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LGBTQ

Does Gay Porn Make You Hate Your Body?

In a new study, researchers establish a pretty direct link between gay porn consumption and body dysmorphia.

Steven Blum

Steven Blum

Gay porn magazines. Photo via Flickr user torbakhopper

You'd think the fugue state one enters when watching porn would prevent a detailed analysis of how porn actors' impossibly sculpted bodies compare to one's own. And you'd think, perhaps, that arguments against something as relaxing and enjoyable as watching porn would be inherently regressive or misguided. But according to a comprehensive study of gay porn viewers published last month in Archives of Sexual Behavior, there are far more unintended side effects to watching reams of lithe models getting nasty with each other than you'd think.

Typically, studies on porn habits have focused on whether they make gay viewers more sexually violent or increase sexual risk taking, but a recent survey of more than 1,000 gay men zeroed in on a different, apparently fertile, topic: body dysmorphia. Gay and bisexual men report greater body-related stress and anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders, as well as overall negative body analysis compared to heterosexual men, and they're also more likely to watch more porn (somewhere between 96 and 99 percent of us do, compared to 72 to 76 percent of straight men, according to multiple studies). Could one of the drivers of these disparities be porn consumption?

To get answers, VICE spoke with one of the study's authors: Jeffrey T. Parsons, a professor at Hunter College and founder of its Center for HIV Educational Studies and Training. We talked about gay male bodies, the politics of them, and why you should watch amateur porn if you want to feel better about your beer gut.

VICE: Your study says that greater consumption of porn was directly related to more negative body attitude and both depressive and anxious symptoms. How could something so relaxing actually end up making you feel worse?
Jeffrey T. Parsons: There's also a lot that's left to be studied, because we don't know the types of porn people are watching on a regular basis. It could be those who are most affected are watching the kind with the most idealized body types. We need to get more research in this area, and more nuanced measures, to understand what types of porn can have mental health effects.

Is it hard to toe the line between being porn-positive while also recognizing there can be negative effects to watching too much of it?
Yes, and we're very conscious in this study about not being porn-negative. There are a lot of benefits to sexually explicit media. For some gay men, that's how they learn about sex. For gay men who are not in West Hollywood or New York, who don't have access to the same amount of potential partners, porn can also help them have a more satisfying sexual life. We have always taken a positive approach to people's sexuality. It's more about, to what degree [some men are] allowing those idealized body types to become so dominant in their thinking that it negatively affects how they view themselves. It's for those men that we really want therapists, counselors, and providers to explore these issues.

Do you think the body positivity movement has reached the gay community?
That's really hard to say. I think there are elements of it, and it depends on where you look: You can find that in our community, but you have to look harder than the alternative. If you look at popular gay icons and people on TV, they still tend to have those traditionally idealized body types. I think we're starting to see some movement, and the men who are able to have multiple communities to pick and choose from are going to have more opportunities to experience body positivity.

But even in gay subcultures ostensibly dedicated to acceptance, like the chub and chub chaser community or the bear community, people are often put into boxes and categorized as "types" based on their bodies, right?
I think that's true, and I think where we can see some movement in this realm is the growing dominance of amateur porn. Basically, anybody out there can make a video and upload it. That opens up the opportunity to see other body types having sex. And if you're attracted to other body types, it's much easier to find that kind of media in 2017 than it was ten years ago. There is some hope that there's a lid for every pot, as they say.

In the study, you write that there's a link between having a negative body image and engaging in risky sex or not taking your HIV medication on time. Why do you think that is?
I think it stems from the broader mental health issues that gay men still grapple with on a daily basis: stigma, discrimination, stress from being part of a marginalized group. One Supreme Court decision didn't reverse decades of discrimination. If you add Trump's daily threats to the LGBTQ community, and overlay that with the feeling "I feel bad about my body," the idea of then taking your HIV medications it's like, well, maybe I'll just put that aside because I'm feeling so depressed and anxious and unhappy with how I look. Some people really allow the negativity they feel in their body to limit how well they take care of their health.

So you think discrimination and internalized homophobia has had a cumulative effect?
Yes. If you think about gay men in their 50s and 60s, they came of age in a very different time. People are still processing years of discrimination from their family, work, and peers in a way that it's not just going to turn it around quickly. I think there's hope for the newest generation who—prior to last November—are growing up in a much more progressive atmosphere. We need more surveys about them.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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