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LET’S TALK ABOUT PORN – Pornography’s Effect on the Brain

Author Natalie Lee advocates for feminist, ethical pornography

Dwaso you remember the first time you saw pornography? I do. I was seven or eight years old. A local older boy babysitting me and he’d invited another boy from our street over. Somehow they’d found the VHS tapes on the shelves that the adults had (unsuccessfully) tried to hide by labelling them with innocuous film titles. The boys laughed hysterically while the stripper seduced an older man and proceeded to bounce up and down on his lap, making noises that appeared animal-like to my young ears. I had no idea what was going on but I was intrigued and, from the boys’ reaction, I knew there was something thrilling about it. Once the video was over, I watched the boys as they carefully rewound the VHS to exactly the same moment where it had previously ended and placed it back on the shelf in exactly the right spot. I wondered what was so appealing about it, and why it needed to be concealed. Over the years, I’d see more of these kinds of images – both accidentally and intentionally. I’d find copies of magazines lying around that were filled with images of naked women. Sometimes I’d take down one of the badly hidden VHS tapes and put it on. The first porn collection I found was straight out of the 1970s; men sported mullets and women had big, bushy pubic hair – normally a strong, handsome man and a weak, beautiful damsel in distress. The woman always seemed to be angelic and innocent, but as soon as she started having sex she transformed into a kind of wild animal. As a young girl set on being ‘good’, this was fascinating to me. ‘So I’m supposed to be good all the time, except when I’m having sex?’ I wondered. I didn’t play these videos to make myself

‘Most porn portrays sex as a purely physical act, without any feelings or even consent’

aroused, at least not consciously; I was trying to understand what sex was all about.

In the absence of detailed sex education and honest conversations with my family or friends, these secret screenings helped me piece together what sex actually was.

I’m not the only one who used pornography as a way of supplementing sex education. According to a recent report by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), kids often stumble across porn from as young as seven, usually before they receive sex ed at school. And in a survey of 18-25-year-olds by BBC Three show Porn Laid Bare, 55% of men and 34% of women said it was their main source of sex education. The problem is that most of the sex we see in porn is unrealistic. It portrays sex as a purely physical act, without any of the accompanying feelings, communication or even consent. It’s often violent and abusive and these distressing images can leave their mark.

When I started dating as a teen, I had no idea what I was doing and looked to porn as a necessary guide. It taught me how to put on a good show. I flung my (long, straight, chemically relaxed) hair around, arched my back, writhed around and viewed sex like a performance. Whenever my teenage boyfriend and I had sex, it was clear he was just emulating what he had seen in porn, too. It’s a shame, really, that we were both so focused on giving each other the ‘right’ image that there was no space for vulnerability. As teenagers, inexperience is expected, and part of the joy of sex should’ve been exploration, gentleness, generosity and plenty of giggling as we figured out what felt good. Porn ruined that for us.

The women in these movies didn’t look like me – or anyone else I knew. Not only did they have blemish-free skin, perky tits and toned bottoms, but they were basically all white with long blonde hair and blue eyes. All this did was reinforce what I had already been fed – that my blackness was undesirable, and that a carbon-copy image of whiteness is what men find attractive. Without realising it, the absence of seeing myself in the sex I was watching impacted my self-esteem. It made me think that true sexiness was a space I’d never be able to occupy.

In my 20s and 30s, my relationship with porn shifted again. The first free, advertisingsupported and easily accessible porn websites popped up in around 2006, when I was 26. Suddenly, porn became easier to access. But just as I was growing into my identity as a feminist, the link between porn and patriarchy came into sharp focus. I could tell that all the porn on these sites was created through the male gaze, and marketing to those desires had distinctly misogynistic undertones. Like many other women, I came to the conclusion that porn was inherently bad. The space wasn’t created for us, and it was clear we weren’t welcome (unless we were watching it alongside our male partners). I still craved the titillation that porn could provide, but the industry felt so grimy and anti-women that watching it felt like I was contributing to the exploitation. I didn’t want any part of that.

Then, five years ago, I stumbled across Swedish indie adult filmmaker and pioneer of feminist and ethical porn Erika Lust on Instagram. The idea that porn could be both feminist and ethical intrigued me, as both of these claims seemed to be the antithesis of the porn world I knew. I discovered that she runs four online cinemas: Xconfessions, Lust Cinema, Else Cinema and The Store by Erika Lust, all of which contain porn movies that are designed specifically through the female gaze. Rather than focusing on male pleasure, they focus on the eroticism of human sexuality and relationships. Her movies represent a wide range of identities, sexualities and human body types and she also follows a strict ethical code: paying everyone fairly, from interns to performers; being transparent about who is involved in making the films; and ensuring safe sex by requiring every performer to have an STI test and choose a safe method of contraception. Reading all this, I paid for an Xconfessions subscription. Not only are they beautifully shot – so much more cinematic and

aesthetically pleasing than any other porn film I had watched – they did exactly as they promised, featuring women of all different races, shapes and sizes. These women were all desiring and being desired. Finally, I felt like I could see myself (and other women I knew) represented in sexy scenes. It helped me believe that I could be the object of desire and eroticism.

‘We can’t generalise our desires, as every woman is obviously different,’ Erika Lust has explained. ‘But I think what really excites and empowers women is to have a voice in the story, both on screen and in real life. Women want to see other women enjoying and freely living their sexuality while they are in charge of their bodies, whether the film is romantic, kinky or anything in-between.’ She’s right.

In watching sex that is realistic and, fundamentally, human, I could be fully immersed in what was happening and allow my pleasure to take over. Rather than believing porn must be intrinsically bad and shameful, I realised that it does have benefits. One study by psychologist Sean Mcnabney looked at how porn consumption affects women’s satisfaction and relationships. He found that more frequent porn use was related to less difficulty in becoming aroused and greater orgasm pleasure, both alone and during partnered sex.

Women are sexual beings, too, with fantasies and desires to match any man’s, and I’m pleased that the mainstream porn industry is beginning to see that. Although Lust notes: ‘The porn industry’s highest positions of power are still overwhelmingly dominated by white, cisgender men. In maledirected heterosexual porn, the female becomes the object of the combined gaze of the filmmaker, male performer and male viewer, so the woman always becomes secondary. This is why I believe that in order for porn to change, we need more women, queer, BIPOC and Asian people behind the cameras. The most crucial difference between my indie porn and a massive amount of mainstream porn is that I constantly show my name and face and share my values with the public.’ We also need to normalise paying for porn. Before, I would have been ashamed to admit I’d taken out a paid subscription to a porn site, but now I’m proud that I’m contributing to an ethical industry where workers are paid fairly.

I have come on quite a journey with how I view porn. Now, I can watch Lust’s films alone with a glass of wine in bed, or sometimes with a partner. It not only elevates my sex life, it makes me feel liberated. For you, it might be erotic fiction (think Fifty Shades Of Grey, or even some fan fiction on Wattpad), or perhaps you’d prefer erotic storytelling through audiobooks and podcasts; if so, Dipsea (dipseastories.com) is perfect. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when exploring desires through porn.

My biggest hope is that, eventually, the mainstream porn industry will follow ethical standards. I hope that all porn stars are treated with dignity and respect so that the industry can be a truly safe space for desires and fantasies to be met. I hope that men will watch porn and not believe they have to perform aggressively to impress women; I hope they will see realistic porn that places vulnerability and communication above heavy thrusting and unrealistic orgasm noises.

I hope that all women and non-binary people will see themselves in the porn they watch; that it can boost their confidence rather than making them feel inadequate.

I hope you will discover porn that will allow you to explore your wildest desires, to liberate you sexually and remind you that you are completely normal and your pleasure is worthy and valid. There’s a reason porn exists – to titillate, excite, arouse – and we all deserve the chance to get in on the action.

Nikesh Sharma

Nikesh Sharma is a health and beauty writer, independent researcher with a long history and expertise of providing reliable and relatable health content for magazines, newsletters, websites including blogs and journals. He also enjoy exploring men’s and women’s health category writing articles about sex and relationships, product review and providing information on health.

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