Let's begin with a few numbers: PornHub.com gets 60 million worldwide visits daily, and 24 percent of U.S. viewers are female. According to a 2015 study, 16 percent of women ages 18 to 39 view porn once a week, and the percentage who are willing to admit their habit to the Pew Research Center increased from 2 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2013. What's behind this uptick? To get the answers to this and other burning questions on X-rated flicks, we spoke with Gail Dines, Ph.D., anti-porn activist and professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College; Megan Fleming, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and sex and relationship therapist in New York City; and Cindy Gallop, sex-tech entrepreneur and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn.com in New York City.
Check out parts of the heated discussion below.
Dines: We live in a "porn culture." Porn is the wallpaper of our society, and both sexes are internalizing the notion that it's normal and legitimate, so more women are watching it.
Fleming: In my practice, a lot of women are struggling with their libidos. They are overworked, exhausted, and having trouble relaxing. So porn is a tool in a toolbox that helps them keep their sexual pilot light on. It also helps them explore their fantasies and discover what they'd like to experience with their partners.
Gallop: There are way more women watching porn than what those statistics represent. Of course women like watching people have sex because we're sexual beings and we're wired to enjoy it! We want to watch it to get turned on and masturbate, just like men do. That's why I hate the terms "porn for women" and "feminist porn" because they imply that we're only into white sheets fluttering in the breeze and loving that's soft. Absolutely not true. I like my porn pretty hard-core.
Dines: But let's go to the empirical evidence and find out what happens when women look at porn. Specifically, [a new study] found that the more porn women watched, the more depressed and anxious they became, the less interested they were in having sex with people, and the more body-loathing they experienced*. Watching porn is not the issue—it's the effects of watching it.
Fleming: Well, having a doctorate, I value research, but I don't know of that particular paper. Yes, there can be some problematic behaviors that can lead to depression and anxiety. But what is making those women turn to porn? They may want to compare themselves, which of course isn't healthy. But I've also had clients who use it to discover their turn-ons. I think that's the reason lesbian and gay porn is some of the most viewed by women. There's this authenticity piece: There's no shame or guilt in expressing their sexuality or using their bodies. I think women are also looking to see a connection [between two people] to feel a sense of intimacy and pleasure.
Dines: But if you're looking for [that], why don't you seek it out in your own life? You're not going to experience intimacy, empathy, and connection by watching other people have sex.
Gallop: That's what we're trying to solve at MakeLove NotPorn. There is a total absence of an open conversation around sex in the real world. Because we as a society are so repressed about sex, we don't talk about it—or what we're watching. So porn exists in this shadowy underworld and therefore lacks socially acceptable curation. There is no Yelp for porn. And that's because it's not okay to come into the office, stand by the watercooler and ask, "I'm really bored with the porn I'm watching. Any suggestions?"
Fleming: In my opinion, anything that couples can use to promote a frank and honest convo is a great tool to enhance their bond. For instance, BDSM can be erotic for some women, but for others, it's a turn-off. Anal? Clear turn-on or turn-off. This is empowering women to have a voice in their own sex lives and to know their "No"—as in, "No, that act doesn't speak to me," or "Yes, I'd like to try that." There's a whole range of sexuality, and it's not black-or-white or all-or-nothing. We know in our bodies when something feels good or bad.
*At press time, this study was not yet published. Previous research has found that watching porn is linked to better sex for women in committed relationships.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Women's Health, on newsstands now.