Pornhub and the pandemic: The importance of mindful consumption

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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Even before the pandemic forced us inside and away from one another, Pornhub was a daily habit for more than 120 million people. When countries went into lockdown, Pornhub unlocked its paid content, causing the numbers of viewers to skyrocket.

If you, too, watch porn, perhaps you feel pornography is a shameful vice you sweat about during Sunday service. Maybe it’s a way to feel powerful and validated or a status game you play with your friends. It could even be a living, breathing part of your sexuality.

This uptick in pornography use is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a fact: The pandemic helped the porn industry further entrench itself into our way of life. The concern is that we could lose our desire for the real relationships that porn attempts to represent. And, as we start looking toward lifting lockdowns and resuming life, the in-person sexual encounters that porn has been replacing will, hopefully, return. The question is: What will be different this time?

In a pandemic-less world, information about sex seems to come from everywhere: video game art, magazine covers, shaving cream ads. The culture of hypersexualization is tempered, typically, by our conversations with others — our parents, our mentors, people of differing genders and sexualities. When that reality-check mechanism goes away for the better part of a year, it’s much easier to ruminate on the themes of pornography, often unconsciously.

Porn has a history of demonstrating misogyny, abuse and exploitation. A 2020 study found that 45% of Pornhub scenes feature at least one act of physical aggression, of which women were the target 97% of the time. Online algorithms select for what will get the most clicks, which can popularize images of violence, exploitation and abuse, attempting to grab the attention from a largely desensitized customer base. With online porn being the most common form of sexual education for young adults, these values are forcing their way into mainstream culture.

And, the violence in porn has real-life consequences.

In a 2017 study, Dr. Emily Rothman found that 11% of high school girls who were victims of dating violence had been forced or threatened to do sexual acts that the perpetrator had seen in pornography, demonstrating a link between sexual violence and pornography intake. Many mainstream porn sites lack adequate protections against revenge porn, in which sex is recorded without the subject’s consent, blurring the line between pornography and real life.

Additionally, porn significantly underrepresents LGBTQ+ people, and the representations that do exist often fetishize the subjects based on those very identities.

While porn is built for male pleasure, it perpetuates a culture that encourages an undying sexual drive and an unrealistic sexual performance. Not only do the violent, abusive narratives saturate you with depictions of disrespect toward women and desensitize you to real-world sexual interaction, but the constant comparison to picture-perfect pornstars can also eat away at your confidence.

In nearly every person’s pocket lies a portal to a universe of free pornography: subscription systems, artificial intelligence video recommendation algorithms and fewer sexual taboos than almost every generation before us. It stands to reason that this access will have tangible impacts on how we behave with and around each other.

As much as it sounds like an impossible ideal right now, the end of COVID-19 is on its way. With it will come a shift from solitude into community, and with that, sex is inevitable. The way our porn consumption affects the way we have sexual relationships is highly consequential for the public health crisis that is sexual violence.

There’s no cookie-cutter solution to this issue, nor should there be. Porn does play a real role in the actualization of our sexualities, and it should be given credit for doing so.

But, what we can do is be realistic about the prevalence of pornography, be critical of its exploitative themes and be supportive of quality sex education.

Contact Luke Stiles at [email protected].