What We Do in the Shadows: How weird is weird sex?

M uch of the pushback that pornography garners from its detractors comes from cynicism surrounding how relatable or realistic a particular scene appears. That’s fair. Nine times out of ten, your garden variety 15 to 20-minute clip comes off more like an eroticized parody of a WWE Royal Rumble than anything remotely resembling any sex that most people have ever had. That, in large part, can be attributed to the oft-Cirque du Soleil-like positions in which actors perform– leaving literally nothing to the viewer’s imagination. I once actually muttered “They’ve thought of everything,” to myself while watching a pair have sex in a position I didn’t think was humanly possible, much less common in real life.

It’s worth noting that this astonishment occurred at a point in which I hadn’t really seen all that much porn. Maybe a year and presumably hundreds, if not thousands of scenes later, I happened across another clip featuring the exact same sex act that had previously caused my peach-fuzzed chin to drop to the floor–this time though, to no effect.  What at one point was a mountain of foreign, implausible paraphilia had been eroded by a steady stream of nuanced derivations of that original scene until the outlandish became normal.

There’s a psychological precedent for this change–the gradual acceptance of ostensibly obscure sex acts as more commonplace than we initially assume. The basis emerged as a result of a study conducted by Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant, both prominent research scientists in the study of the effects of media on children, whose findings were later published in a 1982 report entitled Pornography and Sexual Callousness, and the Trivialization of Rape.” The studies were conducted using college-aged men and women, who were divided into three different groups of ‘non-exposure,’ intermediate exposure,’ and ‘massive exposure’ to pornographic films over the span of six weeks.

The massive exposure group watched a different eight-minute-long sexually explicit film during each of the weekly sessions, the intermediate exposure group alternated between three erotic and three nonerotic films, and the non-exposure group watched a nonerotic film each week during the trial period. All of the erotic films contained only consenting heterosexual activities of oral sex performed by men and women, as well anal and vaginal intercourse.

Three weeks after the trials concluded, all participants, including the non-exposure group, were given a survey asking them to estimate the prevalence of various common and less-common sex acts among couples in the US. Those with intermediate and massive exposure on average assumed that the acts they’d seen in the films were a lot more common among couples than did their counterparts in the non-exposure group.

More interesting still, those who viewed comparably more porn believed that less common sexual behaviors–even those that weren’t included in the films they’d viewed– also occurred more frequently than did people from groups with lower levels of exposure–often even overestimating the prevalence of such behaviors. These less-common acts ran the gamut from seemingly innocuous group sex to sadomasochism and bestiality.

During his reign as emperor of Ancient Rome, Nero would dress up in animal skins and attack the genitals of male and female townspeople.

The kicker in all of this is that on the basis of commonly reported sex acts collected from separate broadly-based surveys involving thousands of sexually active US adults, the estimates of prevalence from the intermediate and massive exposure groups were also considerably more accurate than those from the non-exposure group. So, while watching more porn may augment estimates of the rate at which sex acts commonly occur, it also increases the accuracy of those estimates.

On the other hand, watching more porn may leave the door open for embracing the most uncommon–heck, even taboo–sexual behaviors as something that everyone else is doing, even when few others actually are. Indeed, high-level porn consumption, like a freshly-mopped wheelchair ramp, can be quite the slippery slope.

One other element about this study that merits attention is the fact that although Zillman and Bryant were able to conclude that estimates of the prevalence of sexual practices were affected by the amount of pornography that someone viewed, the implications of this change in perception toward attitudes of tolerance for the material or the less common sexual practices have not been investigated. ENGLISH, BAXTER!

In other words, it might happen that a straight male who had previously never witnessed sexual behavior characteristic of homosexuality may be repeatedly exposed to homoerotica until such a time as they think the behavior is normal. This, however, doesn’t make that individual any more likely to adopt such behaviors in their own sex life, given that those behaviors don’t align with their own sexuality.

Bearing this in mind, should you consume more porn in the interest of more accurately estimating the prevalence of most acts; less in order to prevent overestimating what’s truly uncommon; or opt for neither and continue to erroneously estimate both? This seems a question better-suited for a porn consigliere of some sort. However in lieu of such screen sex sagacity, I’ll leave you with this historical nugget: during his reign as emperor of Ancient Rome, Nero would dress up in animal skins and attack the genitals of male and female townspeople. He also castrated a boy, forced the child to marry him, and later “took him to his house, attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife.”

Pornography as we know it wouldn’t have been around at that time to inform such depravity. Psychological dispositions are a lot more impactful than we might give them credit for, and if Nero is any indicator, the degree to which we think an act is ‘common’ may not have much impact on whether we choose to do it.

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