As mentioned in the introduction to this series of blog posts, I will be posting excerpts of chapters from Boys, Sex & Media with PDF links to the complete chapters. Use the blog tag “Boys-Sex-Media” to find all of the posts in this series. The excerpt of Chapter Two, on pornography, is below. Click this PDF link to read the entire chapter.
Pornography has become a fact of life for many adolescents, as sociologist Jason S. Carroll notes in the passage above, but the jury is still out on its potential ramifications.
Sociologist Marshall Smith coined the phrase “the elephant on the screen,” used in the title of this chapter. In 2008 he wrote that sexually explicit material (SEM) could influence adolescents’ sexual beliefs and behaviours, but “a consensus has not emerged as to the effects.” Other researchers argue that the impact of porn on pre-teens and teens is decidedly negative.
So, which is it: harmful or benign? This question is of great concern to many parents worried about the potentially corrupting influence of pornography on teenage boys. I will shed some light on the subject here, looking at how we got to the point of free, 24-7 access to X-rated films, what boys are seeing when they watch online pornography, and the possible impact.
How Did We Get Here?
With videos entitled “12 inches of black meat in Monica,” and “Wonder Woman getting her pussy pounded by Captain America,” it is tempting to believe that today’s porn is some kind of aberration; a sign of the depravity that characterizes certain elements of our media (among which I include most of reality TV). While it’s true that much of today’s pornography has taken a violent and misogynistic turn, some acts considered extreme these days actually have a long history.
Erotic imagery dates as far back as the Paleolithic period, where small sculptures of women with greatly exaggerated breasts and hips were created, likely to celebrate female fertility. Ancient Greek and Roman art highlighted the phallus, sometimes to arouse, but also to worship “the powers of creativity that the sexual organ represents.” (That the Greeks were more fluid in their sexuality and known for their unequal treatment of women may also have contributed to this phallus worship.)
Since ancient times, artists have produced great volumes of erotic paintings, sketches, and sculptures. Pieces created for the sole purpose of sexual arousal were typically a private indulgence. It was only after the arrival of the printing press that wide distribution of erotic art became possible.
One of the earliest collections of erotic art was I Modi, published in 1524. Its explicit depictions of sexual positions earned it the enmity of the Vatican. Eventually all copies were destroyed but the genie was out of the bottle. Artists from that point forward flouted the laws of the Church and continued to produce extremely explicit images. Group sex, large orgies, and a wide variety of sexual positions were common in the erotic art of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Advancements in the printing process led to the emergence of written erotica which first appeared in English in the 1660s. Like the visual artists who preceded them, the creators of this early erotica did not hold back. The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, was written in 1749 and is perhaps one of the best known erotic novels from the period. In rather florid language, it describes sexual encounters between two women, masturbation, voyeurism, various sexual positions, and the considerable physical endowments of the men Fanny meets. The following passage, in which Fanny surreptitiously watches a couple engage in the act, is one of the tamest in the book:
“Her sturdy stallion had now unbuttoned, and produced naked, stiff and erect, that wonderful machine, which I had never seen before, and which, for the interest my own seat of pleasure began to take furiously in it, I stared at with all the eyes I had…”
It was steamy stuff, despite the fancy language.
A half-century later, the notorious Marquis de Sade would publish his erotic novel Juliette. Its text and illustrations depicted practices like spanking and bondage that would later become known as sadomasochism (S&M). Along with the author’s libertine philosophy, the book also included liberal use of the words “fuck” and “cunt,” explicit descriptions of the positions of each player in the various orgies that take place, anal and oral sex, and multiple penetration of women by men, dildos, or strap-ons—all hallmarks of today’s pornography.
Those themes carried into early 20th century pornographic photographs and films. Still shots from the period include S&M and a great variety of sexual positions. Save for their grainy quality, early pornographic films depict scenes similar to some of the tamer porn seen today—nuns in an abbey getting it on with a abbot and a priest, female students being disciplined at school as a pretext for a sexual encounter that includes plenty of consensual spanking, and lots of group and oral sex. (The short films I saw were part of a compilation entitled The Good Old Naughty Days which also includes scenes of bestiality.)
Clearly, explicit depictions of sex—even practices that are still considered unorthodox today—have been with us for a long time.
So why the hand-wringing over pornography in the 21st century? The answer is probably obvious, but I will state it for the record: concerns today centre on the easy accessibility, ubiquity, and gender bias in current hard-core representations of sex; representations that, because of technology, reach even the youngest among us, unfiltered and unfettered.
Whereas the porn of yesteryear was restricted to brothels, in the case of the films in The Good Old Naughty Days, or retailers of adults-only products, today it is available with the click of a mouse. With the Internet, boys can circumvent all of the limits that restricted previous generations from viewing XXX videos, and watch what they want, when they want, and wherever they want, thanks to mobile devices.
As for what they are watching, the answer varies depending on the person. Sexually explicit media may be easily accessible, but not all boys are indulging. Still, a significant number are and for very good reason: as they mature both physically and emotionally, they become curious about what sex is and how it is done. To satisfy this normal, natural interest in sexuality, some will seek out explicit videos, often for their own enjoyment but also to save themselves the embarrassment of having to ask someone else about sex.
This interest in sex is healthy but what boys find online may not be. The concern is not so much with boys seeing sex performed but with the ways in which sex is presented. Media depictions of explicit sex tend to follow traditional sexual scripts, showing the man as the dominant player in pursuit of attractive and acquiescent, even submissive, women. Some porn takes it even further, treating women with aggression or violence and even portraying sex as an act of anger.
Download this PDF to read the entire chapter.