Both of my parents were shrinks, and even though I was generally comfortable talking about sex in my household, porn — especially the porn I was watching — just had to be taboo. It was inexplicably gross, divorced from the concept of sex as it had been explained to me. If sex was a man inserting his penis into a woman’s vagina, then how did girls drinking cum out of champagne glasses fit into that picture? Because of its unspeakable nature, Internet porn became inextricably linked with the anxiety of being caught.
I would sneak downstairs to the family computer once the house was dark. As I would settle into the polyester-cotton seat of the swivel chair and open a browser, my heart would thump with a mix of thrill and shame, my ears perked for any reason to abort my mission — zip, pull and dart with an excuse ready about checking the weather for tomorrow. (An excuse that worked more than once. I was a tidy kid). The terror and guilt would only be overridden with lust once the videos began to stream. It was an addict’s high, a high-stakes heist for sexual pleasure — an association that would not soon recede in my primal brain.
I distinctly remember the first time I ejaculated. Even back then it felt weirdly insidious — an innocent, exuberant, almost ancient moment of sexual development, stained with the futuristic debasement of a flashing screen. I leapt up from the chair at the family computer and bounded upstairs to the bathroom. I looked into the mirror, truly proud that I could now fulfill my procreative proclivities, and raised my arms and said out loud to myself, “I can be a dad.”
When I was 13, we moved to a new house with a lock on the computer room door. I was still cautious, but a few times I had my pants down when I heard the clicking of someone jiggling the locked doorknob.
Were you watching pornography?
We checked the history, and there were porn sites on it.
Must be a virus.
It’s an impasse that many parents and children have known. It’s not just that it’s embarrassing, it’s paralyzing — no one knows how or exactly why to move forward. What, you want me to admit that I was watching porn? What does that do? Am I supposed to be ashamed of this? Do you expect me to stop? Everyone I know is doing this!
* * *
Those of you who’ve browsed youporn.com or redtube.com or any other porn site know the set up. The sidebar will list the categories: Mature, Hentai, S&M, gangbang, foot fetish, redhead. Under each category there are pictures and videos (but c’mon, who would look at pictures when there are videos?), and with a fast enough Internet connection, you can skip to your favorite part of a video and move on to another.
Lesbian kissing *click* blow job *click* cum shot *click* threesome *click* orgy
With a teenage sex drive only inhibited by a vague shame, I quickly fell down a “kink spiral.” After all, we’re talking about reaching climax — when the overriding thought is often just “more!” The unknown, the unseen, was sexy to me, and I pursued novelty with vigor.
I found myself rapidly desensitized to online images. If a threesome was kinky last week, then I’d need something wilder this week. To reach climax, I had to find that same toxic mix of shame and lust.
By my sophomore year in high school I felt torn. Even though I was fairly certain that most guys my age were regular porn watchers, I felt ashamed about the type of porn that I was watching (not something that even the son of psychotherapists was eager to share with friends).
In English class, we were reading “The Scarlet Letter” and the teacher told us to write down a secret that we would never want anyone to know. I scribbled down, “I’ve watched cartoon porn.” (Actually, I was so frightened of discovery that I wrote it in code). And I had. And MILF porn. And “bukkake.” And rape. And all manners of things that I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in real life — for moral reasons, sure, but also because it wouldn’t even necessarily turn me on to do these things in real life. But I had watched them, and I was ashamed. And I wasn’t sure if I should be or not.
For one thing, I wasn’t hurting anybody. And for another, these sites put that pornography up there! They must be doing that because people want to watch it, right? I didn’t dream it up. I just clicked through the categories of what was there by popular demand. So it was normal, right? Did that make it OK?
* * *
These questions continued to bother me. I worried that real girls wouldn’t do it for me. So my senior year in high school, I decided to quit. Cold turkey. For five months. I actually decided not to masturbate at all, and I had few sexual encounters. It was refreshing, and I definitely became more easily turned on by “traditional” things — including the women around me.
But when I started having sex, I realized that I had far from cleansed myself, even though I had continued (and continue still) to keep up my boycott on pornography. I had trouble getting and maintaining an erection with the first three women I slept with. This didn’t feel like a small matter. It seemed like all the schoolyard jockeying ultimately came down to that moment of phallic power, and I just couldn’t do it. Was I more turned on by porn than by real women? What did that mean about my sexuality?
I starting seeing a young woman regularly, and some confluence of alcohol, weed, no condom, and the trust, comfort, and affection I felt with her allowed me to start enjoying sex — to an extent. I wouldn’t acknowledge it, but the majority of nights I had “good sex” I was intoxicated. And, what’s worse, I was fantasizing about porn during sex.
It was a dissociative, alienating, almost inhuman task to close my eyes while having sex with someone I really cared about and imagine having sex with someone else or recall a deviant video from the archives of my youth that I was ashamed of even then.
I’ve talked with other millennial men who’ve experienced this, and it’s not particularly surprising. A decade before we were having intercourse, our neural pathways associated ejaculation with an addictive, progressive perversity that demanded a superlative overstimulation — skipping from climactic scene to climactic scene so that it’s always the most novel, deviant, kinky.
Furthermore, because I learned to cum from watching porn (I had watched porn even before I had first ejaculated), I never even had the chance to learn how to achieve an orgasm without a voyeuristic element — through an exploration of my bodily sensations or fantasies of intimacy that I conjured myself. I — and I don’t think I’m alone here — conditioned myself with the help of Internet pornographers to pair the feeling of ejaculation with the specific images that those sites provided. And even years later, I couldn’t cum without them.
This didn’t stop me from cumming, of course, since the images were seared into my brain. I can still exactly recall videos that I haven’t watched for six or seven years.
Even now, my “fantasies” are essentially rooted in the fantasies of my 14-year-old self. Age discrepancies in sex? Rape or S&M? These are fantasies of power and domination. This is not a particularly unusual (or necessarily bad) sexual preference, but it’s a nearly predetermined result for an immature adolescent being given a vast selection of pornography with no guidance.
I worried that Internet porn had forever warped my sexual development. I mean, if it’s playing on loop in my head, can I ever really stop “watching” porn?
* * *
It’s gotten better. I’ve had several long-term relationships, read some Foucault and even had a chance to experiment a bit with kinkier sex. What helped the most was talking to friends, particularly women, who have had more positive relationships with masturbation. A female friend explained how she used to have rape fantasies and wasn’t thrilled about it, so through masturbation she found ways to be turned on by “beauty,” whether a sculpted body or an open field. Another friend who had been masturbating from a very young age but had never watched pornography told me that she never fantasized in a voyeuristic way, but instead would remember a particular setting or feeling that aroused her, like waking up next to someone in a mess of sheets.
Now, I’m trying to reprogram myself — unlearn my socialized sexuality. But that’s left me very confused. I mean, what am I really trying to do? Discover my “natural” sexual attraction? Sexiness is always constructed — it used to be normatively hot to be fat and pale! What’s really the alternative to the socialized, porn-inspired sexiness that I’m seeking?
I think in the end, I just want to feel good about feeling good — to dislodge disgrace, guilt and addictive perversity from the part of my brain that controls arousal. I think kinky sex is wonderful; it acknowledges how shame, domination and weirdness truly pervade sexuality. But, I want to be able to explore kink — not be resigned to it. I’m grateful for my generation’s embrace of sexual liberation, but this feels more like a cage.
I feel estranged from my sexuality, like it’s somebody else’s. I want to reclaim my sexual desires. I’m not attempting to perform conversion therapy on myself to rid myself of the demons of my porno past. I’m trying to go back to 2002 and take away the computer and figure out what feels good through honest sensual exploration.
I lay in the bathtub and let the warm water rise around my thighs. My exposed parts feel unduly detected, like they know they’re the center of attention. I close my eyes and touch. Chest, stomach, hips — hair, neck, shoulders. Once I get to my penis, the discrepancy in sensitivity is startling. Rather than restraining fantasies, or intentionally focusing on them to get off, I try my best to be mesmerized by the touch — as though I’m only just discovering myself.
I can get off without thinking of anything “shameful” or pornographic, but it’s not as much fun — it physically doesn’t feel as good. Should I just resign myself to replaying MILFs with whips and chains in my head as I fuck someone I’ll never find sexy? Maybe I can find a cougar I can love or a partner who can convincingly role-play? Or should I keep exploring my body and hope that the pollution of XXX videos slowly clears from my masturbatory fantasies to reveal more dream-like, meditative, present, fleshy, alive states of mind and body?
If there’s an answer out there, it’s probably on the Internet.
Isaac Abel is the pen name of a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about issues of sexuality and gender. He loves getting responses to his columns and suggestions for stories. He can be reached at email@example.com.