I was walking up my driveway on a frigid Friday night when I received a cryptic text from a good friend. I slid my phone open with gloved mitts and read the message:
I’m at the Ritz Carlton in Manhattan. Text me in the morning.
The words confused and concerned me, but I took the notice at face value. I knew Kate tended to make decisions on a whim. I would learn later on that she had made plans to meet a young German tourist at his hotel after they had gotten acquainted at a club in Brooklyn. But as they settled into his room and began hooking up, Kate felt uneasy. She shot me a text as Tobias stepped away from the bed to grab a condom. It comforted her to know someone would be checking her whereabouts the next morning.
Kate reached out to me for a reason. She reached out because she felt uncomfortable. And she was uncomfortable because Tobias was aggressive.
My friend and I met up the next day so she could detail the elements of his threatening, animalistic moves. We drove over to our favorite coffee shop and hunted down a tiny table tucked away in a corner near a large window. We had to make sure no one could hear our vulgar conversation. Outside, gentle snowfall pattered the adjacent pane. I turned my attention to my best friend of eight years.
“So what was that text message!?”
Kate let out a defeated groan and started in on her explanation. As she spoke, I leaned in against our table, aghast at what I was hearing.
“It was like he was acting out porn sex,” she said.
I told her, eyes wide with realization, that I had experienced that exact same behavior during one of my own random hook-ups. The men we had slept with both skipped foreplay completely, and left us feeling as if there was no way to escape their muscled grasps. Our partners’ actions included intense neck throttling and menacing dirty talk, declaring and commanding that we say or do specific things. Both tried to ejaculate on us. A few of the men’s moves were extraordinarily unnatural, but almost identical. Of course, violent sex is part of a spectrum of acceptable behaviors between consenting adults, but these men behaved in such a way without warning, and certainly without consent.
It is possible these stories lined up coincidentally, but the parallelism of our narratives suggested a deeper connection.
I’ve only watched common online pornography a few times (and I’ve only ever watched heterosexual videos). Each time I played a short pornographic video, I witnessed rapid sexual intercourse between two hairless individuals. The man almost always ejaculated on the woman’s face. The woman’s facial expressions suggested she was in pain as she pleaded for more. The sex on the screen never looked anything like my personal desires. The sex on the screen looked like Kate’s descriptions of her night with Tobias.
I am not arguing that pornography in its purist form is inherently bad, but I do believe that modern pornography has morphed into a profoundly unrealistic depiction of human sexuality.
And young men and young women consume pornography at different rates. The Pew Research Center recently investigated the gender and behaviors of regular pornography viewers. According to the 2013 study, only one in three pornography consumers are women. Men consume these unrealistic portrayals of sex at a much higher rate than their female counterparts.
As young women and men sexually develop throughout adolescence, they are treated differently in accordance with their sex. Mainstream media is rife with jokes about pubescent male masturbation and the hilarity of straight teen boys’ affinity for online pornography. Take the raunchy teen movie, Superbad. Within the first five minutes of the film, Jonah Hill starts rambling about his favorite porn sites, stating, “Don’t make me feel weird for liking porn. You’re the one that’s weird for not liking it. I’m normal as s***.” No such jokes surface about young women. Had the genders been swapped in this scene, the skit might’ve felt uncomfortable or unnatural. The conversation makes sense because it is a baseline fact in our culture: high school boys like pornography, but girls do not.
Young men receive the message that sexual exploration is normal and humorous, while their female counterparts hear nothing about their own pleasure or sexual anatomy. It is no wonder, then, that only one third of porn viewers are women. Women are taught from puberty that it is not “normal” for them to masturbate, let alone watch pornography. Male directors and writers therefore dominate the porn industry, and they aim their productions at other men—young men—who are told that this behavior is what comprises “normal” sex.
An article from the academic journal, Violence Against Women, gives us a closer look at what sort of images this male-dominated industry is pumping out. In heterosexual porn, 88% of videos include violent or aggressive acts toward women, and 50% of these videos also show men calling their female partners names such as “whore,” “bitch,” or “slut.” The study stated that women in these videos respond to either degrading or what should be painful sexual acts with exclamations of pleasure. In the article, Dr. Gail Dines of Boston College states that female porn stars often work for only three months at a time because their bodies endure such rough treatment. These women’s bodies are literally torn apart for the viewing pleasure of mostly male pornography consumers.
I imagine Tobias had been viewing porn for quite a while before he met up with Kate this past January. Where else might someone learn to pin a woman’s hand behind her back, extinguishing her ability to move or pleasure herself? His behavior mimicked the way I had been involuntarily bound by another man months before.
According to research conducted by Dr. Mary Anne Layden, PhD. of The University of Pennsylvania, the nature of pornography lends itself to instruction. Pornography, she explains, displays a particular behavior, and a corresponding positive response. (For instance, when a male porn star ejaculates on a female porn star’s face, she in turn moans with pleasure.) She also notes that humans are most alert when aroused, and learn more efficiently in this state. In Dr. Layden’s research, she recorded 42% of juvenile sex offenders as having been regularly exposed to pornography, as opposed to 29% of juvenile non-offenders. And, 83% of adult rapists regularly consumed pornography, as opposed to 35% of non-rapists. Aggressive behavior sometimes, if not often, follows pornography consumption (or should I say, instruction.)
At one point in the night, Tobias commanded Kate to orgasm. She laughed as she recalled her shock.
“What on Earth makes him think that I can just orgasm? Just like that? It was as if he thought I needed his permission. Not to mention, he had literally done nothing that might’ve made it happen. He had no idea what women need in order to finish. I faked it just so it would end,” she said.
Kornhaber and Eri Brown recently produced a video, “Porn Sex vs. Real Sex.” The 3-minute clip went viral after only a couple of days. In their video, the narrator explained that seventy-one percent of all women cannot orgasm through vaginal penetration alone, although almost every female porn star manages to do so.
It seemed as if Tobias expected his partner to orgasm just as the women on the screen did. He thought he might turn Kate on after only seconds of contact. He expected her to appreciate his one-sided dirty talk, and he expected her to orgasm upon his command. When we added it all up at the coffee shop that afternoon, it seemed apparent that Tobias assumed Kate would behave like a porn star.
Although I have not experienced anything quite as extreme as Kate’s night with the tourist in a luxury hotel, I too have found myself in a bed with a couple of different men who pull too hard on my hair and push my body to where they want it without acknowledging me as a conscious, decision-making human being. These men pinned me down and showed no concern for my pleasure. They acted forcefully, as if aggressing a blow up doll—a thing that didn’t need its own pleasure, let alone a request for consent. And when I discussed the topic with a handful of my female peers, each young woman had a story to share about scary one-night-stand or lover who had no idea how her body worked.
As I contemplated the confusing, mixed-up world of heterosexual pornography and violence against women, I decided to approach a handful of my most open-minded male friends, asking them if they thought they might be affected by the violent pornography they consume. A few rejected the idea that it might actually teach them anything about a woman, but others conjured up some interesting commentary. When my friends finally landed themselves in real-life sexual situations, they had already been viewing Internet pornography for quite a time, and were stunned to find that women don’t orgasm right off the bat as they do online. One young man shared the story of an ex-lover who asked him to spank and choke her. He wondered aloud if she wanted those things by nature, or if she might’ve learned some sort of masochism from a mainstream pornography industry that only depicts women in compromising situations. All of the men I spoke with agreed that it is difficult to find a heterosexual pornography video online that does not showcase violence toward women.
After these conversations with my friends, I wondered to myself if the young men pushing us around in bed were really selfish Neanderthals, or simply ignorant boys.
It is certainly no excuse, but I think many sexually aggressive men truly believe that force and degradation are what women crave in the bedroom. As we travel further into the digital age, more and more adolescents find the pornographic material of the Internet within their grasp. That’s not to say that sexual exploration is necessarily bad for pubescent men and women, but said sexual exploration often leads boys, and only boys, to online pornography. With the door to porn wide open before sexual intercourse is even an option, young men are ripe to learn from XXX websites rather than from experience. By the time guys like Tobias find themselves in the arms of a naked woman, the adult film industry has already taught them what they supposedly need to know: women will allow you to hurt and degrade them, and not only that, it’s what they really want.
Anna Coppola resides in Brooklyn, languidly searching for what might fill her up.