I originally posted a modified version of this in response to a post on Twanna Hines's Blog, Funky Brown Chick. Twanna asked "Is porn ruining mens' sex lives?" Now, I don't think too many people would say it's "ruining" it, but it's certainly changing it.
Many feminists have difficult relationships with pornography. While being sex-positive is always a principle we strive for, it frequently collides with an analysis of mainstream pornography, which objectives women, frequently has issues of consent, and, in the topic of this post, can change how people perceive sex.
Porn seems to have fundamentally altered sexual relations for our generation (mid-20s and younger). I would speculate that there are few men indeed who were not exposed to pornography by the time they entered teens. (Anyone who hasn’t viewed porn by their teens did not abstain for lack of access — though perhaps means if they didn’t have a computer.)
What that means is that men first learn about sex from porn, rather than any awkward first-time experiences or glimpses of dirty magazines (which are softcore by today’s standards), as people must have in the past.
As people perhaps soon find out when they begin being sexually active, “porn-sex” and “real-sex” are different things. Porn-sex is designed with camera angles in mind, can cut scenes, unrealistic body types, etc., etc. But, perhaps most importantly, it is able to appeal to market niches (fetishes) much more readily than it ever could in the past, with the Internet as a means of distribution.
That means that a boy who discovers porn at a young age, rather than having to desperately search local communities to find fetish porn, can find it very easily. That leads to a very distorted idea of what the average partner wants.
Porn fundamentally requires people to “up” the ante. I would speculate the average male porn watcher’s experience as a young man proceeds in a positive feedback loop thusly: beginning with porn X (softcore stuff), becoming disenchanted with X, requiring more hardcore stimulation, and moving to porn X+1, becoming disenchanted, and so on and so forth. That means that if a kid starts watching at 13 (beats me when most kids start, but I would bet around there), they’ve got five years of porn watching under their belts (pun intended) by the time they’ve graduated high school. And, by the time they graduate college and enter a more “real” world of serious relations, they’ve been watching porn for a decade.
Is a man who began watching softcore porn at 13 still watching X+0 at 23? I’d say no, they’re way beyond that.
So if one follows that men are watching more and more nichy/fetish/hardcore porn as they age, that means their images of sexual relations (derived from “porn-sex”) become increasingly divorced from “real-sex. ” Now, there’s an assumption there, and that’s real-sex has remained static as internet porn has developed, and I think that’s a false assumption. Ten or twenty years ago, people with off-the-beaten-track fetishes might have suppressed their sexuality out of shame, or simply not expressed it for lack of being able to find like-minded partners, but now can find communities of like-minded people on the Internet, so I would guess that real-sex has “advanced” (advancement being moving from a more conservative sexuality to a more open/liberal/fetishized/whatever-one-calls-it or moving from X+0 to X+some number) due to porn-sex, but there remains a large gap in the het male consciousness in the perceptions of porn-sex and what real-sex really is.
Het men’s expectations of sex are radically different than they were twenty or even ten years ago. With broadband internet, men learn about sex from porn, watching porn-sex that is increasingly fetishized and divorced from real-sex. There’s been analyses of porn from a feminist perspective (I’d point to anti-porn advocate Robert Jensen’s Getting Off) that suggests that pornography gives men views about sex that are wildly misogynist and indeed violent.
So, where does that leave us? I'm not sure. Banning or regulating pornography is simply out for me -- I'm not throwing my lot in with the religious right, whose goals are to suppress sexuality. Anti-porn crusades strike me as naive and impossible, so perhaps the most realistic goal is simply to educate people so that they intelligently consume pornography as healthily as possible.