This article was first published on GQ online here

Pornography isn’t just an aid to masturbation. It can help you have better sex, too.

Monkey see, monkey do

In anthropological terms, the one thing that separates us from the great apes is privacy. Sex in public in human societies is so socially transgressive that it’s illegal.

Fortunately, technology means we don’t need to gawp at others doing it to learn how to do it. We learn most things by watching them happen, through being shown first hand, or through description.

That’s something we share with the great apes: for example, a female gorilla born in captivity in Ohio State Zoo had to be shown videos of gorillas nursing in the wild to learn how to suckle her young; and a common complaint of new mothers today is that breastfeeding is not instinctual, possibly because the sight of breastfeeding is so rare. As a physical act, sex is no different.

Pornography is a safe way of learning about one of the most important things about life.

Sex manuals have been produced for millennia, most famously the Kama Sutra, which does focus on sexual positions, but the majority of the book in fact explains a philosophy of love, desire and has advice about bedroom etiquette (make sure she comes first and try not focusing just on your own pleasure).


Erotic and comedic prints called “Shunga” (which translates as “spring pictures”, a euphemism for sex) became popular in Japan during the 18th and 19th centuries. In those days, strict confuscian laws controlled public life, but private life remained uncensored and that allowed a national network of lending libraries — often distributing Shunga — to flourish. These paintings were often given as a wedding present, and some were very explicit: if you weren’t sure what went where when it came to sex, these images would sort you out. They later became very popular in Europe and the US during the 20th and 21st centuries, just as they became taboo in Japan.

Flashing images

Today, the ubiquity of pornography worries many. There is a wide debate about whether or not it is addictive, and studies on the effects on pornography on men’s attitudes to relationships with women litter psychology journals. There’s really no clear consensus on whether it benefits or harms us.

Take, for example, a study published this year reporting no relationship between erectile problems and watching lots of porn. It hypothesised that those watching more porn in fact had a greater appetite for sex with their partner. The study also noted that those with problems exhibited other types of sexual dysfunction, suggesting that extensive use of pornography is a sign of ill-health, not the cause.

No matter. Undoubtedly there are just as many examples of studies showing the evils of porn. What’s interesting is the continued focus on men’s use of pornography (and not women). It’s as if the majority of porn wasn’t made for women…

The Growth of “Ethical Porn”

The definition of so-called “ethical porn” is fuzzy. Are rape fantasy scenes unethical when all the actors consent?

Some might say pornography even allows a method for society to safely explore sexual mores. It’s a hard one. The UK government recently voted that non-consensual sex scenes in porn were illegal, as is face-sitting, strangulation and fisting. If you thought that these are bans for the sake of female equality, guess again: female ejaculation is also off the cards. The laws have only affected UK producers of porn, and film makers like Erika Lust have showed their disappointment that acts that women derive pleasure from are being restricted, but one woman’s fisting is another woman’s subjugation.

There are more than 50 shades of grey. Other, more progressively minded, governments have gone the opposite direction when it comes to sex: Danish sex educators have even started to discuss pornography in the classroom.

As we’ve seen, pornography can clearly be put to good use by educating men and women about sex. If only we could decide how to do this effectively. Perhaps we need a mass debate?