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External Articles | Posted: September 5, 2010

Pornography and Power

Presentation given by Prof. Dr. Jakob Pastötter at the Porno im Web 2.0 conference, April 14, 2010.

Good morning.

Pornography and cultural understanding, with particular regard to the power aspect -this is a very cumbersome title. Basically, it can be said that pornography, in the broad sense, is actually a cultural product: a cultural product of our Western, post-industrial society. Primarily, it has to do with sexuality, of course; secondarily, however, it always has to do with power as well, with different aspects of power. And we know that this power, which especially emanates from the media as a whole, and thus also from pornography as one aspect of the media, starts very early. Let's hope that it does not start too early: for the Americans it is a standing joke that one of modern man's symbols of power is actually the remote control, and that one can instantly tell a boy or a girl by whether a remote control is in the hand.

Now, what kind of power is the power of pornography? First, we can assume that the pornography medium exercises a multidimensional power, i.e. a power of definition regarding two sectors: on the one hand, a power of defining sexuality, and on the other, a power of defining gender relations.

The second power aspect is that of the masses. This may sound a bit "vulgar democratic", but unfortunately, it is perceived like this -both by adults and by adolescents: the majority is in the right. Thank God, democracy is a bit more complicated than that, but the idea is that the masses are right.

A third power aspect we should consider is power through information. What is interesting is that power through information does not necessarily mean that this information has to be based on actual knowledge -occupying the information channels is sufficient.

And finally, as a fourth sector: power through influence. In our discussion we have just noted that this aspect is in fact the most difficult to classify scientifically. Still, there are some indications that at least a part of what constitutes our lives is influenced by the media.

But what is the result of being confronted with so much power due to pornography? A cultural pessimist would declare: This society is disintegrating into a mass of "masturbating monads". Thank God, this does not seem to be the case - however, prudence may be advisable. We can see here very well that "successful" socialization through pornography would be as follows: a child is provided with a remote control in the womb, who then develops to an adult who turns on the porn channel with a vagina-like remote control from his armchair. This is a horror vision; I hope this will never be the case.

Let's start with the multidimensional power of pornography, which is basically a power of definition. It is a power that is exerted over sexuality. But why is pornography able to exert any power at all? For, first of all, we have to say that pornography is a crutch. We all know that what distinguishes pornography from real sexuality is the fact that it is very limited sexuality; it is only two-dimensional. Pornography can only be perceived through the eyes and through the ears. But what makes sexuality so alluring for us human beings is the fact that it appeals to all our senses; and not only does it appeal to all our senses, but also to our whole personality. But we actually learn very little about it. We -like almost all civilizations in the history of man - live in a culture in which sexual knowledge is not passed on by observation. In almost all other areas of life we learn primarily by watching someone else doing something. In sexuality, however, this is not the case.

Besides, if pornography is already a poor crutch for sexuality, then in a certain sense sex education is even more deficient, because sex education even does without the pictures. And it is for this very reason that pornography is so incredibly appealing to children and adolescents: "I do not need to listen, I do not need to read, I do not need to imagine things through the abstraction of words, because here I (allegedly) see what reality is like." And this is signified by the last quote, which you all know: pictures are stronger than words. This is almost laughable, but it is certainly true. For us human beings, a picture is always more interesting, more exciting, more informative than a text or a speech. And this is of course the problem with sex education: many things have to be left unsaid and also undemonstrated. For porn producers, there are no such problems.

The power of pornography, however, extends not only to sexuality, but also to gender relations. Professor Grimm called this the contrast between the "bitch" and the "cool dude". And it is not an invention of our current porn discussion. We have known this for some twenty years: our society is increasingly running out of fathers. And by "fathers" I do not mean biological fathers, but paternal role models. In practice, only the media perform the task of showing boys how to behave in their environment -especially towards women. However strange this may appear at first sight: pornography, with its few scripts, displays a very clear, very simply structured, and thus for children and young people (and unfortunately even for some adults), very attractive male image. For the man is the one who always has control, who knows what it's all about, who tells the women how they have to behave. Of course I cannot now dwell on this huge subject of "fatherless society", but we should keep this in mind: pornography would be much less powerful for our conceptions of the world if we had more male role models in society.

Sex educators often argue: "Yes, but in sex everything is allowed -it just has to be negotiated." The terminology used is negotiating morality. But for the negotiating of morality I need two things: I must have learned how to negotiate and I actually need morality. In this case morality does not involve any kind of Christian values, but it means: concepts of how to conduct oneself as a human being. This is exactly what pornography cannot supply. Yet it is attractive, because it reduces men and women to what distinguishes them most visibly from each other - it is biological reductionism.

So far, I have spoken of power as something relatively unproblematic, but we must of course assume that power always poses problems as well. -Please take the trouble to watch those clips thoroughly, and not just once. The first time, they will simply rush past you. But watch that clip once, twice, three, four, five times -until you are sick of it, and then pay attention not to the sexual stimuli, but to the subtle interactions that are taking place between the actors. Luckily not in every clip, but in very many of those movies, you will find hostility, humiliation, and revenge, also in non-verbal expressions. And the interesting thing in pornography is that generally the victim is never presented as a victim -unless it is a highly artificial sadomasochistic game. Even the victim will always be presented as a person who is indulging in the highest delights of lust, which negates the victim role.

We now come to an aspect of power that is a little easier to digest, namely the power of the masses. I have only listed a single set of statistics: We see here the porn production in the U.S. Until about the beginning of the 90s it remained within narrow limits, although already about two thousand movies were produced every year. In the mid-90s production suddenly quadrupled. It went up to eight thousand, then ten thousand, until in 2005/2006 a new peak was reached with about 13,000 new full-length videos. Since then there have been no reliable figures, because the Internet has also severely crippled the commercial porn industry, which had mainly relied on the DVDs. Today we have different figures. It should be noted that for quite a long time Germany was the world's second largest porn-consumer market. Of course pornography is also a global business; remarkably, China is listed as the strongest market with nearly 30 billion dollars -even before the United States or Germany, which is now lagging relatively far behind. This adds up to a total of almost 100 billion in 2006 -unfortunately, more recent figures are not available. But you can see: sex sells.

The same applies to consumption. More meaningful than the bare production or sales figures is of course the pornography's market share of the total media market: in the year 2003, it amounted to 38 percent.

We come to the third aspect of power: power through information. As I already said, this does not presuppose actual knowledge -it is sufficient to control the communication channels. And this is no conspiracy theory: the dissemination of true or false information has its influence on the information's recipient. I would like to show you this website, because we previously saw the statistic about the 13,000 newly produced videos. The worldwide biggest porn portal is probably Last weekend - you can see the figure immediately before the ads -there were 278.637 clips and movies. You find everything on xvideos from a length of two up to ninety minutes, freely available and without any access restriction. According to xvideos, thousands of new clips are uploaded daily.

Knowledge is not necessarily a prerequisite for the power of information, but of course, pornography implies a special knowledge. We have a sadomasochistic clip before us. Sadomasochism is a variant of sexuality, which is of interest to relatively few people, because it is highly artificial and because it often requires many years of practice with your partner. But here a different impression is given: through easy accessibility of information and through the occupation of the information channels, it is suggested that all this is totally realistic. As if this sexual variance did not have to be worked out over months or years with your partner; as if it were something that is literally just a click away.

We saw a similar video clip before. And the same reduction -I mean, the visual or audiovisual reduction - of a woman or man to their genital areas is of course problematic in itself. We do not even need a feminist approach to speak of reductionism. Here we have another example of so-called fetish sexuality. This is a form of sexuality that is practiced in real life by a small percentage of people -probably in the 0.5/0.6% range. Here again it should be evident: who has such suits? Who really takes the time to practice sex for hours like that? But because it occupies the information channels, the impression is given that the neighbors around the corner are doing it too. Which they may do, but certainly not in public.

I found this a bit weird, although here it looks relatively harmless: fetishsexuality literally takes on a murderous aspect when it is combined with self-strangulation.What happens physiologically is highly complicated, but even with good control it often leads to death. We know this from the media. Nearly every time a celebrity was found naked and hanged in a hotel room, the reason was that he wanted to give himself the ultimate kick. Normalizing all that by simply making it available is really problematic. As I already said, these are no special portals, where I only have the possibility to watch things after entering an access code. This is literally just a mouse click away.

The power of pornography is power through information. In order to be able to occupy the information channels, the recipient is also required of course. This is the latest study, produced in the U.S. in January of this year [2010]. Should there still be any doubt that power through information is a very real power, you see here that within five years the already remarkably high media consumption of 8 1/2 hours of children and adolescents has now increased to almost 11 hours. I do not know about you, but this has nothing to do with the way we formerly grew up with the media. Of course this is also multimedia use, i.e., you are sitting at the computer listening to music and watching a video simultaneously. But this obviously means that the impact of the real world on our lives has extremely decreased.

Some years ago, a Japanese photographer, who had planned to document children's games in the streets of Japan's villages and towns, abandoned his plan. He said children no longer play outside today; children are sitting at home consuming media.

Let's come to the last power aspect: the power of pornography is also power through influence on our self-perception. The economist I. C. Macmillan said: influence is the capacity to not only control the information channels, but also to control and to change the perception of others.

We could corroborate this very well - and presumably for the first time statistically -with our sexuality study in 2008. 37.3% of the [relatively small percentage of] women who consume pornography daily believe that their partners want them to have genitals like those generally seen in the pornographic movies. You may ask me afterwards what constitutes the famous "porn vagina". Surprisingly, we find less impact on the men. But even among the women with weekly pornography consumption, every fifth woman is obviously affected by the causality between porn consumption and the idea that one's own genitals should look the same as those displayed in the porn movies.

I would like to quote another example, which is taken from the practice of sex counsellors. Attitudes toward anal intercourse have changed dramatically in recent decades. What is inconceivable for most people is that when Kinsey did his studies in the 40s, not even gay men practiced anal sex frequently. The first changes occurred during the 70s in the gay scene and then, especially under the influence of the so-called gonzo pornography, also in heterosexual circles. Suddenly, anal sex seems to have become quite a common practice. And accordingly, sex counsellors report that not too long ago the first boys enquired, "How can I persuade my girlfriend to have anal sex?". Then, a few years later, came the first girls, "How can I dissuade my boyfriend from anal sex?". Now, the girls come and ask the sex counsellors, "What pills can I take to prevent it hurting like hell?" All this in a period of only fifteen years, which began when anal sex was introduced in pornography as a common sex variant, in the mid-90s approximately.

I have almost finished. We have briefly talked about what makes a man a man and what makes a woman a woman. When it comes to pornography, a big difference cannot only be found in children and young people, but generally women are more interested in chatting and men prefer pictures. Among other things, as a new Canadian study has shown, this has to do with the fact that for men the most interesting thing about pornography are the arousing sexual stimuli. Women, as you may recall from the studies done by Gunter Schmidt and Volkmar Sigusch in the 70s, are also aroused physiologically by pornography, although they affirm in the surveys that they feel disgust. In fact, they are not aroused by sexual stimuli - neither by the famous sexy male buttocks, nor by the size of the male genitals, nor by the female actors' reactions. Women -physiologically, mind you - seem to respond to pornography's movement. That is, in this case the act of coitus is the decisive factor. There are different interpretations for that, but we can state: men respond to pornography in a different way; they respond to different stimuli in pornography than women.

All in all, we can assume that there is extreme stimulation of our brain's reward circuitry; neurophysiological studies have shown this clearly. Pornography combines at least two stimuli. When we were watching the clips or even those few pictures, you may have noticed that pornography is not just sexuality. We are talking about a medium; pornography is always "artistically" transfigured sexuality. And it is not sufficient to point the camera at some loving couple. Normally you cannot even see much then, because, as I mentioned earlier, sex can be practiced easily with eyes closed even. Rather, certain stylistic elements are used, and here in public, the effect of those style elements is even stronger than when you are sitting alone in front of your computer at three o'clock in the morning. The style element is sexual shock. Things you would never do yourself, things you would not even want your partner to do, these are presented to you. And this leads to a particularly strong stimulation of dopamine secretion.

And we should also keep in mind -even when we maintain that this cannot be of great importance: what you see in porn videos on a single evening, in half an hour, an hour, or two hours, corresponds to an amount of audiovisual sexual stimulation that people usually never got in their entire life -even in sexually permissive cultures. Of course it is reduced to the audiovisual, but still - is this not a strange development?

Our final question is: what remains to be done? Where there is power, there is always and inevitably the feeling of impotence. We have just learned from Professor Grimm that children especially, and young people, are really trying hard to understand what pornography is. They do not just swallow it; they really try to digest what they encounter there. And I think we as adults have to do the same. We must think about what we encounter there, and then act accordingly. For one thing is clear: capitulating to the incredibly strong power of pornography is out of the question. Neither should we surrender to our own helplessness. For both, the power of others and our own powerlessness will daze us. And we want to remain capable of acting, don't we?

Thank you very much.

Transcription and translation from:

About Jakob Pastötter:

Prof. Dr. Pastötter Prof. (US) Dr. phil., M. A., Diplomate in Educational Sexology. President of the German Society for Social Scientific Sexuality Research (DGSS). Sexologist and cultural anthropologist. Clinical Associate Professor, American Academy of Clinical Sexologists, Orlando (Florida, USA).


Jakob Pastötter, Erotic Home Entertainment und Zivilisationsprozeß. Analyse des postindustriellen Phänomens Hardcore-Pornographie. Wiesbaden: Deutscher Universitäts-Verlag 2003.

Guest Editor: The Legacy of Alfred Charles Kinsey. Sexuality and Culture 10th Anniversary Issue (1/2006).

Alfred C. Kinsey: A Much Discussed Scientist of Our Time. Sexuality and Culture 10th Anniversary Issues (1/2006), pp. 5-14.

Robert T. Francoeur, Ray J. Noonan, and Jakob Pastoetter, Female Sexuality and Health Today: Challenges to Cultural Repression. CrossCurrents (A quarterly devoted to science, culture and religion; CrossCurrents Forum, Columbia University, New York), 54 (3/2004).

Associate Editor: The Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, New York and London: Continuum International 2004.

Germany. In: Robert T. Francoeur and Raymond J. Noonan, ed., The Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. New York and London: Continuum International 2004, S. 450-466 (together with Rüdiger Lautmann and Kurt Starke).

Germans. In: Carol R. and Melvin Ember, ed., Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Men and Women in the World's Cultures vol. I. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum 2004, S. 400407.

Needle to p6. Sexualmedizin 25 (12/2003), p. 257.

Love and Eroticism: Addition or Contradiction? Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 28 (3/2002): pp. 280-282.

Vietnam. In: Robert T. Francoeur and Raymond J. Noonan, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, vol. IV, pp. 639-691. New York and London: Continuum International 2001.

Tourism and Sex: Conceptualising of Foreign Countries as (S)exotic. Sexuality and Culture 5 (2/2001): pp. 107-110.

Pornography as Academic Field of Research. American and German Approaches Towards the Problematic Field of Research Pornography. Sexualmedizin 22 (9/2000): pp. 247250.

Pornography -a Men's Culture? In: Stadt Burglengenfeld, ed., Männer-Kulturen (pp. 143152). Burglengenfeld 1995.

Papers Presented (Selection):

The Sex Traffic. XVIIth DGSS Conference, Lüneburg (24.9.2006)

True Love - Sexuality in Media. Adult Education Center Olching (3.5.2005).

Construction of Sexuality in Islamic Countries. XVIth DGSS Conference, Lüneburg (27.6.2004).

Trafficking and Political Reactions in the USA and Europe. Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, München (8.3.2004).

The Postindustrial Phenomenon of Erotic Home Entertainment and the Civilizing Process. XVth DGSS Conference, Lüneburg (22.6.2002).

Socioeconomic Functions of Pornography, or: Why Business with Taboo is Booming? XVth World Congress of Sexology, Paris (26.6.2001).

The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction: Agendas, History, Relationship. Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, IN (24.3.1999).

Differing Perceptions of Sexuality in Europe and the USA: Conception, Construction, Consumption. Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, IN (14.12.1998).