Stimulated mind: How do you watch porn?

Playboy came out in 1953, with its glamorous display of kitten-tongue pink areolas and girls straddling soft fur rugs. And Playgirl debuted 20 years later, with its hunky nude models and majestic waterfall scenery. “Girls Gone Wild” came out in 1998, with its inexhaustible supply of beads, boobs and lawsuits. This is all fairly routine stuff.

Though most of us are familiar with the trappings of pornography and could spot a dirty magazine from the plastic wrapping alone, it takes a real scientific squad to uncover the nuances of cultured porno viewing, a heady task assigned to researchers at the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience in Atlanta, Ga. They ran a study to determine the viewing patterns of pornography watchers hoping to illuminate some of the ways in which sexual imagery stimulates brain activity.

Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers studied where and for how long porn viewers focused, particularly noting the discrepancies between the female and male experimental groups. Predictably, the researchers found brain patterning differences between the men and women who watched the films. But they were stunned when they uncovered who ogled at what.

Their results indicated that men first looked at and then were more intent on the faux orgasmic faces of the porn actresses, but women stared longer at the outright naughty and raw stuff: the baby-oiled bodies themselves. This is all from solid research; but does this seem odd to you?

I assume that any socialized human being is aware that faces serve as emotional registers for those who find themselves in vulnerable positions; but the research team assumed that women would spend most of their visual time on the faces of the female performers.

And, conversely, the directors assumed men would focus on the genitals because, well, that’s what men do. But in fact, they were busy reading lips and staring meaningfully into the porn actresses’ eyes. Their MRI results supported these findings, indicating men had increased activity in the parts of the brain which serve as emotional receptors, though, admittedly, these results were not absolutely conclusive. Still –– how romantic!

In an even more curious finding, the scientists discovered that women using hormonal contraceptives like the Pill were more likely to look at graphic elements than non-user women presumably because their augmented hormone levels make them slightly more aroused.

Though the data did not show as great of a difference between these two female groups as it did between men and women, I certainly hope all you non-Pill girls out there aren’t just admiring the architecture.

Granted, this study did not cover the perhaps more pressing question of how often and under which conditions women and men choose to access indecent material.

Considering that in 2009 Playgirl at least temporarily shut down print operations in favor of distributing strictly Internet-based material, citing sluggish sales, and considering that approximately one-third of its readers are actually homosexual males, it seems a more urgent task to locate ways for women to enjoy pornography without having to wade through a sea of wincing faces and aerodynamically unrealistic breasts.

But, for now, women who frequent pornography websites will have to skip through the spitting scenes and get to their real apparent objective: the straight-up good stuff.

So, that brings us to the final point: When we choose to be porno consumers, what does this study say about how we do it? Perhaps it points out that we make unfounded generalizations regarding gendered visual spaces, assuming porno mags are for guys and tame romance book covers are for women. Or that men can stare, unapologetically, in a sexually aggressive manner so long as they’re reasonably attractive, but only desperate women do more than scan the scene.

Or so the logic goes.

When I saw porn for the first time, my best friend and I microwaved some popcorn, reclined on her couch, and downloaded a Briana Banks flick from Napster. We commented back and forth about what unpredictably gorgeous jewelry the porn actress was wearing and the hilarious moment at which the bed frame broke underneath all the frenzied activity. That was junior high.

And now that I think about it, I’d still recognize Briana Banks’s buoyant breasts anywhere — but I had to Google the video to remember her bracelet.

Titus is a member of the class of 2011.



You can contact Amelia at atitus2@u.rochester.edu.

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