There are all kinds of theories about what watching pornography might do to a person. Some of those theories are positive, some are less so. But there’s one thing that studies agree on: People are more likely to think watching porn will affect others negatively more than it will affect themselves negatively.
This is not, to be clear, saying that there are established negative effects associated with watching porn (that’s a whole other debate). It simply means that one person is more likely to assume that any negative effects that might exist apply far more to someone else, than to himself. The neighbor watching porn? A heathen. You watching porn? A regular Wednesday night. This is a well documented phenomenon in sex research, but recent work suggests that it doesn’t hold up for a particular type of pornography: instructional porn.
Yes, instructional porn really is just what it sounds like. According to Katrina L. Pariera, the George Washington University researcher behind this new study, “Instructional pornography includes explicit adult films designed to arouse and instruct couples or individuals in sexual matters,” she wrote in a recently published paper. This kind of porn has titles like The Expert Guide to Positions, The Ultimate Guide to Sexual Pleasure, and Tristan Taormino's Expert Guide To Advanced Fellatio. (Instructional pornography always seem to be either expert or ultimate.) These are how-to manuals, guides, roadmaps to pleasure, sex for dummies. And many of the free porn sites online like YouPorn and PornHub and XVideo have an instructional tag where these videos live.
Essentially, instructional pornography is meant to educate first, titillate second. Viewers should come away knowing a bit more about how to please themselves or their partners. Which got Pariera to wondering whether previous academic work about perceptions of porn viewers might have been missing something by treating all porn equally. Do people truly perceive all kinds of pornography the same way? Is something more banal, or even instructional, filed into the same cabinet in our minds as something kinkier or more aggressive?
The experiment she did involved a little bit of lying, as many experiments do. The subjects were told that they were there to help develop a new adult-movie rating system. As part of the development of that new system, they were instructed that their opinions on how certain movies would affect others were important. They were then asked to consider eight DVD covers, along with a paragraph summary of each one. Two of those were instructional adult films (things like Matt and Khym: Better Than Ever and Turn Ons!: How to Please Your Partner), two were non-instructional adult films (including Superman XXX: A Porn Parody, and Audrey: Sexual Freak 8), and two were mainstream movies (The Matrix and Slumdog Millionaire). After looking at each, the participants were asked how they thought someone might be impacted by watching the DVD in question. (They were not asked how much that same someone might enjoy the DVD, only how it might impact them.)
When Pariera looked at the results, she saw a striking difference between how people thought about instructional and non-instructional pornography.
The usual perception of pornography being worse for someone else was flipped. People actually thought that viewing instructional porn had the same impact on adults (both men and women) as watching The Matrix did. Which is to say, no real effect. And, unlike non-instructional pornography, there was no difference in how men and women felt about it. (When asked about pornography more broadly, women tend to be more likely to perceive negative impacts than men are.) In other words, “instructional pornography was rated as having a mostly positive effect, suggesting the genre is perceived as somewhat socially desirable.”
Instructional sexual education seems to be on the rise, as places like Babeland and Moregasm try to take the stigma out of adult sex-ed. Babeland, a sex shop and education center with several locations in New York City and Seattle, offers classes on blow jobs, positions, and just general “hot sex.” And if this new research is right, it might be more palatable for people to think about instructional erotica over the kind that exists simply as pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
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