sex education: the difference between porn and real sex

The topic of porn seems to elicit a variety of emotions in people, from excitement to disgust. I get asked questions about porn a lot: Is it normal to watch and enjoy it? How much is too much? Is porn bad for me?

Porn often gets a bad rep as something that ‘promotes violence against women’, or portrays an unrealistic view of sex. It can of course be these things, but it can also be a great addition to a sexual experience.

How is sex in porn different to real sex?

When it comes to the difference between porn sex and real sex, there are many. It’s true that porn can lead to unhealthy ways of thinking about and engaging in sex, especially if someone grows up seeing porn as their primary form of sexual reference (education). Porn focuses on performance, not pleasure. You should recognise that porn stars are actors, and usually acting out their pleasure.

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Let me debunk some common things seen in porn, and what real life sex looks like:

  • Female orgasms. For a woman, an orgasm is generally a learnt experience, and doesn’t happen spontaneously just from intense thrusting. Women need to spend time getting to know their bodies, how they respond to arousing touch and how to reach climax. A lot of women struggle to orgasm when they are distracted, stressed, tired, etc., and so don’t expect to have earth-shattering orgasms every time you get it on (this is a generalisation and some women do experience this. Remember, every person’s sexual response is unique).
  • Noise levels. Women are known to be more vocal in bed than men, but most women aren’t going to wake the neighbours with their moans and screams. Expecting her to scream like a porn star is quite unrealistic, although some women are far more vocal than others.
  • Rough and/or hard sex might get some close to orgasm, but it is usually nowhere near stimulating alone for a woman. Women need completely different stimulation to men, with a focus on clitoral stimulation. In porn, it’s rare that you see penetration and clitoral stimulation together. Although porn often includes sex other than intercourse, a woman is likely to need far more directed and intentional touch during actual sex.
  • Sustained erections. There are very few men who can maintain an erection for hours (and actually it’s dangerous if he has an erection for more than a couple of hours). All men have what is called a refractory (or recovery) period; after sex they will need some time to recover before they can attain another erection and ejaculate again, if at all. Porn stars have bigger than average penises to start with, and they will also refrain from ejaculation for a few days prior to shooting. Not being able to get it up sometimes as a young man is completely normal (especially when alcohol is involved) and becomes even more common over the age of 50.
  • Preferences. Every person has different sexual tastes and preferences, and both men and women enjoy watching porn. Men are generally turned on by porn as they are visual, and thus seeing something sexual should lead to sexual arousal. Most women have seen porn and continue to watch it on a regular basis, either alone or with a partner.
  • Bodies. Bodies, hair and genitals are different in porn than real life too… porn stars are often hired on these characteristics alone and are expected to maintain a certain look. As mentioned, male porn stars have far larger than the average penis (this is usually part of the job requirement) and their pubic hair is mostly completely clean shaven, whereas the average man may not groom at all, if only a little. Women in porn films generally have large, perky breasts and near-to-hairless vulvas, whereas in real life women’s breasts come in all shapes and sizes, and every women has a different preference when it comes to their own pubic hair.

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In the past few years, there has been a real push by many for consumers to engage with ethical porn – porn that is a more realistic portrayal of sex, pays those involved fairly, is more inclusive of gender, bodies, and sexual orientations and, most importantly, is shared consensually! If you’re interested in porn like this, I suggest checking out Erika Lust’s work – she’s forging the way in porn to create content that is all the above!

Catriona is an accredited clinical sexologist, psychotherapist, sexuality researcher & speaker. She is an expert in the field of sexual behaviour, intimacy, relationships and mental well-being, with a particular interest in helping people create or reestablish sexual intimacy and empowering women to embrace their sexuality. She has delivered her expertise across media, business and private platforms and is a globally recognised voice in the field of sex, pleasure and relationships. She runs a global practice online, consulting with clients from around the world, but has a practice in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, United Kingdom.