Confession: Untangling My Relationship with Porn


I have a strange history with porn.

When I first became a feminist, I avoided porn. Carrie and I both did for a while, since there’s a nuanced question of consent that keeps coming up, and I think that still plays into my viewing of porn today. I’ve also experienced issues with my porn habits in the past. I wouldn’t call it addiction, because that’s not technically what it is. I’d call it more compulsive escapism, much like people “addicted” to video games experience. Only, with porn, it’s a way to avoid intimacy and vulnerability. Porn compulsivity is a way to put your own sexuality at arm’s length. It tends to happen to people who were taught early on that their sexuality is inherently bad, instead of a healthy part of the self. I didn’t watch it all the time, but I did have a hard time with any sort of arousal without it. When I’m with a partner, I want to be aroused without relying on one type of stimulus.

Recently, I’ve been watching porn through a new critical lens, appreciating the art and titillation, without holding my own sexuality at arm’s length. I’ve purposely watched porn that has challenged me – my internalized racism, transphobia, ableism. Instead of allowing the cultural narrative to fool me into thinking I’ve given up control of my porn viewing habits, I’ve decided to take a more proactive, mature stance and be intentional about it.

That has me thinking about how I got here.

When I was a kid, I used to watch scrambled pay cable porn out of curiosity. I was girl who masturbated, something almost unheard of. I did it in secret. I made all sorts of assumptions about what sex would eventually be like from the wiggly lines on screen. I think the idea that curiosity about sex was bad led to making me an easy target for my predatory cousin. Since I thought my curiosity was bad, what he did must have been my fault, and so I didn’t tell anyone for years.

Once, I met a kindred spirit in sexual curiosity. My parents were visiting family friends, who also had children. The girl that was just older than me once took me to her older brother’s room and showed me a Playboy magazine, full of large breasts and full bushes (this was the 80’s). For the first time, I knew I wasn’t weird in my curiosity, or tingly feelings.

In my church, not only did women not want sex while men wanted it all the time, girls didn’t masturbate. The boys, however, were assigned masturbation accountability buddies in youth group. It was assumed the raging hormones of youth only affected boys. If they affected girls, it was because the girls were somehow broken – daddy issues, a boy convinced her, or she was tainted by molestation and it was now up to her to control the urges borne of that sin. I’m not even joking. This was sermon material in my church. The youth group pastor eventually confessed to “addiction” to porn and sought treatment.

When I was 15, I had sex for the first time and it felt nothing like when I would masturbate. My boyfriend was 18. One day, he thought it would be a good idea to watch porn together. I saw my first threesome, which included an oral daisy chain. I couldn’t fathom why someone would put their mouth where someone else went pee. It was arousing to him, but anticlimactic to me. Finally, I had seen video porn unscrambled, and it was just as disappointing as the clumsy teenage sex I was having for the pleasure of my then boyfriend.

What’s worse, my teenage body image issues were reinforced in a new way. I was the chubby kid, bullied for my size, even by family. The message my family and my culture ingrained in me has been clear: fat people are undeserving of sexual desire and pleasure. Fat people are a joke, especially fat women, who chase thin male characters around rooms in cartoons. We are undeserving of being considered sexually attractive.

I held my body to porn standards, because we now had the Internet and I knew what “barely legal” meant. My body was supposed to look like those pictures downloaded in e-mails from AOL chatrooms. My belly was supposed to be singular, not divided in two at the belly button, where for years I fastened too-tight high waist jeans. No matter how thin and emaciated I became, I still never felt thin enough. My belly still stuck out, covered in haphazard fur that far exceeded the allowable “happy trail” limits. My nipples never pointed forward, and were rarely hard. The more I examined naked women’s bodies, the more I was sure I didn’t measure up.

Luckily, it’s 2016 and the demand for diverse bodies, genders, and orientations has given rise to beautiful, artful, even educational porn.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think children should have access to porn. However, I’m not naive to think that an 18-year-old high school senior won’t show porn to an underage partner, and we all know kids seek out and discover porn on their own all the time. I think there’s a lot of nuance in that conversation, and that’s not the point of this post.

I just know my own experience, and I know that today I seek out porn that is beautiful, that challenges me, and that’s ethical. I don’t like objectifying people without their active consent, but I value the art and business and fantasy and titillation that is porn.

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