Getting Off on Facebook

Are guys using Facebook as G-rated smut? Amanda Marcotte on men who ogle pictures of their female “friends” on the social networking site.

Misha Japaridze / AP Photo

For reasons of bet-settling, I recently found myself on a bender of asking male friends a simple question: How many straight men do they believe look at porn on a regular basis? Most of the answers fell right into the 99-to-100 percent zone, but one friend startled me by saying, “At least 60 percent,” a number I found to be a tad low.

He quickly clarified his position by noting that it would be 100 percent if many men, at least some of the time, weren’t logging onto Facebook instead of seeking out a porn site.

“On Facebook you can stare as long as you want to—nobody's going to get mad because it's not them, it's just a picture.”

But my friend told me guys aren’t looking for dirty pictures on Facebook, they’re looking at ordinary pictures of women, the kind that you and I associate with Facebook. Women partying with friends. Women goofing off in the park. Women sitting at home trying on a pose that’s serious and deep. At worst, they’re looking at women in Facebook-approved sexy poses, or pictures from the beach.

“I think the theory is that the women on Facebook are, if nothing else, real,” he explained, “and often people that you might have a real-life attraction to.”

Statistically speaking, many men do appear to be using Facebook to look at women. Seventy percent of activity on social networking sites is people looking at pictures. Two thirds of pictures looked at are of women, and the single most common activity on Facebook is men looking at pictures of women. Facebook did not return a call querying about men using the social networking site to jump-start their fantasizing.

The researcher Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, who discovered all this, suggested men in relationships might be weighing their options. But another explanation is that they're just fantasizing about an acquaintance.

“Most [women I look at on Facebook] I have some history of at least fooling around with, but never going all the way,” one man told me.

Another man, age 41, saw it in a slightly different light. He noted that he would love to stare at sexy women on the street, especially if they’re showing a lot of cleavage, but that he refrains out of respect. “But on Facebook,” he says, “you can stare as long as you want to—nobody's going to get mad because it's not them, it's just a picture.”

He adds, noting that his interest goes beyond the platonic: "I can print out, bookmark and/or download the images I see on Facebook to look at again and again and again.”

It’s the G-rated version of another trend that’s already causing those who make money off porn to sweat: the explosion of amateur porn sites on which people post videos of themselves in sexual situations for the sheer thrill of it. FoxyTube, YouPorn, and XTube are filled with such videos; the idea that the women in them are “real” draws tons of traffic. As one man told me, “Everyone involved is having a genuine sexual experience, and what's hotter than that?”

Sex educator Heather Corinna, founder of the popular website Scarleteen, pointed out that none of this should be surprising. "I'd say that's pretty common behavior that happens inside people's heads all the time. It’s just that not everyone always has digital imagery to utilize as part and parcel of that."

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On one hand, it’s hard not to feel optimistic if so many men are having fantasies about “real” women. Many straight women are plagued by the fear that the endless supply of photographed sex objects offered to men as fantasy fodder means guys are losing their taste for boring, everyday women with imperfect human bodies. In The Washington Post, Pamela Paul suggested that the stream of porn men expose themselves to may ruin them for sex with their own wives and girlfriends. She worried that real sex might be a letdown after countless hours of looking at porn.

The men I talked to, though, said they felt increasingly dissatisfied with porn. One man, age 29, said, “Porn seems impersonal and gross,” while looking at pictures of women on Facebook feels “semi-enlightened, in a way.”

On the other hand, there’s an undeniable ick factor to the idea of men getting off to pictures you posted for your friends to platonically peruse. No one wants to think of their male friends (or worse, their coworkers or bosses) projecting them into sex fantasies.

Complicating matters, Facebook is rife with pictures of very young women experimenting with ribaldry, probably unaware of how those pictures might be read by men.

But outside of concerns about older men ogling pictures of underage women, it seems that women with Facebook profiles would do well to believe that what we don’t know about our male friends’ Facebook habits won’t kill us. Still, you could be forgiven for combing over your Facebook pictures to delete any that might seem a little provocative.

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer who blogs regularly at Pandagon, RH Reality Check and Double X. Her newest book is titled Get Opinionated: A Progressive's Guide to Finding Your Voice (and Taking a Little Action).