Connecting the dots: porn and women's declining libido
Dr Bella Ellwood-Clayton, resident anthropologist come sexpert, released her new book this week Sex Drive: In Pursuit of Female Desire. In it she draws attention to something researchers and sex therapists have largely ignored (in this country anyway) and that's the negative impact of porn on women's libido.
"In any given second, 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography and 372 internet users are typing adult terms into search engines. Every 39 minutes, a new pornographic video is created in the US ...The effects of this pornography flood are yet to be fully understood, but it inarguably harms female libido" argues Ellwood-Clayton.
We know porn is everywhere – "the wall paper of our lives" as Naomi Wolf puts it – with global sales exceeding 97 billion dollars annually. And we know that most of those viewing porn are men, almost all young men, and many older men too. Internet filter review statistics show that 97 percent of the searches for "free porn" were undertaken by men.
An Australian survey of more than 1000 porn users found that men outnumbered women four-to-one or, in other words, men constituted 82 per cent of users. In addition, they found that 77 per cent of these same users were heterosexual and 55 per cent were in a monogamous relationship. That's a lot of men in relationships who are looking at porn.
Ellwood-Clayton is concerned with the well-documented decline in libidofor women in long-term relationships. However, unlike the other key commentators on this issue - Bettina Arndt and Dr Rosie King, Ellwood-Clayton has connected the dots, in recognising the deleterious impact on women's self-image and self-esteem of both pornography and the (increasingly pornified) advertising industry.
While Bettina Arndt tells us we should "stop banging on about porn" and let men be men, and Dr Rosie King suggests, in her cheerful yet naive way, that women need to look at what's behind their lost libido – depression, ill-health, sexual technique and so on, both have missed a key variable in the mix. For both Arndt and King the onus is on women to step up in some way – either by happily submitting to sex they don't want (Arndt) or by looking at their own issues (King).
In contrast, Ellwood-Clayton draws attention to the pornographic wallpaper adorning our lives and asks if this doesn't have something to do with women's low libido. She connects women's increasingly documented sense of physical inadequacy, exemplified by our huge and ever growing expenditure on beauty products and cosmetic surgery, as well as the relentless pursuit of diet and exercise, with our declining desires. Hers is a far more insightful and radical analysis.
The real clincher, notes Ellwood-Clayton, is the disconnect between our minds and our bodies – we have come to perceive our bodies not as we feel and experience them, not as living breathing entities capable of menstruating with the moon and bringing forth new life (and here we see her anthropological bent), but through the filter of porn culture and advertising. For Ellwood-Clayton, women see their bodies through "the social gaze" and police themselves accordingly.
The loss of libido is therefore not about women's lack of sexual capacity or response, it's not even about the so-called monotony of monogamy, it's about the painful sense of not measuring up. This path is a convoluted one that relates to heterosexual women's desire to be desired. "Sex is far better for women", notes Ellwood-Clayton, "when they feel sexy". "Herein lies the rub: modern-day women rarely feel sexy. Far too much stands in the way."
What stands in the way exactly?
Ellwood-Clayton is clear: pornography and advertising industries that parade impossible standards of youth and beauty. As these images take up more and more cultural (media) space, they also take up more mental space, leading to women's ubiquitous "self objectification". What's standing in our way is an internalised image of the twenty-first century sexual ideal – the pneumatic, hairless, toned, athletic, ever-youthful, sexed-up woman – and, increasingly girl - of porn that has seeped into the collective female consciousness and quite literally sapped it of eros.
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