You watch porn to watch people doing things to other people. See that bitch or Milf or ebony vixen or tight little teen or Asian slut or BBW take it, and take it, and take it. The user is shielded by the screen, impenetrable, experiencing the safest kind of sex because they’re only vicariously involved. You don’t think — or rarely think — that porn could be doing something to you. Getting into you. Changing you into something that you weren’t before.

The acceptance of pornography as part of everyday life, available freely and constantly via our private devices, was based on a compact that should always have been obviously implausible: that the media you consume will not change you in any way. That you can log out after orgasm touched only by yourself. And that anodyne outcome was considered possible even when the material being consumed was the most depraved imaginable.

A 2003 column by David Aaronovitch probably conveys a lot of my own thoughts about the subject at the time. Worries about the number of men accessing images of child sexual abuse were, he wrote, a “panic”. Such material was obviously harmful to the children depicted in it and should be prohibited on that basis, but it would be a mistake to automatically classify those men as paedophiles. They might, he conjectured, “be motivated as much by a strange curiosity as by a desire for arousal or release”.

A line is quietly drawn here: on the one side you have the “genuine paedophiles” whose interest in sexual images of children reflects their authentic interest in sex with children, and on the other you have the “strangely curious” who will never present an in-person risk. Implicit is the idea that there is something essential and stable in the individual’s nature which controls their relationship to pornography. Your sexuality pre-exists and overrides your media exposure. In other words, nobody becomes a nonce because of the internet.

To think this way felt knowing, authoritative. The world was full of seamy horrors, but I was equal to comprehending them — and not liable to be shocked into overreaction. To recall that way of thinking now is to feel naive, unworldly. Exposure to extreme material reformulates desires, and desires can become actions.

Talking to the Guardian this year, Michael Sheath of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation (a charity which aims to prevent potential child abusers from becoming actual ones) explained the relationship of cause and effect like this: “Of course most people can watch extreme porn and walk away, but I don’t see those people. What we are seeing on a daily basis is the conflation of easy access to hardcore and deviant pornography, and an interest in child molestation. The link is unambiguous.” There’s a consensus among professional organisations that lockdown has heightened the risks by intensifying immersion in online existence.

Why was this so hard to see coming? By the end of the twentieth century, society had reached a broad accommodation with pornography in its print and video forms. Even if you didn’t use it personally, you probably owed something to it in your everyday life: pornography had driven the adoption of VHS, cable TV and the internet. Its online iteration would be a revolution in convenience but nothing else. To be against it wasn’t just to be a miserable dried-up prude, it was to have turned away from everything modernity had to offer.

When Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she put anti-porn feminists in the authoritarian camp, happily building bonfires of smut that would light the way for Gilead. The narrator Offred’s mother is one of the book burners, and she takes her daughter with her. In one of Offred’s memories, a friend of her mother’s gives her a magazine to add to the pyre:

“It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn’t frighten me. I thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine, on the TV.
“Don’t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in, quick.
“I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash in the air, before my eyes.”

In this scene, the symbolic violence to women is done not by porn, but by the destruction of porn. And Offred’s exposure to it does her no harm at all: she sees a woman bound for male pleasure, and imagines her as the hero of an adventure story. That resilience is a quiet and total riposte to her mother’s entire politics.

It seems strange to me now that a novelist should argue, effectively, that culture has no influence. And perhaps even stranger for a political writer to have believed it — someone whose life is spent in the work of persuasion, whose business is using words to change the way people think. But I believed it too. Twenty years ago, I thought that whatever the internet might do to porn, the porn would do nothing significant to us.

***

It’s hard to be a liberal. Free speech can be a dangerous thing. So can sex. Andrea Dworkin — one of the anti-porn feminists Offred’s mother would have read — understood that men use sex as a vehicle for domination precisely because they fear the vulnerability it engenders. As she wrote in her 1987 book Intercourse:

“Sexual intercourse is not intrinsically banal, though pop-culture magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan would suggest that it is. It is intense, often desperate. The internal landscape is violent upheaval, a wild and ultimately cruel disregard of human individuality, a brazen, high-strung wanting that is absolute and imperishable, not attached to personality, no respecter of boundaries; ending not in sexual climax but in a human tragedy of failed relationships, vengeful bitterness in an aftermath of sexual heat, personality corroded by too much endurance of undesired, habitual intercourse, conflict, a wearing away of vitality in the numbness finally of habit or compulsion or the loneliness of separation. The experience of fucking changes people, so that they are often lost to each other and slowly they are lost to human hope. The pain of having been exposed, so naked, leads to hiding, self-protection, building barricades, emotional and physical alienation or violent retaliation against anyone who gets too close.”

And she knew that exposure to pornography changes people too, because she had undergone it herself. Her analysis of the pornographic classic The Story of O, from her 1974 book Woman Hating, contains a brief but striking aside: “O is particularly compelling for me because I once believed it to be what its defenders claim — the mystical revelation of the true, eternal, and sacral destiny of women.” O’s sexual apotheosis comes when she asks her lover for permission to kill herself, finally becoming the nothing she was born to be.

The fact that Dworkin was speaking from experience when she spoke about porn is inconvenient for pornography’s defenders, whose usual defensive strategy is to say that anyone who criticises it must be speaking from fear and repression. Don’t like what you’ve seen? Then you simply haven’t seen enough. When the singer Billie Eilish described recently about how her consumption of porn from the age of eleven had, among other things, distorted her idea of what “normal” female genitals look like, one female adult performer responded with disappointment that the “vulva diversity” in porn was being overlooked.

But no one actually paying attention to what Eilish said could genuinely think her problems would be resolved by more porn. “I think it really destroyed my brain,” she explained. “I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn… I would just watch abusive BDSM… it led to problems where, you know, the first few times I had sex I was not saying no to things that were not good. And it’s because I thought that that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to.”

It’s something Eilish has talked about before, but one of the things that made it so impressive this time was where she said it: in an interview with Howard Stern. Throughout his career as a shock jock, Stern has proudly stood for the crassest in free speech. (A typical Stern stunt: in 2014, the blogger Perez Hilton fingered one of Stern’s male writers live on air.) Before the internet, he was one of the main forces in creating crossover stars from the adult industry. An invite onto his show was a way to break into the mainstream.

Not that his support necessarily translated into respect for those who worked in the industry. When the performer Sasha Grey (famous for her extreme BDSM scenes, in which she was choked, punched and slapped) accused Stern of being a “closet racist” in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2009, he didn’t just defend his own honour, he attacked hers: “What a genius… Please. Just tell me how much cock you can suck and how far you can swallow a hot dog.” But he liked porn, and helped create a society where porn was the norm.

And yet, confronted with Eilish’s story, his response was absolute agreement. “When I was little, the only thing you had was, like, a New York Times girdle ad… The first time I had sex, I had no clue what the fuck I was doing. There was a certain innocence about it. And I often say, if I had porn when I was a kid, I mean, I would run around spanking people thinking that this was what they would like.”

What he says here is a betrayal of the underlying fantasy of porn. Porn deals, of course, in many different fantasies — fantasies of what women are like and what men are like, different kinks and fetishes — but underlying all of that is a fantasy of inert sex. Sex that, however physically demanding, only reveals and does not change the people involved.

In the same interview in which she insulted Stern (an interview which was, it should be remembered, a shop window for her work and persona as much as a genuine revelation of herself), Grey delivered a perfect articulation of that fantasy. “I am a pervert,” she told the journalist, rejecting the idea that women enter porn because of trauma. “If I am working out any issues through porn, it’s anger at society for not being open about sex.” She claimed her interest in BDSM dated to her childhood — that what she showed in porn was her authentic, inherent self, and that whatever she did was in the service of her own desire to get off.

At least one person who had worked with her expressed scepticism about this. A producer quoted in the article said that he thought her “extreme presence” was a calculated means to raise her profile. Certainly, all the incentives aligned to make extremity work for her: as the “dirtiest girl in the world” (to quote the title of the Rolling Stone interview) she won mainstream attention and breakthrough roles, including the lead part in Steven Soderbergh’s movie The Girlfriend Experience.

Sex is not a solo activity, and her partner in this case was not another person but a whole industry. Whatever interests and inclinations she arrived with, only some of them were valuable enough to be encouraged.

***

Sometimes it seems there’s a conspiracy between the people who make porn and the people who don’t actually watch much porn to maintain the fiction of harmlessness. For the former, the idea of porn as a vast and effective subterranean propaganda network is a threat to their bottom line; for the latter, it’s a threat to their sense of security in the world. But the people who use it know otherwise, even if they don’t often admit it publicly.

The horror filmmaker David Cronenberg is not anyone’s idea of an anti-porn feminist, not least because his films are insistently, gruesomely pornographic. My favourite of them is Videodrome from 1982. It’s the story of a cable TV executive called Max Renn, played by James Woods, who is searching for something genuinely hardcore to give his small channel the competitive edge. When he stumbles across a scrambled broadcast called Videodrome which shows highly convincing scenes of women being bound, beaten and killed, he’s transfixed.

As Max tries to learn more about these strange films, he is warned that he’s messing with something dangerous: “It can programme you. It can play you like a video player,” murmurs one of the many shadowy people he meets. It contains coded signals that cause Max to hallucinate and, eventually, to undergo physical changes. In the film’s most disgusting, and brilliant, scene, a vaginal opening develops in Max’s abdomen into which a writhing, pulsating video cassette is inserted by one of the Videodrome operatives.

Whichever way you turn it, the symbolism of this is unambiguous when it comes to the politics of media consumption. You could neutralise it by arguing that it’s a satire on alarmism about the corrupting influence of media, but if the film is satirising anything it seems to be Max’s platitudinous justifications for the sex and violence he traffics in. He talks about “catharsis” and “outlets” and “providing a social good”; he ends up trapped helplessly in fantasies that leach into his real life.

Porn here isn’t just something you watch. It’s something that acts on the viewer, that transforms him in the most literal way. It’s a more sinister vision of what porn does than the one implied by Cronenberg’s contemporary and fellow Canadian Atwood in Handmaid’s; it is nearer by far to the analysis Dworkin puts forward. And, as with Dworkin, it’s born from a frank acquaintance with the complications of his own sexuality and the influences at work on it.

“I’m not Max,” Cronenberg stressed in the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, but “that isn’t to say I haven’t noticed that I’m attracted to images of sexual violence, and wonder what that means about myself.” Videodrome is, obviously, about the institutional shifts of video and cable TV, not about the then-non-existent internet. But the way Max chances on Videodrome, rather than seeks it out, and the way it’s stripped of all marks of who made it and where it came from, makes it extraordinarily prescient about the way porn sites would reshape consumption.

Now extreme porn is so pervasive that whenever it’s implicated in some terrible crime, the easy way to dismiss the link is to say — well, everyone watches it, so there’s no significance if violent criminals do it too. This is a cop-out. Media does not exert influence absolutely or in the same way on everyone, but we accept that racist media can engender racism and sexist media can engender sexism. Why should an exemption be erected for erections?

“People who say ‘Revolution now’ and aren’t worried by it are foolish,” said Cronenberg (also in Cronenberg on Cronenberg). “The lesson of history — early, middle, late — is that revolution brings with it death, pain, anguish and disease: often nothing positive to replace what was destroyed.” We are two decades now into revolution in media that was also a revolution in sex, and there is no room left for naivety about what that means.

Before Wayne Couzens committed the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard this year, he watched extreme porn. While the double murderer and mortuary employee David Fuller was committing routine necrophilia against the corpses in his care, he was also recording his offences and adding them to a meticulously maintained library of the most horrific pornography, his trial heard this year.

And regular men choke regular women because they’ve seen it in porn, while regular women accept regular violence as sex, because that’s what they’ve learned to masturbate to. The desire, the fantasy and the act create a self-inciting feedback loop. In what Dworkin called the skinlessness of sex, participants are vulnerable, penetrable.

Whatever your sex is, porn can fuck you.

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