The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

Porn’s chokehold on power dynamics and gender roles

To preface this article, pornography is not inherently harmful, and those who watch it are not to feel ashamed. “There are many adults who feel they have a healthy relationship with porn. However, it’s complicated and different when you start talking about developing brains and sexuality,” said Shafia Zaloom, health education teacher and author of “Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between.” “Whether you’re pro-porn or anti-porn isn’t relevant. When talking about developing brains, it’s the porn industry, which is a $97 billion business exploiting young peoples’ developmental vulnerabilities. That’s the concern.”

Almost 40% of 18-29 year olds have choked or been choked while engaging in sexual intercourse, according to “CHOKED,” a study by Dr. Debby Herbenick, a human sexuality expert, research scientist and professor at Indiana University. The study also found that the predominant gender dynamic with sexual choking was men choking women.

“CHOKED” inferred that this increase in gendered sexual aggression among youth can be attributed to what people are viewing in pornography. In an interview with the newspaper Isthmus, Dr. Herbenick said, “We found that many people into choking remember growing up and watching porn with choking in it.” 

But do pornography’s effects on gender roles and power dynamics halt at the threshold of the bedroom door, or are they altering behavior in everyday interactions as well?

Pornography, or porn, is sexually explicit media intended to arouse the viewer. Though porn is considered adult content, “Teens and Pornography,” a report conducted by Common Sense Media in 2022, found that the average age people first view online porn is 12. Easy access to the internet means easy access to porn through free sites, like the pornography website, Pornhub. All one has to do to proceed to a free porn site’s pornographic content is check a box declaring they are over the age of 18.

This early exposure can shape peoples’ ideas of sex as a whole. “There’s a real reason why it’s illegal to show a young person sexually explicit media before they’re 18: because their brains are developing, because their sexuality is developing,” said Shafia Zaloom, health education teacher and author of “Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between.” 

“Porn probably hampers emotional intelligence because it can lead to a lot of boys feeling very disconnected from their sexuality and their own emotional lives because of this weird, taboo, external form of stimulation and excitement that is entirely disconnected from them,” said Health Initiative for Peer Education (HIPE) Member Arlo Sears-Bicknell ‘24. “It creates a view of themselves and their social roles and the social roles of women in a very impersonal way.”

Porn is traditionally scripted and directed, making pre-sex conversations in porn less about one’s boundaries and desires, and more about immediate arousal and foreplay. The lack of communication between the actors can create a false and potentially harmful narrative surrounding real-life sex.

“It puts out false expectations [where] everything’s too easy,” said Frankie Reichman ‘24, co-leader of the Young Men’s Group (YMG). 

A classic porn scenario features a pizza delivery man showing up to a woman’s house. He sets down the pizza, and the rest is history. Because there is this fourth wall where actors are paid to have manufactured interactions and fill the role, conversations in porn tend to have more to do with continuing the scene than checking in on boundaries.

“[Pornos] are these ten-minute snippets of a fake conversation — I mean, the conversation [itself] is like a minute long: there’s not much conversing going on,” said Reichman.

“It’s directed, it’s contractual. … It’s very contrived,” said Zaloom.

HIPE Member Isaac Wayne ‘25 said, “It’s very much a production. I think about it the same way I think about Hollywood.”

Along with making sex performative rather than experiential, porn can also spread misinformation about female-bodied pleasure. 

Naya Woods ‘24 said, “When people get their sexual education from porn, they are getting their information from the male gaze, not really from women.”

This lack of education can de-emphasize female pleasure. “I remember in health class someone said something wildly incorrect about how women work, and I was like, no. It wasn’t that the clit isn’t real, it was that it doesn’t really matter,” said Lindsey Bailey ‘24. “In the porn I think a lot of men are watching, it’s not about women’s pleasure; it’s about male aggression and vulgarity and power over women,” said Bailey.

Zaloom agrees that male pleasure is emphasized in porn. “We centralize intercourse, which is a very cisgender-heterosexual, penis-focused way to think about sex. Pornography is all about intercourse. It’s all about the smash on level 15,” she said.

In an interview with The Urban Legend, Psychologist and Behavioral Healthcare Consultant Dr. Brigitte Lank, Ph.D., said, “There is a high prevalence of male domination in porn, which perpetuates a sense of power – rape, violence, any forced humiliation of [a] male or female. We see this concept of forced feminization, which some may offensively refer to as slut-shaming or b—h-slapping.” 

“In a lot of cases, porn accentuates the idea of [men] dominating women. A lot of porn is catered towards men,” said Sephora Haileselassie ‘24. “It creates this image where women are there to cater towards men’s needs, which can also create a lot of violence towards women.”

Dr. Lank has specifically noticed this aggression manifest in her male clients’ sexual fantasies. “I’ve had clients — usually male — identify with the person who has power [in porn] in [their sexual] fantasies,” she said. “They would imagine themselves in the role of the guy in porn raping or humiliating [a] female, singular or plural. Very irregularly in fantasy do I see a guy take on a submissive role.”

A level of aggression commonly arises in porn, with 45% of Pornhub scenes including some form of physical aggression, according to the 2020 article “A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography” written by Niki Fritz and Bryant Paul. Spanking, gagging, slapping, hair pulling and choking are the five most common forms of sexual aggression. 97% of this aggression is directed towards women, and 76% of the aggressors are men.

“There are [concepts like] head pushing and gagging,” said Zaloom.

Without sufficient sex education, younger people may use the aggression they have seen in porn as the blueprint for their sexual experiences. “We’re shaping desire around aggression, and then people are trying to recreate it,” said Zaloom.

“A friend of mine was having sex with a guy, and in the middle of it, he started choking her out because it’s what he was seeing in porn,” said an anonymous student. “That’s what he thought sex was, and I’m like, no the f–k it ain’t. He thought she would enjoy that because women in porn appear to be enjoying it, and that [therefore] he wouldn’t have to ask.”

[Female actors’] response to aggression [in porn] was either neutral or positive and rarely negative,” wrote Fritz and Paul in their analysis.

Typically, sexual aggression in porn is met with performative, melodramatic reactions from the female-bodied actors. Some may view this dramatic response as indicative of pleasure for female-bodied people in real life. “Porn features a lot of aggression towards women, but because the women are directed to have such exaggerated responses that are supposed to be representative of their pleasure, [violence] gets eroticized, and that’s what people think women want,” said Zaloom. 

Zaloom finds this portrayal of sex to be both unrealistic and extremely performative. “It’s like watching Fast & Furious to learn how to drive,” she said. “It’s 80% misogyny veiled in exaggerated response.”

The standard in porn that men dominate the bedroom can also manifest in inherently nonsexual, everyday interactions. “Indeed, there is a causal connection between the knowledge generated by pornography about women’s inferior and object-like status and women’s objectification,” wrote Professor and Author Mari Mikkola in her book, “Beyond Speech: Pornography and Analytic Feminist Philosophy.”

“The [content] that some young men might see in porn may have an impact on how they look at and treat women — sometimes a lack of respect,” said Co-Leader of YMG Jonah Hur ‘24. “Some teenage boys might think they have some power from watching porn, like dominating the bedroom can lead to dominating all facets of the relationship.”


About the Contributor
Viva Wertz
Viva Wertz, Editor in Chief, Print