What porn taught us about sex, romance and ourselves

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For a generation that went through puberty in the digital age, sex-ed often began in front of a desktop. But what happens when porn is your teacher?

By Tyler Griffin

Whenever eight-year-old Gabrielle Clarke watched Rihanna or Christina Aguilera music videos on YouTube, she would get an intense feeling of desire she couldn’t explain. She eventually came across the word ‘sex’ and Googled it in an attempt to satisfy her curiosity. Thousands of images and videos popped up, showing naked men and women and body parts she had never seen before. Realizing she could describe exactly what sexual acts she wanted to see and have them displayed on her computer screen with the click of a mouse, it wasn’t long before she was surfing sites like Pornhub and XHamster every night before bed. It was then that something in Clarke’s head clicked. As a devout church girl, she knew it was wrong to watch porn online. She felt dirty, ashamed, guilty—and yet she wanted to see more. 

Watching porn was not only enjoyable, Clarke found it filled the gaps in her knowledge of sex—her immigrant mother never gave her “The Talk.” From that point on, porn sites became Clarke’s main source for sex education. From penetrative sex to blowjobs to rimjobs—if it involved pleasure, porn taught it to her. When Clarke eventually had sex for the first time, she was beyond prepared. “Porn taught me how to be more confident.”

But as much as she learned, an education through porn didn’t come without lasting effects on her sex life. Now a second-year student in the RTA School of Media, Clarke has noticed she subconsciously chases after white men—a manifestation of what she’s always seen in porn. As a Black woman, she tries to avoid categories like BBC because she can’t stand to see Black men in such an objectifying light. Yet, whether she’s watching amateur, Ebony, Asian or whatever’s on the homepage of Pornhub, it’s “always a white guy,” Clarke says. “It’s a default.”

For curious youth, easy-to-access online pornography can become the go-to educator when they don’t have comprehensive sex education in their classrooms, making porn the de facto sex curriculum for many. But the porn industry is filled with racist and misogynistic narratives and practices. It’s also developing the sexual psyches of Canadian youth. According to André Grace, Canada research chair of sexual and gender minority studies, teenagers who use porn as a method of instruction are often perplexed about “what constitutes healthy sexual relationships and consent,” when translating online sex to their real life romantic and sexual relationships.

Grace says porn can be validating for those whose sexual and gender identities historically deviate from cultural norms. There should be comprehensive sex-ed that includes content on sexual and gender minorities, he says. These students often turn to porn and develop their understanding of sex through online depictions of gender, sexuality, aggression, consent, race, queer sex, relationships and body images in porn.

Taught by middle school teachers who would dispel myths about porn, Liam considers himself one of the lucky ones. The third-year RTA student began watching porn in Grade 6, after he had already started sex-ed two years earlier in Grade 4. He learned about contraceptives, male and female anatomy and everything else a curriculum for straight people could offer. His sex knowledge even diffused a pregnancy scare with a female partner when she got back some strange blood test results. Liam knew she wasn’t pregnant, as he had worn a condom every time and neither of them had finished during sex. If he’d been poorly instructed through sex-ed, Liam says he probably would have had a nervous breakdown. “I was actually very calm while she was freaking out,” Liam says. “I was just laughing like, ‘there’s no way I’m the unluckiest man in the world.’”

But Liam’s sex-ed didn’t prepare him when he started to sleep with men in Grade 11. So he turned to gay porn to provide him with instructions on how to have anal sex. In classes, his teachers wouldn’t talk about lube, tearing or the dangers of barebacking (anal sex without a condom). “Prepping for anal sex sucks so much,” he says. “In porn, you never see any mess, but you’re fucking someone’s ass, you know.”

With gay porn and Yahoo Answers as his guide, Liam got a warped perception of his sexual identity. As a young, queer, feminine man, he immediately categorized himself as a bottom, playing into the feminine-equals-bottom, masc-equals-top dynamics he saw in gay porn. He branded himself as a bottom looking for a masculine, dominant top. Every video he watched portrayed ripped, white-bred men as the gospel body type for queer men. This took a toll on his self-esteem, especially as someone who was bullied for being a chubby adolescent. “I was like, I want that. I want that so bad,” Liam says. “I feel like I had better sex education than the majority of the people I know and I was still fucked the moment I came out.”

Researchers at the University of Toronto said in a 2018 report that white, fit, muscular and masculine bodies are favoured in Toronto’s gay community—a reflection of dominant body imagery in the media. Many men resort to steroids, eating disorders and unsafe sex to reach these unrealistic body ideals.

Queer stereotypes in porn are often seen perpetuated in the profiles of gay men on Grindr, where it’s commonplace for users to boast their racial preferences (“Whites only,” “Sorry, not into Blacks” and “No Blacks, fats, femmes or Asians!!!” are a choice few). Liam points out it’s common to be offered money for sex on Grindr, because anyone can message anyone regardless of if they’ve matched. “I got offended by someone’s offer one time,” Liam says. “I was like, that is so low!”

In his classes, he was taught that the biggest risk with having sex was getting a girl pregnant. Since he wasn’t going to get any of his male partners pregnant anytime soon, he ended up having a lot of unprotected sex—not realizing he could contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE) says gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men are 131 times more likely to get HIV than men who do not have sex with men, and according to a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, one in four queer men in Toronto have HIV/AIDS. “Porn armed me with the idea that barebacking was fine, and so did my sex-ed curriculum—because they didn’t bother.”

Liam also had sex with older men while he was still in high school, including a brief hookup with a 27-year-old when he was only 16—something he still grapples with. “I look at it and see that type of relationship represented in all the porn I watch,” he says. “I have a hard time rationalizing that as wrong because that’s in so much of the sexualized content I can see.”

Watching porn for so long made Clarke an expert in the field of pleasuring men. She knew how to scream and moan to make her partner feel good, but was at a loss when it came to her own pleasure and sexual gratification. “I’m afraid to tell guys to do this or to do that because I don’t want to make the guy uncomfortable,” Clarke says. “I literally did not understand what an orgasm was from a female perspective…like it happened off-camera or something.”

One day, Clarke brought home who she thought was the hottest man she’d ever seen. When they got to the bedroom, he became increasingly assertive, putting his hands around her neck, growling and pushing her around. She had never had rough sex, nor was she ever really into watching it online. He was about the same height as Clarke, and she reckons she could have bodied him if she needed to. But as it goes in porn, where women are so often a vessel for the male’s satisfaction, she believed she was expected to pleasure her partner. So she kept quiet and went to sleep with a sour taste in her mouth, despite her extreme attraction to him. “I was so scared because I was so focused on pleasuring him,” she says. “I didn’t want to upset him.”

Now aware of the harmful values and practices porn has instilled in her and her sexual partners, Clarke is working to save money so she can afford to buy more ethical porn that doesn’t portray rape, racism or strict gender roles. Sites like Make Love Not Porn aim to showcase the differences between real sex and sex in porn through user-submitted amateur videos, while sites like Pink and White Productions are dedicated to producing porn that reflects “the complexities of queer sexual desire.” The Feminist Porn Awards, an alternative to the Adult Video News (AVN) Awards, have been celebrating porn films that prioritize equity and real pleasure since 2006. They also have an educational section with how-to videos on things like bondage and pegging. 

“Ethical porn doesn’t just present boring, rose-petals sex,” says Clarke. “It does talk about situations that involve consent or a person’s fantasy.’”

There’s also Erika Lust, a Swedish feminist porn producer, who runs a series called XConfessions. Lust takes user-submitted fantasies and turns them into artistic and erotic short films. Her project aims to change the way we watch and consume porn, centring women’s and non-binary people’s pleasure. Her series is for those looking for ethical porn that includes diverse bodies and realistic sex, reflecting their own sexual experiences. Users can submit their own sexual fantasy on her website for a chance to see them played out in her next video. “It’s raw, it’s the closest to looking like real sex,” Clarke says.

Now, Clarke asks her potential partners what their favourite porn genre is to get an idea of what to expect in bed. As a Black woman, she wants to know if guys are interested in her for what she has to offer personality-wise, or if their only interest is fulfilling their own sexual fantasies. One guy she met on Tinder said, straight up, “I like Ebony.”

When he showed her his whole dating history consisted entirely of Black women, she quickly realized she wouldn’t be sticking around to satisfy his exotic dreams. 

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