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What Has Growing Up Watching Porn Done to My Brain – and My Sex Life?

~ MARCH 2022 ~


I was young the first time I watched porn.


I didn’t have hips or enjoy eating olives. My parents still paid my phone bill and I’d never kissed anyone, despite the story I used to tell about some guy I met on my family holiday to Spain. I was on the school playing fields at lunchtime and a boy from my form came over and put his Sony Ericsson slider phone right in my face. On the screen I could see a blurred video of a woman in red suspenders pleasuring herself, letting tense breaths hiss out from behind her teeth. The space between her legs was smooth and hairless, like the skin of an unripe nectarine. She looked like I did, except I was 13 and she must have been older. “I bet you do this, don’t you?” the boy said, his eyes hidden beneath floppy hair.

At the time I didn’t think much about the video, except it was a bit gross that she was doing that alone. There was no way I would have believed it affected me or that seeing more images like that eventually would. But porn was already shaping how I, and the men I would later share relationships with, viewed my body. It was implementing a code of behaviour we would draw and learn from. It was telling us what sex was when the only way we were educated about it in school was via condoms on bananas and photos of untreated gonorrhoea.

photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

Back in the mid 00s, gaining access to porn was still quite difficult for teenagers. Not many of us had phones that could connect to the internet, so watching it meant waiting until your parents were out or asleep, when you could sit in front of the desktop computer. I still managed it. I needed to, because everyone who should have been telling me about sex was too embarrassed to. And I wasn’t going to learn on the job: I’d overheard too many horror stories about toothy blowjobs.

I wanted to learn to be like those malleable, impressive bodies. I remember being stressed about what happened between missionary, eagle and doggy because so many videos cut out when people changed positions. I wanted to watch those hidden gaps. Was it clumsy and awkward, like getting out of a car in a short dress? Do you say with your voice where you want the other person to go? Or should the voice only be used to say things such as “Don’t stop!” and “Harder!”? Many say the best people to have sex with are those with a sense of humour, who smile when you fanny fart or nearly fall off the bed. Except I didn’t see any of that when I watched porn. It looked seamless, like a choreographed dance. The only clumsy part was the bad acting at the beginning when the masseur would ask his client to lie down on the table.

While the men I saw on screen did lots of different things to the women they slept with – slapping, choking, pulling, gagging – it always had the same effect. She would arch her back and moan louder. We didn’t read this as unrealistic or uninspiring because it fitted in with the world we were already learning to live with. We laughed at the guys in school, even when their jokes weren’t funny; spent our lunch breaks watching them play football, knowing that if we attempted to join in it would look as if we were trying too hard. People act as if porn has created a world in which women’s desires are placed in service of men’s, when really it is an expression of that world. When it came to having sex, my friends and I knew to pretend to like it when guys started using that aggressive gun finger motion between our legs or mistook a thigh crease for a clitoris. That seemed to be women’s role in sex, as in life: liking stuff. We were trying to make men feel good, but the whole time teaching them they didn’t need to do the same for us.

Photo by Anna Shvets: pexels.com

“I think I’m just one of those people who doesn’t like sex,” a girl friend of mine said at the time, glum but resigned after a disappointing night with her boyfriend.


When I was 15, MindGeek bought Pornhub, making millions of videos available for free each week. In the absence of any other guidelines, my friends and I continued to be influenced by what we saw, trying for something most of us weren’t getting much enjoyment out of. Porn stars were bald from the eyebrows down, and as we viewed them as the prototype, we copied what they did, removing what little hair was already there. I remember sitting on the bathroom tiles aged 17, breathing through my mouth in order to avoid that eggy sulphur smell in Veet hair removal cream. I moved on to razors when the hairs became coarser, ones that gave shaving rashes so itchy I often had to leave class to furiously dig my nails into the ingrown hairs. It felt more orgasmic than anything a man was doing to me. “But why would you want to look like a child?” Mum asked when she heard about girls my age giving themselves Brazilians. I just thought she didn’t get it, like she didn’t get Paramore or clothes from American Apparel.

Crop of man in underpants with digital hand in them
‘Women’s role in sex, as in life, seemed to be trying to make men feel good.’ Photograph: Getty Images. Illustration: Justin Metz


Truthfully, I didn’t give much thought to the performers in these videos and what they might be going through for my entertainment. I know, of course, that for many women it is impossible to enjoy something that is so obviously foregrounded in male pleasure at the expense of the women on screen. At the time, mainstream feminism seemed to associate almost anything sexual with liberation, and any criticisms of porn as puritanical. I was more aware of the arguments people used to patronise porn stars – telling them they couldn’t be enjoying their work even as they said they were – than I was of the porn stars themselves. But in 2015 a number of reports emerged about abuse on porn sets. I tried watching ethical porn, directed and filmed by women, but it was often behind a paywall. I wasn’t used to paying for porn, so I would stay only until the free trial ran out. From what I did see, a lot of ethical porn looked the same to me – only instead of naughty nurses on screen, the women were art dealers, and there was a nicer filter on the video.

At university I got a laptop and a door with a lock on it, and then I started watching more porn. I realized that, with more of it in my life, any masturbation unaccompanied by porn made it almost impossible to climax. I used to spend ages dreaming up long, complex scenarios about teachers telling me off or that guy who smoked out of the window of the block of flats opposite. But porn made all that easy: you didn’t have to think at all because it was right there in front of you, screaming yes, yes, yes. Even if afterwards it left you with a distaste on your tongue, like when you’ve eaten loads of crisps. When I tried to masturbate without it, my hand would cramp up and all the images I tried to invent faded out. I couldn’t see anything but blankness. So I’d open up my screen again and type in “amateur”. I can see how for some people it can begin to eclipse their whole sex life. The dopamine rush from it hits you like a kick in the teeth.

Image by Architect and artist from Pixabay

I spoke a lot about porn with my peers; especially my male friends. I knew that one liked glossy videos featuring women with big fake breasts, because he wanted the escapism that came from watching someone he probably would never sleep with in real life. I often dropped porn into conversation, because I was desperate to be a “cool girl” in their eyes. Someone who drinks beer and plays video games. And cool girls definitely watched porn. Only later would I find out that some of these men were questioning their own relationship with porn; that they wanted to cut down on it.

A friend of mine told me that her ex-boyfriend used to watch porn on his phone four times a day, mostly in the toilet cubicle of his office building. Once, over coffee, she described to me what sex with him was like. “He could only come in one really specific position,” she said and then tried to demonstrate it to me: he would stand up and she’d be upside down on her head with her ankles either side of his head. “Often he’d shush me because he needed to concentrate on what he was doing.” My friend claimed she didn’t really mind – she just accepted she’d be uncomfortable. We’d all learned to prioritize male pleasure.


I’m 26 now and porn is everywhere. Fifteen million UK adults said they watched porn during the pandemic. And while it kills off some people’s imaginations, it inflames others, encouraging people to become more experimental in their sex lives. Lots of my friends watch it with their partners to help them think of new positions; some have discovered their queerness through it, or kinks they had no idea about. You see this in how many guys nowadays are willing to try rimming. Initially seen as quite a taboo sexual practice, it became popularized through porn. Then rappers began referencing it in their lyrics (most notably Megan Thee Stallion’s “If he ate my ass he’s a bottom feeder” and Jhené Aiko’s “Gotta eat the booty like groceries” in Omarion’s Post to Be). Finally, it manifested in memes. It is so common now that when I was watching football with eight guy mates, they all said they do it essentially every time they have sex.


I asked the only other girl at the table what she thought. “It’s quite nice having men do something … ” She paused for a moment because she couldn’t find the right word. “Something like that for our pleasure.”


Porn does this a lot. It takes something previously considered niche and shows it again and again in a mainstream context until it becomes normalized. Before, if you wanted to see rough sex, you had to search deep into the corners of the internet to find it. After Pornhub and other websites like it put BDSM right next to “blowjobs” and “lesbian” and all the other categories, this made it much easier to find. By the end of university, between this, Fifty Shades of Grey and my own insecurities, I had internalized the idea that if you weren’t into hardcore stuff, you were boring in bed. A guy pulled my hair and all I could think about was whether any of it had fallen out. Someone left bruises on my bum from spanking and I dug my nails into my fist like I do when I’m getting a tattoo or a piercing and I want to distract myself from the pain. And throughout both of those experiences, I stayed true to the lesson I had learned all those years ago when I first watched porn: I pretended to like it.

Crop of naked woman with digital arrow over her crotch
‘I was desperate to be a “cool girl”. And cool girls definitely watched porn.’ Photograph: Serena Brown/The Guardian. Illustration: Justin Metz. Model: Zoe Rhode


This pretence was present in a lot of other aspects of my life. I nodded along when men told me about albums I had already listened to, acted impressed by films I thought were boring. It’s hard to see what came first: whether I pretended to like things in life because I’d learned to do so in bed, or whether learning to do it in bed meant I did so more in life. All I know is that my entire personality was built around wanting to please.

Some of my friends had worse interactions, where things veered into the nonconsensual. “He put his hand round my neck,” began a friend; she had been at a festival and gone back to a guy’s tent. “It was light at first, so I was all right with it, but he was doing it so hard I started to panic. When he stopped, I felt light-headed.”

My friend is far from alone in this. In 2019, a BBC survey found that more than a third of UK women under 40 have experienced “unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting” during consensual sex. A lot of people would blame this on porn, including the Centre for Women’s Justice, which said: “This is likely to be due to the widespread availability, normalization and use of extreme pornography.”

I disagree. Violence against women has a lot more to do with a society that emboldens men to position their desires above women. Though I do think there’s something to say about the way porn blurs many of the nuances of sex, especially when it comes to rough sex. In kink communities, a heavy emphasis is placed on consent: safe words and no-goes. Most porn videos show these practices – choking, restraining, spanking – without showing scenes of consent, which is necessary in order to ensure they’re safe and enjoyable for those participating. That’s fine if it’s a fantasy but not when you’ve never been taught to interpret it as such.


My friends and I grew up with porn, but we still had a couple of years of development without it. Old phones using 3G took ages to load sites, and there were far fewer videos to choose from. But teenagers now can access it whenever they want to. In 2019, research commissioned by the British Board of Film Classification [pdf] saw more than half of 11- to 13-year-olds admitting to watching porn, rising to 66% of 14- to 15-year-olds.


Sex education hasn’t changed much since I was growing up, and in a world that has become even more digital, teenagers are at real risk of receiving entirely wrong messaging about porn and sex.


More and more they seem to think that porn is sex and sex is porn, and that is confirmed every time they open up their phone and watch it without anyone in school or at home telling them any different.

I’m not against porn, but kids need to be told that it’s a fantasy projection, like made-up storylines on The Bachelor, or other quasi reality shows.

I hope that future generations demand more from their sex life; that they come of age with an enhanced sense of what is real and what is fake. In 2020 the government updated official guidance on relationships and sex education, for the first time in 20 years. Now compulsory from primary school, sex education must cover consent, abortion and domestic abuse.


There’s also a large portion of guidance on the evolving digital cultures of sex and relationships, including sexting and porn. It shouldn’t be too hard to improve, given the last government guidance came before Instagram or iPhones.


Disappointingly, though perhaps predictably, there’s no mention of pleasure. There is also concern over the flexibility of the new guidance. Schools are not being handed a curriculum but are being asked to develop their own based on the government guidelines, which are far from comprehensive. Topics to be covered are listed without any information about when or how they should be taught, meaning reluctant schools could get away with teaching one or two classes before heading back to the textbook. And given the opposition to schools teaching sex education in detail – one sex educator in the US was bombarded by the press for offering “masturbation videos for first-graders” after showing a cartoon in which two characters used anatomically correct names for their genitals – it’s likely this will be the path most taken.

photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

A teacher couldn’t have got there in time to shield my eyes from what I saw on that phone when I was 13, but they could have explained to me what to think when I did see stuff like that. Such as: porn isn’t real, all bodies look different, very often you have to show people how to touch you, and there’s a lot of trial and error involved. Yes, it can look clumsy when you change positions, but no one remembers those bits anyway. How few orgasms come that easy.


That sex is a bit like a pack of Skittles, where you might love the red ones but hate the green ones, and just because they’re all in the same packet doesn’t mean you’ll like them all.


In the same way that you might like getting tied up by your hands but hate another form of bondage. Not to judge a penis by its size because sometimes it can have some imperceptible bend in it that leaves you screaming. How sometimes sex is lazy and slow and much hotter for it. That there are times when you don’t think you’re going to orgasm and then suddenly you’re twitching on the bed like roadkill. Then I would have enjoyed porn from an arm’s-length distance rather than trying to bring it into my bed and act it out, like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

I still watch porn, but I don’t see it as a manual on how I should behave. I see it as a way of getting out of my head after a long day, something to make me excited about sex again when things have stagnated with a partner. I’ve become more confident and, as a result, men’s approval seems less pivotal, making it easier to say what I want, both during sex and outside it. Male pleasure is not the only focus. What I want is, too. Plus, I have other ways to learn. I’m not afraid of embarrassing myself in front of my girl friends any more, so I ask lots of questions about sex.

“Do you guys still shave everything off?” I asked one of my girl friends the other day.

“No, I stopped that a while ago,” she said. “I want to look more womanly now.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about growing my pubic hair out, but I don’t even know what colour those short, dark spikes would smooth out into. I’m naturally strawberry blond, so maybe it would be ginger? Or mousy brown? I asked another friend who trims and waxes hers into a bikini line and she sent me a reference picture. And I thought about how strange it is that I’m so far away from my body that I don’t even know what the natural state of it might look like. But I’ll find my way back.

A version of this article originally appeared here on theguardian.com

Source
theguardian.com

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