Warning: contains some sexual content
“I was 12 when I watched my first gang bang scene,” says 24-year-old Neelam Tailor. “I was pretty shocked. You know, you go from watching romantic films as a kid, where people are in love, and sex is all nice and sanitised, to watching…” She trails off with a small shrug.
Between the ages of 11 and 16, Neelam watched porn most days. She’d go up to her childhood bedroom – KT Tunstall posters and pictures of friends tacked to the wall, books and revision notes strewn on the floor – close the door and spend “anything from 10 minutes to an hour” scrolling through porn sites. “I don’t think my parents ever knew,” she says. She quickly got over that initial shock. “I think porn desensitises you. I definitely got to a point where I wasn’t shocked by much, really – and then you see more violent things and the other stuff becomes just normal.”
She wasn't alone. A 2016 study suggests that around 53% of 11 to 16-year-olds have seen explicit material online. For Neelam, it started with a simple curiosity about sex. “I think I just saw it in films and wanted to know more. Maybe I had a high libido, or I was just hitting puberty, I don’t know, but I started searching for mainstream films that had a lot of sex in them.” She soon graduated, though, onto more explicit material. “I’d heard about porn at school, but I went to an all-girls school and it was always seen as ‘something boys do’. It piqued my curiosity but it also made me feel a lot of shame, like I was doing something unnatural, that normal girls wouldn’t.”
As Neelam became more well-versed in the kinds of videos that were available, she began to develop certain tastes. “I’d seek out porn where the woman is submissive, perhaps coerced, maybe even looking like she was forced into the act. Or I’d look for older men and younger girls. I don’t know why, but at such a young age, like 13, I don’t believe I had really developed my own sexual preferences – I feel like they were massively influenced by what I saw.”
25-year-old Sarah* reports similar experiences. “I started watching porn from the age of 13 or 14; at least twice a week, if not more. It just felt like I was satisfying a need. I remember how quickly I got desensitised to it – 10 men and one woman, orgies that were basically a writhing mass of bodies, women being slapped or otherwise humiliated – and I was accessing all this before I had even had sex. I still watch it, though not as much, but I do think that after using it regularly for more than 10 years, I now find it difficult to orgasm without some higher level of stimulation, like a vibrator. Or more porn.”
A lot has been written on the subject of men and excessive porn use, by news outlets and scientists. In 2016, Angela Gregory, a psychosexual therapist working within the NHS, told the BBC that easy-to-access porn had led to an increase in the numbers of men being referred for treatment of erectile dysfunction. An educational charity’s analysis suggested that, while porn accounted for around 2 to 5% of impotence cases in the early 2000s – when broadband was just taking off in the UK – it is now blamed for around 30% of cases. And it’s not all about bodily function: researchers in the US claimed that men who were exposed to porn at a young age were more likely to agree with statements that asserted male dominance, such as "things tend to be better when men are in charge".
Dr Thaddeus Birchard, a cognitive behavioural therapist and founder of the first training program in the UK advising therapists on how to treat sex addiction, explains: “In the population, porn is generally a male preoccupation. Partly, it comes down to neuroscience. Women, when they’re aroused, produce high levels of oxytocin in the brain. That’s the brain chemistry of nurture and human connection. In comparison, men produce high levels of vasopressin, which is the brain chemistry of persistence and focus. This is one of the reasons a man might go on the internet and stay on there for hours and hours: they become so focused that everything around them ceases to exist.” In his opinion, porn could appeal more widely to men because “most women are not interested in body parts”.
But does that mean that women aren’t impacted by porn at all? Some 94% of the 11 to 16-year-olds who’ve accessed pornographic material have done so by the age of 14, and that figure includes male and female teens. When I began researching this article, I expected to find less information about the impact of porn on women, because on average fewer women watch porn – as shown by the user data of a well-known porn site - but I didn’t expect to find close to nothing. I’m privileged (white, cisgender and straight) and yet, I couldn’t find any research that reflected my lived experience – so was I the only one? I started by looking for others like me, who consumed mainstream porn, to see whether it had had any effect on them.
In a recent study of 1,000 18 to 25-year-olds, conducted for BBC Three, 47% of women have watched porn in the last month and 14% of the women surveyed felt that at some point, they might have been addicted to porn. And yet, over the months and weeks, expert after expert kept giving me the same response: women just don’t use porn compulsively. Or if they do, it doesn’t affect them very much… and yet, the women that I spoke to were telling a different story.
Neelam stopped watching porn when she was 16, precisely because of the physical impact it was having. “I got my first boyfriend and realised that I basically couldn’t get aroused by actual sex. I think porn is a completely unnatural level of stimulation, particularly if you’ve got 10 tabs open – what human partner can replicate that? Noticing the physical difference when I was watching porn vs when I was having actual sex… I got really fearful. I was like, ‘Am I going to have to go to the toilet and watch porn before I have sex just so that I get properly aroused?’” She stopped watching from that point on. “I don’t think I could say I was ‘addicted’ because I just stopped and never wanted to start again.”
I think porn is a completely unnatural level of stimulation, particularly if you’ve got 10 tabs open – what human partner can replicate that?
28-year-old Hannah*, agrees that watching a lot of porn can lower sensitivity, but feels she has also benefitted from exposure to it. “I’m a lesbian, and I think I knew I was attracted to women from about the age of eight or nine, but it wasn’t until I actually saw a lesbian scene that I was like, ‘OK, yep, confirmed’. It actually made me feel better – I was 12 and starting to feel horny, and to see that you could express your sexuality with another woman was great. I think for that reason, porn can be a positive because if you’ve never seen anyone like you, or anyone who’s into what you’re into, then you can feel isolated.”
Dr Leila Frodsham is a consultant gynaecologist and spokesperson for the Institute of Psychosexual Medicine. “I’ve been treating people for 20 years, and have never come across a woman who has said that she has a ‘problem’ with porn,” she tells me. “There are a couple of studies – one only included 48 people and showed absolutely no difference in women’s arousal. Another, of 200 women in the Middle East, showed no difference in coital frequency, but there appeared to be an effect on their libido and arousal, which they described as a ‘boredom of sex’.” She claims that, in the local area she works in, she’s seen an increase of people with STIs in their eyes, and attributes the rise to porn. “Twenty years ago, we very rarely saw that, and that’s because of ‘money shots’ (where a man ejaculates on a woman’s face),” she says.
She’s pragmatic about what the lack of clinical literature might mean. “It’s interesting that we’re seeing this increased referral [for sexual issues] in men and not in women. And yet, they’re all exposed to porn from an early age. I don’t think there’s very much research in the area, and whenever there’s not very much research, you have to think to yourself, is that because women are having physical or psychological problems, but not seeing their doctor? Is it that they feel too ashamed to talk about these issues? Or is it because they’re not actually having any problems?”
Hannah continued to watch porn throughout her teens (“we had one desktop PC in the house, so I’d have to wait until everyone was out”), but ultimately became disillusioned with it. “Most lesbian porn [on mainstream sites] is basically a straight male fantasy of what two women having sex should look like. And it fetishises people like me. I'd even go as far as saying that, for gay women, porn has made us the target of hate. Men have gotten aggressive in bars, asking to watch me and my girlfriend make out. Even other women – straight women – treat you like you’re some experiment for them, instead of an individual with feelings and desires of your own.”
She now rarely watches porn. “I do feel I was protected somewhat from the more negative psychological impact, because I just didn’t like to watch the hardcore hetero stuff. My female friends who are straight wax every bit of hair on their body, and I think they feel the need to perform in a certain way - moaning and pleasing their partner, it’s not as mutual. I didn’t internalise the message that there’s only one way to be a woman.”
American author Erica Garza, now 36, was 12 years old when she began to watch ‘softcore’ porn on late night TV. It was 1994 and the internet was still in its infancy. “I developed scoliosis and had to wear a back brace to school,” she explains. “I was bullied and felt isolated, and used pornography and masturbation as a way to escape and feel good.”
Like Neelam, though, the furtive high was bound up with deep-rooted feelings of shame. “I don’t know exactly where it came from, but there are a few things that spring to mind. I went to an all-girls Catholic school and sex was treated as a thing that happens between a man and a woman who love each other for one reason alone: procreation. It didn’t have anything to do with homosexuality or bisexuality – and I was always bisexual. Not seeing my story reflected there made me feel bad. So that was always the story that I held in my head as the ‘right’ way to have sexual desire.
"Also, just being a woman – women often don’t talk about what turns them on because they may be called a slut or some other terrible word. And it’s in that process of feeling ashamed about our desires that I think we develop compulsive habits.”
Erica didn’t use porn every day, but still found it affecting her life and relationships. “It was something I turned to when I was stressed or worried. But it really pulled me away from other activities. I started to isolate myself a lot, feel bad about myself, I thought there was something wrong with me. I turned inwards.”
In 2014 she wrote an article in Salon magazine about her decision to seek treatment for sex addiction. She writes: "Usually gang bangs were a sure bet to getting off, but not this time. I kept searching, clicking through endless galleries of flesh, waiting to be impressed. Finally I found it. One that gave me that body-tingling, heart-racing, sweat-inducing rush of excitement. It was an older clip, late '90s, but it was perfect. More than 500 men. 'The Houston 500 stars the buxom blonde Houston, born Kimberly Halsom, taking on a reportedly 620 men in an uninterrupted frenzy hosted by Ron Jeremy'... I got off once, then twice, then three times, and saved it for later use. But after I’d put my computer away, I felt something different than the usual post-orgasm glow. I felt sick. Guilty. Too aware."
“It impacted me in a lot of ways,” Erica tells me. “It made me attracted to certain sorts of sexual scenarios that I might not have otherwise considered. Like being treated roughly in bed, being talked to in a demeaning way. I also watched lots of scenes where the men were a lot older than the women, and so I came to expect and desire aggressive behaviour from men. It also made me think about what kind of body I should have. I became obsessed with removing all of my body hair because that’s what I saw on the screen.”
Over the years Neelam has also questioned how much her early exposure to porn has formed her sexual desires. “Slowly, through seeing how women of colour were treated in porn, I started internalising the idea that I’m something people are ‘into’, a fetish, rather than an individual woman. I also sought out the power dynamics I’d witness - like, after so many years watching older guys and younger girls, when I was 17, 18, 19, I started actively trying to date older guys. I don’t know whether that’s a coincidence. I will never know which came first – whether I had some innate tastes, or whether the porn created them.”
It’s a question many women that I speak to ask themselves, and one that I’ve often wondered about. When I was younger, I had this idea that when it came to sex, I should be completely passive – that sex was something that should be done to me. Was that passivity always there, or did I learn it from porn?
...after I’d put my computer away, I felt something different than the usual post-orgasm glow. I felt sick. Guilty. Too aware.
In a 2010 analysis of more than 300 porn scenes, 88% were found to include physical aggression, with the study explaining that most of the perpetrators were male, their targets female, and the latter’s most common response to aggression was to show pleasure or respond neutrally. Other, similar studies have been inconclusive about the effect aggressive porn has on men – some found the link between porn consumption and violence to be minor. But there is even less information about how it might affect women. “Either way, I think schools should be more proactive in educating children about sex,” says Neelam. “I think sex and porn is still treated as a taboo in schools but it’s either the schools educate them or porn does. And I don’t believe anyone, especially a young girl, should get their sexual education from porn.”
Other women find themselves using porn not get aroused, but to escape from stress or trauma. Author Jessica Valentish wrote a memoir about her experiences of addiction, and described how she used porn as a coping mechanism while writing the book and dredging up painful experiences. As Dr Birchard explains: “To anyone who uses it in that way, compulsively, it’s not really about sex. It’s about anaesthetising a difficult to manage state. It can be anxiety, stress, depression. It could be loneliness. Whether it’s a man or a woman, if the function of the sexual behaviour is compulsive, then it’s about escape.”
The upcoming ban on under-18s viewing porn is aimed at tackling some of the issues which arise from children accessing hardcore materials. As part of the so-called 'porn ban', users will have to input official document data (like a passport number), or buy a PortesCard from a newsagent, to prove their age. But, as yet, there’s no word about when the initiative will be rolled out. As a DCMS spokesperson told BBC Three: "This is a world-leading step forward to protect our children from adult content, which is currently far too easy to access online. The government, and the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) as the regulator, have taken the time to get this right and we will announce a commencement date shortly."
“There’s nothing wrong with watching porn,” says Erica. “It’s like wine, some people can have a glass and leave it at that. Others need to drink the whole bottle.” She went on to write a book about her experiences called Getting Off, which prompted women from around the world to get in touch with her. “I think it’s the shame that we need to investigate. That’s what’s keeping women trapped in their own experience. I hadn’t come across many stories like my own, which is probably why my article went viral, because so many people weren’t talking about it. But once I put that story out there, I heard from many women of all ages, from a 14-year-old girl in Singapore to a 45-year-old woman in America’s midwest. And they were saying similar things to the men, that they felt out of control; that they needed to learn how to use this stuff rationally. It just showed me that there wasn’t so much that’s different between men and women, the only big difference is that women weren’t talking about it.”
Neelam’s mind is made-up: “I did try watching porn again a few years ago, just to see how I’d react, but I didn’t enjoy it. I’m done with it now.” Hannah still watches occasionally, but is highly selective about the material that she consumes. “I don’t think I’m represented in mainstream porn at all, so I look for smaller, ethical producers – they do exist – or look for videos that are homemade by couples. It’s more realistic which to me is more of a turn-on. I wouldn’t ever cast judgement on anyone for what porn they watch, but I do think we should try and create some more representative content. I’m a white able-bodied lesbian and can’t find anyone in the mainstream who looks or acts like me, I dread to think how more marginalised groups feel.”
Personally, I agree with Erica – there’s nothing wrong with watching porn. But spending so much time talking to so many women about their experiences of it has opened my eyes to the fact that we’re in desperate need of more diverse material – showing different types of bodies and real intimacy. You know, joyful, life-affirming porn that makes sex seem less like an endurance event and more like fun. How hard can it be?
*Some names have been changed.
BBC Three's series Porn Laid Bare is available on iPlayer.