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My Year of Talking About Porn

“And did the topic of female masturbation ever come up, in those conversations with your friends?”

I was talking to an 82-year-old man, a friend of a friend, whom I’d emailed to ask if he’d meet me to talk about porn. As I spoke, I observed how smoothly the words left my lips. I didn’t even blush. “Wow,” I thought, “you’ve changed.”

How did I end up in the living room of an octogenarian, talking about the clitoris and the Kama Sutra? Let me begin a little farther back.

Late one night in 2020 I got a text message from a man who shouldn’t, at least from my perspective, have been attempting to initiate sexual contact with me. The message read, “I’m watching porn.”

That was it. That was all that it said, but those three words were enough to send me into a tailspin. What threw me was not the fact of the text but rather that I had no idea how to read it.

Was this a species of flirting? Or was it intended to make me uncomfortable? Or was it signaling his adherence to a moral code of radical honesty? Did we now live in a world where this was like saying “I’m watching football”? I didn’t know the answer.

The more I thought about it — and I thought about it a lot — the more I came to realize that I didn’t know how to read that text because I didn’t know what I thought about porn or how other people perceived it. Growing up in Britain, I received wildly different messages about it: Porn served a fundamental human need; porn glorified and glamorized sexual violence toward women; porn encouraged sexual experimentation and creativity; porn was tacky; porn was racist, ableist and misogynist. I’d never succeeded in squaring these views. I knew that there was, ostensibly, good porn and bad porn, but I wasn’t really sure where the difference between the two lay, and I’d never really had a proper, frank conversation about any of it. With anyone.

That’s not to say I hadn’t tried; I brought it up in previous relationshipswith men in an attempt to bridge a gulf I thought I sensed, but discussions often descended into arguments or sullen silence.

The truth was, as boldly as I strode into those conversations, I would very soon be visited by a feeling that I might not be able to handle knowing about my partner’s porn usage, and then I’d want to shut the whole thing down. (That the curtains fell so quickly on these conversations meant that I, conveniently, never had to share anything about my own habits.)

The older I got, the more porn became something I just didn’t feel comfortable talking about.

I had a hunch that I wasn’t the only person in this position. I know that there are people who’ll happily, publicly talk about porn and masturbation in any forum, but from the glimmers of discomfort I spied in the eyes of those around me when the subject came up even cursorily during bookish conversations with colleagues or drinks with friends, most people I encountered didn’t fall into that category.

Rather than just let this realization slip from my awareness as a normal person might have, I became obsessed. The silence around the topic didn’t feel neutral or chosen to me but oppressive, forced on me. I wanted to understand the role that porn occupies in normal people’s lives, and to do that, I’d need to talk to people — not people in the industry, academics or other experts but laypeople and ignoramuses, like me — about it. I’d have to ask them if and how they consumed it and what they thought about it.

Credit…Thomas Ruff/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY and VG Bild-Kunst, Germany, via David Zwirner

It’s hard to say now exactly what was the combination of factors that finally drew me out of my silence. It surely helped that it was the onset of the pandemic and I thought if we were all going to hell in a handbasket, we could at least reinvent our way of interacting with one another. Over one year, I talked to 19 people about porn — some over Zoom during lockdown, others in parks and people’s homes after the restrictions lifted. The group was small — just people who responded to an email I sent out widely to friends and acquaintances canvassing for participants — and it wasn’t deliberately calculated to be comprehensive, but as it happened, my interlocutors comprised a variety of ages, sexualities, genders and ethnicities, with feelings about porn that ranged from cautiously optimistic to despairing.

I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t awkward, especially at first. Walking to my early porn chats, I felt sick with nerves. Once I was there, words were hard to get out, and I could feel myself blush. And there were fairly agonizing moments when I ran up against a silence that I had no idea how to fill or brushed up against the same gulf I’d experienced with my partners.

But with the agony came a sort of euphoria: The conversations felt raw and different, a bit like being teenagers again and speaking for the first time about things that really mattered to you but you didn’t know how to talk about.

And once the momentum was established, the fascinating details of people’s lives began to spill out: There was the new mother who watched porn and prayed that the baby monitor wouldn’t go off — a habit she kept from her husband; the man who hadn’t watched porn until he was 37, then baptized himself with a 24-hour marathon; the man who narrated tales about the people watching porn on the computers in the public library where he worked; the woman who regularly attended a virtual strip club with her housemates; the man who used to identify as a former porn addict but now questioned the usefulness of the term.

We talked about what “good porn” and “bad porn” meant for us. Most of my conversation partners could easily articulate what “good porn” meant for them in the sense of arousal — “good porn is no longer than 20 minutes long,” “I want the glamorous fantasy,” “I need a story line,” “it’s really something when you get the back of a man’s testicles” — but many gestured toward “good” in some more general sense, too. Like porn that did not simply drag out the same tropes, that included a diversity of bodies and afforded them agency. Porn that showed genuine rather than feigned arousal or that at least felt that way. Porn that was ethical, that the viewer could be sure had been uploaded consensually with actors who had good working conditions.

And we discussed the ways that we felt porn entered our relationships. Sometimes positively, by helping us to identify what we want, but sometimes it made us feel we had to follow the same tired scripts and inhabit the same old roles.

I imagined that talking so much about it might leave me knowing exactly what I thought, but by the time I was done, I was left with more uncertainty. More uncertainty but less torment. Perhaps predictably, there was a dramatic reduction in my embarrassment levels, already obvious by the time I recorded my 19th and final chat, with the 82-year-old man, with nary a blush. But I also felt newly confident that I could have a discussion about porn in a future relationship that wouldn’t have to end in explosions or silence — and I wasn’t the only one.

During the conversations, participants often remarked how liberating or just fun it was to be talking about these things, and it was. Several of them got in touch afterward to tell me that the experience of getting through the both-of-us-are-uncomfortable stage with me had allowed them to broach the subject with their partners. Having those conversations felt like taking a weight off, they said. It opened something up in their relationships. It was hard for them to say exactly what, but it felt better. They were talking about sex more. They felt closer.

The thing I came to realize very clearly is that not speaking about something over time can foster a defensive stance in which shame is liable to blossom. Even if we have little to be ashamed of. Confessing can bring relief from that shame. It’s less about the content of the confession — the people who experienced this weren’t necessarily the ones who were concealing anything particularly juicy, as far as I was concerned — than about the simple knowledge that a topic is no longer off the table, the awareness that there is one can of worms fewer.

We should, most of us, be talking about porn more than we are. However intensely private it might seem, for better or worse, porn is not something we interact with solely as individuals. It enters our relationships; it molds us. We can meet that passively with silence, or we can just start talking — really talking — and see where we end up.

Polly Barton is a Japanese literary translator and the author of “Fifty Sounds,” a memoir and personal dictionary of the Japanese language, and the forthcoming “Porn: An Oral History.”

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