Making Sense of Sexual Media

For as long as entertainment and media have existed, there’s been sexual⁠ entertainment and sexual media: by that, I mean media or performance expressly created to try to make or keep someone sexually excited; to create or amp up feelings of sexual desire⁠ . Modern technologies have made sexual media and entertainment way more widespread and much easier for everyone to access than ever before, but sexual media aren’t at all new. They were discovered in ancient civilizations and in texts that are thousands of years old. The term pornography⁠ —which literally means “to write of prostitutes,” from the Greek words porne and graphien—was coined when Pompeii was first excavated and sexual media was found. Porn is truly as old as dirt.

People have always created art, literature, and other media from their life experiences and imagination. Sex and sexual fantasy⁠ are often big parts of our lives and our individual and collective imaginations. What’s much more recent—and can make a lot of this much more thorny and problematic—is for sexual entertainment to be mass media and very, very big business, generating profits in the billions of dollars every year. (If you want something interesting to chew on, think about how industries with similar—but higher—profits are the diet, cosmetics, and wedding industries, all of which also have quite a lot to do with sex⁠ and sexuality.) Putting ginormous amounts of money into the mix changes everything with this, just like it does with anything else.

Because of mass access and the mainstreaming of porn—including cultural shifts toward porn being thought of as normal or common rather than as evidence of perversion and porn becoming one of the most profitable industries there is—what’s also more recent is porn’s strong influence on culture as a whole, particularly the perceived or expected sexual norms and expectations of the people within that culture.

The dictionary definition of pornography—the most commonly recognized form of sexual media—is any material that is used to or intended to arouse sexual desire in people. Although many people use the word “pornography” to refer only to explicit visual material—such as photos, illustrations, and videos—pornography can also be textual or performed. Pornography may be explicit, but it may also be subtle. Just as all depictions of naked genitals⁠ aren’t intended to be or usually used for pornography (think of photos of breasts for the purpose of breast⁠ cancer study), all pornography doesn’t show people having sex or being naked. It may or may not contain explicit sexual language or depict sex acts graphically.

What is or isn’t pornography for someone—or what someone does or doesn’t “use” as pornography—could be anything from a video clip of people doing oral sex⁠  to Elizabethan love poetry, from a romantic⁠ comedy to a catalog of kitchen gadgets. Anything—literally anything—can potentially arouse feelings of sexual desire for people; that's just how diverse we and our sexualities are. If it exists, even only in the imagination, at least someone, if not another few thousand or even billion someones, can be or has been sexually aroused by it.

People of all genders, ages, and social strata seek out⁠ or are exposed to sexual media. Some people have the idea that men look at or use porn and women don’t, or that all men do and no women do. None of that is true; though there are some gender⁠ divides, most of them are based in economics—who has the money to spend on it when it costs, as it often does, and more often that’s men; and in cultural roles—who has the most cultural permission to look at or use it, which is also more often men. People in romantic or sexual relationships, including relationships where they’re having fantastic sex, and single people are exposed to, seek out, make or “use” it. There are also both single and shacked-up-with-somebody people who aren’t or don’t.

Some people use it as a masturbation⁠ aid to incite or inspire sexual fantasy. Others use it to experience arousal⁠ or feed fantasy that they want to bring to sex with partners later. They may or may not share or use the material with their partner⁠ . Some seek it out to explore their own feelings about sexuality. When young people first seek out sexual media, they are most often just looking out of simple curiosity, which includes trying to find out what’s normal or common (pornography is a very unreliable source of that information, but most people don’t know that) and to make some sense of what sex even is.

Some people enjoy sexual entertainment that closely resembles or mimics their sexual reality or their actual wants; more are usually wanting something that’s all fantasy. The media that turn someone on may contain depictions of people who look or act like their partners or sex lives that are like their sex lives; more often it won’t because sexual entertainment is about fantasy in how it’s made and for whoever the audience is. Fantasy—whether we’re talking porn, Harry Potter, or a game of Dungeons and Dragons—is all about getting at least a little bit away from, if not a land far, far away from, reality.

Pornography: Not Very Realistic Since Ever

Rarely in sexual entertainment do you see a couple disagreeing on whether to have sex, plainly discussing what kinds of sexual activities to engage in, negotiating safer sex⁠ and birth control⁠ , or just hanging out and snuggling or gabbing before, during, or after sex. It’s unusual to see porn in which someone isn’t seriously groomed or made up, has stubble on their legs or a giant zit on their nose, is wearing their ratty laundry-day undies, isn’t in the mood, has a bad head cold, or isn’t okay with sexual language a partner uses. We’re probably never going to hear someone in porn say, “Please don’t call my vulva⁠ a pussy, okay? I hate that word.”

Sexual entertainment is usually, and very intentionally, both fiction and fantasy. Even a video of a real-life couple having sex in their own home or someone’s sexy selfies, created without a production department or a fancy website, is still something that was intentionally created and most often intentionally distributed. It is often based on a given set of sexual ideals or fantasies that are either really narrow—and don’t represent most people’s sexual realities—or very subjective—which might represent what one person thinks is or will be found to be sexy but which doesn’t represent what everyone finds sexy.

Amateur photos or videos of “natural” models or “regular” people usually have plenty of adjustments made, too: lighting, editing and retouching, or sexual behavior that’s more about who is or might be watching rather than who’s being watched or seen.

We very rarely see active consenting in pornography because it’s usually all done off-screen and wasn’t recorded or made part of what we’re seeing or reading. The majority of material produced as pornography, like most mass media, portrays pretty unrealistic body types and appearances: the penises and breasts we see in porn are usually much larger than average, and when we see diversity with race or ethnicity, it also often comes with a heavy dose of racism or tokenism.

How people in porn style themselves—including their body hair—isn’t often very reflective of how people (even those people themselves) look or present themselves in their daily lives or their off-screen sex lives. It’s rare to see actors in pornography who don’t reach orgasm⁠ , who have orgasms that are quiet or subtle, or who aren’t turned on by (or are totally turned off by) typical “porny” stuff—yet all of these reactions are normal and common in real-life sex. People who don’t realize this or who expect their partners to live up to porn’s fictions, ideals, and fantasies are in for a rude awakening. Even porn stars couldn’t—and often don’t want to—live up to those expectations in their real lives.

To think about and evaluate sexual entertainment media clearly, it helps to keep these basics in mind:

All sexual media or entertainment created as such:

  • is an intentional performance,
  • is fantasy of some kind, and
  • usually can’t tell or show you much about sex in real life.

Most sexual media or entertainment:

  • isn’t intended to be education;
  • is made by the people involved as if anyone, or even everyone, could be watching; there’s nothing private—behavior or otherwise—about it;
  • has more to do with someone making money than anything else: it is usually mostly, and often only, about profit;
  • isn’t often reflective of most people’s sexual realities or contexts (for most people, their doctor only provides professional healthcare, their teacher makes assignments, not sexual advances, and they don’t go to sleepovers with their friends dressed like lingerie models);
  • is very heterocentric, including in material or entertainment that includes sexual activity between people of a same or similar gender;
  • enables or even purposefully sexualizes bias and marginalization like sexism⁠ , racism⁠ , classism⁠ , fatphobia⁠ , and ableism⁠ ; and
  • gives messages about sex and sexuality that don’t square with physically and emotionally healthy sexual practices, interpersonal dynamics, or relationships.

Some sexual media or entertainment:

  • contains, presents, or celebrates sexual violence and abuse⁠ or presents sexual violence as consensual sex;
  • is not made or distributed ethically or humanely (it might be made without everyone’s explicit, informed and enthusiastic consent⁠ or without humane labor practices and policies) (and some is);
  • is about someone trying to show you their personal, real-life sexuality;
  • is made creatively, thoughtfully, or independently and tries to do porn in a way that leaves out a lot of destructive or harmful things —like –isms and bias, sexualized violence, heterocentricity or gender stereotyping, lack of active consenting, and poor labor treatment; and
  • can make people feel supported in their sexualities or sexual lives and good about themselves and others; others do the opposite; and some have no seeming impact; this depends on what the entertainment is, specifically, who is watching or otherwise taking part in it, and how they feel about it.

The Worst of Us, Sexified

A lot of current sexual entertainment and media—just like a lot of other media or popular culture—unfortunately presents some of the most unhealthy aspects or patterns of our culture as normal or okay, and as something sexy. Media designed to turn us on—whether meant to be porn or an ad for a car—often present people (especially women and other marginalized people or groups) as objects, only sexual, rather than a whole person whose sexuality is just a part, or as sexual commodities. One word for this is sexualization, a term meant to describe when someone—or a group of people, such as girls or women, who are far more sexualized in all kinds of media than boys or men are—has had sexual desires, values, or motives put on them, as individuals or as a group, and where their sexual value is presumed to be their whole or central value as people.

Plenty of what’s out there currently contains and even celebrates violence or coercion, presenting those things as normal, hot or sexy. Some pornographic material contains fantasy scenarios in which resistance from one person is shown to turn into an enthusiastic sex session—without any discussion whatsoever about consent and that apparent total change of heart. Depictions of abuses of power or nonconsensually inflicted pain, hate speech, or slut⁠ -shaming have become increasingly common in a lot of sexual media and entertainment.

Sometimes, the making of pornography itself is an abuse or exploitation: as with any other kind of work, abuse, assault, and harassment happen to people working in pornography. Media distributed as porn where anyone involved didn’t consent to that—such as  “revenge porn” or content that was hacked from someone’s personal files—are abusive and exploitive, and by design, the invasion of someone’s privacy or personal safety is part of what’s supposed to get someone off.

How Should We Feel About Sexual Entertainment?

You feel how you feel.

People have different opinions about whether it’s okay for people to like porn or to dislike it, just as they do about whether it’s okay for people to like or dislike organized religion, country music, or bacon. People hold very strong opinions about pornography or other sexual media or entertainment for all kinds of reasons. For some, it’s an ethical or political issue; for others a more personal or interpersonal matter (or both); and for others, still, it just boils down to whether they get turned on by it or not. You get to hear and figure out how you feel about those opinions, who they come from, and how much they play a part in helping you form your own opinion. Your opinion is what matters most for you, and is going to be based on whether it feels okay—whatever the “it” is and however you are or aren’t interacting with it or having it be part of your life—for you.

Just like you get to choose how you feel and what you’ll do for other ethical and lifestyle decisions that affect you and others, like eating meat, making certain reproductive choices, reading tabloids or otherwise taking part in gossip, and where you get your clothes from, the same goes here.

Your own wants and do-not-wants with this kind of media and how to have it be a part of your life, if it is, in a way that feels healthy and good for you and for everyone else is something you’ll just need to figure out for yourself in the unique context of your life and relationships as you go. There’s always going to be some balancing to do, like there is with any kind of media or any other part of your sexual life, and there’s always going to be some thinking and evaluating to do when it comes to your sexual media choices. If it ever seems like it’s not good for you, then it’s time to make some changes, whether by changing the kind of material you’re taking in, how much of it or how frequently you use it, or how much of a role it plays in your sexuality or sex life. If your sex life includes other people, now or later, and porn is part of your sexual life or theirs, it is something you’ll want to talk about. That talking might just be a yay—like talking about porn you both like or want to explore in your sexual life together—or about hard feelings or conflicts—like insecurities you might feel about pornography, sexual misunderstandings, pressures or expectations that porn is at the root of, or ethical or political differences about sexual media and entertainment as a whole.

If we immerse ourselves in anything that celebrates or shows the worst of us rather than our best selves—whether that’s sexist porn or tabloid media—or becomes some kind of ideal, we aren’t very likely to experience the positive impacts of that medium. If we’re soaking in anything, including media, full of sexual yuck, it’s harder to feel supported in creating or living a sexuality and sexual life that makes us and others feel good about ourselves, where we interact in ways that are healthy and positive. The opposite is also true: when we take in a lot of good stuff, things that present the best of us—and that doesn’t mean not being sexual!—it’s easier to feel supported and empowered in a healthy sexuality and sexual life that make everyone involved feel good, including emotionally. It can help to think about media choices, for sexual media or any other kind, like the choices we make with eating: if we eat nothing but what’s bad for us, we’re going to get sick or feel like crap a lot of the time. If, on the other hand, we make most of what we eat foods that support our well-being and health, we’re more likely to be healthy and more likely to feel good.

It’s always a good idea to be mindful about what we make part of our sexual lives and to think and question our choices—including the media we use and purchase—even when our culture tells us something is a no-brainer. Simply being thoughtful and really considering your choices in media—sexual or otherwise—always make for more ethical consumption and make it more likely we’ll seek out media that we feel best about and that feels best in and for our lives, including our sex lives.

In the end, only you can decide whether and how you use or take part in pornography, as a whole, or from situation to situation, media to media. Only you can decide what, if any, type of sexual media is supportive of your heart and mind, well-being, relationships, and sexuality; and what feels like the right thing when it comes to your life and what you do and don’t want as part of your sexual life. As with many other aspects of sexuality, you also get to change your mind or adapt your thinking, choices and habits at any time.

This article was excerpted and adapted from S.E.X. The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties (Second Edition; DaCapo Press, 2016).

Similar articles and advice

  • Alice Oshima

Part two of Alice O's exploration of mainstream porn to help increase your sexual media literacy. Includes information about sex positions, orgasm, consent and communication, boundaries, birth control, safer sex and more as they exist (or don't!) in mainstream porn, and how this can or should all go in real-life-sex to compare and contrast.