“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”.
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 […] 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.”
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.”
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?
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.”