One of the most surprising facts about online pornography is how little concrete data exists about the ways in which it’s consumed. The most thorough collection of statistics to date was released six years ago by a company called Online MBA, but there are no details about how its information was gathered. The most frequently touted claims about online porn—37 percent of the internet is pornographic content, Utah has the highest online porn subscription rate in the U.S.—seem erroneous at worst and dubious at best.
Given this absence of specifics, it’s perhaps not surprising that pornography inspires fierce debate on both sides of the culture wars. The psychotherapist Marty Klein likens the current moral panic around online porn to the epidemics of fear and suspicion that sprung up around satanic cults in the 1980s, and even around comic books in the 1950s. Pornography, he argues, is simply a catalogue of human sexual fantasies, and for most people, those fantasies have very little predictive value when it comes to real desire. The most crucial thing people can do when it comes to protecting their children, according to Klein, is to inform them that porn is fictional, and as distinct from real sexual encounters as Steph Curry’s three-pointers are from a pickup basketball game.
Unfortunately, educating children about pornography involves talking freely with them about sex, something the large majority of parents tend to find distinctly uncomfortable. But since schools are often restricted by law from what they’re allowed to say to students, and the entertainment industry is a notably unreliable interpreter, it’s up to parents to start the conversation. “It’s the biggest thing as a culture that we need to be addressing,” Klein said in a conversation with Emily Yoffe at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “There are a lot of young people who are looking at porn and they’re getting the wrong ideas about sex. Porn leaves out the best parts—the kissing the cuddling, the talking, the laughing.”
Klein issued a list of porn literacy checkpoints for parents to go over with their kids that includes emphasizing that most people don’t have bodies like porn performers, that many recurring images in porn (like threesomes, anal sex, and spontaneous sex unprompted by conversation) are theatrical devices and don’t reflect what many men and women want from sexual encounters, and that most women don’t want violence or rough play during sex. But he decried common assumptions that watching pornography leads to sex addiction, or cheating, or degrading and abusive treatment of women. “If people talked about porn in a reasonable way, a lot of that fear would go away,” he said.
A 2010 article in The Scientist seemed to agree that no correlation has been found between watching pornography and having negative attitudes toward women. But it’s undeniable that the vast majority of porn is made for and by men, with its primary focus being male gratification. Even if it doesn’t encourage abusive or violent treatment of women, it teaches a dynamic of sexual pleasure that’s almost entirely male-centric. (You could argue that romance novels offer a similarly distorted perspective of sex to women.)
In a 2003 article for New York titled “The Porn Myth,” the writer Naomi Wolf interviewed young women on college campuses who reported feeling alienated and inadequate in the eyes of young men whose understanding of sex had been defined by a false standard of perfection. “Pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain: It is Pavlovian,” she wrote. “An orgasm is one of the biggest reinforcers imaginable. If you associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what, over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex slaves, that is what it will take to turn you on.”
Klein argues that this kind of criticism is overwrought. But with an estimated 60-70 million Americans watching porn online every month, what’s hard to deny is that more research on how and why people watch it would surely benefit parents, children, social scientists, and sex therapists alike.