utopian pretensions, offers little insight into the typical male psyche. Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression. The Internet has created a perfect market of buyers and sellers (with the sellers increasingly proffering their goods gratis) that provides what people—overwhelmingly males (who make up two-thirds of all porn viewers)—want to see or do.

Presented by

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. She lives in Woodland Hills, California.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In