What happens when women get to select the porn they watch in a research study, rather than having it pre-selected for them by researchers? The findings may surprise you.
The typical porn study situation involves researchers choosing the porn videos that participants will watch. In a new study just published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers Katherine Goldey and Sari van Anders of the University of Michigan wondered whether giving people–women in this case–more freedom in the porn they get to watch would impact their sexual and emotional experience.
To find out, they recruited 116 women (mostly heterosexual; mean age 23), and randomly divided them into four groups:
- High Choice Erotica: Women could choose an erotic video from their own sources (e.g., from a website or producer they preferred), ideally one they hadn’t seen before; to maximize autonomy, they were allowed to skip around in time or select a new video if the initial one didn’t do the trick.
- Moderate Choice Erotica: Women could chose an erotic video from a collection of 8 researcher-selected films (6 featuring hetero couples; 2 featuring lesbians); they could again skip around or select a new video.
- No Choice Erotica: Women all watched the same researcher-selected erotic video featuring a hetero couple; they had to watch the video from beginning to end in sequence, without skipping or switching.
- No Erotica (control group): Women watched a decidedly un-erotic clip from a travel documentary about the history of Scotland.
All videos were about 10 minutes long (last two groups); or women were instructed to watch their chosen video(s) for 10 minutes (first two groups). All women watched these videos in their own homes–without masturbating. They also completed surveys assessing their psychological and physical arousal, negative emotions (disgust, guilt/ embarrassment, and anxiety), and degree to which they identified with the videos (e.g., how much they believed themselves to be “part of the action”). They made these assessments at three time points: before watching the video (Time 1), immediately after watching (Time 2), and 15 minutes after watching (Time 3).
So, did freedom matter? Yes, but not always in the way you’d think.
As the graph below shows, watching any kind of porn led to increase in sexual arousal compared to watching Scottish history, but the more choice women had in choosing their own porn, the more aroused they got. So far, so good.
Their emotional responses, however, ran counter to expectations. Instead of a decrease in negative affect, the women who had the most autonomy in porn selection experienced the greatest increase in guilt, embarrassment, and disgust. Being responsible for the film they chose, it seems, exacerbated a general stigma surrounding women’s use of porn: Good girls are not supposed to watch or like porn. If you get aroused to something someone else chose, you can blame your arousal on them; but if you chose it yourself, the responsibility is all yours. And responsibility is a bitch, when you have to hold yourself responsible for something you’ve been told is bad for you.
(Anxiety didn’t seem to be affected by the amount of autonomy: Regardless of autonomy, anxiety decreased over the course of watching all movies, Scottish history included.)
However, there was a silver lining to these findings. Self-chosen erotica only increased guilt and embarrassment when women had a weak or moderate identification with their chosen stimuli. When they strongly identified with their chosen porn, women in the High Choice group didn’t experience more negative emotions than those with less choice in the matter.
What this means is that being responsible for a film you don’t see yourself in can actually have a negative effect on your emotions, despite–or perhaps because of–your increased arousal. But the more a woman sees herself in what she’s viewing, the less affected by stigma she becomes… and the more pleasure she receives across the board.
How do we make that happen? By giving women more permission to enjoy visual sexual stimuli and by expanding mainstream porn to include representations of women that they can identify with. Simple, no?