The Porn You Watch Does Not Define You

Log on, get off, go about your day

Illustrated by Liz Riccardi

Last year, Pornhub received 21.2 billion visits. That averages to about 58 million visits a day. That's a lot of porn. Chances are, though, many of these visits are kept secret from your friends and partners.

This season of Hulu's original series Difficult People devoted an entire episode to the Porn Talk, where Arthur (James Urbaniak) walks in on his girlfriend, Julie (Julie Klausner), masturbating to gangbang porn. "If I'm not horrified and offended by the time I'm done," she tells Billy (Billy Eichner) after the fact, "I don't bother seeking it out." Arthur is bewildered by Julie's porn habits, sharing that the porn he watches, when he even does and which he then hides in a shoebox, features women who look like Julie—which raises the question of whether the porn we consume defines our sexual appetites.

In short, it doesn't, but let's cater to the question of why.

To begin understanding why we consume porn, we have to understand what porn is. On a very general level, Dr. Michael Aaron, a sex therapist in NYC and the author of Modern Sexuality: The Truth About Sex, says it depends entirely on the intent of the user. Author and sexologist Dr. Logan Levkoff echoes this, saying it's subjective: "One person's erotica may be considered pornography to someone else." The function of porn, however, is to arouse. Kayden Kross, a force within the adult entertainment industry and NYLON's sex columinst, breaks it down as "content from any medium that shows an excessive amount of something for the purpose of eliciting a strong feeling, whether that be shock or outrage or sexual arousal."  You have food porn, which stimulates our culinary cravings; stair porn, which stimulates our inner-aesthete; torture porn, a wildly-popular horror film genre (think: the Saw franchise) that taps into the grotesque; sexual porn, which is what we're focusing on here, which aims to get you off.

From a performer's perspective, photographer and gay porn star Tayte Hanson says, "porn is the act of turning what you live into a show for someone else." (On the flip-side: "Erotica," Hanson says, "touches on the fantasies of the audience more than the fantasies of the performer.") The whole "fuck like a porn star" thing is largely a myth because the reality of filming porn involves a film team and producers tweaking the situation, within the performers' comfort zones, and then taking it to the cutting room and further fine tuning it. "[It] is edited and constructed so as to portray the act in a way that visually tries to allude to what might ideally be experienced privately," Kross says. We turn on porn to heighten a fantasy and, as Dr. Ian Kerner, a sex counselor and author of She Comes First, says "enjoy [our] sexuality and masturbate and experience an orgasm."

Thus, the porn that makes us get off doesn't necessarily equate to our desires outside of porn. It begins to make sense if you think of watching porn as reading a book or playing a video game: just because you enjoy reading about spies or playing spy-themed games does not mean you want to be a spy. Dr. Levkoff says, "pornography gives us the ability to experience something sexual—or fantastical—without physical engagement with another person." Hanson considers sex to be something like a rubix cube; there are a seemingly infinite amount of ways to get what you want, sexually. Porn, then, allows us to explore the outlets we might not necessarily feel ready (or even want) to explore outside of the XXX space. A heterosexual woman isn't necessarily a lesbian because she gets off on lesbian porn, which a lot of women did in 2015. Of course, porn can also be an escape for someone with "a sexual conflict that is not aligned with their values or society's values," as Dr. Kerner says. As porn performers, both Kross and Hanson's real-life sex lives and porn consumption don't match up with their on-screen ones. Hanson prefers straight porn over gay. Kross says the porn she'd "want to see is probably not the sex [she'd] want to be having." Sometimes, a fantasy is better left a fantasy. 

Talking about the type of sex you like to have is key in any consenting sexual relationship. Often times, many partnerships, like the all-too-real but fictional one in Difficult People, feel threatened by the secrecy of porn. Dr. Kerner says that aspect has more impact than the actual pornographic content. The "shame" that's often associated with porn is not easily dismissed but through open and trusting dialogues can both parties come to understand that the porn we get off on does not represent what we want to do sexually. "We are all entitled to fantasies," Dr. Levkoff says.  And if you feel so inclined to seek out a sexual fantasy outside of the porn space, do so within your comfort zone. 

On the topic of fucking like a porn star, Hanson calls bullshit. "You just have to have sex like you want to have sex. Period. If you like to have a ball gag and be tied up to the wall, that is your porn." What areas you choose to explore within the porn space are valid and true to your personal experience. The brilliance of porn is the very presence of the screen, the physical (and virtual) divide that separates our real life from the fantastical and allows us to escape. "Screens are a place where we can be selfish, unrealistic, fanciful, sick, godlike, perverse, sadistic, short-sighted, manipulative, hedonistic, you name it," Kross says. "But then we log off and out lives are still there waiting for us, because we are not those things."