I shouldn’t be the odd one out for saying I don’t watch porn

There are many things for which Billie Eilish deserves our thanks. 

Her ‘f**k you’s to attempts at body-shaming her, the courage she shows when calling out internet trolls and, of course, her music. She is a woman of conviction, strength and confidence… all at the tender age of 19.

But this week she deserves even more gratitude, thanks to an interview she gave with Howard Stern, during which she condemned the porn industry, calling it ‘a disgrace’, and discussed the negative impact that watching porn has had on her brain and her sex life.

‘I’m so angry that porn is so loved and I’m so angry at myself for thinking that it was OK’, the singer stated, before revealing that she was first exposed to porn at the age of 11. ‘I didn’t think it was a bad thing. I thought it was how you learned to have sex.’

I share in Eilish’s disgust and anger. I have never understood how watching porn has become so normalised, so accessible and has even been advocated for as part of a ‘healthy’ sex life.

When I read magazines as a teenager and in my early twenties, there would often be articles by sex therapists or relationship ‘experts’ who would reassure readers that watching porn was normal.

Because this was the late noughties/early 2010’s, it was beyond societal comprehension that women would watch porn, so these articles tended to focus on the presumed male partner of female readers and would explain that viewing pornography was all part of his inherent curiosity about sex – and not to worry.

I hadn’t been exposed to anything particularly sinister at this point. Porn was passed around between students, but it was often seen as something funny, harmless and a signifier of our impending adulthood. We would watch sitcoms in which the male characters’ pornography habits were depicted as typical, affable and something to roll our eyes at when they got caught masturbating by their girlfriend, but nothing more.

Yet in 2021, with the knowledge that we now have about the abuse that runs rife within the industry – the rapes, paedophilia and human trafficking that is involved in the production of some adult content – pornography is no longer something to laugh at.

Even if a person appears to be consenting, how could you possibly know if she or he had been trafficked into that situation?

A New York Times article written in December last year by Nicholas Kristoff, exposed PornHub’s feet-dragging in removing videos depicting rape and child abuse. The site attracts 3.5billion visits per month, and much like YouTube, it allows visitors to post their own videos. 

While I hope that the majority of the videos uploaded are of consenting adults, many are of rape, non-consensual sexual acts and child abuse. With titles like ‘Screaming Teen’, ‘Degraded Teen’ and ‘Extreme Choking’, PornHub is monetizing abuse.

While PornHub denied that they allowed child videos on their site, calling such an accusation ‘flagrantly untrue’, many women who recognised their underage selves in videos that had been uploaded without their consent, came forward to refute that claim.

‘But I don’t watch those,’ many will object – but how could they possibly know? How can you be sure of the age of the people involved in the videos? How can you be certain that they intended for their home movie to end up on the internet?

Even if a person appears to be consenting and is clearly working on a ‘professional’ film set, how could you possibly know if she or he had been trafficked into that situation?

You can’t. That’s the honest truth. So, the ‘risk’ in watching pornography is no longer whether you’ll get caught by a ‘prudish’, disapproving partner, but whether you’ll be watching paedophilic or non-consensual content. Cue laughter track.

Like middle-class cocaine users in denial that their recreational habit has contributed to the rise in county-lines gang activity, the abduction of children, or the deaths of drug mules, how can porn viewers really know the extent of abuse their clicks are contributing to?

Illegalities aside, there is also a huge issue in the unrealistic depiction of sex online. Billie Eilish spoke of the impact that watching porn had on her own sex life, stating: ‘The first few times I had sex I was not saying no to things that were not good and it’s because I thought that was what I was supposed to be attracted to… it’s how so many people think they’re supposed to learn.’ 

Eilish hits on an important point here. If we live in a society where talking about sexual activity is seen as taboo and unsuitable for an educational environment, then of course young people are going to turn to the internet to learn about these things.

There has been a rise in ‘ethical’ porn sites in recent years, offering viewers the assurance that performers are taking part in a consensual act and are being paid and treated fairly. It’s a good start, but it doesn’t address the issue of individual expectations and personal limits in the bedroom.

What one person might consent to online, another might feel uncomfortable with in real life. So it is imperative that any kind of porn viewer is made aware of issues of consent, boundaries and how to respect them.

Sex is fun, sex is messy, silly, wonderful, unpredictable and oftentimes, disappointing – which is not always the expectation set by the porn industry.

If it’s prudish to say I don’t watch porn, then that’s absolutely fine with me, and I applaud Billie Eilish for speaking so openly about her experiences and opinions on the matter. I wish I had been as strong-minded and articulate at her age, but with any hope, she will have inspired a younger generation of her followers to know that it’s OK to not be OK about watching porn. 

She won’t halt the industry, but she has given permission for people like me to go against the grain and say that they just don’t get it.

There are plenty of sites out there that allow verified content-makers and sex workers to set their own boundaries and prices, with the money going directly into their pockets, but while sites like PornHub have the monopoly on online pornography, I fear that the cycle of abuse will continue.

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