Why Do We Call It “Using Porn”?

On one of the sex education email lists that I follow, someone posted a question about “porn use.” And while I’ve seen this phrase used more times than I can count, it suddenly seemed to me that the term implies a bias that runs so deeply that it’s effectively invisible.


I think it’s rather interesting that people often talk about “porn use” even though they don’t talk about “sitcom use,” “talk show use,” or “romantic comedy use.” Instead, we might ask someone how often they watch TV, or talk shows, or movies. We might say that we enjoy Law & Order, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say that they “use” Law & Order.

But when we get into the area of porn, we sometimes shift our language away from words that we use to talk about any other media and start using a phrase that sounds like we’re talking about drugs. People use Advil, or caffeine, or cocaine. And it seems to me that when we talk about using porn, we’re framing it in the same way.


Granted, many people do watch porn in order to create feelings or experiences, which in a way, is similar to why people use alcohol or other drugs. And yet, if I’m in a bad mood and decide to cheer myself up by watching a movie, isn’t that the same thing? If I watch horror movies because I like the thrill of fear, or I watch a fluffy romantic comedy because I’ve had a hard day and want something that will let me turn my brain off, how is that different from watching porn in order to get turned on? Or, for that matter, having a drink to relax?

It seems to me that when we talk about “using porn,” we’re doing a few things. We’re framing porn as something different from any other media experience, which demonizes it. Talking about porn in a way that makes it sound like drug use, with all of the confusion and ambivalence that we have as a culture around drugs, reinforces the idea that porn is inherently dangerous. And by linking sex and drugs, two almost-universal experiences that are especially prone to moral panics, we continue to reinforce the erotophobia that has kept us in the dark for so long.

I’m not trying to argue that all porn watching is benign. There are a lot of people who feel a lack of control around how much or what types of porn they watch for me to think that porn is all good. The secrecy that often accompanies porn viewing has strained plenty of relationships. And too many people forget how to turn the TV off and be present in the experience they’re having for me to think that porn is always problem-free.

It’s just that I think that talking about “porn use” brings a bias into the conversation that makes it a lot harder to ask some useful questions. And when it comes from a therapist, educator, or other professional, it shows that they’re carrying a judgment that is probably going to get in the way of building a helpful and safe relationship.

So rather than talking about porn use, I think we’d be better off if we talked about porn watching. And we can ask things like: what is your relationship with porn? How do you feel about it? How does your partner (if any) feel about it? How does it affect your sexuality and your sexual relationships?

These sorts of questions are a lot harder to ask when we use language that separates porn from other media, and puts it in the same category as drugs. It’s time to stop doing that.

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3 Responses so far.

  1. Megan Andelloux says:

    Excellent article Charlie. Thank you for challenging me on language I know I have used and how to tweak discussions to allow for fruitful, neutral conversation.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I think this raises a lot of really valid questions, and it is really interesting to point out how our language changes when the form of media or subject we’re talking about is something our culture finds threatening.

    I agree that we talk about porn in the same way we talk about drugs, rather than other forms of media. But I think this linguistic similarity actually makes sense, because porn (I’m about to throw out a lot of sweeping generalizations because it will enable me to make this point and follow my own train of thought- I do NOT presume to speak for everyone, only for myself) because porn, in terms of how it’s used, how it makes people feel, what experiencing porn is like, is a lot closer to the experiences of drugs ,than of other forms of media. Go with me for a second—porn (not all, but a lot of it, I would say the majority of it), relies on instant gratification, where the visual experience of the form of media IS the reason for it’s existence. Movies are visual, and yet (not all, but a lot of them) require a higher form of thinking and feeling. This is why plot lines in porn are, by and large, a joke (ie, “did you order extra sausage on this pizza?” type shit). For most people who consume porn (and again, I’m making generalizations backed by no statistics, but rather just my own experience and my own assumptions), the way people experience porn doesn’t REQUIRE higher levels of thought. I don’t mean to be crass, but porn reflects how people like watching people fuck. People also like watching people fuck after an hour of hearing about their thoughts and their relationships and their lives and getting a really good buildup (a la movies), but porn doesn’t try to serve that purpose. Porn just feels and looks good and rubs us the right way instantly, whereas movies/books/other forms of media resulting in a sense of escapism-voyeurism require different, drawn-out, perhaps more complex, forms of thought, and of psychological engagement. When I take drugs, and when I watch porn, I have very similar expectations about what will happen- I will consume this thing, and it will make me feel good, and the experience is sort of finite. When I consume other forms of media, I don’t know what will happen, how I’ll feel about it, during or after, whether it will affect me on a deeper level, if I’ll still think about it later…This is not to say that porn can’t be surprising, artisitic, influential, complex, that you won’t be deeply affected by porn, that it won’t shape or influence your sexuality, etc. Sometimes it does do that. But I think in general, that’s not the goal of porn- it’s not trying to engage those forms of thought, and it is trying to engage others which are often less complex. I think porn is a simpler form of media, and of consumerism, than film or books or whatever.

    I also wholly disagree that when you put on a movie, even if it’s a vapid romantic comedy, that you’re turning your brain off- you’re allowing someone else to steer your brain, direct your thoughts and your experience as you’re consuming, so your brain is quieted, you experience escapism, certainly, just as it is with porn. But I think the experience of consumerism/escapism with film requires a higher level of thought than the experience/consumption/escapism of porn. I find the experience of consuming porn is closer to the experience of consuming drugs, and so yes, I think porn IS different from any other form of media.

    This doesn’t inherently demonize it though. The language we use is just a reflection of how complicated our cultural feelings are about it. Drugs and porn, yes, we have “confusion and ambivalence” about both of them, and our language is a reflection of that- but why is that confusion a bad thing? I am ok with feeling confused about both drugs and porn, having appreciated the joys and dangers of both. I think it is great that we are confused, and that our language reflects that confusion. Moral panics suck, granted, but the questioning our own behaviors, consumptions, etc, is really awesome. Which is why your post is great- if we treat porn like every other form of media, and our language doesn’t reflect the cultural confusion people feel about it, then it’s like we’re not addressing the issues surrounding it. I’d rather be talking and be confused.

    “Talking about porn in a way that makes it sound like drug use, with all of the confusion and ambivalence that we have as a culture around drugs, reinforces the idea that porn is inherently dangerous.” I do not mean to put words in your mouth- but if I follow your train of thought here, I think you’re saying: we talk about porn like we talk about drug use, because we’re confused about both, and drug use is inherently dangerous, so using similar language to talk about porn reinforces the idea that porn is as well? (correct me if I’m misinterpreting this sentence). But anyway, you lost me when you compare the language of drugs and porn and then conclude porn is inherently dangerous, because the way we talk about drugs is a reflection of drugs being inherently dangerous….neither drugs nor porn are inherently dangerous. Risky, perhaps, but not inherently dangerous, so we’re confused and ambivalent about them, we use the same language to talk about them, and I think that’s a good thing.

    “And when it comes from a therapist, educator, or other professional, it shows that they’re carrying a judgment that is probably going to get in the way of building a helpful and safe relationship.” Or they’re just using the language built into their culture, and might be totally objective and bring ZERO preconceived notions into their practice about porn watching, porn use, porn consumption, morals on porn, etc. I think this is a big leap, and it expects all people to really examine the language they use on a daily basis- which isn’t a bad expectation at all, I think it’s so awesome that you’re pointing this out and questioning what it means- but to expect everyone to do it is unrealistic, and to assume that when people do use these standards of speech, like “using porn”, that they are inherently biased, erotophobic, or judgmental about porn as a form of media.

    Anyway, awesome post, got me a thinking a whole lot.

  3. Charlie says:

    If your experience of porn is similar to your experience of drugs, then by all means, feel free to use similar language for the two. But it seems to me that the way you experience porn isn’t necessarily the way that everyone does.

    Actually, I think that the rather lame stories in porn has more to do with the fact that the performers (also known as “talent”) don’t know how to act, which is why they’re never called “actors”. Back in the heyday of theater-based porn, there were plenty of movies made that had decent storylines and acting, but when VHS took over the industry, the focus shifted to cranking out product as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Acting wasn’t seen as an important consideration anymore.

    I’m not suggesting that drugs are inherently dangerous, but rather, given that the common story is that they are, using the same language to talk about porn links the two together. People didn’t used to talk about “using porn.” While I haven’t researched it to be 100% sure, my sense is that it grew out of the growth of the addiction model of sex & porn. I’d be curious to know if anyone has looked into that.

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