In 2016, among the top pornography searches for men were: “stepmom,” “stepsister,” “mom,” “teen,” and “stepmom and son.” Men also liked videos in the categories of “Japanese,” “Ebony” and “Asian,” in that order. Women were searching for “stepdad and daughter,” as well as “gangbang” and “extreme gangbang.” They wanted to see “big Black dick,” or just “Black sex” in general, sometimes “Japanese.” (That appears to heavily overlap with specific kinks like foot worship, breast worship, and sexual games.) And everyone wanted to see “lesbians.” These aren’t the only things people were searching for, but they were the top searches for millions of people the world over, according to Pornhub, the top porn site in the world.
Pornography, like sex work, is an industry that exists to meet a need that those who need it generally prefer to deny. In the case of porn, the need is having content outside our own imaginations and memories to feed into the steam engine of our desire. It includes ideas that turn us on, things we want to do or feel but think we can’t have, things that feel forbidden, and things that are habitual. It is primarily created for the male gaze, especially the free or cheap content.
Pornography is generally pursued in private these days, now that the internet can bring you all the sex you can imagine, and lots you can’t, through free sites and, for some, paid sites with higher quality, longer content, and more specificity (meaning you can get higher-definition porn in areas you find arousing, versus whatever free content has to offer).
There are a lot of articles and books about the ways that porn can become an addiction—a lot of Christians are particularly concerned with this phenomenon. I am not going to spend much time exploring that here except to say that if you can’t masturbate and/or orgasm without pornography, it would be worth reading up on signs of porn addiction and just getting clear on your situation.
I am more concerned with what we watch when we watch pornography, and how it interacts with desire pathways in our brains and bodies. What are we programming ourselves to desire?
On this journey of liberating our desire, we have to look at our relationship to pornography. And as with all things in this column, we want to use a harm reduction approach, to learn to look at our practices without judgment, without shaming, but with curiosity and agency. What shapes us as we turn to pornography? How does porn in turn shape our real life desires? And can we use pornography to shape our real-world desires?
I am particularly interested in what our pornographic practices do to our imaginations.
There are several museums of sex in the world and I have been to many of them. What always strikes me is that back in the day, meaning before I was born, pornography was mostly in the form of still images. You looked at a Polaroid of people having sex, a black and white still of a woman splayed on a chaise lounge, or a kama sutra drawing, and your mind did the rest of the work.
Your imagination animated the scene, imagining your fingers moving across the flesh that you never actually saw in motion, building erotic charge. Perhaps that imagined sex was pretty vanilla, especially in the pre-Hentai era. On your own you may or may not have added tentacle porn, bukaki, or an anal gangbang to your fantasy playlist. But the desires were mostly created within you.
Now everything is POV, high-definition porn, or amateur porn shot on peoples’ phones. You can watch badly-acted porn, or skip to pounding porn without any storyline. You can tune into live people who will respond to your text requests to touch themselves while you watch. The instant your mind begins to move in any direction of desire, you can type your longing into a search bar and watch your fantasy, or something close to it.
Your imagination isn’t really needed.
And perhaps that would be fine if the top searches were “woman on top of someone she could never identify as a family member,” “strapped women taking tender tushes,” “grown up legal-aged professionals of all genders in hot consensual anti-racist role play.” But if pornography is another space in which we practice exploring our fantasies, I have questions.
How do we face the national truth that our trending fantasy sexual experiences center around incest, underage lovers, racialized power dynamics, or sexual encounters in which women are objects?
How do we face ourselves and what we’ve been programmed to desire, especially if it works against our sense of agency and connection and integrity in our real life sex?
How do we move beyond the things we have accidentally come to want and need in order to get off, toward the desires we want and need to cultivate to break the intersecting cycles of harm we are in?
And how do we face the deeply embedded shame around what we desire? Because while we didn’t create the water we’re swimming in, it’s still poisoning us.
How do we take responsibility for the ways in which we are programming ourselves to participate in rape culture in the deepest recesses of our minds? And that our imaginations are being discarded in the process?
And what is the consequence of discarded erotic imagination?
It concerns me. I believe our imaginations, and particularly the parts of our imagination that hold what we most desire, what brings us pleasure, what makes us scream yes—is where we must seed the future, turn toward justice and liberation, and reprogram ourselves to desire sexually and erotically empowered lives.
Ideally, porn is a spark for, and an extension of, a vibrant sexual imagination. And just like with fantasy, we may choose to continue watching stuff beyond our politic, stuff we never plan to practice—but this should be an intentional, informed sexual choice.
This begins by examining our search bars, finding our collective dignity. It could also include writing ourselves into original erotica and porn scripts or trying out some new pornographic narratives that are fully feminist, so that we can experience sexy content without some built-in cost of collaborating in our own oppression.
Hot and Heavy Homework
Choose your own adventure. Either take a two-week break from pornography and see what kind of fantasies get generated in absence of provided content or watch feminist porn.