In a Friends episode titled "The One with Free Porn," Chandler and Joey discover to their delight a free pornography TV channel, which they leave on and watch endlessly for fear it will go away. Later, a startled Chandler reports to Joey, "I was just at the bank, and there was this really hot teller, and she didn't ask me to go do it in the vault." Joey describes a similar cold shoulder from the pizza-delivery woman. "You know what?" Chandler concludes. "We have to turn off the porn."
Chandler may be on to something. Call it the porn factor. Whereas pornography was once furtively glimpsed at dimly lighted newsstands or seedy adult theaters, today it is everywhere. It pours in over the Internet, sometimes uninvited, sometimes via eagerly forwarded links (Paris Hilton, anyone?). It titillates 24/7 on steamy adult cable channels and on-demand services (the pay-per-view reality show Can You Be a Porn Star? made its debut this month). It has infiltrated mainstream cable with HBO's forthcoming documentary series Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley. And in ways that have only begun to be measured, it is coloring relationships, both long-and short-term, reshaping expectations about sex and body image and, most worrisome of all, threatening to alter how young people learn about sex.
In recent years, a number of psychologists and sociologists have joined the chorus of religious and political opponents in warning about the impact of pervasive pornography. They argue that porn is transforming sexuality and relationships--for the worse. Experts say men who frequently view porn may develop unrealistic expectations of women's appearance and behavior, have difficulty forming and sustaining relationships and feeling sexually satisfied. Fueled by a combination of access, anonymity and affordability, online porn has catapulted overall pornography consumption--bringing in new viewers, encouraging more use from existing fans and escalating consumers from soft-core to harder-core material. Cyberporn is even giving rise to a new form of sexual compulsiveness. According to Alvin Cooper, who conducts seminars on cybersex addiction, 15% of online-porn habitues develop sexual behavior that disrupts their lives. "The Internet is the crack cocaine of sexual addiction," says Jennifer Schneider, co-author of Cybersex Exposed: Simple Fantasy or Obsession?
Yet most users say sex online is nothing more than good (if not quite clean) fun. According to a 2001 online survey of 7,037 adults, two-thirds of those who visit websites with sexual content say their Internet activities haven't affected their level of sexual activity with their partners, though three-quarters report masturbating while online. The vast majority of respondents--85% to 90%--according to Cooper, who heads the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center, which conducted the study, are what he calls "recreational users," people who view pornography as a curiosity or diversion.