My sexuality after porn

Years of Internet smut screwed with my mind. With my girlfriend's help, I tried to reprogram how I get turned on

Topics: Pornography, Love and Sex, Sex, porn, addiction, Internet Culture, porn addiction, Editor's Picks,

My sexuality after porn (Credit: Artem Furman via Shutterstock)

Dealing with my relationship to porn has been a process.

First, after using Internet porn throughout my adolescence, I quit.

Then, I learned about and ultimately identified with porn addiction and came out about it to my friends, family and to my significant other. “But you’re not thinking about porn when we’re having sex, right? I mean, you are enjoying yourself. Aren’t you?” Talking to her and others about my porn habits has been complicated, but it was necessary. I wanted to knock out the foundations of porn’s monopoly over my arousal.

Still, I don’t just want a deprogrammed, sterile mind; I want sex that feels good and healthy. So now, I’m trying to heal — or perhaps altogether re-create — my sexuality after porn. But it isn’t just a matter of restraint or overcoming shame. It’s facing the confounding question: What should I be attracted to?

Without an organic sexual development, I can’t aim to return to any sort of “natural” sexuality (an option that some late-in-life ex-porn users may have).

On the other hand, if I follow the impulses I have now, I indulge in “porn-inspired” fantasies (both actual videos I remember and related scenarios I’ve concocted) and may be stoking a competition between my real partner and my masturbatory fantasies — or worse, I may start tumbling down an addictive spiral, bottoming out when extreme kink is the only thing that turns me on.

I haven’t watched porn in years. I’ve taken months off from masturbation altogether, and recently I paired a two-month abstinence with a refusal to even think about the kinky scenarios that dominate my eroticism, in hopes of dampening those excitable neural pathways.

This has all helped. But still. When I want to cum, I feel stuck. I can think of fantasies that will turn me on, but they trouble me. I can think of fantasies that I feel good about, but they don’t really excite me. This can make masturbation an exasperating test of mental gymnastics:

I touch — I stop and think. I start again — I pause and concentrate. I grab tighter — I stop.

While discipline plays a role, the intellectual conundrums remain the biggest roadblocks: Supposing I can stop my fixation on these fantasies, what do I replace them with? Is it even possible to reprogram my erotic mind? Is it a good idea to try, or should I just focus on accepting my desires, conditioned by porn or otherwise?

I dug into my research to see if the experts had any answers.

In the last chapters of her book “The Porn Trap,” internationally recognized sex therapist Wendy Maltz describes “healthy” sex, and how to heal sexuality by reconnecting sex with emotion and sensuality through a series of exercises.

Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson of YourBrainOnPorn.com talk about this part of treatment as “rewiring” the brain to be turned on by non-porn-based stimuli. They share techniques like non-orgasmic sensual touching (without getting close to “edging” near the desire for ejaculation) as well as spiritual and energy circulation exercises recommended by visitors of the site.

Wilson and Robinson buoy on the science of neuroplasticity, explaining that humans are always strengthening certain neural pathways and pruning others (in hyper-drive during adolescence), which means that our sexual desires can change, for better or for worse. Wilson even points to a study that shows how addiction-related brain changes are actually reversing themselves in former “Internet addicts.”

So I began to experiment.

At the risk of sounding like a convert, since talking about my problematic relationship with porn and trying out a variety of “rewiring” exercises, I’ve had the best sex of my life. I still have a long way to go, but I’m starting to feel like I own my sexuality again.

* * *

It was late February and I realized that there was no point in ignoring that I had fetishes. Suppressing them just made them stronger. Avoiding them left me flaccid and frustrated.

But I was afraid to act on my porn-inspired kinks. To me, those fantasies were alone fantasies. So when I’d choked, spanked or cursed, I’d always felt like I was using my partner. Masturbating, just with her vagina instead of my hand.

Once I started talking openly about porn, I felt like I was beginning to explore kinky sex together with my partner. She knew what my fantasies were and wanted to break into that private, isolated world. And I wanted to let her in.

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It was a weeknight. After sorting through our respective closets, we met in the bedroom.

“You know, my last secretary had a nicer ass.” I ran my palms up the back of her thighs, concealed by a dull grey skirt and sheathed in black stockings.

“But she thought it would be smart to say something to my wife.” I loosened the maroon tie clinging to my collar, placed my stainless steel watch on the desk in front of her and pressed my stomach against her back.

“And you just graduated from college, didn’t you? Let’s see if you learned how to suck a dick.” I watched her pink glasses bobble around her face with each jerking motion, looking almost comical in contrast with the severity of her charcoal power blazer.

“Well, I can tell you like your job here, so you’re not going to be a dumb bitch like her, are you?” She sat down on my lap, facing me, her legs falling to either side. I grunted. The chestnut armchair creaked. She came. I came. We collapsed onto the bed.

High-fives all around. We were quite impressed with ourselves.

Experimenting with role play was great, but I was still cautious with kink. If I can only finish when my palm slides up past her collarbone, my fingers curl around her tapering neck, hit the jawbone and — push — then am I not attracted to just her?

I know: They all say that it’s about establishing trust and a foundation of positive vanilla sex and then exploring more, incorporating deviance as part of a symphony of sexual pieces with varying tempos and instruments.

But I’m an Internet boy. Maybe I need different things. Maybe I need to avoid different things. I’m easily triggered and slow to heal.

One reader suggested that I consider the “erotic of the real.” That from a different perspective, a live, nude, normal-looking person — who has a cubicle, a favorite laundromat, a niece that’s into heavy metal, a childhood between divorced parents, and an uncertain future — is way kinkier, more obscene, gross and erotic than any constructed porn personality or scenario.

So in that way I tried to “make a porn” (as this reader had suggested) of my intimate other, actively building up my desire for her, trying to make the real, sexy. And, like most things I’ve tried so far, it kind of worked. And even better, I never felt in danger it neutralized the addictiveness that “fantasizing” has always had for me. 

* * *

Still, I felt like I was missing a lot. I mean, I was still relying on fantasies to get off, just with a more animated subject.

I thought “positive porn” might have some answers for me. This genre acknowledges that many folks have gotten hooked on porn-style sex and attempts to turn folks on by showing them what sex between loved ones actually looks like.

So I went to a dance party with some friends, my intimate not included. I drank heavily, eyed go-go dancers, and two-stepped. I went home and logged on to makelovenotporn.tv. Many people had recommended this site, which shows “real world sex” between partners (who upload videos and are paid 50 percent of the profits). I watched for four minutes. I fast-forwarded. Then fast-forwarded again, clicked to the end of the video, clicked out and closed my laptop. I got bored. I didn’t cum.

Staring dumbly down at the aluminum slab on my desk, I wondered if it would have been different if I’d started out masturbating to positive porn and thought about how laughably futile it seemed now.

But then I reconsidered. Maybe it’s not so much the subjects I’m peeping at, but the whole enterprise of looking that’s fraught — the centrality of watching porn for arousal.

I jerk off to things I see. Many Internet porn users have programmed their erotic minds to flick on to visual stimuli. Let’s watch porn while we have sex! Or watch ourselves in the mirror! Or make our own porn videos!

This doesn’t have to be bad — people have been watching themselves fornicate for a long time. 

But porn didn’t visit my mind to spice things up; it colonized my sexual brain. Porn grabbed as much terrain as it could and wiped out whatever native culture might have otherwise lived there. Now, I can’t just complement my sex with a little visual arousal, I practically need it to cum.

This dependence is narrowing. I can’t have whole sex, complicated sex, balanced sex. I can only compartmentalize the many facets of sexuality. Sensuality is for massages. Mindfulness is for conversation. Emotionality is for hugs. Sexuality is for viewing.

And this hyper-visual sexuality is central to the feelings of dissociation I’ve had during sex.

At some point, the blow job had become more an act of porn than of sex for me. And I’ve often created a presentation of it — pulling back her hair to watch, asking her to look up at me, running my fingers over the bulging crease in her cheek — wondering whether I was aroused by the physical pleasure or the visual stimulation or both.

But could I really be turned on by both? Simultaneously the actor having sex, and the audience who views the actor as an object in his own masturbatory fantasy? The voyeur and the viewed?

For some people, I’m sure this duality is titillating. But it fractures me. Once I’m a voyeur, I’m masturbating. And once I’m masturbating, I can’t be sensual and present.

I only know what it’s like to masturbate to visuals (pics and vids played on a screen or in my brain), so when I’ve spoken to women who masturbate to vague scenarios with shifting lovers and slurred sensations, I can only guess at what they mean. Clearly, their words are flimsy substitutes for real physical-psychic-affective states that I have never known. And when they search for ways to help me understand, I’m struck with a disquieting foreignness, like they’re helping me translate my own family history because I don’t speak the language.

So now I’m shifting away from my voyeuristic inclinations and experimenting with this new language — of whole sex. And I’m learning the language the only way I know how. Practicing it, with a partner.

It was Valentine’s Day, and our bodies were warm.

My left hand lay across my chest and my right across her groin. Hers mirrored mine. We’d finished having sex several minutes before but our bodies still buzzed, energized. My eyes closed or open or closed — a shared meditation more than sex.

We’d tried out the “Hand on Heart Anchoring” sensuality exercise from “The Porn Trap.” Lots of verbal communication before and afterward. We’d liked it. Our bodies said that too.

It was just now that thoughts with words attached to them were coming back to us. My internal narrative had paused, a feature that sex had never had for me before. Rather than let the words repopulate our crowded minds, we drifted off further into sleep or sex or prayer, one fleshy lump bundled up in itself.

* * *

Recently, I read some erotic literature with my partner. She — and reportedly many more women than men — prefers this to porn. It was a nice interface for me. It was still fantasy, but because the visualization was in my mind it made it easier to blur this world and that, taking ownership and involving ourselves, rather than passively consuming it.

It was a tale of torment. And it turned me on. But though the story contained the same content as many of my most troubling pornographic desires — degradation, domination, etc. — it didn’t strike me with the same obsessive pleasure as visual Internet porn. Which underlined what I had already learned from my myriad experiments:

I need to focus less on avoiding the subjects of my porn fantasies — incest, rape, and S/M — and more on getting rid of the dynamic of them — addictive, isolating, voyeuristic — however I can.  This way, I can acknowledge my kinky desires and feel comfortable sharing them with a partner. This way, I can incorporate other dimensions of sexuality that I currently exclude from sex: sensuality, emotionality and mindfulness. 

Still, an irony persists here. It was Internet porn that pushed me into this intentional sexual exploration. Internet porn, after obfuscating and distorting my eroticism during my adolescence, prompted a belated, slow and ongoing, trial-and-error sexual development. And this very facilitation of sexual development — presenting an array of sexual expressions in a safe and healthy way for sampling — is what porn really could be all about. This is porn’s most noble purpose, from which it has strayed so tragically far.

So while I hope that my generation will be the last to wander unguided into the depths of Internet pornography, I also hope that our example may shine a light on how we might intentionally facilitate healthy sexual development in the future. And how honest conversation, sexual tolerance, thoughtful experimentation and, for some, maybe even porn, could be a part of the crucial education and exploration of one’s erotic self.

Isaac Abel is the pen name of a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about issues of sexuality and gender. He loves getting responses to his columns and suggestions for stories. He can be reached at isaac.abel.yunat@gmail.com.

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