Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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The Impact of Bareback Porn

Impact of Bareback

In the immediate wake of the AIDS crisis, penises in porn were almost uniformly wrapped up. This was initially for the protection of the performers — an effective HIV test would not be on the market until 1985 — but eventually condoms became a part of the culture of the big gay-porn studios that then almost completely dominated production of sexually explicit materials (SEM).

That began to change, arguably, in 1998, when Paul Morris of Treasure Island Media broke the long-held industry taboo against producing bareback porn. Then the advent of the Internet dramatically reduced the cost of distribution, bringing a slew of amateur studios whose owners and performers (often the same individuals) had little direct experience with the AIDS crisis or the urgency that fueled the big studios’ condom culture. And with portrayals of condomless sex gradually becoming the norm among the amateur porn sites, the big studios began to follow suit, one by one abandoning the unwritten “always condoms” rule.

Some estimates hold that 30 – 50 percent of all Internet traffic is devoted to SEM, yet there has been comparatively little academic literature on the impact this material has on its viewers. The little literature which does exist tends to focus on violence and misogyny among heterosexuals. Researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, led by Dr. Eric Schrimshaw, sought to address that lack with a small study titled “Viewing of Internet-Based Sexually Explicit Media as a Risk Factor for Condomless Anal Sex among Men Who Have Sex with Men in Four U.S. Cities,” which was published this past April in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal produced by the Public Library of Science.

The study recruited 265 men who have sex with men (MSM) who were asked to relate the number of hours in an average week they spent viewing “man on man” porn, and how much of it featured anal penetration with a condom, as well as condomless anal sex. Their responses were assigned value on a six-point scale: none, 1 – 24 percent (a little), 25 – 49 percent (some), 50 – 74 percent (much), 75 – 99 percent (most), or 100 percent (all). 

In order to discern the perceived impact of their porn consumption, participants were also asked to describe how often in the preceding three months they fantasized about engaging in sexual acts they had watched, if watching Internet porn influenced the kind of sex they desired, if they sought out sexual contact after watching SEM on the Internet, whether or not they felt Internet porn contributed to their engaging in “risky sex,” and whether they engaged in condomless anal sex within hours of viewing SEM. 

Nearly all of the participants had consumed at least some porn both with (91.3 percent) and without (92 percent) condoms in the preceding three months. And researchers were able to discern a clear correlation between condom usage and the condom content of the pornography consumed by the participants; for instance, those who consumed “much” condomless porn (50 – 74 percent) could be expected to participate in 25 percent more sex without condoms than those who only viewed “some.” Conversely, that number decreased by 38 percent for each unit on the scale of SEM that featured condoms. Interestingly, more frequent or compulsive porn consumption did not necessarily track to more condomless sex.

But while this was a well-crafted study, with interesting implications, one should be clear about its limitations and take care not to draw undue conclusions. There seems to be a clear correlation between condomless porn and condomless anal sex, but it is difficult to untangle whether the pornography is influencing men’s behavior, or if men who prefer condomless sex seek that out online.

That being said, it should be noted that for the most part, the participants themselves believed that the porn they watched influenced their behavior: 83 percent of participants said that it affected the kind of sexual activity they desired, 93 percent felt that it influenced their fantasies, 70 percent reported acting out sex they saw on the Internet, and 55 percent of participants sought out sex after watching porn. And while only 48 percent of respondents thought that porn contributed to riskier behavior in their own sex lives, fully 91 percent believe that it contributes to the risky behavior of other MSM.

Ultimately this is a topic of study of great relevance to the health of gay and bisexual men, crying out for more funding and attention. We will never be able to craft effective health promotional campaigns or individual interventions if we don’t understand the interplay of behavior, fantasy, and porn — as we have learned to our detriment over the past 35 years.

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