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What Porn Means to Us: Twenty Couples on Tentacles, Baywatch, and the Skin Flicks They Share, Fear, and Imitate

A man I was dating told me that he liked watching anime scenes of sea creatures raping schoolgirls with their tentacles. His arousal bothered him. I was surprised to discover that it didn’t bother me, but my live-and-let-live attitude gave me pause: Was I colluding with misogyny?

Conflicting studies have suggested that porn leads to aggression, divorce, and depression — as well as lower rates of rape, better sex, and deeper commitments. We only know for certain that since the start of the Internet’s reign, porn has moved online, diversified, and sped up: Every day nearly 20 million viewers visit Xvideos, the web’s most trafficked porn site, and YouPorn is six times the size of Hulu. With porn consumption ubiquitous — and, by most reports, increasing and evolving — I asked couples and individuals how they discuss porn with their dates and partners. The result: twenty conversations about porn.

1. Porn is fantasy.

Jill “has no idea” what kind of porn her husband of two years watches, but she “doubts it’s anything that would bother” her. Tom says he doesn’t want to “expose Jill to all the craziness” of the videos he stumbles upon — like a woman riding a dildo-studded bicycle. He explains: “If she saw the porn I’m watching, she’d probably think I’m holding something back, but I’m not. I don’t want to bring what I see into the real world. It’s like how you don’t actually want to kill your boss.”

Unlike sex, “masturbation is a win every time,” Tom says. His threshold keeps changing: “When you’re a kid, a nipple is enough for five years, but once you start seeing girls climbing out of clown cars, you want more clown cars.” He’s glad his wife “doesn’t like anything gross” because he doesn’t think he’d want to be with someone who watched what he sometimes watches. Every so often he pretends he and his wife are in their own porno. 

Jill occasionally uses her imagination to “sneak quickies” while her husband is in the shower. She read the whole Fifty Shades of Grey series, mostly on airplanes. Reading erotica means her husband “isn’t beholden” to what she likes, which she imagines “is tamer than what he likes.” She’d love for him to put on a favorite video and masturbate in front of her, but she suspects “it’s his private thing.”

2. Porn is quick. 

Now Anthony really does read Playboy for the articles. The Internet has killed his interest in pictures. He rapidly surfs through porn, which he describes as fast food. He doesn’t hide the regular habit from his wife Anjuli, a dietitian. She doesn’t mind it except when he gets off to really fat women — “They are not obese,” he interjects. “But they have huge boobs,” she replies — and Indian women, because she’s Indian. “I don’t want to think he has a fetish,” she says. “I don’t!” he laughs, “They just pop up sometimes!”

3. Porn is liberating.

When Rosslyn, 26, needs a little push toward orgasm during sex, she grabs one of her breasts and imagines Pamela Anderson. It works. She’s straight but has always “longed for bigger boobs” and ever since sneaking HBO’s Real Sex at her parents’ house in middle school, she’s delighted in “living vicariously through images of other women.” Rosslyn feels a little guilty imagining Pamela during sex with her boyfriend, but she reconciles: “Jesus Christ, I’m coming all over his face!”

Rosslyn “aspires to monogamy, but sometimes you just want to fuck. It’s a primal instinct you can’t fight." Porn helps her supplement a relationship’s confines. She needs a plot and characters roughly her age, late twenties. “If they’re banging it out, I can’t get into it,” she says.

When she first met Sam, 40, he rejected anything beyond missionary sex and didn’t masturbate. His father had molested him. If he indulged in anything, Sam was scared he would become like his father, “a monster.” After therapy and conversations with Rosslyn, a self-described “colorful person with the dirtiest mind,” Sam gave himself permission to watch porn and order sex toys, like cock molds, and get Rosslyn “an adequately breasted” stripper for her birthday. Since dating Sam, Rosslyn has seen, “as cheesy as it sounds, how important it is not to accept things for what they are on a surface level. To really listen.”

4. Porn is shared.

Dino and Natalie started watching porn together soon after losing their virginity to each other in high school. From money shots to cop uniforms, Natalie “had so many criticisms about porn being by men, for men.” After seeing “women-friendly” porn in college, though, she’s enjoyed it on her own.

A decade later and engaged, Dino reads Natalie erotica. She projects herself and her lover into scenes. They also watch videos together. “I have nothing to hide," Dino says. "Being with someone who isn’t accepting of porn, of who you are, the human form, would be hard. I’m realistic, porn doesn’t show you how you have sex with someone you love.”

Porn has never been a problem for them, but when Natalie and Dino broke up for a few years, Natalie dated a guy “without regard for mutual pleasure. He masturbated three times a day and didn’t want to have sex.” Worse, he called her a freak for “having a man’s sex drive.” She broke up with him: “I went to a women’s college! You can’t pull that shit on me!”

5. Porn is a substitute.

Paul initiates sex by asking, “Want to have some fun?” Carlos, who, despite his Catholic upbringing, “grew up talking about everything and never felt oppressed,” explains: “I’m dating a gay guy who can’t say 'cock.'” Carlos watches porn frequently because Paul's “drive is zero” and he likes “to marvel.” He needs sound, like a bed moving, to get off. Carlos appreciates that the Internet helps people find niches, like underwear fetish sites, and sometimes watches straight porn, including men going down on women, “in admiration of the rhythm.” He prefers men that look similar to Paul, but Paul prefers videos of “rail-thin boys.” Carlos says, “I know we love each other, but I don’t think I do it for him physically. I’m heavy-set, not boyish. I’m not a twinkie. It used to bother me, but what’re you gonna do? It doesn’t make me feel unloved.” 

6. Porn is shaming.

When he was 25, Matt, a non-practicing Jew, downloaded a Christian program that prevented him from looking at porn. He’d started teaching high school, so his preference for watching teens seemed wrong. He’d deny himself for a couple months, then binge. 

His then-girlfriend, now wife, Henrietta, worried that her low libido meant she couldn’t satisfy Matt. “We both carry the guilt of not having as much sex as we’d like. I realized from our conversations that I haven’t accessed who I am sexually, and how much shame I feel around that.” Part of her “envies how Matt can engage in pleasure without the rigid boundaries [she] clings to.”

He says he “keeps a wall between porn and sex with Henrietta to keep sex with Henrietta pure and natural, but that wall hasn’t motivated us to experiment as much as maybe I would want.” That wall “broke down once,” when they watched a video together. He’s “definitely visually stimulated,” but Henrietta says videos aren’t appealing, mostly because the women are so obviously faking pleasure for male attention. It raisequestions about her own performance: “How much energy should I spend putting on nice clothes and being seen?  If I bring those anxieties into the sexual realm, it stops being just an instinctual thing,” she says. "When I think about that, I end up feeling shitty."

They almost broke up before they got married, prompting Matt to realize that he could — and needed to — “have a separate identity within the relationship.” He stopped telling Henrietta every time he masturbated. Henrietta likens his struggle between sexual denial and permission to an eating disorder. In the face of so much self-judgment “at least we have someone we can really share that with,” she says.

7. Porn is helpful.

Once so preoccupied with her breasts “running away like yard dogs” that she couldn’t fully enjoy sex, Krista “really has to tip her hat to porn.” Watching many different women has given her a newfound confidence in her sexuality: “I’m judgmental, so if can look at someone who is by no means the ideal and get turned on and say, ‘look at you, you’re beautiful,’ I know any guy can overlook anything about me.”

When she and an ex couldn’t be together, they texted descriptions of the porn they were watching. They only watched together once, when she congratulated him on passing a business exam with a one hundred-dollar DVD set depicting her “ideal sex — aggressive but not coercive.”

8. Porn is abstract.

To his surprise, Marco arrived at a San Francisco sports bar as a porno was about to be filmed. A man led into the room a leashed, naked woman crawling on her hands and knees. The crew encouraged the crowd — about 70 percent men, by Marco’s estimate — to touch her nipples, slap her genitals. As the man and woman started having sex, the crowd “got really into it.” Seeing S&M online doesn’t rattle Marco, but at the bar, “it was so in your face. There was no barrier.” He prefers his pornography at a distance. Of the live act he adds, “There was no sadness — it was a ‘we’re having fun and hope you are too’ vibe. But it was just fucking weird. I wasn’t aroused.”

His longtime girlfriend Jeanie enjoys porn — “I have no problem with it; it’s something we’ve always shared,” she says — and they describe their relationship as “open and comfortable,” so Marco doesn’t know why he didn’t just tell her about the filming when he got home. For weeks afterwards, when Jeanie suggested watching a video together Marco would decline. He’s never told her about it. “There’s probably some deep psychological reason, but I don’t know what it is,” he says.

9. Porn is limited.

Rachel, 41, says she and Alicia, 35, are “regretful non-porn-watchers.” Alicia says most of what the industry offers is “either misogynist or low-budget and shabby. In this capitalist economy, the purchasers are straight men, so stuff is geared for them. Queer people don’t want their porn to be consumed by anyone but themselves.” She says, “Part of my femme identity is performing femininity for a female gaze, but if that’s swept up by the male gaze, it’s not subversive anymore, it’s not respecting who I am.”

Just after graduating college, Rachel and about six of her friends would go to the one video store in Brooklyn with pornos they liked, then share potluck dinners while watching the videos together at rotating homes. They turned to gay male porn, “the source of many jokes.” Rachel wonders “whether it was easier to participate in the objectification of men.” These days, “everything is available online; the chase is gone.”

10. Porn is threatening.

Anne, 30, rehearsed asking her boyfriend not to watch porn while she was in the apartment in “a light, neutral tone for a level-headed conversation.” But when they talked she cried. Her concerns are three-pronged: insecurity about her own sexiness — “I can’t put on a show or even talk dirty”; disdain of the exploitation of women; and annoyance with the Internet infringing on all aspects of life. She wants to be sex positive but wonders if demands for sex positivity veil yet another expectation put on women, this time by an industry that sells demeaning images of women. “When is it okay to ask people not to do something?” she asks.

11. Porn is disquieting.

Sex is scary; masturbation is safe,” says Gabriel. His “sex life is vanilla and porn life is getting wacko, gonzo,” and although he wishes he could fill the gulf, he says, “porn hasn’t affected women of my generation the same way. I’ve never had really unrestrained sex.”

Ava could feel Gabriel’s attention slip away when he thought about porn during sex. She felt porn’s “constant presence because it’d formed his sexuality.” When she inadvertently saw an ad picturing a gyrating woman on his computer “it felt so disgusting.” She says she’s grateful Gabriel was honest with her. He says he wishes she’d wanted to talk more about it.

Gabriel also wishes he could control what he’s attracted to. His brain and libido seem at odds. He’s uncomfortable that he seeks out white women, not women of his own race. Citing gonzo porn, he says, “I try to stay away from the ethically and morally compromised stuff because I know I’m capable of enjoying it. I don’t want to support any industry that exploits people. There are a lot of hungry and sad-looking Russian women out there who definitely look coerced.”  Self-policing only complicates his desires: “We’re on this very solo journey, and we find ourselves in places we’re shocked by.”

Ava understands that sexualities are complicated, but nothing about “the sadness” of sexual violence turns her on. She says, “There are some things I want to push myself towards, to try, but why would I want to start engaging in [violent porn]?” Her two previous and probably not coincidentally non-American partners didn’t watch porn. “They were really present. It was impressive,” she says.

12. Porn is aspirational.

Joe, 29, insists that “everyone in a monogamous relationship wants to be in a threesome.” When masturbating, he scrolls through many images, and keeps multiple videos open on his screen simultaneously, a sort of virtual spreading of his mental seed. “The conquest is part of it.”

Joe e-mails or shows clips to Serena, 28, his live-in girlfriend of almost eight years. Serena says through conversations about porn she can learn about Joe, keep her mind open, and talk about what she likes or wants to try. She’s seen a variety of porn from BDSM to “artsy shots of nudes,”and prefers amateur videos because she gets “totally annoyed at the hairless, big- and firm-breasted, immaculate bodies of industry-porn women who are ready to go with no warm-up.”

Serena says, “I know there are things he’s not telling me, which is completely fine. You don’t need to and probably shouldn’t tell your partner about everything you fantasize about.”

Some days Joe will get horny in the middle of the day and masturbate, thinking it’ll help him last longer with Serena that night, but later when she tries to initiate, his drive is spent. He doesn’t tell her why. “We talk about the phenomenon, not like ‘oh, I jacked off today,’” he explains.

13. Porn is divisive.

John’s leftist, feminist parents instilled in him the idea that porn degrades women, but by his early twenties he’d watched so much of it that he couldn’t stop thinking about porn during sex. He is “filled with self-contempt for liking certain videos,” including one he (mistakenly) thought was real footage of men picking women up in a van and raping them. He realized “guilt itself is erotic.” Now in his thirties, he believes that “the very thing that goes against your moral standards fires your libido even more.”

His ex-girlfriend, Carla, considered watching porn cheating. He tried to cut down but refused to stop altogether. By the time he was living with Carla, he wanted to be “free from the hiding patterns.” John understands Carla’s jealousy. “I was having intense orgasms to a woman who wasn’t her. She wasn’t wrong. Men are lucky more women don’t feel that way,” he says, but after feeling guilt and shame over many years, he decided that, “an un-nuanced view of porn is a form of sexual repression.” They broke up. Now he tells women he dates early on that “some part of me is not satisfied with sex with a person.”

He says feminist criticisms focus on the final scene, but most running time in any given video is devoted to a woman’s pleasure. “The man is reduced to a torso,” he says. John goes through phases, exclusively watching a certain genre until it loses appeal. He likes himself best when he’s into “the merest suggestion of sex in something PG-13.”

14. Porn is hidden.

Marina, a yoga teacher in her twenties, has never really seen porn. “Maybe it’s the prude little Russian girl in me, but I think [porn] is gross and cheap. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about it. I have judgment around it, so I pretend it doesn’t exist.”

She and her husband, Henry, tell different stories. He says when they moved in together a few years ago, he “got busted” masturbating to porn and they “laughed off the embarrassment.” She says she’s never caught him or had any other occasion to bring it up. “I guess I assume he watches it, but I don’t really think about it,” she says.

As a young man, Henry says, “you feel this pressure to be a studly guy who knows his shit, teenage boys are not going to have a real conversation with information about how to stimulate a woman during locker room boasting.” Now he uses porn “to perform well. It’s like with a cow — you need to milk yourself so the milk doesn’t come out too quickly.” He likes watching a range of genres without a specific fetish. When he was in graduate school he tended toward student/teacher scenes.

Marina says she “wouldn’t be devastated and wouldn’t take it personally” to find Henry watches porn, but “the secrecy behind it is weird, and there’s something about porn that is very American.”

15. Porn is manipulative.

Rose and Aaron met in college; they were both English majors. With five years hindsight, Rose believes Aaron was “performing” to “prove himself to be the most sexual person," often wanting to reenact what he saw in porn. "Was I swindled or did I want to do that?" she asks. "I felt like ‘I guess I have to,’ but I wanted him to want me.” Aaron says their relationship “pushed the envelope” with “incredible intimacy.” She says he used “openness” to compete with and exclude her — cheating on her, flaunting his disappearance into the bedroom to masturbate, and flirting with people he wanted for threesomes.

When they broke up, Aaron sent Rose a text that read: “I only fucked you because you would do things a prettier girl wouldn’t do.” Rose says, “He shamed me for liking what he manipulated me into doing.” She hasn’t watched porn with anyone since. On her own, she prefers amateur women, because she’s “internalized the male gaze” and doesn’t “get off on women in pain acting like they’re not in pain.” Rose supposes, “if Aaron hadn’t punched me out I might be into more forceful things, but now they’re not cool.”

Aaron says Rose once found porn on his computer. He says, “I’m flattered if someone’s interested enough in me to go through my files.” Rose, self-described “queen of snooping,” couldn’t get angry when she caught her next boyfriend “maybe in an act of self-flagellation” watching a video she and Aaron made that featured Aaron “wearing fishnet stockings while he fucked [her]!”

16. Porn is indulgent.

Liz, an art student, says her husband Darcy’s “openness and sexual energy and respect for women” attracted her. Darcy says, “Porn is not something we really talk about or ignore.” The son of a sex educator, he felt comfortable telling Liz he liked porn “early on,” but he still “feels humiliated by the entire experience every time” he masturbates. “I feel like I just ate a whole sleeve of cookies,” he says. Sometimes he jokes with his friends “about the comedy of a whole industry built around a brief escapade.”

Liz has only talked about porn with one female friend, a sorority sister, back in college. She’s “never sought out porn,” but is glad Darcy shows her what he likes. She only tells him “to look at something different when he’s looking at girls who are too young,” in part because she “lost her virginity early and didn’t enjoy it or grasp the situation.” He says, “I have to be careful I’m not pushing her in a way she’s not comfortable wanting to introduce new things, I can lapse into selfishness. Liz is more hesitant.” She agrees, “I can be sexually aggressive. We’ve been together almost ten years. I’m so close to him, but it’s still hard for me to communicate what I want. I’m embarrassed about my own fantasies. So many feelings are bound up in them — shame, hatred, joy.”

17. Porn is taboo.

Eliza doesn’t think her husband masturbates. She’s never asked him.

18. Porn is threatening.

Because Alex has “a history with black men and likes gay porn," Vanessa was threatened and always asking Alex if she wanted “to go back to men to be completely satisfied.” Alex knows she “planted the seed for jealousy” but she “relates to the homoeroticism of gay porn.” She says that “straight porn little-girl outfits and traumas” and “soft, slow lesbian porn that does not show what it’s like to have sex with a woman” don’t satisfy. She stopped telling Vanessa when and what she watched.

With guys, her preference for gay porn “is a fun fact put lightly.” She says that even if they understand basic gender politics, “guys have trouble admitting that the double-standard happens in their home.” When she told a man she dated, Kevin, that she liked gay porn, he “acted dumbfounded” and later made “very annoying jokes” whenever she suggested a restaurant in Chelsea. Another man assumed she wanted anal sex. Alex says, “There are still so many restrictions on how a woman can express herself. It’s like that Usher lyric, ‘a lady in the street and a freak in the bed.’ When a woman is comfortable being a lady and is sexually comfortable at the same time, it’s threatening.”

19. Porn is instructional.

Maggie, 31, asks men about their porn tastes so she can assess “whether to throw in the towel” if she feels she “can’t deliver.” Ray, 29, says, “I’d never dated anyone jealous of porn. I didn’t know what to say.” After just a few weeks of dating, Maggie admitted to him what she’d never told anyone — that she sometimes watches porn, too. “Ray was so open and honest. I trusted that he wanted me, not what he saw in porn,” she says.

They agree that porn “adds to the repertoire.” Maggie compares herself to women in porn and in regular movies. She wonders if she’d even know how to have sex, how to date, if she’d never been exposed to narratives, prototypes. “What’s me and what’s what I’ve seen?” Maggie asks. Ray says, “I don’t think we can ever know.”                                                                                                         

20. Porn is fleeting.

Soon after he told me he liked tentacle porn, my ex and I watched some together, fully clothed and eating macaroni and cheese for lunch. He narrated and moralized, as if I needed help understanding what the scenes meant. Yesterday I called to ask if he remembered that afternoon. “There’s no way we weren’t joking around,” he said, “I never would have thought you’d really like that … I know we talked about my guilt … the ultimate part of the scene is when a girl is forced to come to having her civility stripped.” He repeated that his “very, very brief, maybe two-week-long” penchant for anime tentacles has long passed. But it’ll be a long time before I forget that afternoon. Rarely has a man invited me to sit next to him to look at something that makes him so uncomfortable with himself. I wish it could’ve happened more often, with him and with others.

Photos: Gluekit; Gluekit; Gluekit; Gluekit; Gluekit; Gluekit; Gluekit

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC. All Rights Reserved. The Cut® are registered trademarks of New York Media LLC.

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC.
All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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