Real Bodies Look Like What: The Relationship of Pornography and Sex in Pakistani Society

Growing up in Pakistan, every time I would see a man and a woman hold hands, I would immediately be delighted with the idea that they were to be blessed with a little one very soon. I imagined them receiving a phone call from the hospital informing them that their baby had arrived. I had seen numerous parents return from hospitals carrying their newborns, with the mother looking exceptionally tired for some odd reason.

I was in for a surprise, and not a very pleasant one. Learning about sex was traumatic, to say the least. Unfortunately, it was just the beginning, and contrary to what I believed, there was more to sexual relations that a penis and a vagina coming together to produce a baby. There was menstruation, the process of women giving birth, oral sex, religiously permitted sex, sex that would “nullify your marriage”, and worst of all, coming to terms with the idea that a man and a woman actually enjoyed, or at least are supposed to enjoy, sexual intercourse. 

Formal sex education is non-existent in Pakistan. And unlike what Hollywood showed us, South Asian parents do not attempt to have the “talk” with their children either. For parents, their children are better off pretending they still believe holding hands leads to god sending the child to a nearby hospital in a gold basket, entirely oblivious to anything known as “sex” regardless of whether the ‘child’ is 10 or 35. With almost 220 million people as of 2017, Pakistan is one of the most populated countries in the world, so even if the grown-ups are going at it like bunnies, they too must always act like they have never even heard about this activity. 

No one is talking about it, but everyone is doing it. So how exactly do people know how to do something as complex as sex that they apparently don’t even know about? 

Porn and Sex in Conservative Societies

As a young adult in any part of the world, you are bound to come across pornography at some point. More so today because of the internet and ease of access to adult content, than in the previous century. Much has been written about the negative impacts of porn on individuals and romantic relationships for unrealistic expectations it creates, but in a country like Pakistan where sex is still taboo, the impact and consequences of this content are far worse, especially if you are engaging in the act for pleasure as an unmarried woman.

The fear of being exposed to abusive families makes it very difficult for young people to create spaces that are safe and sex-positive.

Sexual relationships in Pakistan are complex. Premarital sex is punishable by religion and local laws, in addition to the moral outrage it attracts. If you are a woman, repercussions are more severe, and in many cases, women have been killed in the name of honour for engaging in such relationships by the men in their families. The fear of being exposed to abusive families makes it very difficult for young people to create spaces that are safe and sex-positive, and where they can discuss their sexual concerns, their experiences or just explore their preferences. For this very reason, porn very often becomes an educational and exploratory instrument in the country. 

Sex as Pleasure, But For Whom?

Religion and culture in the Pakistani society dictates that sex is mainly for a man’s pleasure and for the purpose of procreation. It does not help that pop culture further validates this notion, leading to young impressionable people to pick up the same beliefs. Brides-to-be are often told that they must let their husbands have their way with them, otherwise invite displeasure from God – an ideology often legitimised by the religious scripture as well. Nabeela, a woman in her 50’s from Islamabad, shares her experience of getting married in the 1990’s and how she knew nothing about sex and was told by the elderly women in her family to “let her husband take the lead” with whatever was about to go down on her wedding night. She believed that it was her religious duty to please her man, even if that meant doing acts that she was uncomfortable with. 

“I think, in fact, I know that he used to consume a lot of porn and expect his wife to act the same way. Sometimes it was degrading, but I never said No because I was told it was my ‘duty’ to oblige,” Nabeela says. She is now a divorced mother of three, happier than ever to have been “freed from the shackles of pleasing her husband” against her will. 

Men learn little about the real-life experiences of others and curate their expectations to what they see on screen – a very unrealistic and staged image of what sex entails and looks like.

While writing this piece, I spoke to at least a dozen women, most of them in their 20’s, all of whom claimed that when they were growing up, their male counterparts watched pornography regularly much earlier than they did. Areeba*, a 29 year old woman from Islamabad, says, “Men just start watching [porn] in their early teens because their friends share it with them, and they even discuss it later among themselves. I saw and heard too many boys my age do so at the time. My female friends were not too eager to watch though.”

So if Pakistani men are getting most of their information on sex from porn, keeping in mind the religious and cultural role of dominance they play, and with the absence of safe sex positive spaces, they learn little about the real-life experiences of others and curate their expectations to what they see on screen – a very unrealistic and staged image of what the act entails and looks like. 

Amna*, a 27 year old woman from Islamabad, who is in a happy and committed relationship, talked about how porn creates unrealistic expectations which men expect women to fulfil, and how unreasonable this is. She also shared her frustration regarding how women are portrayed in porn, as compared to erotica which she prefers reading. “I usually read erotica instead [of watching porn videos] because it felt like I wasn’t constantly looking at thin, white women being humiliated by men, and it felt more comfortable reading than just watching women being dehumanised,” she explained. 

Women across the globe have felt dehumanised by porn, especially due to its aggressive nature, often involving violence categorised as BDSM, but the line between consensual BDSM and non-consensual sexual violence is easily blurred especially when a power imbalance exists between two parties. Pornographic videos rarely ever address the issue of consent on screen; you will not see many actors verbally agreeing to the acts to indicate consent and the woman is more often than not, a submissive character. An example of this is the accusations against the pornstar James Deen, who was accused by multiple women in 2015, including ex-girlfriends and also fellow porn actors working alongside him in the industry, for violating their consent during filming and sexually assaulting them. The issue sparked debate surrounding the silencing of women in the porn industry that are victims of rape and assault due to the stigma that no one participates in porn willingly, so the line is blurred between consensual acts and rape. Deen’s actions were repeatedly brushed under the carpet by pornography companies since he was popular as one of the few “feminist” porn actors. 

Mainstream pornography caters to the male gaze and reinforces toxic masculinity, where the woman only exists for the sole pleasure of the man. But many women engage in the act with partners who are aware of this power imbalance in the portrayal of sex and work to dismantle it in their own relationships. Meesha*, a 27 year old woman from Karachi, shares that her sexual partner did not demand anything of her during sex that she may be uncomfortable with, even though he regularly watches porn. He was understanding of her needs and comfort, and communicated throughout their journey which is why they share a healthy sexual relationship. However, despite this, Meesha said that in the beginning, she did feel anxious due to her inexperience with sex and wondered what would happen if she could not “perform like the girls in pornographic videos.” She says, “I used to ask my partner whether it was a bad thing that I could not give oral sex like the girls in the videos, but he said it was  fine,” adding how he would always reassure her and make her feel safe during the act. 

Mainstream pornography caters to the male gaze and reinforces toxic masculinity, where the woman only exists for the sole pleasure of the man.

Meesha’s anxiety was shared by other women I interviewed who felt that even though their partners never expressly asked for anything in bed, they felt pressured to either look like or perform like the women in porn. This could be attributed to the lack of real-life experiences being shared by both the partners who might be suffering from the same insecurities, and pornography being the default source of information on how the act is really done. 

Real Bodies Look Like What?!

Where it is hard for women to participate and enjoy the act of sex itself because of porn, an added issue is that of tarnished body image. The homogeneity of the female body in pornography is designed to make you feel “out of the ordinary”, especially if you are a South Asian woman. In this region, skin colour ranges from multiple variations of light to dark, and few women would fit the conventional caucasian adult actress with pigmentation-free, hairless bodies you are likely to see in porn. In addition, actresses in this industry undergo a number of aesthetic procedures and treatments to look the way that they do, and it is simply not possible for a regular woman to do the same. As a result, South Asian bodies are reduced to fetishes rather than real, regular and relatable women.

Areeba* expresses her frustration regarding the expectation that a woman’s pubic hair must always be shaved, and why it needs to look all pretty and pink when she is a brown woman with natural pigmentation under her arms, across her body and between her legs.

Fatima*, a 27 year old woman from Karachi, although highly independent and a confident health professional, felt so insecure about being “too thin” that she lost more weight due to the constant stress and is now struggling to gain it back. She claims to be physically weak at this point and even though she is more realistic about how female bodies can come in all shapes and sizes, her partner does not share the same idea and chooses to view her through the lenses of pornography and the women it portrays. “It makes me uncomfortable because I think my partner is not satisfied. I have stopped feeling confident in my relationship,” she says, blaming this warped idea of the “perfect body” depicted in pornography that her partner is a frequent consumer of. 

South Asian bodies are reduced to fetishes rather than real, regular and relatable women.

However, the discussion around sex and related issues is gaining momentum especially in women-only spaces. Areeba* and I discussed how women are using the internet to speak to like-minded femmes who provide a safe, judgement-free zone to share their concerns. Meesha* also added how she feels a lot more confident and safe in her sexual relationships because she can rely on social media and other women in her circle to help her out if she needed to understand something or simply just vent out her frustrations regarding sex. It also helps to know there is another woman out there who chooses not to shave, or has uneven skin tone throughout her body, but enjoys a healthy sexual relationship with her partner. 

Unique Approaches to Unique Positions

By speaking to other women, Areeba* also learned that each individual enjoys sex differently and what might work for one person, might not for the other. She is of the opinion that porn misleads you in this aspect, because you see almost every woman achieving an orgasm through penetrative sex, when in reality it is the opposite; a majority of women do not orgasm that way, if at all. “I thought something was wrong with me,” she laughs. 

Pleasure for women is a lot more complex, and porn teaches you there is only one way to go about it and expect equal satisfaction for both parties in the end. The matter of female sexual pleasure is one that is often neglected, as is evident from the lack of scientific research on it as well. 29-year-old development professional from Lahore, Noor* shares that she learned about the complete female anatomy very recently even though she relied on the internet for most things growing up and subsequently realised that she attached so much shame to pleasure unknowingly. “It’s like you think you are liberated and all but then you realise ‘oh shit!’ I restrict myself when feeling pleasure because there is so much shame,” she adds. Noor’s experience resonated with other interviewees as well, who also claimed that they would evade learning about their bodies until their 20’s when they began to actively engage in sex. 

Amna* thinks this is because of how sex is made to look “gross” in our cultural upbringing, when in reality it is actually not that bad. Other interviewees shared the same feeling, and after the discussion, we realised it's because we are taught that our genitals are “impure” regions in the body, as often indicated in religious teachings. Add bodily fluids to the mix, and it is not the most appealing idea to someone growing up as a Muslim in Pakistan. While Amna is not completely averse to pornography, she does wish that the porn industry would produce more ethical, diverse and feminist porn that could be educational as well as enforces a positive sex image for both the partners, however, she is not too optimistic about it because she believes the industry commercialises sex for its largest consumers: men.

Women-only spaces are sprouting across platforms that welcome healthy discussion on sex, pleasure and the female body.

For Pakistanis, it is almost impossible to imagine a sex-positive society for the next few decades. As access to the internet increases, so does censorship in the country, which not only bans access to websites containing pornographic content, but also to sites that promote sexual health and wellness, for instance, Men's Health, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, are all platforms banned from viewership in Pakistan. Despite this, women-only spaces are sprouting across platforms that welcome healthy discussion on sex, pleasure and the female body. Even though these conversations are restricted to a micro level in closed spaces, one can hope that our children have better relationships with their bodies, and more positive experiences with sex and pornography.

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