Digital technologies have gone through a revolutionary period of development over the past twenty or so years. Some say that the digital revolution is helping to facilitate participatory democracy; some say it will "sweep aside the gatekeepers, allowing free expression and broad access to information"; but on the other hand this revolution has the potential to corrupt innocent children by exposing them to "video game violence, pornography and cybersex" (Jenkins). Which outcome is more likely and where do women fit into this digital picture when it comes to online users' interest in and access to provocative (often naked or near-naked) images of their bodies? More to the point: a) How has technology changed the way society thinks about pornography; b) how does pornography impact the sexual identity of women; and c) why do some women consume pornography and swear by it? This paper delves into these questions and makes evidence-based arguments vis-a-vis the growing presence of online pornography.
How is pornography defined?
First of all, before tackling that question, there is a need to define pornography, which in itself is not an easy task. The Oxford Dictionaries offers this definition: "Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate the erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings." Does that describe provocative images used in advertising by American Apparel? That question will be addressed in this paper. Moreover, when the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, was faced with a decision on pornography (or "obscenity," as it was referred to in 1973), he said that "…perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly…" defining it. "But I know it when I see it," he added (www.nap.edu).
Gender Research: Males and females make use of online pornography
A 2012 peer-reviewed article in the journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity first of all shatters the myth that online pornography and erotica is viewed mainly by males. In fact one in three visitors to adult websites (where pornography is free and available) are women, and 70% of those women report that they keep their online sexual activities "a secret" (Corley, et al., 2012). Of those women who visit pornographic sites, 17% say they are "…struggling with pornography addiction" -- and 13% say they even access pornography while at work (Corley, 57).
What do the majority of men use online pornography for? Corley asserts that the "number one reason" men visit provocative sites "…is to aid in arousal for masturbation" (57). On the other hand, women "…more commonly utilize chat rooms with sexual or erotic narratives for fantasy and to seek out a partner" (Corley, 57).
Gender is indeed a factor in online pornographic visits: a) males visit pornographic sites at a younger age than women; b) males are more apt to report being aroused by sexually explicit materials online; and c) women report that the "primary reason they use sexual media" is to aid in "lovemaking with their partners or in response to requests by their partner"; d) women find pornographic online materials "acceptable or positive" when and if it is associated with "a shared sexual activity"; e) males report they receive "more sexual enjoyment" when they are using pornographic images alone (masturbation); f) some women also "seek out pornography for masturbation, assisting in fantasizing for arousal and curiosity"; and g) women between the ages of 35-49 had more cybersex experiences than did men in the same age category (Corley, 58).
Corley and colleague report on a survey of 525 females that were part of the Women's Sexuality Survey and 91% of the women were heterosexual (60). When the results of this online survey were presented, the authors report that about half of the sample of 525 females described themselves as either "addicted to sex" (19.3%) or involved in a love relationships (33.8%) (63). Of those in the "female sex and love addicts" (FSLA) category 13.7% said they engaged in cybersex activities online; 49.3% of the FSLA women had been subjected to childhood sexual abuse and 53% of FSLA women had been exposed to pornography as children (Corley, 63).
In this regard, the hypothesis that the authors came up with was straightforward: those women who had been sexually abused as children or who were exposed to pornography as children would be "more likely to identify being addicted to sex or love/relationships" than those that were not abused as children and weren't exposed to pornography. That hypothesis was in fact supported by the research results (Corley, 66).
As to how many hours a week the FSLA women spend engaged in cybersex, participants reported an average of 23.80 hours a week online per se and 2.48 hours a week engaged in cybersex behaviors. Moreover, 61.1% of FSLA respondents said they had suffered from depression as a result of their sexual behavior and 6.7% had actually attempted suicide because of their sexual behaviors and 51.5% reported "withdrawal symptoms" as a result of their sexual activities online (Corley, 63).
What is depicted in the content of online pornography?
An article in the Journal of Sex Research points out that the results of a national survey show that 25% of men, and 4% of women nationwide had visited a "sexually explicit Web site in the previous month" (Vannier, et al., 2014). And the majority of males in college (72%) and a sizable minority of college females (23%) had gone into online sex sites to view pornographic videos, the research showed (Vannier, 253). Also, interviews conducted using qualitative strategies (similar to what Attwood alluded to earlier in this paper) reflect the following: people use pornography as a "source of new ideas, a means to increase arousal, or a way to open up communication with a partner" (Vannier, 254).
But what is the content of those videos that college students and others are viewing? On page 254 the results of a survey of what is depicted in 45 videos in 15 popular adult Web sites is published. The results show that: a) 76% of actors are Caucasian; b) 61% of the videos were professionally produced; c) 56% of the videos featured two actors and 16% had a lone female actor; d) in 90% of the 45 videos there was "genital stimulation"; e) in 79% of the videos there was fellatio; and f) there was vaginal intercourse in 68% of the videos (Vannier, 254).
As to kissing (50%), female masturbation (38%), cunnilingus (37%), male masturbation (13%) and anal intercourse (32%), there was far less of these sexual activities than those mentioned in the previous paragraph (Vannier, 254).
Since these pornographic Web sites are so easy to access and so often visited by teens and adults as well, it is interesting to note how males and females are depicted. One of the points of this paper is that women enjoy pornographic materials -- albeit on a different level than men -- and that there is a great misunderstanding (and myth) that pornographic sites cause men to become violent and to look down on women.
Previous research into the actual content of pornographic videos online (videos produced between 1979 and 1988) shows that males have "greater access to power than female actors," and that women are shown as "sexually naive…and are victims of sexual coercion or seduction" and women have "more attractive bodies than men" (Vannier, 255). As time went on there were more videos of men being seduced by women, and of men engaging in sexual acts with women of "higher social status" (Vannier, 255).
That having been pointed out, the authors point out that in almost every case of the more recent research into pornographic content, in every case where there was persuasion, one actor displayed reluctance but in the end was convinced to participate and "appeared to enjoy the sexual activity they had originally resisted" (Vannier, 262).
As porn creeps into mainstream advertising, is it wrong to label pornography as harmful and degrading?
Meanwhile Professor Feona Attwood, a well-respected and widely-quoted researcher into contemporary sexual themes, new technologies and online sexually-motivated cultures, points out that images that once were considered pornographic are today uses as substantial parts of advertising campaigns. This paper delves into the use of pornography in mainstream advertising and links those images to what scholars are saying about online pornography. For example, Attwood isn't the only scholar that links fashion advertising campaigns with today's more liberated online user; Terri Schauer writes in the journal Sexuality & Culture that some of today's fashion photography "…sexualizes and objectifies women" (Schauer, 2005, p. 45).
Women were certainly sexualized and objectified in a number of very provocative ads promoted by American Apparel, a company that has been banned from advertising in the United Kingdom due to the use of a model who looked to be no more than 16 years of age. A photo in AdWeek shows a model topless (with her left hand covering her breasts) which is not so terribly provocative, but her pants are unzipped…