The modesty of the porn generation

When it comes to smut, we're much more shy -- and basically human -- than the media narrative would have you think

Published January 16, 2011 1:01AM (EST)

It was a blazing hot weekend in San Francisco and a group of us were debating how to best spend the day. My friend "Megan" knew what she wanted: "Let's grab some beers and do D.P.!" I shot her boyfriend a look and we exploded in laughter. "What's so funny?" she asked. Fair question: All she had done was suggest some laid-back mid-afternoon boozing at Dolores Park. Trying to contain my laughter, I explained that in the world of online porn, D.P. stands for, um, "double penetration." She had no idea, but her boyfriend clearly did.

This is a common sexual divide in heterosexual relationships, and it's one I was recently reminded of after reading Natasha Vargas-Cooper's piece in the Atlantic this month about how "the new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women." This is in contradiction to the media narrative about the "pornified" women of my generation. Those of us in our 20s and early 30s who were the first to come of age with free hardcore porn at our fingertips were said to be taking pole-dancing classes, waxing our nether regions and sticking our tongues down each other's throats for show. We were supposedly "having sex like men" and "screwing like porn stars." Our sexual coat of arms would feature a "Girls Gone Wild" T-shirt, a stripper heel and a MacBook live-streaming hardcore action. There is some truth there -- yet many young women are remarkably unfamiliar with actual porn, and a gulf still remains between the sexes in talking about it.

Of course, women are well-acquainted with the hairless aesthetic, the operatic moans -- but at least in my social circle, it's like it's been learned largely through cultural osmosis. Take my friend "Megan": She has a penchant for drunkenly making out with girls at bars -- a hallmark of our generation -- but she doesn't watch porn and has little awareness of, or interest in, the kind of content that is out there. Several of the women who responded to my call on Twitter for interviewees on the subject said they'd had very little exposure to porn. (Keep in mind that these are people who follow me on Twitter; they are relatively progressive, sex-positive sorts.) Nadia, a 25-year-old New Yorker, tells me: "I've actually never watched porn before (besides really graphic porn in a museum exhibit that was not at all appealing). Part of me is curious, but part of me is also a little uncomfortable," she said in an e-mail.

Certainly, there are plenty of women who watch porn -- clearly, I do -- but reliable statistics are hard to come by. A 2003 Nielsen report estimated that a robust 30 percent of visitors to adult websites were women, while an ABC News poll found that only 10 percent of women had watched online porn -- ever. What remains unquestioned is that -- from Playboy to YouPorn -- pornography is a men's market.

Among the young coast-dwellers I spoke with, it's considered a given that men watch porn. Unsurprisingly enough, every guy I interviewed openly copped to regularly watching porn (anywhere from two times a day to two times a month, but most fell somewhere in between); in fact, I was a little taken aback by their openness about how often they watched porn. I approached with all sorts of disclaimers -- "I understand if you aren't comfortable talking about this, it's totally OK if it weirds you out" -- but they unanimously saw the question as rhetorical. Finding porn on your boyfriend's computer is no longer a revelation -- it's a "no duh." In fact, one female friend put it to me this way: "I would be more concerned if a guy I was dating didn't watch porn than I would be if he did."

Men may be open about the fact of watching porn -- a fact that's impossible to ignore these days -- but that doesn't mean that young dudes are forthcoming about what kind of porn they watch. "Monty" (note to self: Do not let friends choose their pseudonyms), a San Franciscan in his early-30s, tells me that he and his girlfriend "loosely discuss it but not with a bunch of detail or specifics." She makes no big deal of the fact that he watches porn. "It's something we assume is happening, and we are pretty OK with keeping that part of our sex lives separate," he says. "I think there is something powerful, and slightly self indulgent, about keeping porn to myself."

In the hetero world, online porn largely remains a male domain, and many guys prefer it that way. In a joking conversation with one of my guy friends, I mentioned the charmingly named porn site His eyes widened and he looked taken aback, maybe even exposed: "You know about that?" He knows that I've written about the adult industry, that I've interviewed porn stars, and yet he seemed genuinely surprised. Indeed, these very popular sites seem designed to repel women -- to send them literally running from the room -- what with the endless talk of "sluts," "whores," "bitches" and worse. Maybe without the perceived judgment of female eyes, it feels like a safer space to explore fantasy.

My friend Christopher, 30, only mentioned the subject to his girlfriend after I asked him about it. That prompted her to ask him about his porn-viewing habits, then he became bashful and she became concerned: "What could be so bad that you wouldn't want to discuss with me?" They had a verbal tug-of-war that ended with Christopher, as he says, "shuffling to the bedroom and putting my head into the pillow." After a little introspection, he concluded, "I'm just embarrassed because I hold onto old misconceptions about porn -- that watching it makes me a pathetic Internet loser who either can't get laid or prefers fantasy sex to reality -- and I don't want her to think that about me! I am a viable suitor!" And he told her all of this "in a harried brain-dump, like I'm ripping off the Band-Aid," he says.

Interestingly enough, a large part of his nervousness came from his girlfriend's comfort with the subject. "I am aware that she would be quite comfortable discussing [porn] and I am intimidated by her confidence; it makes me feel uncool and repressed by comparison."

Similarly, a 27-year-old woman living in New York who preferred to remain anonymous told me by e-mail that she's tried to casually bring up the subject with her boyfriend, but he's shied away from the conversation. He admits to watching porn, but he's uncomfortable going into any detail. "I think he's more uncomfortable talking about it than I am," she said, noting that she doesn't watch porn herself. "I actually wouldn't mind a little more openness on this topic, because I think it'd be interesting to learn more about what he likes and what he fantasizes about. But since he doesn't seem eager to share, and since I know what it's like to feel a little shy about sex, I don't push the subject too hard."

Porn may be more present and popular than ever -- but, clearly, sexual relationships are still filled with shyness, fear and vulnerability. Which is to say that, fundamentally, sex really doesn't change all that much.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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