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Why Do Women Feel Bad About Doing Things That Feel Good?

Tuesday, May 03 2011 @ 10:41 AM CDT

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Women feel greater guilt about looking at porn than do men. Why are they primed to feel bad about pleasure?

By Liz Langley

The first time I rented porn alone I wasn’t really alone. There were other customers in the store, a small chain, popular in the days before Blockbuster had swallowed and sanitized most neighborhood VHS rental outlets. Back then most video stores had a back room where you could find adult films, typically separated from God’s wholesome sunlit earth by a set of white, swinging saloon doors, so that you'd feel like a big sex outlaw just by swaggering in. Which you never did. You skulked casually past a few times before sidling into the pervert annex and getting knocked in the face with an array of filth beyond your wildest dreams.

I was not always the only woman behind the swinging doors but I was almost always the only one who was alone.

It was a little discomfiting but it was also exciting. I was young, curious and not about to let a embarrassment stand between me titles like “The Czech is in the Male.”

Modern women don’t have to worry about this. They don’t have feign coolness when they bring their chosen stimulus package to some smirky little clerk at the end of their journey. They can turn on their computer in the privacy of their own home and an embarrassment of wieners will bloom before their very eyes, if that’s what they want, and no one will be there to judge them for it.

Except, evidently, themselves.

Jason Dean, a counselor at a UK porn counseling service says in The Guardian the the number of women he hears from with concerns about their X-rated viewing habits has jumped from a couple in previous years to about 70 per year and that they feel bad about it in a way men don’t: "There's a real sense among women that it's bad, dirty, wrong and they're often unable to get beyond that." Dr. Phillip Hodson of the British Association of Counseling and Psyhcotherapy said in the piece that many women may feel guilty for being unable to reconcile their enjoyment of the images with the feeling of objectification of women.

What hooked me like a fish was the Guardian story subhead: “Increasing numbers of women admit to being hooked on internet porn. Why is this happening, and where are they finding help?”

See, to me, the porn is or would seem to be the help, a small rush of pleasure which, like a little wine, a long talk or a South Park episode, makes the day better. Sexually explicit images facilitate arousal which facilitates orgasm, during which our brains release pleasing chemicals and our lateral orbitofrontal cortex – seat of reason and control – momentarily shuts down, giving us that break we’re always asking for. It’s a lovely gift from nature, presumably to make up for things like stinging insects, summer colds and other people. And it’s and free, inside our bodies; all you have to do is pump the keg.

The women cited in the Guardian story, however, feel they are addicted and feel more guilty about this than their male counterparts. Bryant Paul, Ph.d, Professor of Telecommunications and Affiliated Faculty with the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University says that part of the guilt is just good old stigmatizing nice-girls-don’t with an added techno-twist.

“We’re seeing more male nudity and more women exposed to that who are having sexually arousing response and it’s becoming acceptable,” he says. The web, which used to be fringe and subversive, has now become the norm, so mainstream outlets have had to become more risqué to keep up: he cites “True Blood,” which he jokingly calls “True Porn,” as an example of this and of how sex in mainstream media is less stigmatized. To illustrate that, on the day we spoke he asked his students whether it would be okay for a student’s parents to see a Hustler vs. a Maxim magazine on their coffee table: Maxim was deemed ok, Hustler wasn’t.

“There’s a social stigma attached to the objectification that occurs in Hustler and less social stigma associated with the very overt objectification that occurs in a Maxim,” he says. We internalize our beliefs about the taboos we have against specific media sources. Women have access to sexually explicit content, “but they’re operating in a sensibility of “women don’t do that sort of thing,” because that’s what they grew up in.”

Previous generations of parents – like mine and Dr. Paul’s – had to navigate their kids through the unfamiliar territory of late night smut suddenly occurring on cable, something for which they had no frame of reference, he says. Young adults today were raised by parents who weren’t so internet savvy, so they lived in a web world with the pre-web sensibilities of “don’t look at this,” and “don’t do that. Kids today who have internalized the web will be able to guide their kids through a field of pop-ups more effectively. “So there’s a technological generation gap,” Dr. Paul says, and that may be where the guilt of some women is coming from.

So our minds haven’t caught up with our Macs – culture often lags behind technology. Dr. Paul uses the awakening caused by the birth control pill as an example. “Men were having the same amount of sex they ever did; the increase in premarital sex that we saw was really among women so it was access to technology,” in this case medical technology, that drove our openness to previously taboo behavior.

So you have the techno-gap. Then you have the fact that it’s not just porn: women feel guiltier about nearly everything than men seem to.

“Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I’ll show you a man,” said Erica Jong and it does sometimes seem like women will find innumerable ways to feel bad about feeling good. Whether it’s weight, working motherhood, or leaving troubled friendships, women feel worse about everything. A 2010 study reported in the Spanish Journal of Psychology showed that women feel signifiantly more habitual guilt than men (who feel “too little” the story says). Health.com reports that women feel twice as guilty as men if they get a work-related Blackberry buzz at home, even if it doesn’t interfere with their home life. A 2009 survey of 1000 people in showed that women have more guilt about environmental issues –41% of women as opposed to 27% of men reported having “green guilt.”

The Spanish study says that men’s guilt comes from things they do to themselves - like overating and drinking – while female guilt comes from being worried about hurting others.

The worst of it: that guilt is physically bad for us. According to The Daily Mail “A separate Hull University study found those who felt guilty about enjoying pleasures such as a lie in or eating chocolate had fewer key antibodies in their saliva than those who simply enjoyed what life had to offer.”

Porn addiction is not an official diagnosis; it’s not in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistucal Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the ‘bible’ of psychiatry), though porn compulsion will be part of the upcoming edition. Official or not, once it causes more misery than happiness then like any habit, compulsion or obsession, it’s worth taking steps to change it.

But what if it’s not putting you into bankruptcy and you just like shebopping all day to whatever visual image becomes the catalyst to your arousal? With or without porn I’ve incurred more than one case of vibrator-related carpal tunnel and frankly I don’t see the difference between that and ravenous sports or sci-fi fans spending hours on their chosen pleasure…except that stigma.

You could go clear back to the Virgin Mary for examples of the good-girls-aren’t-sexual myth, but since Playboy was the modern genesis of easily-accessed naked pictures, let’s start there. Hugh Hefner presented men with the gift of the centerfold in 1953 (while women were looking at ads like these). It took nearly 20 years before we got the divinely hairy Burt Reynolds naked in Cosmo and even then was hiding his lil’ bandit in his hand. Hef had offered 200 centerfolds by then and we were still cockblocked. The lopsided market was long blamed on the idea that women didn’t want to see dirty pictures. Fast forward to 2009 and Oprah reports that women make up a third of the $10 billion porn market. So we are interested. And a fine illustration of the fallacy that we’re not is Britain’s Filament magazine. After it’s first issue, showing erotic images geared to women, readers told them they wanted more explicit material. Filament decided to show a man with an erection but their timid printers refused the job, fearing the wrath of religious and women’s groups. The magazine launched an online campaign to raise money for a pricier printing service. They got it. The issue sold out.

Yet “A limp response to women's erotica,” was the Guardian’s headline to this story, suggesting a wan response by women, not the actual ravenous one (not to pick on the Guardian; they give great story but not, in this case, good head).

Dr. Ian Kerner, in his CNN blog last week, said that that more women are watching porn – learning from it, using it for self arousal and watching it with their partners. He cites a study from Northwestern University saying that while men are more aroused by porn that goes with their sexual orientation that women were all over the map in terms of what turned them on. He even speculated that the web market might end up more female-geared and recommended Violet Blue and Rachel Kramer Bussel as fine places for women to start their porn or erotica journeys respectively.

What’s troubling about women’s greater guilt over compulsive porn watching is that it’s heartbreaking when good people end up feeling like bad people because their sexual interests are stigmatized. Teens are buillied to the point of suicide for being gay. Women are routinely shamed for their overt sexual behavior – whether it’s too much or too little – as Rachel Kramer Bussel recently described on this website. Planned Parenthood and its services gets stigmatized – and nearly defunded as a result. The fear that someone, somewhere might be having an unauthorized orgasm can lead us to dreadful, dreadful places.

Dr. Kerner’s guess about a more female-lead market might prove correct if Dr. Paul’s class is any indication. When he asked his students whether they would be upset if they knew their partner was using porn, most of the women said no; none of the guys said they’d be bothered.

At a guess I’d say the reason they wouldn’t mind a girlfriend who likes porn is the relief of transparency: how nice to have one less thing to hide from your partner, one more pleasure to share, a way to learn what they like without actually having to ask, a way to see someone else but be with that one person. How nice not to sidle into the pervert annex alone, but giggling and together?

Hopefully fewer women will feel guilty because of their desires, whether that desire is to stop watching porn, to start or to share it with their lovers. It’s nice to know I’m not the only woman behind the swinging saloon doors anymore. A whole third of the market is in there with me.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.


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