Why Men Look at Porn

The Naked Therapist uncovers layers of objectification, agency and experience.

In a recent Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article entitled “More than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification,” researchers published a fascinating study that investigates the verity of the claim that “looking at someone sexually objectifies them.” As the authors point out, this assertion has a long history, going all the way back (at least) to Immanuel Kant who said in 1780, “sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry.” But, of course, the objectification of the love object has found its most recent opponents in feminists of the last forty years who have fought the good fight in trying to get men not to “objectify” women by looking at them as mere fruity produce to be desiccated with sucking.

The researchers basically showed men pictures of women either clothed, naked or doing something sexually suggestive, then asked them to judge the extent to which the women they were looking at were capable of self control, planning and acting morally (called “having agency”) and the degree to which they were capable of feeling fear, desire and pleasure (called “having experience”). The results showed that when a woman’s body has more “salience” (with parts protruding out, i.e. seeming sexually suggestive) she was considered to have less “agency” but more “experience.”

The moral of this story is that a woman who pulls up her shirt and jiggles her jugs for the camera (Research Targets Gone Wild!) is judged by men to be more out of control, mindless of the future, and morally loose (she has less “agency”) than the girl who keeps her privates private. However, Lil’ Miss Okay is judged by men to be more capable of feeling fear, desire and pleasure (she has more “experiences”) than Lil’ Miss No Way. The conclusion of the researchers: pornography doesn’t lead men to look at women as objects – to view them, for instance, as a block of wood in need of drilling – rather it leads them to “redistribute the mind” of such women – to judge them as less capable of thinking ahead in a reasonable way and more capable of having deep experiences.

So, what to make of all this? When we ask why men look at pornography, the answer rarely gets much more in-depth than “because they’re pigs.” We might label them addicts, or perverts, or simply one-track minded, but that’s about as far as we go. The whole question of why so many men seem so incredibly driven to savor shots of naked bodies that they went and created something as massive and complex as the Internet to make it easier to do so (only a slight exaggeration) doesn’t seem to hold much interest for researchers. But I think the study above shines some very interesting light on the why of all those quintillions of salient megapixels.

Men are not just looking to be sexually aroused by images of the human body; they are looking to have an interaction with a kind of human being whose distribution of mind, even if they are the ones doing the distributing, is different than their own. They are looking to encounter someone who takes more risks, has more feelings, experiences more pleasures than they do. They are looking, in short, for someone less rational and more sensual.

And they do this because men are both nurtured and naturally inclined to be strong, rational, calculating, planning creatures – in short, to have lots of agency. But what they are missing in their lives is the ability to experience life at a more emotional, visceral, vulnerable, risky level – as expressed through open sexuality, deep emotion, and careless abandon – an ability they see in their objects of desire. In other words, they are not just looking to get off when they click through porn sites, they are also looking for the redistribution of mind toward more experience and less agency that the people on those porn sites represent – a redistribution that they long to take place in their own bodies but aren’t sure how to make happen, so they get it vicariously through porn.

Certainly, most of this is unconscious. Men don’t say to themselves when they go to log onto their favorite porn site, “I’m looking to vicariously absorb a deeper reality by becoming aroused by someone I see as having more emotions and richer experiences.” But that is in part what they’re doing. Our goal should be to help them realize that and for this unconscious urge to start finding its way into other searches – for real women, for their own emotions, for more actual experiences.

But at the same time we need to stop punishing them for this search expressing itself through actions that we typically take to be “objectifying of women.” The ones doing this punishing are, of course, typically women, who do not appreciate at all their mind being redistributed by men and want to be seen by them as having more agency. But women should realize first that the women performing salaciously are doing it, for the most part, of their own volition, and second that what has been typically deemed “objectification” by men also contains a deep admiration by men for women seen as possessing abilities – deeper experiences, emotions and sensualities – they themselves wish they had. In other words, while there certainly might be some “looking down” when a man “objectifies” a woman, there is also some “looking up,” too. Women who are more comfortable with this mix will lead to men who are more comfortable accepting that their porn searches are in part a search for something much more interesting and valuable.

Sarah White is the founder of Naked Therapy and runs her Naked Therapy practice at SarahWhiteTherapy.com. Since starting her practice in October 2010, she has provided Naked Therapy to hundreds of cli ...read more

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