The End of Porn

When I put out a call last week for young women to interview about porn use and ultimately porn rejection, I was confident that I’d get at least a few takers. Enough for an article that could at least scratch the surface of what appears to be a growing backlash against the culture. I know from speaking to teenagers that there are stories to be told and that now is the time to capture them.

What I wasn’t expecting was to suddenly, over the course of one weekend, receive enough material to write a book.

Thanks to Billie Eilish using her not inconsiderable platform to blow the conversation wide open, something has been ignited and the reams of men pathetically hopping on every available thread to justify their right to orgasm to images of rape and degradation seem a little less secure in their convictions. They’re being viewed as the misogynistic cretins they are, and not before time. But this article isn’t about them, this is about the girls that are being fed the culture from an alarmingly young age – the average age of first exposure to porn in the women I’ve spoken to is just 10 years old – and how they’ve been impacted by it.

I considered many different angles from which to approach this. I already scrapped my original intro about how the internet is not the force for good we hoped it’d be. We already know that. I’ve also had to fight against my default urge to be irreverent and make light of things I find uncomfortable.

The reality is that an entire generation of girls, now in early adulthood, have grown up with no navigational tools in a world in which sexual objectification is astronomically aggressive, and in which pornographic content dominates huge, huge swaths of online experience. We’re talking unbelievably high numbers of users. Pornhub received more visitors – 639.6 million – in 2021, than Netflix did at 541 million. That alone should give people pause when trying to comprehend just how ubiquitous porn has become. Unlike Netflix, pornhub routinely features #1 rated videos like “My stepbrother brazenly took advantage of my helplessness” and “Broken slutty teens getting their holes wrecked”. I could go on, but even typing the words causes a visceral reaction. Suffice to say that porn and rape are branches on the same twisted tree and teenage girls are, as ever, the unwitting focal point.

Pornhub has recently deleted millions of videos that fail to pass ‘age verification’, backed with a magniloquent promise to do better, in one of the most insultingly ‘too little too late’ manoeuvres I’ve ever seen. But what of the girls in the first generation of internet raised adolescents? What has it been like for them in a world where porn became increasingly more accessible, brutal and most shockingly, ‘normalised’?

These are the women on the front line of the backlash, the ones who developed their own navigational strategies, who resolved to reject the culture and reclaim their sexuality and self worth on their own terms. My hope in collating these stories is that we can find enough commonalities to form a cohesive idea of how to relate to girls still stuck in the cycle of use, for whatever myriad reasons, and help them break the conditioning. I’ve also found, to my delight, that the surge in interest in radical feminist theory over the past few years, is without doubt informing women’s attitudes and decisions about porn use, and giving them the opportunity to break the programming they’ve been subjected to through exposure to porn.

The women that spoke to me have all been candid, articulate and have all shown great insight to their individual situations and of the wider implications of porn use on girls. They’re from a variety of backgrounds, which has shown what we suspected – porn culture affects everyone, no one is exempt. It also shows that no matter the demographic, these reactions and experiences are universal and relatable.

I spoke to Charlotte, 22, who’s straight and in a relationship. She’s had long term relationships in the past in which porn has often been a contentious topic. Sarah*, a 19 year old lesbian brought up in a conservative Muslim environment, and Scarlet*, a 22 year old middle class, mixed race bisexual student. 

The shared themes in their earliest experiences of exposure are hard to ignore. Both Charlotte and Scarlet were exposed at very young ages by older men’s use of porn – Scarlet was spammed gay male fetish porn in a chat room intended for children at just 8 years old, and Charlotte had the unfortunate experience of her mother finding her father’s pornography and telling her about it at 11, citing that the girls her father was watching weren’t that much older than her. She talks about the importance of parents discussing the harms of porn with their children but I can’t help but think a bit of discretion would have gone a long way to protecting her. This particular experience echoes that of my generation in which our dad’s habits were the first inkling we had of sexualised imagery. Men are careless and thoughtless about their consumption, and considering the content they’re consuming, a very loud conversation needs to be had about porn use within the family. Sarah doesn’t even recall a specific incident in which she first became aware of porn, instead telling me that “I don’t remember an exact moment in my life where I was aware of porn online, as it seems like as if it’s always been a thing to me, unfortunately. I grew up in a conservative Muslim environment, and specifically as a young girl, I was warned to keep away from nudity and things such as that. However, even while using Instagram, porn would pop up from time to time, and I’d feel ashamed and embarrassed from seeing it. I felt like I was seeing something that I shouldn’t have.”

From these early experiences it’s clear that their instinctive reaction is that of shame and disgust. Even as they discussed their later interactions with porn, at ages 14 onwards, arousal doesn’t enter the picture. It’s sought out for various reasons, curiosity, peer pressure and interestingly as a form of revenge for Charlotte. Trying desperately to balance her boyfriend’s use, she would watch it secretly “when I was about 16 and with my first serious boyfriend. I would find out he had been on it, and I would look for the same video and watch it myself. I would almost get off on the thought of my boyfriend going behind my back. When I was about 18 and my boyfriend was consistently going behind my back, I would start doing the same thing and convincing myself that I wasn’t as bad as him for looking at it. I was convincing myself he was going on it behind my back, so I was doing the same.” She later told me that she believes that porn use is a gateway to infidelity, a notion that’s impossible to dismiss. Scarlet and Sarah both started consciously looking for pornographic content aged just 11, albeit in very different forms. The pressure to conform seems overwhelming and so they both navigated this by searching out less extreme content – Sarah became involved with chat rooms that emphasised fictional, role playing porn in which she would play the role of a gay man, while Scarlet, put off by ‘standard’ porn chose a different route “When I was 11 or 12, I started seeking out porn, mainly just due to curiosity about sex. I didn’t do it very often, only once every few months. Straight porn was extremely unappealing to me due to its misogynistic nature, so I ended up focusing on ‘ethical’ and ‘softcore’ lesbian or solo female porn.”

None of these accounts speak to an addiction, in the same way that adolescent and teenage boys experience it. More a desire to keep up with peers and a display of curiosity about sex in a world in which answers aren’t readily available anywhere else. The only facet of compulsion is consumption as a form of self harm, rather than a genuine enjoyment. Charlotte says, tellingly, that “for about 3 years. I was kind of self sabotaging myself. I was watching things that weren’t real and girls that were very pretty. It taught me that I would never be good enough.” She also describes the impact it had on her early sex life “I was performing sexual acts at a very young age. My body image was definitely affected because I thought they had nicer bodies than me. I started to perform sexual acts that I had seen, on porn, on guys from a young age, because I thought it’s what they wanted.”

This leads to the stark and unavoidable revelation (if we can even call it that at this stage) that porn is poisonous to self worth and healthy body image. Girls are having to constantly compare themselves to the women their boyfriends are watching. In a world where the beauty standard is as unattainable and unrealistic as ever, there’s now a dimension of expectation among boys, and a message to girls that porn is something aspirational. Scarlet confirms this by saying “My female friends would talk about their boyfriends getting unrealistic ideas from porn and comparing real life girls to porn stars. It seemed to make the girls feel quite inadequate and insecure. They knew it wasn’t good, but they were convinced that all boys watched it and there was no use trying to find a boyfriend who didn’t.” This defeatist attitude is deeply concerning, especially when I look at it in the context of my single friends in their 30s and 40s and their difficulties finding men who don’t use. This is an issue that runs deep in every generation. Reassuringly though, Scarlet does go on to say that “the only porn-related conversations I’ve had with men were with my current male friends, who are pretty much all anti-porn, or at least anti modern porn industry.” So, maybe the backlash isn’t just confined to women. Here’s hoping.

Sarah tells the same story with further insight into the wider culture of pre teen sexualisation ”I distinctly remember that around that age, Meghan Trainor’s song “All About That Bass” had come out. All my female peers were singing it and praising it for its “body positivity” message, although it made me feel uncomfortable from the undertones of needing to be sexy to men in order to love yourself. Looking back on those conversations now as a young adult, I realised that it was the start of my female peers and I being groomed into acting sexy for the male gaze. Contrasting with this was my conversations with my male peers, and friends at the time: they were discussing violent porn with me. At the time, I tried to engage in conversation even though I had never willingly watched it nor searched for it before, because I reasoned with myself that the only reason I felt uncomfortable at the time was because I was a conservative prude. They’d talk about incestuous porn, rape porn, make jokes about how their “right arms were jacked because [they] jacked off all day”.” This is while she was in high school.

I think (or at least I certainly hope) that Sarah speaks for a lot of teenage girls when she recalls that “around the age of 15 I was so entirely repulsed by it that I stopped engaging in fictional NSFW at all by then. I feel like I was encouraged and peer-pressured into continuing with it, so I felt like I had to or I’d be wrong, a prude, and weird for not, rather than from myself actually enjoying it. It was always seen as “normal” by my peers, but I was always disgusted and discomforted by it, even when I was forcing myself to engage in “only” fictional porn.” Similarly, Scarlet’s conviction that her only consuming ‘ethical’ porn was alright began to waver during “a process of growing up and becoming less naïve about the porn industry. When I was younger, I took it for granted that porn producers must  be verifying age and consent and not engaging in exploitative practices, because ‘otherwise it would be illegal’. When I was about 15-16 and started to learn more about politics, economics and social issues, I learned that this was not the case and became opposed to the porn industry.”

At 21, Charlotte was still struggling with the idea that her partners were using, and that that was causing her use to increase “I was sick of it being done behind my back. People saying it was normal for men to do it. ‘It’s just what men do’. I had always called boyfriends out and hated them for being on it once or twice, but I had been going on it lots more and hiding it lots more because it was embarrassing.” There’s a strong current of self objectification in her story, and the more I spoke with her the more apparent it became that her self perception had been warped by the constant presence of porn in her life. Teenage girls have always self objectified to some degree as they figure out their identity, before they realise that their worth is not subject to other’s approval. It’s a trait that the porn and beauty industries exploit ruthlessly, leading to a horrifying plethora of socially contagious phenomena among girls. Living chronically online has led to extremely aggressive, competitive self objectification and nowhere is this more apparent in the willingness of girls to perform degrading sex acts seen in pornography.

In this bleak picture, radical feminism has been a beacon of light and truth for these women. It’s given them the vocabulary to describe their gut reactions, the analysis to understand why they became drawn into it, and it’s given them the courage and the impetus to talk about their experiences openly and without shame, in the hope that they can reach girls who are feeling the same way and are looking for an exit from the culture.

Scarlet came to radical feminism via a somewhat unexpected path, and in doing so started to reassess her own use of ‘ethical’ porn “When I first became anti-porn due to the exploitativeness of the industry, I was a right-wing ‘men’s rights’ sympathiser, and part of what drove me away from being right-wing was the fact that many right-wing men were pornsick and obsessed with objectifying women. I started reading about radical feminism as part of my transition away from ‘men’s rights’ activism, and it made me realise that the  current problems with the porn industry aren’t the only reason why porn is harmful. For a long time, I thought that just because I was personally able to watch small amounts of ‘ethical’ porn without it  causing addiction/unrealistic standards/desire for more extreme content, everyone else would be able to do that too. Radical feminism made me realise that this was not the case: everyone reacts differently to porn, and a substantial proportion of men react in a way that causes them to behave in damaging and unacceptable ways towards women and girls. It also made me realise that even ‘ethical’ porn may not be consensual and there is no reliable way to tell.”

Charlotte realised the horrifying brutality of the trafficking industry through radical feminism and could no longer square her passive consumption with the abuse and humiliation of women in the industry. Sarah discovered that her discomfort with porn didn’t necessarily stem from her religious background and radical feminism gave her the framework she needed to describe how she felt “Before, I labelled my automatic discomfort and disgust at it as due to my religiously conservative upbringing, and thought that I had to overcome my discomfort and disgust, as it was so normalised amongst my peers. I had no idea how damaging porn was for women and girls before, and found it extremely difficult to voice my concerns in a climate where everyone is watching porn and labelled me a prude before for not. After discovering radical feminism though, I have found so many resources and studies that confirmed my discomforts all along.”

I asked them what solutions they think are possible, and what, if anything, might have helped them take a stand sooner. Their answers are very illuminating, and give me hope that the flip side of spending so much time online is that more ideas are available to digest, and that critical thought is still very much the province of teenagers. Charlotte suggests that age restrictions have to be much more stringently monitored and enforced, if an outright ban isn’t on the table, and that parents shouldn’t be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations “I’m really not sure if we could ever take it away. But I hope so. Maybe one of those cards you could only purchase with ID to get on to 18+ sites. Porn has damaged my mental health, trust, relationships, sex life and body image. Parents should have a conversation with kids about why porn is damaging, because it is so terrible for young minds. It is allowing young boys to get into the mind set that porn is normal, and girls minds that it is ok to be sexually abused.”

Sarah actively discusses the issues with her peers at university, all of whom have rejected hook up and porn culture, and has joined her local feminist activist group. She very succinctly recognises the difficulty in bringing young women around to the idea of radical feminism and takes this approach “I do believe that women and young girls can embrace radical feminism, as I have seen support for it from girls as young as 14 on Tiktok, however, I do not believe that the ideology as a whole will become mainstream, specifically because of its ideas about abolishing gender. I think that we should push for rejecting objectification and dehumanisation of women without necessarily mentioning radical feminism at first, as it can turn off a lot of people because of their preconceived prejudices on radical feminism, due to Trans Radical Activists labelling us as Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists and Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. I’m sure that when young girls and women are aware of how damaging pornography is, they will do more research on it, have more discussions on it and how it affected them, and they will discover radical feminism on their own as a result of that.”

Scarlet goes further and addresses the institutional challenges young women face.  “I think many teenagers are smarter than we give them credit for and are fully capable of adopting  political ideologies like radical feminism. The fact is that all of our opponents – from men’s rights activists to traditionalist Christians to pornsick libfems – target adolescents online from an extremely young age, and we need to provide a counter-narrative that is comprehensible and appealing for teenagers. Humans are born with an instinctive feeling that they do not want to be objectified or dehumanised, but this instinct is overridden by libfem propaganda – all we have to do is tell girls that their instincts are correct and the propaganda is wrong. I believe that some approximation of radical feminism is the natural reaction that girls and women are likely to have to the state of modern society, which is why everyone – from libfems to conservatives – is so invested in repressing our natural instincts using lies and mental gymnastics. My ‘turning point’ was when I developed healthy self-esteem, distanced myself from libfem propaganda, and allowed my instincts and common sense to guide me towards radical feminist ideas.”

There is so much more to cover, this is just the beginning of what I hope will be a tsunami of girls and women speaking out about the harms of pornography, their wholesale rejection of it and their refusal to date boys and men who use it. I’m grateful to all the women who’ve taken the time to talk to me about it, and I’d like to make a series of these interviews and amplify as many stories as I can, to really drill down into the effects of porn use and exposure in girls long term and how to overcome the damage. I’d also like to help set up peer support groups both regionally and online to connect young radical feminists and assist in any way I can to help grow a new network. If any of this is of interest to you, if any of these stories have resonated or if you’d like to tell me your experiences please email me on rebekahw@northernradfemnetwork.org

*names changed to protect identities.