(**Trigger warning** – contains general descriptions of porn and may be triggering.)
Pornography can be difficult to define. Are ‘tasteful’ naked photos porn or are they art? Are sex scenes in movies porn? What about if you can’t see any actual genitalia – is it still pornographic? Censors and governments struggle with the definition but most people seem to agree that it’s largely visual. Photos, paintings, movies, live shows – users participate in porn by watching it. Although the dictionary defines pornography more broadly (“obscene literature, art, or photography, designed to excite sexual desire”) the average person tends to limit their definition of porn to the visual. And when we’re talking about the damage caused by porn we rarely think of any forms of porn other than visual. It’s difficult to imagine how harm can come from pornographic literature – it doesn’t even use real people, so no one is being harmed. It’s surely a better alternative to the kind of porn that exploits those who participate in it, right?
I spent nearly four years as a compulsive porn user and it was never just the visual that captured my attention. I watched plenty of online clips, sometimes daily, but I also spent many nights reading porn fiction stories, sometimes in addition to movies clips and sometimes in their own. I call it porn fiction because it’s not the same as what is commonly known as erotica. The porn fiction that’s online and consumed by thousands of porn users is cheap, crude, amateurish and poorly written. By no stretch of the imagination can it be called literature, and it’s certainly a far cry from the Mills-and Boon-on-steroids that makes up most of the erotica sold in bookstores. This isn’t simply dirty romance literature. Online porn fiction is, at its most innocuous, hard-core porn in written form. It’s graphic, detailed and often violent, and I believe it is as damaging as any porn you can watch on your computer.
Like anything else in porn, fiction covers a vast range of material. You have to know what you’re looking for… do you want male/female, male/male, bondage, discipline, male domination, female domination, mind control, forced submission, transgender, gay, lesbian, bi, interracial, humiliation, pain, rape, sadism, gynaecology… or a combination of several of these options? How about something you hadn’t even imagined yet? It’s all there, and more, in incredible detail.
Porn addiction, like any addiction, changes over time. Very few people start with hard-core porn, just as very few people start a drug addiction with large doses of cocaine. Users build up a tolerance, and even things that were firmly in the “I would never, ever want to watch that” category become acceptable over time as we become desensitised and our brain and body needs a bigger, more exciting hit in order to become aroused. This is very normal but most porn users don’t know that, and it can be very confusing to realise you’ve gone from fairly tame pictures to movie clips that once horrified you. How, you wonder, did I move from being disgusted to aroused? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me I know that porn fiction is part of what helped to desensitise me to things that had previously sickened me.
A large part of the problem with porn fiction is that it creates scenarios you usually don’t find in porn movies. There is more dialogue, for one thing, which is noticeably absent from real movies. Movie viewers don’t want chit-chat, they want action. The dialogue in most movies takes the form of women being called dirty sluts and whores, but that’s about the limit of ‘conversation’. Porn fiction is different. The writers can take their time… but in most cases the dialogue takes the scene to a level that many porn users would not be comfortable watching. It’s one thing to have a brief shot of a woman looking apprehensive or demeaned; it’s quite another thing to be privy to her thoughts, to know exactly what she’s feeling about the situation. And if what she is feeling is fear or humiliation it takes a standard porn situation to a very different place.
Another difference in porn fiction is that it creates scenarios that either couldn’t be filmed or can’t even exist in real life. Mind control is a big sub-genre of porn fiction and it often involves protagonists (usually women) being forced, by some sort of mind control drug or device, into demeaning sexual acts in public places, or forced to have sex with men they hate or who terrify them. In real life we call that torture and rape but in porn fiction it’s just another mind control scenario. And again, these are not scenes most people would be comfortable watching, but reading it is somehow different.
So what’s the problem here? We’re still talking about fiction, where no one is being hurt. Even regular, non-porn fiction creates intense scenarios that would never happen in real life and we don’t worry about those. It’s just fun and escapism. This is true, but porn fiction is not read in the same way as other fiction. Porn fiction isn’t about escapism or entertainment. It exists to sexually arouse the user and lead to orgasm, in exactly the same way as porn movies or pictures. When porn fiction pushes the envelope – as most of it does – it means that users are becoming aroused by scenes they aren’t comfortable watching. Except of course they are watching these scenes. The imagination is extremely powerful and anyone who’s read porn fiction has visualised those scenes in full detail. When users are aroused by these mind-scenarios, triggered by the written word, they start to need visual stimulation to match the scenes in their head. For me, reading porn fiction helped bridge the gap between tamer porn and hard-core, violent porn. The more I read fiction, the more I needed movie clips that were closer to what I’d seen in my imagination when reading. After reading fiction I was willing to cross boundaries that previously I hadn’t wanted to cross. I’ve heard people say that porn fiction is a safe option for porn users because no one gets hurt and it’s not as bad as real porn. I don’t believe that. Porn fiction wasn’t a safe option for me; it was a door into the kind of porn that used to disgust and terrify me.
I haven’t used porn in over seven years but it’s still part of my life – not because I still watch it or think about it all the time, but because of my memories. I have scenes in my head that might never fully disappear and a lot of them are from porn fiction. I have vivid memories of scenes my mind created and they are as real to me as anything I saw. They haunt me just as much. In some ways they haunt me more, because I know I built those memories myself. I want to think I’m above it, but the truth is my mind is capable of creating detailed, technicolour, realistic porn scenes. I created them, I enjoyed them, I refined them when they got boring, I replayed them over and over in my mind. The fact that I hate them now doesn’t change that. And I know that reading porn fiction helped put those scenes there. It is not a safe, harmless alternative to ‘real’ porn. It may not use real people, but it’s real nonetheless, and it does real damage. I have the scars in my mind to prove that.