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What Did Porn Do to Millennials?

The evidence suggests that porn really has left an imprint on young people's sex habits.

by Mike Pearl
29 March 2016, 4:59pm

Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

"Porn is creating a subculture of less-than-motivated men and women complacent with doing very little with their lives," an anonymous question-asker on Quora claimed last November.

Asking Quora something is a little different from asking Yahoo or Reddit, because experts tend to pop up at Quora and provide interesting analysis or valuable, informative anecdotes. This particular post asked for thought leaders to show up and offer solutions that will help "mitigate the negative effects of porn on our generation," and took it for granted that porn-addled millennials are experiencing "negative effects."

Right now, making sweeping—and often idiotic—statements about millennials, is, as millennials love to say, #trending. The latest take on millennials, from a New York Times trend piece, is that their compulsive honesty makes them tactless, they digitally blast their every emotion into the web-osphere, and—I hope you're sitting down for this one—they're entitled! But does porn ostensibly provide any insight into why millennials are the whiniest and/or awesomest generation ever?

Judging from what data is currently out there, plus academic inquiry into porn, and anecdotal information about how and when millennials have sex, porn really has left an imprint on young people's sex habits.

My sexual shorthand is that under twenty-fives are fun for casual sex, but as of yet, I've seen no potential in relationships or even meaningful friendships —Jason

Growing up, millennials had easier access to a greater variety of porn than previous generations did, and they've grown into porn-consuming adults. A Brigham Young University study published last year in the Journal of Sex Research found that by sheer quantity, porn consumption has been steadily on the rise for decades. Generation X loved porn more than the baby boomers, and just as you might expect, that trend is continuing upward with millennials. But do all those .gifs and fuckvids explain why millennials are so damaged and miserable?

Anecdotally, yes. Listening to people talk about the bedroom habits of millennials gives the impression that they've literally fucked themselves out of fulfilling sex lives.

"I have had sex with both millennials and non-millennials, and [the millennials] are less inclined to engage in extended foreplay, they never speak of condoms, and they are not particularly friendly afterward," said Jason, a 40-year-old gay guy, citing cold, impersonal porn as a potential cause. "My sexual shorthand is that under twenty-fives are fun for casual sex, but as of yet, I've seen no potential in relationships or even meaningful friendships," Jason added.

There isn't data out there that addresses a lack of post-coital spooning, but marriage numbers suggest there's more to Jason's observation than garden-variety whippersnapper-bashing; record numbers of millennials appear to be uninterested in relationships. According to an analysis of long-term data by San Diego State University psychologist Jean M. Twenge published last year in Archives of Sexual Behavior, millennials have a more open attitude about promiscuity than the previous four generations. "As individualism increased in the US, sexual attitudes and behavior became more permissive and less rule-bound," Twenge said at the time of publication.

"Individualism," in this case, means being single more often, and possibly forever. While Pew doesn't gather data on relationships versus friends-with-benefits arrangements, they have discovered that millennials are getting married much less than their elders, and that one in four millennials is likely to stay unmarried for life.

According to Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, such lack of connection, along with the promiscuity that can result, aren't caused by porn. More likely, she suggests, they're tied to what she calls the "isolationism and interpersonal breakdown," experienced by Generation X, but certainly not limited to that generation. Such failure to connect in America has been the subject of many books.

Consequently, Tibbals called porn "a social artifact," one that reflects the wider social environment. Such an artifact is, "synergistically a cause and effect of the context in which it exists." In other words, which came first: the chicken of a lack of romance in real life, or the egg of unromantic porn?

In 2014, University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong told Rolling Stone, "It looks like [young people] may be having less sex, less relationships, less commitment, but what they're doing is more casual. We still don't really have a handle on it all." But as for a documented link between porn and a tendency to avoid relationships, it's not clear. "I'm sorry to say that I can only speculate wildly about the effects of porn on millennials," Armstrong told me in an email.


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Scholarly work on porn and millennials focuses on porn aesthetics, and behavioral research that links porn consumption to related sexual habits tends to be very specific and has little to do with age. A report from 2014, for instance, linked condom-free sex among gay men to the viewing of condom-free porn. While that study didn't target millennials, studies of its kind demonstrate that people's porn fantasies and real-world sex habits do at least sometimes overlap.

The collective porn-fantasies of millennials' as one giant, monolithic group are exceptionally hard to pin down, but some have tried. In July of last year, PornHub and Mic joined forces to explain how millennials consume porn in a blog post titled "Coming of Age: Millennials." It wasn't perfect—it was a little too focused on how millennials use PornHub in particular—but it made a compelling argument that one major millennial turn-on is hentai (a.k.a. hot Japanese 'toon sex), and one millennial turn-off is smoking.

Millennial women love to throw out an unsolicited 'Daddy' during sex. —'Chase'

Those specific observations about millennials' sexual proclivities are likely just the tip of the iceberg. According to Tibbals, "the pre-millennial cohort of humanity had to scour the snail-mailbox for a fairly small slice of erotic expression," but millennials can refine their tastes down to the nitty gritty. Today's porn, like most other kinds of media, caters to exactly what you need, Tibbals said, adding that it's "evolving as the culture and consumers have evolved to meet needs and satisfy interests."

"The millennials I know respond to my daddy-ness," said an anonymous gay man I interviewed, who is in middle age and has had sex with millennials and older men. "At least part of that has to come from the ability to access videos and stories where older guys and intergenerational sex are eroticized."

Interestingly, whether influenced by porn or not, the "daddy" thing shows up in heterosexual sex as well, at least according to a millennial who asked to be called "Chase." Chase, who has had experience with millennial and Generation X women, said, "Millennial women love to throw out an unsolicited 'daddy' during sex." That tiny hint of age-play is so common, Chase told me, "I've had to retrofit my predilections to become OK with hearing it all the time."

But Chase also finds that the sexual imaginations of older women seem to have been influenced by the dialogue in the porn they consumed. "The language of seduction coming from a non-millennial tended to be cheesy Cinemax dialogue," he told me—a theory that presupposes that older women aren't pulling their sex vocabularies from other sources like romance novels. Chase said older women say "take me," or "I want it," while millennial women are "a bit more vulgar and on the nose with their descriptions or requests."

While that kind of dirty talk isn't exclusive to porn, it certainly does sound familiar to anyone who's seen Showtime's The Red Shoe Diaries—a 90s erotic drama series with an extremely low budget for a TV drama, but an astronomical budget for porn.

Tibbals said the sheer ease involved in tracking down context-free hardcore sex scenes on tube sites rather than waiting for your Netflix-style porn DVDs to arrive by mail (Yes, that service exists!) means that millennials aren't seeing the latest and greatest the porn industry has to offer. They're seeing "orphan" content—stuff where the copyright holder has disappeared for whatever reason—along with "slices of content that are presented without context," instead of polished "adult movies," which ostensibly have stories and characters.

Tibbals, who is something of a porn advocate, is sanguine about the overall effect porn is having on the millennial generation. Porn, she explained, shows viewers not just a cornucopia of diverse sex acts, but the full range of human shapes, sizes, and colors—almost literally without exception. "Porn has likely helped many millennials feel less isolated or alone and likely empowered by the fact that—as long as consent is involved—there is nothing 'wrong' with your desires, and you're not the only one who has them," she said.

There's little doubt that millennials' lives are in some ways being affected by porn. Porn gives any person with an open mind and some search engine skills access to dizzying and inspiring array of actions being performed with, by, and around genitals. Meanwhile, if too many images of our own species mating are somehow to blame for societal damage, it's probably going to be years before science can say exactly what that damage is.

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